[sic] Magazine

Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979)

The best Manchester album in the world ….ever?

Apologies for flashing an image characteristic of those never ending compilations, which seems to cover about every genre of music. The problem is that when it comes to Joy Division ‘s debut Unknown Pleasures it is true. Many would rightly make a case for The SmithsThe Queen is Dead , The Stone Roses ‘ eponymous debut, Oasis ‘ finest moment Definitely Maybe , The Happy MondaysPills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches or any number of albums by The Fall or New Order . The titles show that as a city Manchester has been peerless in its churning out of the greatest UK bands on a conveyor belt as productive as the one in Wales that produces outside halfs. But time after time it’s Joy Division’s dark masterpiece that is pulled out of the CD rack and which haunts anything which follows.

Accepting some basic facts about the album makes Unknown Pleasures great before the vinyl is placed on the turntable. It was released on 14 June 1979, through Factory Records and produced by the lunatic-cum-genius of Martin Hannett . Factory boss Tony Wilson , the posh situationist, invested the whole of his savings account into the first run of 10,000 and championed the band like an intellectual football supporter. He was later affectionately played for laughs by Steve Coogan in 24 Hour Party People , yet no one can distract from Wilson’s achievement at Factory. Then there is the startling pulsed image of the Peter Saville and lest we forget those haunting black and white photos at the time from Dutch photographer Anton Corbjin who later made his big film debut with Control the biopic of the band.

It is almost superfluous to review the music. It’s part of the air we breathe and nothing since by any band has come close to the sepulchral gravity captured on this album. It starts with ‘Disorder’; Stephen Morris almost synthesized drums, Hook ‘s bass all over the place and Barney Sumner ‘s guitar so sharp you could shave with it. Ian Curtis ‘s arrival barely needs comment. One of the greatest rock voices ever, a dominant baritone that betrayed his youth. When he screams at the end of the song ‘ I’ve got the spirit/ but where’s the feeling ‘ it’s almost scary and the intensity doesn’t let up with the chugging ‘Day Of The Lords’ or the eerie power of ‘Candidate . It is ‘Insight’ nevertheless that somehow rises above the brilliance of all the other songs on the album and looks down on them all. The slower version on the Peel Sessions actually matches the album version and having the choice is a huge bonus. ‘Insight’ is a brooding sonnet where Curtis vocal resonates down the years. His lyrics are masterful and the repeating of the word ‘time’ in the following verse a stroke of genius. “Tears of sadness for you/More upheaval for you,/Reflects a moment in time,/A special moment in time,/Yeah we wasted our time,/We didn’t really have time,/But we remember when we were young” ’. When he passionately asserts that “I’m not afraid any more” his vocal now betrays the truth.

The middle part of the album comprising three songs ‘New Dawn Fades’, ‘She’s Lost Control’ and the epic ‘Shadowplay’ land with the weight of a huge punch. ‘She’s Lost Control’ is the most well known not least for its famous live performance on Something Else on 15th September 1979 where against a backdrop of call-and-answer guitar and bass, vice-tight drumming from Morris we see Curtis combining innocence and intensity to astounding effect. There is something indefinable about that look in his eyes and when then manic almost epileptic dance commences you daren’t take your eyes off the screen in case you miss one second of history in the making. The album fades away with the almost funky ‘Wilderness’ (Joy Division were after all a good time band) the sharp post punk of ‘Interzone’ and the massive ‘I Remember Nothing’ sound tracked by broken glass and burning with intensity for nearly six minutes.

We all know that in ‘real life’ Curtis was one of the lads with a love of practical jokes and a mouth like Gordon Ramsey, but the stage transformed him. Something happened up there. The power of those words often inspired by Ballard and Burroughs took him to another realm albeit for such a whisper in time. The band itself was a force of nature and New Order went on to world domination but sadly it all ended in world-beating levels of animosity. For this reviewer, New Order always left a nagging doubt even at their height with the Ibiza-fuelled brilliance of ‘Technique’. Peter Hook came close to capturing this unease in his recent autobiography named after this album where he confessed that Curtis’s death robbed his band mates of the “glue that held us together” and equally importantly the death of manager and friend Rob Gretton in 1999 “left nobody” .

Rock music is full of clichés about how it’s better to burn out than fade way. In the case of Joy Division it’s utter nonsense. Think of what they achieved in two seminal albums – particularly this debut – and think of what might have been.