The deaf and thumping drums by Stephen Morris, a slight discharge, a choked cry passing on the powerful, distorted and enveloping bass by Peter Hook: the punk soul that tries to get out, and then Bernard Sumner’s guitar, oh yes, tender cuts that come into your head. And then:
I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand,
Could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal man?
The first 30 seconds of Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division’s debut album after the EP An Ideal for Living, are a manifest of what the mancunian group wants to be: the rhythm is tight but minimalist, Peter Hook’s bass is able to create hypnotic and powerful journeys; the whole is perfectly accompanied by Stephen Morris’ drums, that are reduced to the minimal elements, by the crystallization of every single beat in the listener’s ear. Then there is the second level, defined by Ian Curtis’ voice and by Bernard Sumner’s guitar, interacting with each other with scratched chords and a voice with a punk setting, even though it is compressed, quite spoken, sometimes losing control.
Yet none of Joy Division’s members wanted the album to come out like this: the group was inspired by Sex pistols and Buzzcocks: bare and raw punk. If we watch a live performance by Curtis & co., we can realize substantial differences between live and studio: on live we have real punk, in the studio the post punk revolution takes shape, the one that will lead to dark wave. Decisive for the change of sound was the producer Martin Hennett. He wanted to reach the maximum harmonic minimalism, to highlight through an hallucinated rhythm the claustrophobic lyrics of Ian Curtis, all adorned with sounds of different types (from bottles that break to the toilet flush), with an incredible expertise.
Before moving on to the description of each song, we cannot avoid to analyse its historical and iconic cover. Although the image has lived of its own life like a myth, it represents perfectly the atmosphere desired by Hennett: a black background with broken white lines in the middle, in a one-to-five relationship compared to the extension of the cover. The image realized by the graphic Peter Saville was taken from the book The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy and represents the electromagnetic pulsations produced by a pulsar (CP 1919), which is the first pulsar ever discovered. But there is a second meaning, certainly preferred by the mancunian band fans: the image would represent a rotten electrocardiogram, that would be Ian Curtis’ one.
Curtis decided to commit suicide when he was 23 because he had not found the right place in the world (he was also destroyed by a chronic depression that afflicted him for long time).
The personal story of Ian Curtis, as the major author of the lyrics, can not be disconnected from the meaning of the work: the singer married Deborah Woodruff when he was 19. The marriage was substantially unhappy from the very first moments, also because of the singer’s photosensitive epilepsy. His neurosis determined also the beginning of his chronic depression. The singer has always fought between two opposite poles: the stability represented by his wife, by the normal and quiet family that could have been (the two had a daughter). And the other pole, represented by his Belgian lover Annik Honorèe: the desire to succeed in music, the only thing that allowed him to express himself naturally, with that iconic, alienated dance that he proposed during his performances.
Now let’s move on to the tracks. One by one: each of them deserves its own space.
Although it’s surely the most famous album track, Disorder is really different from the other ones (if we leave out Interzone and Shadowplay): a punk rhythm that remains alive even after the Henneth’s minimal subtractions. The screaming lyrics perfectly represents Curtis’ internal dualism: the singer is looking for a guide, for someone who could manage to control him. But his dark side of himself (that is objectified in the epilepsy) is always ready to come out: so he slowly loses the contact with the world, (“It’s getting faster, moving faster now, it’s getting out of hand”). Lights swap with machines, bringing Curtis to a state of total alienation. And then there is the last, desperate scream that is looking for a light:
I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling
Day of the Lords
Here Henneth’s hand begins to be visible, Sumner’s guitar is kind of lowered in tone: it lays on the bassline. The isolated Morris’ drums reverberate in the echoes created by Hook’s bass distortion: it’s the real start of dark wave. The lyrics are perhaps one of the most personal ones of the album: Curtis recalls his childhood, that is symbolized by his room, described with gloomy tones and the creation of images that remember us the German Expressionist Cinema. On white pure walls we see shadows and visions of death. The loss of childhood as a safe haven is a central theme in Curtis’ lyrics and we will find it later, with different meanings. The leitmotiv of the album seems to be Curtis trying to suppress his own pain, before bursting totally into the harrowing final verses.
The hallucinated atmosphere is well created by Henneth with the insertion of scratching sounds, but most of the work is done on the drums. They impose their volume and their rhythm on all the other sounds, without however giving an important break at the rhythmic level. So the listener enters in this claustrophobic vortex and, totally alienated, enters into Curtis’ mind. The singer seems to speak to the depressed and neurotic part of himself, who replies to him:
Oh, I don’t know what made me,
What gave me the right
To mess with your values
And change wrong to right
Curtis speaks to himself, in an incredible alienation of his own person: he looks at himself from the outside and from the inside. He’s desperate and powerless (the scream burst of the beginning disappears), conscious that the end is now approaching.
Noises of opening doors, forced locks. Now the accent is on the hypnotic journey of Hook’s bass, with the insertion of some characteristic darkwave sounds. The noise of sci-fi missiles, inserted between the first and the second verse, really manifests the meaning of the text: Curtis is positive, he’s no longer afraid, he remembers when he was young and he knows that he can continue to fight against himself. He knows that the obscure voice in his head is beatable. The singer exorcises his demons, shouting aloud repeated times to convince himself:
I’m not afraid anymore
New Dawn Fades
The official start of darkwave: the end of punk and the beginning of post-punk, the end of raw rock’n roll and the start of electronic experimentations of the ’80s. New Dawn Fades is all these things, and you understand it from Sumner’s initial guitar riff (the best in the album), which seems to invoke the dawn of a new era. Unfortunately, there is not much to say about the lyrics: who listens to it today, cannot avoid to ask himself how it’s possible that nobody close to Ian Curtis thought that those words were practically announcing his suicide:
The strain is too much, can’t take much more
Oh, I’ve walked on water, run through fire
Can’t seem to feel it anymore
It was me, waiting for me
Hoping for something more
Me, seeing me this time
Hoping for something else
Curtis was found dead hanged in his own home by his wife on May 18th, 1980: a single studio album published (Closer will come after his death). He died sure that there was no possibility to find the right place in this world: he failed living with himself.
She’s Lost Control
In the second most famous song of the album Curtis describes an epileptic attack of a woman he had witnessed to. It is inevitable, however, to incorporate this story with the author’s one. Let’s think to the live performance: here Curtis’ dance, mechanic and alienated, seems to almost parodize an epileptic attack. It’s like a loss of control, which is masterfully expressed by Bernard Sumner’s iconic guitar riff. Truth and show come together, Curtis arrives at a total alienation from himself.
Hook’s bass journey, silent but obsessive, explodes in Sumner’s guitar: this is perhaps the best moment of the entire album. The lyrics are probably the best of the whole album, too: Curtis enters in the other side of himself, he thinks as the other part of himself, he speaks in a first person estranged from himself:
To the center of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you,
To the depths of the ocean where all hopes sank, searching for you,
I was moving through the silence without motion, waiting for you,
In a room with a window in the corner I found truth.
The singer’s neurosis seeks him everywhere, in silence, exploding in the most unthinkable moments. The research ends symbolically in the children’s room, always that room. We’ve already met it as the beginning of the artist’s nightmares (Day of the Lords), but it was also represented as the safe haven in Insight. Here the room is definitively configured as the beginning of singer’s disorders: it is in his tormented childhood that everything began.
But the neurosis seems like a killer who enjoys not getting to the end immediately, it waits for the singer “in the center of the city”, and Curtis, frightened but at the same time mortally attracted, will not manage to refuse.
The grotesque rhythm of Peter Hook’s bass gives a slight touch of irony to an album that has very little desire to laugh at its existentialism. The lyrics actually is one of the less introspective ones of the whole opera. They describe the various Curtis’ studies (he loved history). Curtis “traveled far and wide through many different times”, to find that the only thing in common of the various ages of the world is a cosmic suffering: “the “tears in their eyes”.
Here the usual Curtis’s inner dissidium is also expressed by Peter Hook’s voice, who dubs and responds to the singer’s one. Interzone has the same rhythm of Disorder, but here Henneth has not really managed to put his hands on it: the song is rawly punk and it also has reminiscences of hard rock and heavy metal music (especially Led Zeppelin). Peter Hook can free his musical heat. In the lyrics, Curtis expresses the never-ending search of a friend: this friend is himself, or rather, the neurotic part of himself.
I Remember Nothing
The last track is the best closure you could imagine: broken glasses, doors that open, a scratchy and disturbing guitar in the background, the return to the web of anguishing rhythms created by Hook and Morris. I Remember Nothing is Curtis’ last scream, a scream that is not the same as Disorder‘s one, oh no, it is a scream that has come to the realization of its uselessness. The artist is like in front of the mirror and takes note of having a stranger within himself. Curtis seems to look at him from a far distance, scared and huddled in his childhood room, while the stranger is destroying objects and is going crazy. Sumner’s guitar acts under the track, emphasizing the moments in which Curtis loses himself, which is the thing that objectively the guitarist does best in the album.
Unknown Pleasures, published in 1979, marks the end of a way of making music. Without it, it appears really hard to think to darkwave, and the same indie-punk waves of the late ’90s – early ’00s (at the end of the article you can find two covers by Radiohead and The Killers, respectively of Ceremony and Shadowplay) seem difficult to imagine. It’s amazing to think that this is the only album published with Ian Curtis still alive, but this perhaps helps to understand the strength of this work. After Closer, Hook, Sumner and Morris will understand the impossibility of a continuation on the track marked by Ian Curtis after his death, and they will create New Order, influencing the new house and electronics scene of the mancunian ’80s.
Unknown Pleasures is an existential scream that implodes within itself after having heard his own shades, it is a unique work that has marked our conception of making music.