Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’ — The Beginning of the End

Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’ — The Beginning of the End

When I was in college we played a game called “Joy Diversion” in which participants would down a shot of Nyquil, follow it with two of hard liquor and then attempt to listen to the entirety of Joy Division’s catalog before falling asleep.

I can’t actually remember the stakes of the contest — likely due to a combination of the intervening years and the Nyquil itself — but I know that I always made it through Unknown Pleasures, the band’s debut album, thanks to its combination of frank lyrical content and bloodless, angular rhythms. (Think Vampire Weekend if its members were actual vampires.)

The opening lines of the album, which turns 40 this week, are sung by a troubled 22-year-old English boy — his courage in exposing his vulnerability is still confounding. With all of the madness swirling around his brain, and his body betraying him, Curtis still kicks off “Disorder,” the first song from the band’s debut album with, “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?”

Unknown Pleasures laid a blueprint copied by so many bands in the ‘80s: stentorian vocals pin-balling over pinging guitars, muffled, hyperactive bass lines, and extra-dry snare rolls and tom flourishes. It’s cold music, recorded in a cold, wet climate, made by Mancunian outliers for proto-goths, nihilist poets and those listeners to whom depression is an aphrodisiac. It also managed to sum up an entire generation’s feelings of alienation in real time.

Joy Division didn’t revel or wallow in misery. Ian Curtis sang what he saw, posed questions about what he was unable to, and left it up to his bandmates Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris, who would go on to found New Order, to provide an uncluttered and unsparing aural landscape.

Historically, the album has always suffered by comparisons to its follow-up, the masterful Closer (which sounds as if it were recorded inside of a tin-lined coffin). But they are two different animals: the first was a moonshot, unsure if it would find an audience, the second was burdened by expectation — but still stuck its landing, creatively.

Tragically, lead singer Ian Curtis made sure he wouldn’t be around for any fanfare. Beset with personal problems and serious health issues that made gigging painful and dangerous, he committed suicide by hanging at 23, the night before the band’s first tour of America.

Two months later, Closer was released and changed the trajectory of a sound and a sentiment. Self-doubt never sounded so vital — which is a painful irony.

In terms of debut albums that plant a flag of intent for what should have been a long career, Unknown Pleasures is right up there with R.E.M.’s Murmur and Nas’ Illmatic. For Joy Division, unfortunately, its beginning was also the beginning of its end.

Photo of JOY DIVISION; Bernard Sumner, Ian Curtis, Peter Hook performing live onstage at Bowdon Vale Youth Club (Photo by Martin O’Neill/Redferns)

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