Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures”

album cover for "Unknown Pleasures"

This week, I’ve been listening to Joy Division’s debut album “Unknown Pleasures” from 1979. My introduction to this album came in 1996 in the rivertown of Marietta, OH. I fled a broken heart in Athens, OH looking for a new group of friends. The first night, I discovered a local coffeeshop called Penny University. The next night, I found my new group of friends. We were old enough to stay out all night drinking coffee, but not old enough yet to go to the bar.

Where the kids of Athens were primarily into punk music like The Sex Pistols, the Dead Kennedys and The Clash, my new friends in Athens were more into post-punk and goth like Sisters of Mercy, The Cure, and Joy Division. Certainly, they all like a variety of music, but there was a noticable difference in preferences between the two towns. Even though I had been into goth for a few years already, I had somehow never heard Joy Division. That quickly changed.

“Unknown Pleasures” managed to not be the most listened to, so I was not that familiar with this album ahead of this week. Joy Division only released two albums, and my friends seem to have liked the second “Closer” more than the debut. But even more so, they liked the singles collection “Substance.”

Joy Division obsessed over Kraftwerk’s 1976 album “Trans-Europe Express“. Kraftwerk made that album drawing on inspiration from Iggy Pop of The Stooges. In “Unknown Pleasures,” I hear the raw human attitude and emotion of The Stooges combined with the mechanical robotic patterns of Kraftwerk. However, unlike Kraftwerk, Joy Division’s playing is not precise, but rather loose and just a little sloppy.

Disorder

Joy Division open “Unknown Pleasures” with Stephen Morris’s snare and kick drum pattern of “Disorder.” Peter Hook’s rough punk-sounding bass joins in with a pattern similar to Kraftwerk’s bass-lines, starting on the higher octave, but dropping down to gritty lower notes. Swooshing and wooshing electronic sound effects join in the background. Repetitive distorted lead-guitar lines join in, nearly sitting behind its own stereo echo. This is not chord strumming; Bernard Sumner plays the guitar as melodic monophonic accompaniment.

Lyrically, the song consists of three verses. The band provides a wordless chorus that in most songs would’ve been a single-use bridge. They end the song with a coda that other bands might’ve considered using as a chorus: “Until the spirit new sensation takes hold then you know.” Ian has written verses built of four long lines each following an AABB rhyme scheme. It doesn’t seem they were written for music, but rather as beat poetry. Lost in depression, he questions his ability to feel like a normal person. With the first song, Curtis introduces us to the recurring themes of the album: depression, feeling lost, detachment, and isolation.

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?
Lose sensation, spare the insults, leave them for another day
I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling, take the shock away

New Dawn Fades

“New Dawn Fades” closes out side 1 of the original LP release. The track starts with distant echoed sound effects, then a slow simple drum pattern with methodic heavy bass. Distorted reverby guitar plays moody, almost sinister, lines. The guitar is melodic and atmospheric. The sound and feel reminds me of the Stooges’ “Dirt” from 1970; though Joy Division’s track is even further removed from the blues. The song moves at a very slow pace, the drums beating incessantly onward. After four minutes the song sort of winds down losing energy returning to just the drums fading out.

Throughout the album, there’s a sense of separation between the narrator and everybody else. He’s covered or lost in a difficult mixture of heavy emotion and a confusing inability to feel. Stranded in depression, he observes life as an outsider stepping through a movie setduring a nightly rain.

We’ll share a drink and step outside
An angry voice and one who cried
We’ll give you everything and more
The strain’s too much, can’t take much more
Oh, I’ve walked on water, run through fire
Can’t seem to feel it anymore

The Stooges’ “Fun House”

This week, I’ve been listening to 1970 album “Funhouse” by The Stooges. I’ve been aware of Iggy Pop as more of an idea, a character in the history of rock and punk rock, without a real exposure to his work. Honestly, I know him more for his 1977 response to why he vomited on stage than his musical work. Well, it’s a shame it took me so long. I found this album to be truly exciting. I immediately recognized the influence that the Stooges must’ve had on one of my favorite artists, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The birth of punk rock was about 4 years away and yet here was the roots. Without even considering its influence, this is a solidly great album. Aurally, it’s all the dangerous excitement of rock n roll amplified, after all Rock Around the Clock was already starting to sound quaint.

T.V. Eye

Iggy Pop howls, opening “T.V. Eye’ with a scream, “Lord! Stop it!” Then Ron Asheton kicks into a paranoid riving riff on a coarse fuzz-guitar. This pure rock riff repeats throughout most of the song; It’s simplified for the chorus, and goes away during the solo since there’s only one guitarist. For a post-solo bridge and outro, Asheton plays the same note in a palm-muted eighth-note pattern. There’s no discussion of chord progression to be had here. The guitarist’s younger brother Scott Asheton bangs on the drums: a snare on every quarter note and kick providing a pulsing hop between.

I’m not exactly sure what Iggy’s on about, but it apparently has something to do with a cat watching him. The lyrics are few and repeated often. These words shoot past any resemblance of poetry straight to the feeling with a rock n roll attitude.

See that cat
Down on her back?
See that cat
Down on her back?
She got a TV eye on me
She got a TV eye
She got a TV eye on me

Dirt

The next song, “Dirt” provides seven minutes of burning punk blues in a dark atmosphere. Dave Alexander’s bass groove rolls the song along through the night. Sparse drums punctuate the brooding rhythm that hovers around 72 bpm. The bass carries the song along, while the fuzz guitar mostly provides effects. Driving muted single-note rhythms, mournful arpeggios and dramatic octave-long slides. This song provides little in the way of a chord progression. The chorus descends through a i-VII-VI-VI progression, otherwise the song rolls along on the tonic. Iggy howls, spits, growls and moans, having been hurt at the hands of a lover. The words and their delivery carry a strong emotional impact; the hurt is a mixture of sadness, denial, and anger.

Yeah, alright
Oh, I’ve been hurt
But I don’t care
Oh, I’ve been hurt
But I don’t care
‘Cause I’m burning inside
I’m just a-dreaming this life
And do you feel it?
Said, do you feel it when you touch me?
Said, do you feel it when you cut me?
There’s a fire
Well, it’s a fire
Just burning
Inside

1970

This energetic shuffling punk blues-rock kicks off the second side of the LP. The Stooges snarl through this take on “The Train Kept Rollin’” style of rockabilly blues; Knowing Joe Perry of Aerosmith liked the Stooges, I suspect that influence may’ve come back around in Aerosmith’s cover of “The Train Kept a Rollin’” a few years later.

The chord progression snaps and back rapidly between I-iii. The bass and drums pop along a jumping blues groove through the verses, and the roll into a drive for the chorus. Often the drum fills remind me of the loop used in The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows“. It’s that rolling fill at the end that does it, and lends this Stooges track much of its energy. Obviously, Pop’s snarls and yells do that as well. They’ve written lyrics that follow more of a poetic form here, whereas most of the songs are more direct rock n roll sputs and startles. Both styles work well for them.

Out of my mind on Saturday night
Nineteen-seventy rolling in sight
Radio burning up above
Beautiful baby, feed my love all night
Till I blow away
All night
Till I blow away
I feel alright. I feel alright