Album : Unknown Pleasure – Joy Division
Review : Melody Maker, 21 July 1979
Author : Jon Savage
“To talk of life today is like talking of rope in the house of a hanged man.” Where will it end?
The point is so obvious. It’s been made time and time again. So often that it’s a truism, if not a cliche. Cry wolf, yet again. At the time of writing, our very own mode of (Western,advanced, techno-) capitalism is slipping down the slope to it’s terminal phase: critical mass. Things fall apart. The cracks get wider: more paper is used, with increasing ingenuity, to cover them. Madness implodes, as people are slowly crushed, or, perhaps worse, help in crushing others. The abyss beckons: nevertheless, a febrile momentum keeps the train on the tracks. The question that lies behind the analysis (should, of course, you agree) is what action can anyone take?
One particular and vigorous product of capitalism’s excess has been pop music, not so much because of the form’s intrinsic merit (if any) but because, for many, bar football, it’s the only arena going in this country, at least. So vigorous because so much has to be channeled into so small a space: rebellion, creation, dance, sex energy, and this space, small as it is, is a market ruled by commerce, and excess of money. It’s as much as anyone can do, it seems, to accept the process andcarefully construct their theatre for performance and sale in halls in the flesh, in rooms and on radios (if you’re very lucky) in the plastic. The limits imposed especially as far as effective action goes) by this iron cycle of creation to consumption are as hard to break as they are suffocating.
“Trying to find a clue/trying to find a way/trying to get out!” “Unknown Pleasures” is a brave bulletin, a danceable dream; brilliantly, a record of place. Of one particular city, Manchester: your reviewer might very well be biased (after all, he lives there) but it is contended that “Unknown Pleasures,” in defining reaction and adjustment to place so accurately, makes the specific general, the particular a paradigm.
“To the centre of the city in the night waiting for you…” Joy Division‘s spatial, circular themes and Martin Hannett‘s shiny, waking-dream production gloss are one perfect reflection of Manchester’s dark spaces and empty places: endless sodium lights and hidden semis seen from a speeding car, vacant industrial sites – the endless detritus of the 19th century – seen gaping like rotten teeth from an orange bus. Hulme seen from the fifth floor on a threatening, rainy day… This is not, specifically, to glamourise; it could be anywhere. Manchester, as a (if not the) city of the Industrial Revolution, happens only to be a more obvious example of decay and malaise.
That Joy Division’s vision is so accurate is a matter of accident as much as of design: “Unknown Pleasures,” which together with recent gigs captures the group at some kind of peak, is a more precise, mature version of the confused anger and dark premonitions to be found (in their incarnation as Warsaw) on the skimpy “Electric Circus” blue thing, the inchoate “Ideal For Living” EP, and their unreleased LP from last year. As rarely happens, the timing is just right.
The song titles read as an opaque manifesto; “Disorder,” “Day Of The Lords,” “Candidate,” “Insight,” “New Dawn Fades” – to recite the first, aptly named, “Outside”. Loosely, they restate outsider themes (from Celine on in): the preoccupations and reactions of individuals caught in a trap they dimly perceive – anger, paranoia, alienation, feelings of thwarted power, and so on. Hardly pretty, but compulsive.
Again, these themes have been stated so often as to be cliches: what gives Joy Division their edge is the consistency of their vision – translated into crude musical terms, the taut danceability of their faster songs, and the dreamlike spell of their slower explorations. Both rely on the tense, careful counterpoint of bass (Peter Hook), drums (Stephen Morris) and guitar (Bernard Dickin): Ian Curtis‘ expressive, confused vocals croon deeply over recurring musical patterns which themselves mock any idea of escape.
LIve, he appears possessed by demons, dancing spastically and with lightning speed, unwinding and winding as the rigid metal music folds and unfolds over him. Recording, as ever, demands a different context: Hannett imposes a colder, more controlled hysteria together with an ebb and flow – songs merge in and out with one another in a brittle, metallic atmosphere. The album begins unequivocally with “Disorder”: “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand”; the track races briskly, with ominous organ swirls – at the end, Curtis intones “Feeling feeling feeling” in the exact tone of someone who’s not sure he has any left.
Two slower songs follow, both based on massively accented drumming and rumbling bass – in their slow, relentless sucking tension, they pursue confusion to a dreamlike state: “Day Of The Lords” is built around a wrenching chorus of “Where will it end?” while the even sparser “Candidate” fleshes out the bare rhythm section with chance guitar ambience. In a story of failed connection and obscure madness, Curtis intones: “I tried to get to you” – ending with the pertinent “It’s just second nature/It’s what we’ve been shown/We’re living by your rules/That’s all that we’ve known.”
The album’s two aces are “Insight” and “She’s Lost Control”; here, finally, Gary Glitter meets the Velvet Underground. Both rely on rock-hard echoed drumming and bass recorded well up to take the melody – the guitar provides textural icing and thrust over the top.
The former leads out of “Candidate” with a suitable hesitation: whirring Leslie ambience leads to a door slamming, then a slow bass/drum fade into the song. The attractive, bouncing melody belies the lyrics: “But I don’t care anymore/I’ve lost the will to want more” – at the end Curtis croons, his voice treated, ghostly: “I’m not afraid anymore” to drown in a flurry of electronic noise from the synthesised snare.
“She’s Lost Control”, remixed to emphasise guitar and percussion, is a possible hit single: it’s certainly the obvious track for radio play. Deep and dark vocals ride over an irresistible, circular backing that threatens to break loose but never does: the tension ends in a crescendo of synthesised noise.
On the “Inside,” three faster tracks follow – mutated heavy pop, all built around punishing rhythms and riffs it’d be tempting to call metal, except control is everywhere. “Shadowplay” is a metallic travelogue – the city at night – with Curtis fleeing internal demons; the following couple, “Interzone” and “Wilderness,” wind the mesh even tighter.
“Wilderness” externalises things into Lovecraftian fantasy,all echoed drumming and sickening guitar slides, while “Interzone” moves through a clipped, perfect introduction to guitar shrills and “Murder Mystery” mumbles: “Down the dark street the houses look the same trying to find a way trying to find a clue trying to get out! Light shine like a neon tune no time to lose no place to stop no place to go…”
Both sides, finally, end with tracks – “New Dawn Fades” and “I Remember Nothing” – so slow and atmospheric that alienation becomes a waking dream upon which nothing impinges: “Me in my own world…”
Leaving the 20th Century is difficult; most people prefer to go back and nostalgise, Oh Boy. Joy Division at least set a course in the present with contrails for the future – perhaps you can’t ask for much more. Indeed, “Unknown Pleasures” may very well be one of the best white, english, debut LPs of the year.
Problems remain; in recording place so accurately, Joy Division are vulnerable to any success the album may bring – once the delicate relationship with the environment is altered or tampered with, they may never produce anything as good again. And, ultimately, in their desperation and confusion about decay, there’s somewhere a premise that what has decayed is more valuable than what is to follow. The strengths of the album, however, belie this.
Perhaps it’s time we all started facing the future. How soon will it end?
JC adds : No matter how you look at it, this is an extraordinary review. It opens with a quote from Raoul Vaneigem, a Belgian writer closely associated with the Situationist movement, that refers to suicide by hanging, the ultimate fate of Ian Curtis less than a year later. It also quotes the lyrics extensively, hinting at the troubled mind of the songwriter, and yet in the period after his death his bandmates would state constantly that they weren’t aware of what exactly was being sung, that they paid no attention and as such weren’t aware of the mental state of their friend. It does beg a few questions, not least whether any of the musicians of Joy Divisioin actually read the album reviews…..
It’s now more than 40 years since the release of Unknown Pleasures and it still gets millions of words devoted to it on a yearly basis as fans, old and new, try to make sense of it all. I don’t think, however, anyone has ever written anything as chilling as ‘Joy Division are vulnerable to any success the album may bring’.