The year was 1979, and punk as it was known was dead. The Sex Pistols had broken up, The Clash wa pushing their music towards reggae and dub, Gang Of Four was pushing towards funk, dance and angry noise, and Joy Division was forging into what would become contemporary popular alternative rock. The ability of the public to be shocked by punk music, or any music, had been largely bled out in the preceding years by the antisocial public relations outlet that passed off as a band called The Sex Pistols, and while the spirits of youth and independence retained life across the American underground and would rise again, the most well-remembered acts in Britain around this time seemed to face a decision to break up or grow up. All of the aforementioned bands had seemingly gone off the rails at some point in the early 80s, with 1980’s woeful Sandinista! signalling worse things to come for The Clash, 1983’s laughable Hard the culmination of an imploding initial run by Gang Of Four, and New Order where Joy Division was heading before Ian Curtis’ untimely death.
However, the mass experimentation that can lead to records that completely alienate a lot of fans of earlier work is often also responsible for the most appreciated records of all. London Calling is what The Clash is largely remembered for, and it’s one of the most overrated rock albums around. Gang Of Four pushed boundaries from the off, and their first two albums, Entertainment! and Solid Gold, are excellent. Joy Division’s story can’t really be told by albums alone, with most of their well remembered work not actually appearing on a record (“Transmission”, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Atmosphere” all spring to mind), and with the posthumous Closer indicating all too clearly what directions New Order was heading for, their entry into the class of 1979 that includes London Calling and Entertainment! is the only record that really sounds like a Joy Division record.
Unknown Pleasures isn’t entirely representative of the Joy Division we remember, largely catching them at a grim lull. They had largely shed their prior persona of a punk band called Warsaw with aggressive riffs and a weird fascination with the Nazi regime, but hadn’t grasped many of the pop sensibilities that would take hold later in the year and become songs on or around Closer. We’re left with what’s largely thought of as a doom-and-gloom record, although to dismiss it as nothing more would be selling it short, as there are some notable exceptions.
Sometimes having an opening track that doesn’t really fit the rest of the bill isn’t a bad thing, especially if it’s a strong track that might be lost on the listener as a misfit if it were amongst the back half of the record. An upbeat snare followed by a bubbly bass riff introduces “Disorder”, and a reverberant guitar hovers above. Curtis was well into his adopted baritone singing voice by this point, although it’s at its least stressed here, save for the last few lines as strange swirling sounds permeate the mix. Martin Hannett’s infamous production gives the song a sparse sound, which helps it fit in with the album, and the acres of space created allows the bleakness of Curtis’ lyrics to come through, although listeners will take away from the song its simple appearance and Peter Hook’s bass.
“Day Of The Lords” starts off the album’s run of darkest songs, which takes up most of the first side. It lumbers in dourly like a man bearing a giant cross, and most of the song slides in at the lower end of the scale, save for a little guitar picking and some squelching noise during the chorus that drains in from the top. A paranoid-sounding vocal performance from Curtis and some choppy chords from guitarist Bernard Sumner add a hint of seething aggression at times, but it’s the drumming of Stephen Morris during the chorus that stops the song from plodding at all times. With the tone lowered, “Candidate” follows, with a bass that moves like an elephant, minimal guitar work, and a depressed vocal delivery that makes it sound even slower than the previous track, although they have a similar tempo. Some bleak noise that sounds like reversed guitar doesn’t do anything to stop the track sounding like a three-minute coma.
“Insight” follows with a slightly quicker pace, a slightly less negative and more wistful performance from the vocals and bass, and some really stupid laser-disco sound effects to ruin everything. Another track that sounds roughly the same throughout, unlike the first two tracks which felt like they had a sense of dynamic fluidity, leaves the listener with over four minutes of rubbish. With two tracks in a row where you’d expect some strong material to be, you’d be perfectly entitled to think “blimey, this is some depressing tripe!” However, “New Dawn Fades” ironically represents the revival of the album. Some weird backwards noise gives way to a descending bass riff and a simple, memorable guitar piece. Everything becomes very restrained during the verse, with the echoing, metronomic snare cutting through everything. The second time around, the vocals come around with a much more powerful delivery that finally imprints itself. Despite being another slow, gloomy song, “New Dawn Fades” builds on itself, and has some really strong elements that make it stand out and prove itself as a fine song.
While many may remember the clap-happy version of “She’s Lost Control” that appeared on the b-side of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, a far superior version is found here. Less dance percussion here, instead a much tighter and urgent sound that contrasts with the unravelled lyrics, constantly building up with some memorable guitar work. Not to be outdone, “Shadowplay” follows, and is a splendid rescue job of a song previously recorded with a dreadful vocal for the aborted “Warsaw” album. The booming voice here commands the song, seemingly controlling the tempo, and a well arranged track falls around it nicely. It turns out that much of the album’s strongest material is in the middle.
A couple of short songs follow, taking up less than five minutes between them. “Wilderness” is defined by the up-and-down bass and echoing vocals. One of the few moments of the album that moves and shakes, it has a slightly whimsical nature to it, but doesn’t feel lacking. “Interzone” features a lead vocal from Hook, a deep undercurrent of contrasting vocals from Curtis, and a much punkier guitar. Had this not been produced by Hannett, this could easily have passed off for a punk staple. “I Remember Nothing” closes out the album in a most unemphatic fashion, recalling earlier weaknesses, although it’s a cut above “Candidate” and “Insight”. An unsteady vocal performance with minimal instrumentation provides an air of desperation to this long track, which is seen out with some weird crashing sounds.
There were a lot of songs recorded during the sessions, and it’s inevitable that upon hearing them, you wonder why some of them weren’t included. Three of the six other songs were earmarked for release on the Earcom 2 compilation EP, although only two of them found their way onto it. “Autosuggestion” is another very long track (over six minutes) which almost appears to be similar to “I Remember Nothing”, but for a buoyant bass line, and the scratchy guitar that comes in later at times sounds almost genuinely uplifting, with the increasingly howled vocals not dampening the experience of a pleasurable second half of the song. “From Safety To Where?” is a more awkward number where the vocals sound like they’re trying to keep up with an unusual bass. It’s not doom and gloom, it’s just a bit strange. “The Only Mistake”, which ended up on the Still compilation along with the other unreleased songs from this session, rattles, rolls, and rings. The guitar echoes, but there’s a more dense sonic texture at play here, and the vocals build well like they had on “Shadowplay”.
“Exercise One” has some swarming feedback and one of the most ominous, menacing basslines in existence that continually pounds. The angular guitar work and vocals full of paranoia and dread set against a clappy percussion set leave us with a track that isn’t exactly aggressive, yet seems to embody pure evil, making it an unexpected highlight. “They Walked In Line” was another song from the botched Warsaw LP, although it doesn’t fare anything like as well as “Shadowplay”. The slowed down chords sound lifeless, and the baritone doesn’t sound anything like as convincing as Curtis’ previous mid-level drone. “The Kill”, not to be confused with an earlier track by the same name from an old demo from the band’s days under the Warsaw name (which is pretty awful), is a short, sprightly, and quite fun track with some interesting shapes, and a charming simplicity at times. Despite all this, it doesn’t sound all that far removed.
For what it is, Unknown Pleasures stands up quite well. In spite of a wobble where you’d expect some quality, a terrific opener and a strong run of material from the middle to near the end that exhibits great style and variety ensure that this album will be a favourite for those who are patient with it. Of course, with all sixteen songs from the sessions being available on posthumous Joy Division compilations, you’d be entitled to feel like it could have been an even better record. It’s an unfortunate habit to not have the same vision as the people that created the music, especially when you’re tempted to bend the rules of the era’s vinyl limitations to get what you want.
Personal picks: Exercise One, Disorder, Shadowplay, Autosuggestion
Picks for others: Disorder, She’s Lost Control, Shadowplay, New Dawn Fades
Relative weaknesses: Insight, Candidate, From Safety To Where?
01 – Disorder
02 – Day Of The Lords
03 – Candidate
04 – Insight
05 – New Dawn Fades
06 – She’s Lost Control
07 – Shadowplay
08 – Wilderness
09 – Interzone
10 – I Remember Nothing
Author’s recommended tracklist
01 – Disorder
02 – Shadowplay
03 – Exercise One
04 – Wilderness
05 – The Only Mistake
06 – Autosuggestion
07 – New Dawn Fades
08 – She’s Lost Control
09 – Day Of The Lords
10 – The Kill
11 – Interzone
12 – I Remember Nothing