Unknown Pleasures review Melody Maker 21/7/79
Album review by Jon Savage

JOY DIVISION: "Unknown Pleasures"
(Factory FACT 10)

  "To talk of life today is like talking of rope in the house of 
a hanged man." Where will it end?
  The point is so obvious. It's been made time and time again. 
So often that it's a truism, if not a cliche. Cry wolf, yet 
again. At the time of writing, our very own mode of (Western,
advanced, techno-) capitalism is slipping down the slope to it's 
terminal phase: critical mass. Things fall apart. The cracks get
wider: more paper is used, with increasing ingenuity, to cover
them. Madness implodes, as people are slowly crushed, or, 
perhaps worse, help in crushing others. The abyss beckons: 
nevertheless, a febrile momentum keeps the train on the tracks.
The question that lies behind the analysis (should, of course, 
you agree) is what action can anyone take?
  One particular and vigorous product of capitalism's excess has
been pop music, not so much because of the form's intrinsic 
merit (if any) but because, for many, bar football, it's the 
only arena going in this country, at least. So vigorous 
because so much has to be channeled into so small a space:
rebellion, creation, dance, sex energy, and this space, small as
it is, is a market ruled by commerce, and excess of money. It's 
as much as anyone can do, it seems, to accept the process and
carefully construct their theatre for performance and sale in 
halls in the flesh, in rooms and on radios (if you're very 
lucky) in the plastic. The limits imposed (especially as far as 
effective action goes) by this iron cycle of creation to 
consumption are as hard to break as they are suffocating.
  "Trying to find a clue/trying to find a way/trying to get 
out!" "Unknown Pleasures" is a brave bulletin, a danceable
dream; brilliantly, a record of place. Of one particular city,
Manchester: your reviewer might very well be biased (after all,
he lives there) but it is contended that "Unknown Pleasures," in
defining reaction and adjustment to place so accurately, makes 
the specific general, the particular a paradigm.
  "To the centre of the city in the night waiting for you..."
Joy Division's spatial, circular themes and Martin Hannett's 
shiny, waking-dream production gloss are one perfect reflection 
of Manchester's dark spaces and empty places: endless sodium 
lights and hidden semis seen from a speeding car, vacant 
industrial sites - the endless detritus of the 19th century - 
seen gaping like rotten teeth from an orange bus. Hulme seen 
from the fifth floor on a threatening, rainy day... This is 
not, specifically, to glamourise; it could be anywhere. 
Manchester, as a (if not the city of the Industrial
Revolution, happens only to be a more obvious example of decay 
and malaise.
  That Joy Division's vision is so accurate is a matter of
accident as much as of design: "Unknown Pleasures," which 
together with recent gigs captures the group at some kind of
peak, is a more precise, mature version of the confused anger 
and dark premonitions to be found (in their incarnation as 
Warsaw) on the skimpy "Electric Circus" blue thing, the inchoate
"Ideal For Living" EP, and their unreleased LP from last year.
As rarely happens, the timing is just right.
  The song titles read as an opaque manifesto; "Disorder," "Day
Of The Lords," "Candidate," "Insight," "New Dawn Fades" - to 
recite the first, aptly named, "Outside". Loosely, they restate
outsider themes (from Celine on in): the preoccupations and 
reactions of individuals caught in a trap they dimly perceive -
anger, paranoia, alienation, feelings of thwarted power, and so 
on. Hardly pretty, but compulsive.
  Again, these themes have been stated so often as to be 
cliches: what gives Joy Division their edge is the consistency 
of their vision - translated into crude musical terms, the taut
danceability of their faster songs, and the dreamlike spell of
their slower explorations. Both rely on the tense, careful 
counterpoint of bass (Peter Hook), drums (Stephen Morris) and
guitar (Bernard Dickin): Ian Curtis' expressive, confused vocals
croon deeply over recurring musical patterns which themselves 
mock any idea of escape.
  LIve, he appears possessed by demons, dancing spastically and 
with lightning speed, unwinding and winding as the rigid metal 
music folds and unfolds over him. Recording, as ever, demands a
different context: Hannett imposes a colder, more controlled 
hysteria together with an ebb and flow - songs merge in and out 
with one another in a brittle, metallic atmosphere.
  The album begins unequivocally with "Disorder":  "I've been 
waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand"; the track 
races briskly, with ominous organ swirls - at the end, Curtis 
intones "Feeling feeling feeling" in the exact tone of someone
who's not sure he has any left.
  Two slower songs follow, both based on massively accented 
drumming and rumbling bass - in their slow, relentless sucking 
tension, they pursue confusion to a dreamlike state: "Day Of The
Lords" is built around a wrenching chorus of "Where will it 
end?" while the even sparser "Candidate" fleshes out the bare 
rhythm section with chance guitar ambience. In a story of failed
connection and obscure madness, Curtis intones: "I tried to get
to you" - ending with the pertinent "It's just second nature/
It's what we've been shown/We're living by your rules/That's all
that we've known."
  The album's two aces are "Insight" and "She's Lost Control"; 
here, finally, Gary Glitter meets the Velvet Underground. Both
rely on rock-hard echoed drumming and bass recorded well up to 
take the melody - the guitar provides textural icing and thrust
over the top.
  The former leads out of "Candidate" with a suitable 
hesitation: whirring Leslie ambience leads to a door slamming, 
then a slow bass/drum fade into the song. The attractive, 
bouncing melody belies the lyrics: "But I don't care anymore/
I've lost the will to want more" - at the end Curtis croons, his
voice treated, ghostly: "I'm not afraid anymore" to drown in a 
flurry of electronic noise from the synthesised snare.
  "She's Lost Control", remixed to emphasise guitar and 
percussion, is a possible hit single: it's certainly the obvious 
track for radio play. Deep and dark vocals ride over an 
irresistible, circular backing that threatens to break loose but
never does: the tension ends in a crescendo of synthesised 
  On the "Inside," three faster tracks follow - mutated heavy
pop, all built around punishing rhythms and riffs it'd be 
tempting to call metal, except control is everywhere. 
"Shadowplay" is a metallic travelogue - the city at night - with 
Curtis fleeing internal demons; the following couple, 
"Interzone" and "Wilderness," wind the mesh even tighter.
  "Wilderness" externalises things into Lovecraftian fantasy,
all echoed drumming and sickening guitar slides, while 
"Interzone" moves through a clipped, perfect introduction to 
guitar shrills and "Murder Mystery" mumbles: "Down the dark 
street the houses look the same trying to find a way trying to
find a clue trying to get out! Light shine like a neon tune no 
time to lose no place to stop no place to go..."
  Both sides, finally, end with tracks - "New Dawn Fades" and
"Remember Nothing" - so slow and atmospheric that alienation 
becomes a waking dream upon which nothing impinges: "Me in my 
own world..."
  Leaving the 20th Century is difficult; most people prefer to 
go back and nostalgise, Oh Boy. Joy Division at least set a 
course in the present with contrails for the future - perhaps
you can't ask for much more. Indeed, "Unknown Pleasures" may 
very well be one of the best , white, english, debut LPs of the
  Problems remain; in recording place so accurately, Joy
Division are vulnerable to any success the album may bring - 
once the delicate relationship with the environment is altered
or tampered with, they may never produce anything as good again.
And, ultimately, in their desperation and confusion about decay, 
there's somewhere a premise that what has decayed is more 
valuable than what is to follow. The strengths of the album, 
however, belie this.
  Perhaps it's time we all started facing the future. How soon
will it end? - JON SAVAGE                         

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