Confession time, to begin. I’ve never owned Unknown Pleasures on vinyl. Sacrilege! I know, but I’m late to the entire record party, and I’ve always had Joy Division in my pocket as an MP3 or similar.
So for a few days now, I’ve been planning what to do today. I visited a couple of record shops, of which we have an enjoyable variety in Newcastle, and finally found what I was looking for. The Fortieth Anniversary edition, pressed on ruby red and heavy duty vinyl in a pristine white sleeve that still retains the iconic design by Peter Saville, based on the radio wave signals received from a distant pulsar. Interestingly, this version more closely resembles the version the band themselves wanted – Saville thought black was far sexier, and I can certainly see his point. Nevertheless, the pure white sleeve is beside my turntable now, and I’ve even kept the plastic outer to try and preserve it as long as possible!
It’s spinning as I write this, and I can easily imagine myself transported back to 1979 and playing this for the first time. From the opening track – ‘Disorder’, eerie and hypnotic, through to the heartbreaking end of side one, ‘New Dawn Fades’, it’s a soul-shredding journey with a superb beat. Turn to side two, and you’re immediately swept up by the unstoppable dancefloor colossus that is ‘She’s Lost Control’, only to be left cold and bereft at the end of ‘I Remember Nothing’, memories shattering like glass as the record crackles to an end. I envy every soul who heard it for the first time when it was a startling, difficult to grasp debut. I appreciate Jon Savage’s contemporary review in Melody Maker, with a sadly prescient view:
“Problems remain; in recording place so accurately, Joy
Division are vulnerable to any success the album may bring –
once the delicate relationship with the environment is altered
or tampered with, they may never produce anything as good again.”
We know all there is to know about Martin ‘Zero’ Hannett’s raw, sparse production, and the frenetic, punk-infused playing of the band, wreathed in an unsettling and alien miasma of nihilism and despair. An artifact of its time, that has resonated with a power incomparable down the generations. Sealed in amber by lead singer Ian Curtis’ untimely and heartbreaking suicide less than a year after the album’s release, it has gone on to define the idiosyncratic goth scene, as well as artists across the spectrum of music. It was even accorded special treatment on the BBC yesterday, with a sprawling show by veteran Mary-Anne Hobbes, playing the album in its entirety. Whatever its failings, the Corporation certainly recognize and venerate our heritage well.
Ultimately, Unknown Pleasures is a self-fulfilling prophecy, best appreciated through the lens of melancholy about a career and sound cut brutally short – an album that continues to resonate so long as it holds up a stark, chilling mirror to a nightmarish world that has progressed no further from 1979 to 2019 except the spread of icy cold technology. Beautiful, artificial, mesmerizing and inducing despair. The Joy Division dichotomy.
“It’s getting faster, moving faster now, it’s getting out of hand,
On the tenth floor, down the back stairs, it’s a no man’s land,
Lights are flashing, cars are crashing, getting frequent now,
I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling, let it out somehow.”