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.
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