Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures

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Everyone knows the cover art: that image of close-knit, jagged white lines on a black background that look like erratic heart rates, pulses of power outage, mountain ranges, anxiety, and the grooves of a vinyl all at once has appeared on millions of t-shirts. Despite the vast reproduction of the image, and the music that it is connected to, it has not been cheapened in its commodification. In fact, the popularity (over time) of Joy Division’s debut record Unknown Pleasures is remarkable, because on first listen, it is so unassuming and bleak.

When I first listened to Unknown Pleasures, there were no markings on either side of the vinyl to denote which was side A. So I just put it on, listening to that familiar crackle and then “She’s Lost Control” came on. I knew it was the wrong side, but I couldn’t move to turn it over. The music sounded like the band had been playing from the bottom of a well and I was immediately taken by the sounds of broken glass, spray cans and minimal drums. Whenever I replay that memory, I can still feel that choke in my throat when that steel cable, discordant, high-on-the-neck bass-line finished its first phrase.
It’s hard to write about Joy Division’s music without including your personal experience. I think this is because it is instantly preferable to consider our own connection with the music, our own narrative, rather than that of its singer. A biographical listening is too much. The lyrics express a desire for normality but also the disturbing desire for taking away sensation, to make a person’s entrapment in their desperate mental state less of a struggle.

This cold claustrophobia is exaggerated by the icy production, and the extensive use of reverb is not there to hide any inadequacy but for an enveloping effect: the listener becomes a witness in this intoxicating closed world of noise. Ian Curtis croons on “Insight” that lapses, at times, into despondency with lyrics such as,

“AND ALL GOD’S ANGELS BEWARE / AND ALL YOU JUDGES BEWARE, SONS OF CHANCE TAKE GOOD CARE / FOR ALL THE PEOPLE OUT THERE, I’M NOT AFRAID ANYMORE.”

Joy Division, like many of their Manchester peers, were inspired by the DIY subversion of the Sex Pistols. Shaped by notorious provocateur Martin Hannett (who would turn the heat in the studio down low enough for everyone to see their breath), the group embraced space, ambience, and imposing austerity. It is noteworthy how many songs on Unknown Pleasures fade in like something emerging from the shadows. Note the heaviness of tracks like “Day of the Lords,” “New Dawn Fades,” and the lead single “Shadowplay.” However, sinewy anthem “Disorder” and punk-song “Interzone” are abnormally precise, and – dare I say it – almost catchy.

Coming off more as a sci-fi writer than a pop poet, Curtis relayed image after laconic image of an Orwellian style of societal decay, the loss of human identity in the “big-picture” of things. The song titles read as an opaque manifesto; “Disorder,” “Day of the Lords,” “Candidate,” “Insight,” and “New Dawn Fades.” Loosely, they restate outsider themes: the preoccupations and reactions of individuals caught in a trap they dimly perceive – anger, paranoia, alienation, and so on. Hardly pretty, but compulsive. Again, these themes have been stated so often as to be clichés: what gives Joy Division their edge is the consistency of their vision – translated into crude musical terms, the taut dance-ability of their faster songs, and the dreamlike spell of their slower explorations. They all rely on the tense, careful counterpoint of bass (Hook), drums (Morris), and guitar (Dickin) while Curtis’ urgent vocals loom over recurring musical patterns mocking any idea of escape.

The danger in all of this bleakness is that it serves to idealize Curtis’ death and ignore the fact that he submitted to the wretchedness he reviled. So why should we bother with music so seemingly dead-end and depressing?

Maybe because, in the midst of a time overrun by studied nihilism and despair, it’s somehow affecting to hear someone whose conviction ranged beyond scant truisms.

MAYBE BECAUSE THE PROFUNDITY OF THE FACT THAT WE OURSELVES LIVE IN TIMES OF SIMILAR UNCERTAINTY, TENSION, AND FEAR SHOULD NOT BE IGNORED.

Maybe because Ian Curtis’ descent into despair leaves us with a deeper awareness, or a warning, of our own frailty.

Joy Division managed to hit upon greatness whilst lurking in the deepest depressions of human experience. Not only does it draw you in, but it threatens to leave you there. Joy Division took their name from the euphemism used to describe the prostitute section of German concentration camps, and the intention was to convey that no horror is unendurable. Maybe that sounds as joyless and morose as everything else about Joy Division’s music, but it shouldn’t. In this case, it’s nothing less than a testament to the life force itself.

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