Joy Division and the Little Known Masterpiece

A retrospective on what might be the least well-known masterpiece in the history of British rock music

by Keith Lennox, All-len-All –

joy-division-unkown-pleasuresIn August of 1979 an album was released under the Factory label out of Manchester, England that contained a sound so fresh, so innovative, that at first one didn’t quite know what to think.  Three songs in, it became readily apparent that you had just embarked on a musical adventure that was very special indeed.  It was punk but it wasn’t, it was rock but yet pop, it was musically driven but at the same time remarkably lyrical.  The band was Joy Division and the ground breaking album was Unknown Pleasures.

The band’s manager, Rob Gretton, refused to sign the band to a major label (The Do It Yourself era had hit the music industry and many bands chose creative license over some quick cash as a signing bonus) and signed instead with the then foundling Factory Records, owned by Tony Wilson of Granada TV fame.  It was there, coupled with the heroin addled, pistol toting producer, Martin Hannett, that the quartet hammered out an album that to this day never loses any hone from its edge.

Joy+Division+rehearsal2The vocals, by the oldest band member at 23, were deftly handled by Ian Curtis….. it was sex and pain and honesty and sounded like it was chiseled from a piece of marble, cold, so very cold but smooth at the same time.  The voice carries with it a sense forlornness that feels like it will never have a happy ending and, as it turns out, it was tragedy that would have made King Lear weep.  Backed by Steve Morris on drums and percussion, Bernard Sumner on guitars and keyboards, and Peter Hook on bass, Joy Division managed to do with two albums what most bands could never accomplish in five fold that….. defining a time and a place that was so dank and without hope that the sound that emits from the speakers makes it palpable.  Manchester, the city that founded the industrial revolution, had become a victim of its own cancer and turned into a city as desolate as any other in Britain. The economy had crumbled and the government had turned their back on the middle class.  Manchester was left without hope, with desolation seemingly inevitable and Joy Division perfectly relays the feeling of a people left with little chance to take hope in….. little to cling to….. little to smile about.

Closer, the second and last album by the group is almost impossible for me to listen to today.  I feel it is nothing more than one long eloquent suicide note….. not without its genius, but not the beautiful yet still somewhat pained album that Unknown Pleasures is.  New Music Express  pegged Unknown Pleasures as the 4th best album of the 1970s and the 43rd best album of all time.  With songs like Shadowplay one can clearly see why….. “In a room with a window in the corner, I found truth….. ”

The band glides effortlessly from the first song to the last with Sumner wringing the neck of his guitar with an ease that belies just how talented this foursome was….. Hook playing the bass as a lead instrument….. Morris seeming to effortlessly provide a percussion that not only blends with the music but propels it forward at the same time.  The songs, as Hannett intended, were emptied of space in order for the listener to inhabit them.  And inhabit them you do.  Unknown Pleasures is one of those rare albums that not only pleases the aural senses but draws you in to its very belly, willingly or not…. you are helpless to it and are forced to submit to 40 minutes of genius.  Whether you return to it after that is up to you, but somehow most do.  Not because of the macabre, knowing that Curtis hung himself less than a year later, but because this is the kind of album that comes along rarely….. one of those compositions that is still as fresh 35 years after it appeared with little fanfare…. 10 songs that leave you knowing that you have experienced something that you may well rarely ever experience again, a burgeoning of something bigger than the sum of its parts…. something beyond just the sound…. something beyond ambience…. something beyond ethereal….. something beyond…..

I shall close out this piece with what could be, arguably, the best pop song ever written and recorded.  She’s Lost Control as performed on Something Else.  All-len-All, after listening to this, I am sure you will be glad you did.

Keith