Not Forgotten: Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures

Unknown Pleasures album cover

The problem with Joy Division is that it is like a Colombo re-run: however brilliant it is, you know precisely how it ends. Last week, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ celebrated its 40th birthday, so I sat down to listen to it, as though for the first time.

The truth is, its magnificent. The guitars soar over tight drums often played fast, the bass line dancing a complex rhythm to keep it all together. Sometimes, often, the tone is somber, even despairing. On occasion, they lob in the sound of glass breaking, doors closing, synthesised booping. These noises are what tell you this isn’t a recent album. But the rest of it could have been issued any time in the last 40 years. Every song is played tightly, with Ian Curtis’s baritone punching through the frantic, driven walls of sound. It is a fantastic album.

Curtis still demands the listener’s attention. There’s no filter here, no safety net. His lyrics are honest, and you can tell he was reliving every emotion they describe. And yet, somehow Curtis sounds hopeful, even when he’s wailing that he can’t feel anything. And that is why this album has endured. Unknown Pleasures captures the complexity of pain: it may hold us captive in a prison of our own choosing, but we can choose to escape.

Unknown Pleasures was recorded quickly: sometimes two tracks in an afternoon. But somehow, it also laid out a framework for other acts to follow. You can hear the echoes of Unknown Pleasures in any band where young men gathered to play guitars rather than talk: The Cult, Oasis, Artic Monkeys, the Smiths, Nirvana, U2, the Pixies… they all sound a bit like Joy Division to me. Check out the first track, Disorder, here, and you’ll see what I mean:

There is a lot about Ian Curtis’s life that I find heartbreaking: the pain, the epilepsy which was so badly managed, those who didn’t understand him and pushed him to do so much more than he could. But I am glad that he lived, and that he had time to tell us what it was like. ‘Unknown Pleasures’ is not an easy listen, but it is an important one.

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