The Manchester quartet navigated the post-punk waters on their own, self-releasing an EP and then giving the world what is now considered a classic album, Unknown Pleasures, in 1979. Peter Hook, Joy Division’s bassist, and Jon Savage, author of new oral history of the band, talk about that seminal moment.
Joy Division are now considered legendary, but it didn’t seem that way 40 years ago when the Manchester, England-based post-punk quartet recorded and released their debut album, Unknown Pleasures. Although they had performed at local venues, appeared on TV, and garnered positive write-ups in the British music press, Joy Division were still relatively unknown to a wider audience in 1979. In the age of punk, such challenges necessitated a D.I.Y. work ethic.
One of the many memories that Peter Hook, Joy Division’s founding bassist, has about that period involved him and the band’s manager, Rob Gretton, physically picking up the newly-minted copies of Unknown Pleasures from a pressing plant in London.
“We loaded the van up with 10,000 copies of Unknown Pleasures and nearly broke the back axle—it was so heavy—and drove them back to Manchester. We walked three flights of stairs up [carrying the albums] to the Factory Records office. Rob and I were always the more physical members of the group. We had two very cerebral people, one lazy bastard, and two hard workers. Everything was covered.” (laughs)
At the time of its release in June 1979, Unknown Pleasures received critical praise, even though it didn’t appear on the U.K. album chart. Its classic status is defined by several factors: the driving yet dense atmospheric post-punk music courtesy of Hook, guitarist Bernard Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris; the compelling lyrics and vocals of Ian Curtis, who committed suicide almost a year after the album’s release; the visionary production of the late Martin Hannett; and the striking cover art by designer Peter Saville.
“It’s one of the weirdest things in the world,” Hook says today of the album’s special milestone, “looking back and wondering where those 40 years went.” (It was also recently announced that the record will be reissued for its 40th anniversary on limited-edition ruby red vinyl accompanied by alternative cover art).
Before releasing Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division, who had formed in 1976 under the name of Warsaw, had previously recorded and self-released a four-song EP, An Ideal for Living (1978). As later recounted in books about the band (including Hook’s own memoir), they did some recording sessions for RCA Records that turned out to be disastrous but it did yield an early version of “Interzone” that later appeared on Unknown Pleasures.
The turning point for Joy Division was meeting future manager Rob Gretton and journalist Tony Wilson, who introduced the band on their TV debut performing “Shadowplay.”
When Wilson co-founded Factory Records, Joy Division were one of the company’s first signees. The band recorded two songs, “Digital” and “Glass,” that appeared on the compilation album A Factory Sample, which was released in December 1978.
Throughout 1978, the band had continued to gig.
“I’d seen Joy Division live a lot at that point,” said Jon Savage, the author of a newly-published Joy Division oral history book This Searing Light, The Sun, and Everything Else. “And they were very heavy live. I don’t mean ‘heavy’ as in heavy metal…they were very deep, profound and noisy. They’re just very powerful. And the music went right through you, particularly Bernard’s guitar, which was very loud and distorted. So the record [Unknown Pleasures] is very different from that.”
In the early part of 1979, Joy Division rehearsed at TJ Davidson’s, a former warehouse in Manchester that the band used as a performing space. It was there they wrote the music that ended up on the debut album. The band did not use a tape recorder during the rehearsals; according to Savage’s liner notes for the 2007 reissue of Unknown Pleasures, Hook said that Curtis spotted the riffs and melodies as they jammed from which the songs evolved.
“It was a very gradual process to amass the songs,” Hook later says. “We didn’t actually play that many gigs. We were desperately trying to get concerts but it was very difficult. It was actually a real struggle to get support slots. It was hard work. But we loved the material and we believed in ourselves. You didn’t have any major support from anybody, you were building a following in Manchester. You were hoping and wondering what the future was going to bring.”
In April 1979, Joy Division started recording their debut album with Factory Records’ in-house producer Martin Hannett at Strawberry Studios in Stockport. To describe Hannett’s personality as eccentric would be an understatement. “I wouldn’t say he was difficult then to work with,” Hook recalls. “He was very experienced, outspoken, and ‘my way-or-the highway.’ Because we were so young and so inexperienced, he said, ’Joy Division were a gift to a producer.’ He used that gift very well.”
The recording sessions and the mixing of the album took a total of three weekends. Hannett used unorthodox techniques untypical for a conventional punk recording, such as sound effects and the use of digital delay to give the sound that atmospheric and stark quality.
“Martin Hannett had a habit of making you feel uncomfortable,” Hook says. “His whole working method was to create chaos, because he felt that out of that chaos came diamonds. And he was right in that respect. That way of working was correct until you got sick of it, sick of the angst, sick of the chaos. We had written the songs but he was pretty much calling the shots.
“He was adamant that there was none of this playing in a room together. He wanted everything separate, so it can be controlled. That’s why he made Steve dismantle his drum kit–Martin even had the springs out because he said he could hear the springs vibrating. He was a true lunatic, he really was. And because we were so young and so inexperienced and so happy to be there, we would do anything he said.”
We didn’t actually play that many gigs. We were desperately trying to get concerts but it was very difficult. It was actually a real struggle to get support slots. It was hard work. But we loved the material and we believed in ourselves.
Savage, who as a music writer covered Joy Division from the very beginning, was present at the recording sessions due to his friendship with Hannett. “I remember going one day to Strawberry,” he says. “The band were around, but I can’t remember them being there. Martin was playing around in the studio. And in the corner of the room they were using was an old lift, and in the lift he put a Leslie speaker. It gives you that sort of flanged sound. And I said, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’m recording the lift.’ And of course, that is the lift that appears on “Insight.””
The darkness conveyed from Curtis’ lyrics on Unknown Pleasures drew on themes of depression, personal burden, doom, hopelessness, and despair (Savage also cited “religious imagery and martyrdom, mixed with a Nietzschean aloofness” in the book So This Is Permanence). Not just from his imagination, the singer also took from his own personal experiences. For instance, “She’s Lost Control” was inspired by a young woman with epilepsy whom Curtis was helping to find employment while working as a counselor; he later learned that she died after a seizure (Ironically, Curtis himself was diagnosed with epilepsy after experiencing a fit in December 1978).
Joy Division performing “She’s Lost Control” live at Bowdon Vale Youth Club, Altrincham:
Some of the material on Unknown Pleasures also drew from Curtis’ difficult relationship with his wife, Deborah. As cited in Chris Ott’s 2004 book about the album, Curtis seemingly referenced Deborah on the track “I Remember Nothing” (“We were strangers, for way too long, for way too long”). And in her own memoir, Touching From a Distance, Deborah Curtis recalled asking her husband about the grave subject matter on “New Dawn Fades,” which prompted him to leave their house. “As I became familiar with the lyrics, I worried that Ian was retreating to the depression of his early years,” she later wrote. “He had inordinately been kind to me during my pregnancy, and yet these lyrics had been written at the same time…Had I been so oblivious to his unhappiness that he had been forced to write about it?”
It also has to be said that the city of Manchester informed the bleak tone of the band’s music heard on the record.
Martin Hannett had a habit of making you feel uncomfortable. His whole working method was to create chaos, because he felt that out of that chaos came diamonds. And he was right in that respect. That way of working was correct until you got sick of it, sick of the angst, sick of the chaos.
“I’ve always seen the world through music first and then books and film,” says Savage. “And when I moved to Manchester, which was a very alien environment to me [being from London], I interpreted it through Joy Division. It seemed to me that Joy Division both shaped and reflected my experience of the city where I was living. There’s a few mentions in the book [This Searing Light] to ‘the center of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you,’ which is from “Shadowplay.” There’s a sense in which Joy Division are intimately related to their time and place, which is Manchester in the late ’70s and the early ‘80s.”
It’s been well-documented that both Hook and Sumner were unhappy after first hearing the record’s mix because they felt Hannett toned down the raw and aggressive sound of their live performances. “I don’t feel that way now,” says Hook with a laugh. “It was one of the few things that me and [Bernard] agree on. We just wanted it to rip everybody’s heads off. Thank God, Martin Hannett was there to tell us how stupid, young and naive we were. It was odd because we still felt like those snotty punks wearing dog collars wanting to scream ‘fuck off’ at the world. And yet, we weren’t making music like that. I was so glad that we didn’t get our own way. We would’ve ruined it without a shadow of a doubt.”
“It didn’t bother me,” says Savage about the album’s final mix, “because it seemed to be a bit like a stoner album, to be honest, and that sort of psychedelic ambient tinge really suited the atmosphere that Martin was trying to create. So there was a live Joy Division and there was a recording Joy Division. If they made a fairly straight reproduction of their live show, would it have had the same impact? The live shows were incredibly powerful. That was also because of Ian. It just was the album was very different from how they were live.”
Another key ingredient of the album was the cover art by Peter Saville, which was based on a textbook one of the band members handed to him containing “a “comparative path demonstration of frequency from a signal of a pulsar.”
“Peter Saville came up with the drawing and decided not to put the name of the band on,” Hook says. “We were over the moon. That was fantastic because it was so radical.”
While the album received positive reviews in the British press, it didn’t appear on the U.K. album chart. But that type of commercial success was of no concern to the band, according to Hook.
“We weren’t actually interested in it being a hit, and we never were. We never played that game,” said Hook. “We came from punk, held our punk credentials very high, very anti-establishment. To us, it was all about the music being appreciated.”
Following Unknown Pleasures the band released a non-album single, the powerful rocker “Transmission.” The well-received single in addition to the band’s live shows and positive press helped fuel further sales of the album; all 10,000 copies of its initial pressing were sold out. For the rest of 1979, the band performed many gigs, including opening for Buzzcocks on the latter’s tour. After recording the second album Closer with Hannett again producing, Joy Division were slated to make their first ever tour of America. That ended when Curtis, whose health was growing worse, hung himself on May 18, 1980 at the age of 23.
Peter Saville came up with the drawing and decided not to put the name of the band on. We were over the moon. That was fantastic because it was so radical.
“You were letting the music speak for itself,” Hook reflects. “And to do that, you had to have belief in yourself, one thing that was drummed into us by Ian Curtis in particular. We were fantastic, and the world would catch on. His body started to let him down–yet he never gave up for one moment in telling us what a great group we were and what we were going to achieve.”
Although Hook and the other members of New Order are estranged from each other following a very acrimonious split in 2007, both camps have performed songs from Unknown Pleasures for their respective live shows. Hook and his band, The Light, have previously played Unknown Pleasures in its entirety on stage, and will do so again along with Closer for two shows in the U.K. next year. Some of Unknown Pleasures songs have been later covered over the years by such acts as Moby and the Killers. Among the album’s many fans include punk legend Henry Rollins, who said: “Unknown Pleasures” is an absolute masterpiece. Every aspect of it is pure genius. It is a stunning debut album.”
We weren’t actually interested in it being a hit, and we never were. We never played that game. We came from punk, held our punk credentials very high, very anti-establishment. To us, it was all about the music being appreciated.
As for Unknown Pleasures’ longevity four decades later, Hook cites three reasons. “The first is the songs,” he says. “They’re fucking fantastic. The production is otherworldly in the way that it’s subtle, and the thing that Barney and I wouldn’t have given it was subtlety. There’s nothing better than to listen to a record that has layers, and the next time you listen, you hear something you didn’t hear the first time. And Martin Hannett was a master at doing that. The third thing has to be Ian Curtis. He was one of the best wordsmiths, and his words and stories and him looking at life in the songs appeal to people, especially now more than ever. It’s definitely a combination of them all. I’m lucky because I was there at the period.”
Joy Division performing “Transmission” live: