'Unknown Pleasures', the debut album from Joy Division, was released in 15th June 1979 on Factory Records as FACT-10 (the additional T denoting it as a full-length LP), as per Factory's unique cataloguing system.
The origins of Joy Division, along with the Buzzcocks, The Fall and The Smiths, can be traced back to the notorious Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, Manchester in 1976 - A sparsely attended show now considered a watershed moment for British music and culture.
The band's punk roots are an often overlooked chapter in the Joy Division/New Order story. As a live entity Joy Division was loud, raucous and abrasive - in that sense they shared similarities to their punk contemporaries. Joy Division's early recorded output reflected this too, typified by the punk stylings apparent on their self-released debut EP 'An Ideal For Living'.
Their early releases and live recordings, such as the highly regarded 'Les Bains Douches (18 December '79)' display a stark contrast when compared to the atmospheric nature of 'Unknown Pleasures'. It is the minimalist austere studio sound that became synonymous with the band, and the origins of that lay with their producer, the eccentric Martin Hannett.
Martin Hannett was Factory Records' in-house producer. He first worked with Joy Division on the track 'Digital', originally released on Factory's sampler EP 'A Factory Sample'. The track's title was a harbinger for what was to come, Hannett's pioneering use of delays, reverbs and other digital effects intensified the sense of foreboding darkness that would come to define Joy Division's sound. Tony Wilson once said of Hannett's production genius "He could see sound, shape it, rebuild it."
Hannett’s explorations in spatiality captured the essence of what post-industrial Manchester felt like. The cavernous resonance conjured images of empty factories whilst the carefully crafted, subtle dissonance between instruments agitated the listener just enough to evoke feelings of despair at the city’s decay. The introspective and deeply personal nature of Curtis’ lyrics juxtaposed this, turning the music inwards as if the cavernous resonance was actually echoing within yourself.
The unorthodox approaches employed by Hannett were initially met with some resistance by the band. Hannett playing the role of some kind of nefarious puppet-master with a cavalier attitude towards the wellbeing of the band members.
Hannett intentionally created tension between himself or the band, reportedly getting Stephen Morris to completely dismantle his drumkit due to a (potentially) imagined rattling sound. Morris was also made to record each individual drum separately resulting in the disjointed, robotic-like rhythm that runs throughout the record. The sound of smashing glass was also included on 'I Remeber Nothing' and a lift in the studio with a speaker inside was recorded for inclusion on 'Insight'. Hannett also demanded Ian Curtis' vocals on 'Insight' be recorded through a telephone in order to gain the required sense of distance.
The artwork for 'Unknown Pleasures' remains one of the most iconic LP covers of all-time, becoming ingrained in the visual lexicon of modern culture. Its inspiration is probably less well known - the familiar device central to it is a visualisation of radio waves emitted by a Pulsar star found by the band in the 1977 edition of The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy.
Factory Records graphic designer, Peter Saville, became renowned for his innovative record sleeves and shaped the aesthetic for Factory Records as well as Joy Division (and New Order). Speaking of the artwork's timeless quality and enduring legacy, Saville stated in an interview that "It's kind of a template which people continue to interpret in either deeply serious, melodramatic or quite comic ways," he continued "it's the endless possible interpretations of this diagram that make it so powerful."
Read More: Peter Saville: 10 Iconic Album Cover Designs.
Retrospectively it's difficult to look at Ian Curtis' lyrics outside of the context of his suicide in May 1980, on the eve of what would have been Joy Division's first US tour. His mental health, worsening epilepsy and floundering marriage have always, rightly or wrongly, framed any discussion surrounding Joy Division's subject matter. 'Unknown Pleasures' contains some startling recurring themes including numerous references to distance from friends and lovers as well as physical distance; with roads, cars and travel frequently cited.
Curtis' vocabulary continually revolves around words associated with death, blood, crying, pain and fear. Always returning to feelings of cold, depth and pressure and issues of control.
In an issue of Melody Maker in June '80, Jon Savage wrote a fitting testimonial, as an indictment of the culture that surrounds any rock and roll death, understanding that part of what Joy Division and the post-punk movement stood for was the destruction of the myth of the rockstar and the consumable nature of modern pop.
"Death provides a crystallization: Ian Curtis' artistic life can now be interpreted as a struggle that failed, for reasons that are as personal and obscure as his death. Now, no one will remember what his work with Joy Division was like when he was alive; it will be perceived as tragic rather than courageous. Now you can file under all-purpose romantic myth, ripe for packaging and consumption."
Joy Division and the story of 'Unknown Pleasures' has been dramatised on film twice. Michael Winterbottom's colourful 2002 film '24 Hour Party People' centred around Tony Wilson and the story of Factory Records. In contrast, the much darker 2007 film 'Control' was based on Deborah Curtis' biography 'Touching From A Distance'. The director Anton Corbijn had previously worked with Joy Division directing the video for their 1980 single 'Atmosphere'.
Both biopics appeared on our feature Print The Legend: 10 Of The Best Musical Biopics.