I recently wrote an article on The Velvet Underground and Nico and how it was the soundtrack when I was coming of age. If that was the album that informed my teenage years, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures was what helped shape my early 20s. The band had been on my radar for a long time and I was a fan, but I hadn’t explored them fully until I moved to London at age 20. I never fit in where I was from and always felt alienated growing up in a suburban village. I always had some friends and kept busy but never really felt like I connected with anyone properly or found someone who had the same interests as me.
That changed instantly as soon as I found a part-time job to support myself through university, in a small shop in Covent Garden. I met so many amazing people there and many who I still consider my best friends today. One of those was a chap who had the same taste as me, we bonded over it and went on to start a band together. Joy Division was one of his favourite groups and they were an inspiration for the music he wrote and we practiced. I became in awe of them as much as he was and it was an exciting time in my life.
Unfortunately, this dear friend who I felt like I had a proper connection with for possibly the first time in my life, would share the same fate as Joy Division’s lead singer and took his own life in much the same way and at a similar age. He had suffered from depression for a long time, since his teenage years. Although I can honestly say that I tried my hardest to help him as much as possible in any way I could, his problems had deep roots and he wasn’t long for this world. This was possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to come to terms with and will forever be intertwined with Joy Division’s music for me.
I wasn’t able to listen to them for a long time after the incident. However, I was very slowly able to reconnect to their music over the years since and I feel I love their debut album now more than ever. Just as the band’s career was exciting and then suddenly ended in tragedy, as my initial experience with their music was much the same, it has oddly made me appreciate it all the more. Their lead singer Ian Curtis poured his heart and soul into his band, in a way he gave too much but we’re all the richer for it. His art imitated his life and from his pain and sorrow, something eternally beautiful was created.
Curtis was a gifted poet and lyricist, inspired by prolific writers in much the same way Lou Reed was before him and he was a major inspiration. He established the dense themes and content of the songs. His low, baritone voice, though not technically proficient, perfectly embodies his own lyrics to the point where you can’t imagine anyone else singing them. Guitarist Bernard Sumner is one of the most gifted musicians to ever pick up the instrument as well as taking a conductor-like role in the group. From his incredible guitar line in “Day of The Lords,” he carries on delivering one killer riff after another throughout the album, the best of which is in “Shadowplay.”
Bassist Peter Hook also became a pioneer for the way he played, approaching his part in the way a lead guitarist would, with clean, high notes that sounded distinctive and often carried the melody. His riffs on “New Dawn Fades” and “She’s Lost Control” are some of the best bass-playing you can find anywhere. Stephen Morris completes the group, with his innovative drum sounds that followed rhythm instead of just keeping a beat. They open the album on the first track “Disorder” and continue to do so on others such as “Candidate” and “Insight.” His drums would often be the starting point for most songs that the others would then add their elements and build on top of.
Joy Division are perhaps the best example of a true band, as each brings something vital to the table and it’s their chemistry altogether that created their exquisite music. Each part sounds equally fluid and yet disparate at the same time, creating a delicate balance. Their songs encapsulated my experiences of settling into London life and the people I befriended. Joy Division were the soundtrack to many an after-party and were our inspiration creatively. The band captured lightning in a bottle, much by accident it seems when hearing from the surviving band members themselves.
They actually started life as a punk band called Warsaw, a reference to the track “Warszawa” from one of David Bowie’s best albums, the seminal Low. It would go on to be a big influence on the sound they’d develop. They had little success getting any gigs in this form but it motivated them to practice enthusiastically in an abandoned factory until they sounded tight. This way, they’d be ready for an opportunity when it came along. By this time though, they’d evolved into something else entirely, the first proper post-punk group. Just as The Velvet Underground had to fiercely stick to their own instincts to oppose the Summer of Love in ’67, they followed their example, as well as other bands such as Kraftwerk and adamantly stuck with the sound they’d created, even though nobody else was playing anything like them.
They debuted at the Electric Circus in May ‘77, supporting the Buzzcocks and gained instant acclaim and national exposure. To avoid confusion with a group that had a similar name, Sumner suggested one of the, if not the best band name ever, taken from a brothel wing of a nazi concentration camp. They quickly caught the attention of the infamous Tony Wilson and were the first band to be signed to his indie label Factory Records. It was born out of the Factory club nights Wilson put on, named after Andy Warhol’s creative studio space.
History was repeating itself indeed. Inspired by how Warhol and The Velvet Underground carved out their own scene in ‘60s New York, Wilson and Joy Division did the same in late ‘70s Manchester. The band’s sound is intertwined with their hometown and at the time it was in a bleak transitional period. Many old buildings were being demolished to make way for brutalist housing structures. During the upheaval, the city felt desolate and grimy, plus the threat of Thatcher’s administration was looming large. However, this grim period would end up giving birth to one of the most influential bands ever.
They made music because there wasn’t anything else they could do, and their independent spirit would go on to shape everything about them, from their image to the way they were branded. They wore simple clothes, such as fitted shirts and were often photographed in black and white. The brilliantly simple, iconic Unknown Pleasures album cover by Peter Saville is also a black and white graphic of a data plot of signals from a radio pulsar. Their understated look let their groundbreaking music speak for itself and accentuated it. At their shows, they wouldn’t even interact with the audience, there were no intros or any self-promotion.
Unknown Pleasures was recorded in just three weekends with various inventive and quirky production techniques from Producer Martin Hannett. He has been credited with creating the band’s eerie, cerebral, atmospheric sound on record that sounds almost futuristic from some angles. The album was met with massive critical acclaim and would go on to be a commercial success as well. The band’s opinions on the album were split with Sumner and Hook being disappointed that its clean and clear sound wasn’t closer to their louder, heavier live performances and for being too dark. However, Morris and Curtis especially were pleased with the result, with the latter praising Hannett’s production.
This says a lot to me about Curtis’ input, especially when you consider how the band radically reinvented themselves as New Order after his death. It was his lyrics that really captured the ambient energy of the city around him in turmoil, that also sounded deeply personal and expressed his own issues. There were no printed lyrics with the album and Curtis left them ambiguous, always stating they’re open to interpretation. The band were oblivious to their meaning until after his death. They and Wilson believed they were just for the sake of the band’s music and thought he was inhabiting a different mindset to produce them. In retrospect, they’ve looked closer and admitted they were foolish not to see the warning signs.
You also need to cut them some slack though, as it was a different time and men’s mental health is something that people are only just starting to wake up to properly in recent years. Curtis’ mental state was also reflected in his live performances where he would enter a trance-like state and dance in a highly unusual way that’s unlike anyone else. Towards the end of his life, these extreme dance moves would often dissolve into fits, as he also suffered from epilepsy. He put so much into each show and each one seemed to take a toll on him.
From my perspective, it seems like he and the band had some sort of divine guidance to create this prolific album that’s considered to be one of the best ever made. After all the album cover is the manifestation of a signal from space. Unknown Pleasures has aged incredibly well and still feels current despite its use of technology, its purposely raw sound protects it from any decay. They set the high benchmark for indie brands right up to the present day and were a major influence to all that followed, as they were the first post-punk band to favour mood and expression. This ethos would spawn many sub-genres such as Alternative and Gothic Rock.
Many artists over the centuries have given their lives to their art. Although it was the band as a whole that created this once-in-a-lifetime gem, it was only Curtis that gave his. It’s easy to dwell on this and focus on the negative. Could they have done more to help him? Should they have seen more of the warning signs? Should they have taken his mental health more seriously? Just as I found myself asking these same questions, you eventually realise that someone else’s internal conflicts ultimately aren’t your responsibility, as harsh as that sounds. Also, it’s unlikely there were any external forces that could have saved him unless he wanted them to. Instead, I feel it’s more productive to focus on the positive, what he gave us and we should be truly grateful for.