Monday, December 30, 2013

Classic Album Review: Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979)

In late 1979 or early 1980, when Joy Division – completely out of nowhere – bolted straight into the New Zealand singles chart at No.1 with ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, it was my first encounter with what might be known as the “NME effect” … a sort of prehistoric equivalent of what’s known today as “going viral”.

The single arrived without any major label push, and without much hope of mainstream radio play, yet somehow the UK music press of the time – pretty much restricted to three-month-old ship-freighted newsprint copies of the NME and Sounds et al – had sufficient clout with the less mainstream masses to ensure advance orders and pre sales were at a premium by the time it docked.
The band’s Unknown Pleasures album, also on debut, did exactly the same thing on the album charts, arriving at No.1 on the back of advance sales, with little more than the word of a select few UK-based music journalists to really recommend it. Which is quite astonishing really – more so when you consider that there was no previous reference point for Joy Division’s music in this tiny backblock, 12,000 miles away from the band’s home town of Manchester.

What is even more notable in all of this, and the source of some disappointment for a few at the time, is that neither ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, nor subsequent singles ‘Atmosphere’ (another No.1), and ‘Transmission’, were included on Unknown Pleasures.

Notable, because back in 1980 – unless you were Pink Floyd – you simply didn’t have a chart-topping album unless it was preceded or accompanied by a single of some note. In the case of Joy Division, the album came as a standalone, with no singles whatsoever lifted from it. This was standard modus operandi of the Factory label at the time.

The role played by producer Martin Hannett was pivotal to achieving Joy Division’s unique sound. It was Hannett who harnessed all of the individual elements within the band to create a truly remarkable whole; Curtis’ bleak lyrics and despairing baritone, Bernard Sumner’s prototype post-punk guitar and keys, Peter Hook’s distinctive bass, and the drumming of Stephen Morris, all working in unison to generate noise and imagery the like of which had never been heard before.

There was post-punk before and during Joy Division’s time, but Joy Division and Hannett moved the genre’s boundaries forever, and just as likely played a major part in bringing the fledgling goth-rock sub-genre into public consciousness. Hannett’s key contribution was to bring the drums and percussion to the fore, and he was able to create a sense of space within otherwise clustered and claustrophobic confines, which perfectly complemented the gloomy nature of Joy Division’s sound.

Unknown Pleasures has since gone on to become one of the more critically-acclaimed releases of the past 30 years. Ian Curtis’ suicide in 1980 – just prior to the release of band’s follow-up album, Closer – has doubtlessly contributed to the band’s wider mythology over the years but there is no denying that Joy Division’s place in post-punk legend is well deserved, and Unknown Pleasures still stands as a landmark release.

Best tracks: ‘New Dawn Fades’, ‘She's Lost Control’, and ‘Shadowplay’...
And here’s a little something that didn’t make it on to the album:


  1. Write about Annik, Mikey.

  2. To be honest I really don't know enough about her - which means I'd only be regurgitating all of the recent coverage elsewhere. There wasn't much about her relationship with Curtis in the Story of Factory Records (book I have, which is basically an official label account of JD/New Order/other Factory artists) and for obvious reasons her presence in 'Control' was kept to a minimum ... so yeah, far more learned and informed accounts of her life out there than anything I could conjure up.

  3. For all the obits and "inspiration behind Love Will Tear Us Apart" tributes, I think this is the best piece (a Q&A) I've read relating to her:

  4. Read this one -

    It's my very favourite piece about her, and I think does justice to who (at least I believe) she is/was, beautifully - as would you, I'm sure.
    There is footage of her speaking about Ian in the 2007 Joy Division documentary - sophisticated. Articulate. Calm. Intelligent. I have a massive girl-crush on her.
    The popular villification of her as scheming mistress really doesn't resonate - the more I read about her, the more I get it (the Ian thing). Get her. And deeply admire her for her dignity and silence all these years.

  5. That is a good piece. It was only natural that Deborah Curtis gained the wider mainstream/public sympathy vote when she finally from the shadows with Touching From A Distance (especially in the UK where the press always stake a claim for their own). But you're quite right. Honore showed a lot of class in not reacting to what amounted to a dismissal of her relationship with Curtis. At the end of the day they were just young kids getting on with being young and free-spirited, nobody really had any idea of where it was headed, that Curtis would become an almost mythical figure, that Joy Division would become one of the most important bands of a generation etc. Nope, they were all just living their lives completely blind to what was about to unfold. Respect to her. Nobody should judge her or Curtis for what happened. None of it was planned. Nobody set out to hurt anybody else etc. I was interested to read that she was responsible for organising the first live performance of Belgian Tech-Legends Front 242 ... (straight from The Bumper Book of Strange Pop Cultural Facts). Anyway Anonymous, thanks for reading (and commenting).

  6. ... and look at that! You just honoured Annik (see what I did there?!) - and her love story with Curtis perfectly. Anonymous is duly impressed.

    PS. Deborah Curtis often leaves me feeling distinctly uncomfortable ... marriage does not confer a property right, and I can't help but feel a frequent sense of her 'ownership' of Ian in reading her words and comments (a claim to an earlier proprietary interest in him simply by virtue of having married him some years earlier - as a teenager, for goodness sake). I completely empathise with how awful and painful it must have been for Deborah as her marriage was falling apart - particularly with a young baby - that's the complete opposite of a fun process. But that wasn't Annik's fault. I don't pretend to have been in Manchester in the late 70s, peering through the Curtis windows, but my every impression is that the marital decay had already set in by the time Ian met his Belgian biscuit. As you said - they were all kids. None of it was planned. People change. Grow. Evolve. Things happen. Connections happen. And people - frequently, it seems - fall in love when they least mean to.
    Anyway. That's quite enough philosophical depth for a Tuesday afternoon. As you were, Mike Hollywood Blogger.

  7. PS. Just as a follow up to this thread - I've been reading Lindsay Reade's book ('Torn Apart : The Life of Ian Curtis') and it's by far the best thing since sliced bread. It's a very loving and respectful homage and the perfect foil to Deborah Curtis's book (I largely suspect that's why it was written). Annik features prominently (which I LOVE) and it actually includes a few of Ian's letters to her (deeeeee-licious).
    On another point above ^^, I'm a bit sceptical about Annik having anything to do with inspiring the lyrics to "Love Will Tear Us Apart" - the dates just don't match up. Ian met her mid-1979 and things became more romantic between them in October 1979 (at the Plan K gig in Belgium). I think JD were already performing the song live by then?
    So it seems "LWTUA" is all about the Debbie and the marriage.
    Self-Appointed JD Aficionado Slash Detective

    PS. GREAT to see you've got your blogging mojo back again, Mikey - means all is right with the world.

  8. agreed on LWTUA, hence the quotation marks when I referred to it. I was quite surprised to see this mentioned in several blogs and the odd obit in the wake of Honore's death. The timing is well out.

  9. Oh. See, I thought the quotation marks meant you were quoting a quote. Quite.
    PS. I've just noticed how many times I use "PS." Reeeee-diculous.