On May 18, 1980 rock music was forever and irrevocably altered. On that date—coincidentally, also the day that Mount St. Helens erupted—the charismatic lead singer of one of the most exciting and innovative bands to arise from the post-punk ashes of the implosion of the Sex Pistols hanged himself. Ian Curtis was barely into his twenties when his tragically short-sighted decision put an untimely period on the story of Joy Division. The remaining members of the band would recruit keyboardist Gillian Gilbert and form the equally influential and innovative New Order. Without the atypically deep vocals of Ian Curtis, what was left in his wake simply was no longer Joy Division. And so a band that went on to exert great influence over genres ranging from synth-pop to Goth to Industrial Rock managed to wield that enduring inspiration on the basis of just two studio albums.
But what albums they were!
The album that unleashed the powerful quartet from Manchester, England on the world of rock music was called—with typical evocative ambiguity —Joy Division Unknown Pleasures. Listened to retrospectively, it becomes painfully clear that the album offers one of the rawest and abrasively honest glimpses inside the disordered mind ever allowed. In fact, Joy Division Unknown Pleasures is capable of producing two distinct and separate reactions within first-time listeners.
Anyone familiar with the story of Ian Curtis will be incapable of listening to the strange confluence of typical rock band sounds and eerie, industrial ambiance in songs like “New Dawn Fades” and “Day of the Lords” without reading into the lyrics the coming personal holocaust within the tortured sound of the lead singer. By contrast, the person who listens to the album without such familiarity will be whisked to a sort of rock and roll Valhalla by the unbridled post-punk exuberance of classic songs like “Disorder” and “She’s Lost Control.”
The production history of the making of Unknown Pleasures attributes as much of the aesthetic artistry of the recording to producer Martin Hannett as has been awarded to George Martin for producing most of the masterpieces recorded by The Beatles. Unusual sonic additions to the group’s standard set lent Joy Division’s typically fast and energetic live performances of the very same songs more aural space in which sound effects and offbeat recording locations provided the missing gaps need to establish the band as one making a dark and somber sort of post-punk music unlike anybody else; only Public Image Ltd. on rare occasions even comes close.
Although Unknown Pleasures remained virtually unknown outside the British punk scene even as they were already recording their follow-up, its legacy is more than enough to give lie to any remaining assumptions that artistic merit is based in any way on commercial viability. Joy Division wasn’t making bittersweet lemonade; they were mixing up Jonestown Killer Kool-Aid for those with the strength to survive its emotional toll.
Joy Division Unknown Pleasures – “Disorder”
Joy Division Unknown Pleasures: Album Review article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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