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

Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express”

Album cover for Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express

This week, I’ve been listening to Kraftwerk’s LP release “Trans-Europe Express” from 1977. I grew up with the electronic sounds of this group. My father had three Kraftwerk’s among his record collection. Their third album “Ralf und Florian” bored me and I only really liked the title track of their fifth album “Autobahn.” However, I enjoyed their fourth album “Radio-Activity,” listening to it frequently throughout my childhood and teen years. In rural Ohio, nobody I knew had heard of Kraftwerk. I was surprised to learn how important and influencial that had been. Most of this album is too mechanical and repetitive for me, but I did come to appreciate a few songs: mostly “The Hall of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies.

The title presents the main theme of the album: a European railway service crossing the continent. Through that journey, Kraftwerk visit on other topics including reality vs illusion and celebrity. Much of the music suits the railway journey concept, having the mechanical rhythm of a train and long simple melodies and synth pads that imply long-distance travel and continuously scrolling landscapes. Unfortunately the title of the opening track “Europe Endless” feels all too appropriate, because I often felt that the songs were way too long.

Trans-Europe Express

The title track, “Trans-Europe Express,” travels for a full six and a half minutes and then continues seamlessly into the next track “Metal on Metal.” Thus started the second side of the original vinyl release. A synth percussion resembling something between a snare and a closed hi-hat open the song. A sine-effected short delay effect modulates this sound, which sounds like a phaser. This phase-effect suggests motion. Adding a kick sound and a bass-synth, we have the repetitive accompaniment that runs throughout the song. Orchestron strings play ascending chords. The recurrance suggests passing landmarks. It’s a triumphant motif that gets repeated ad nauseum.

Using a vocoder, Kraftwerk have the synthesizers chant: “Trans-Europe Express.” Again, this with ascending chords. We keep rising and rising and going nowhere. The strings play a melody, with very sparse accompaniment. Afrika Bambaataa sampled this melody and other elements of this album for their 1982 hip-hop classic “Planet Rock.” As with most of Kraftwerk’s melody lines, it’s simple and charming and becomes a motif of the song. Most of their works consist of a small set of two or four bar patterns that get layered in alternating combinations.

The Hall of Mirrors

I most enjoyed the track “The Hall of Mirrors” from side one. Without the on-going robotic rhythms heard throughout most of the album, this song feels warm and hauntingly human. I especially like the quietly echoed pulse-synth bass line combined with the reverb-rich percussion sound. The bass has a beautiful rich rounded sound. Each note of the bassline is played twice, and then echoed so that when the bass rests, it drifts off into the reflections. I believe that percussive sound is an organic sound, something like somebody slapping a show on the hallway floor with the mic far away to capture all of the reverb.

As we hear through much of the album, there is little to no chord progression. There is a hint of I-I-I-I-I-I-I-IV. Most of Kraftwerk’s accompaniment consists of a repeated pattern that stays within the same chord, or repeats a small set of chords in a way that defies the idea of a progression. They create the rhythmic version of a drone overwhich they alternate syth melodies and pads, with oft deadpan chanted vocals with occasional melodies. The lyrics here and chanted, like a sinister warning from beyond, of celebrity and illusion. About self-discover and human transformation.

Even the greatest stars
Live their lives in the looking glass
Even the greatest stars
Live their lives in the looking glass