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2023 Albums Thing 207 - Joy Division “Unknown Pleasures”

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All my Joy Division albums are re-issues, this particular one from 2019 in a white, rather than a black sleeve and pressed on transluscent red vinyl. Back when this was originally released money was tight, there were a lot of records to buy and Miles owned these Joy Division records so if I wanted to hear them they were available to me, but there was no point having 2 copies in the house. Eventually I needed my own, hence the re-issues. 

Joy Division are the most important band to sally forth from Manchester in my musical timeframe. No, not New Order, without Joy Division there likely is no New Order, and no, most certainly none of the litany of miserabalists and baggy trousered drug fiends that have come since…Mr Smith can take his Roses and stick ‘em where the sun don’t shine, on a Monday if he wishes, mere pretenders in JD’s presence.

“Unknown Pleasures” was recorded and mixed over 3 weekends in Stockport’s Strawberry Studios, the very same studio in which 10cc created “I’m Not In Love”. It has its problems, to my ears, but that doesn’t affect its beauty, importance and influence. Although producer Martin Hannett is credited with employing some unusual production techniques (including recording the studio lift and feeding the sound through a Leslie cabinet, recording an Ian Curtis vocal down a telephone line  and including the sound of the basement toilet) on the whole I’ve always thought the overall sound is really disappointing, it sounds like an album that was recorded over disparate sessions with no mind paid to what the previous session sounded like, in places it sounds like demo’s. What could this have sounded like were it produced better or would it have just disappeared if it had sounded any different ? Many hail it as a great production so what do I know…

Ian Curtis reportedly did like it. Bernard Sumner didn’t saying "The music was loud and heavy, and we felt that Martin had toned it down, especially with the guitars. The production inflicted this dark, doomy mood over the album” you only hear the loud and heavy JD on “Interzone”. Drummer Steven Morris was a fan “listening to a record and going to a gig were quite different. You don't want to hear a record when you go to a gig, you want something with a bit of energy”. Peter Hook initially didn’t like it "I couldn't hide my disappointment then, it sounded like Pink Floyd." but has changed his mind since "It definitely didn't turn out sounding the way I wanted it...There's no two ways about it, Martin Hannett created the Joy Division sound.”.

I do have a real bugbear with opening song “Disorder”. It rattles along at a good old trap but…when it gets to the instrumental breaks between the verses there is a 4 note section of Hooky’s bass line that is in the wrong key. I can hear what he’s trying to do but what he plays is just wrong and I can’t believe it got onto the record, it grates with me every time I hear it. 

“Day Of The Lords” is a huge, thunderous thing that builds out of a riff, that probably has had a great subsequent influence on Stoner Rock, into a chorus that, by the end, Curtis is screaming, obviously at his wits end “Where will it end, Where will it end ?

“She’s Lost Control” developed out of drummer Stephen Morris buying a syndrum because he thought he saw one on the cover of a Can album. It’s a mutant dance tune and one that became a favourite in the Futurist clubs in the early 80’s. That is followed by “Unknown Pleasures” absolute gem, “Shadowplay”. Hooky’s foreboding sounding bass leads us in until Bernard announces his arrival with crashing chords and Ian Curtis delivers the devastating opening lines

To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you

To the depths of the ocean where all hopes sank, searching for you

This is one song where Hannett’s production does work. There is space in it, whereas the playing suggests something more claustrophobic Hannett gives the song space to move in.

“Interzone” has an" interesting" backstory. Very briefly Joy Division were signed to RCA and some deep thinker (!!!) in the A&R department put 2 and 2 together and obviously came up with 3 and a half. It went like this, Joy Division are from the North and so was Northern Soul so Joy Division should cover an old Northern Soul tune…genius right ? Well, no, but bless them they did try and work up a version of NF Porter’s floorfiller “Keep On Keeping On”. It didn’t work out but if you know that tune you can hear a remnant of it in the guitars of “Interzone” which is what that ill fated cover version developed into.

“Unknown Pleasures” set the template for what came to be known as Post-Punk (although Joy Division saw themselves as a Punk group). The cover art has taken on a life of its own with even Disney producing a Micky Mouse t-shirt based on Peter Saville’s design. It’s a bleak but forward looking record and although it wears its influences it never really sounds like any of them. New people are still discovering Joy Division, I get young kids asking for them in the shop regularly. Better them than any other Manchester pretenders to their crown.

Shadowplay - https://youtu.be/oZSGVE_0f3c?si=y8GOoXsMkrg40RB_

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