Saturday, 28 August 2010

27 Unknown Pleasures - Joy Division

Purchased : 28 December 1983

Tracks : Disorder / Day Of The Lords / Candidate / Insight / New Dawn Fades / She's Lost Control / Shadowplay / Wilderness / Interzone / I Remember Nothing

This was bought with Christmas money in Manchester.

This of course was Joy Division's debut LP originally released in 1979 although it only charted in the wake of Ian Curtis's death the following year. Fewer of these tracks featured in the John Peel Festive Fifty compared to Closer so it was a riskier purchase from my point of view.

By and large this is more of a rock record than Closer with a greater role for Bernard Sumner's guitar and a punky anger on many of the tracks that had burnt itself out by the time of the follow up. Nevertheless producer Martin Hannett still makes his presence felt, sculpting the band's sound and taking them into new sonic territory. It's not easy listening ; there are no synth melodies to balance out tuneless dirges like "Candidate" and "I Remember Nothing" ; the synths are there to provide unsettling texture not melodic warmth. This is the sound of pre-regenerated Manchester in 1979, a decaying Victorian industrial powerhouse haunted by the ghosts of the recent past. Its young intellectuals were seduced not by the fantasy of Tolkien but the likes of J G Ballard, the prophet of bleak futures just around the corner.

Perhaps Ballard is the "guide" Ian Curtis is singing of in the compelling opening line of "Disorder" which powers along on Peter Hook's rollicking bassline. It's a classic song of urban alienation with references to "cars crashing" and "the tenth floor" (possibly of Hulme's infamous crescent of high rise flats , scene of a Joy Division photo session and a stone's throw from the club that hosted the original Factory nights). Steve Morris provides a crisp drumbeat throughout while Bernard Sumner throws in a couple of ragged and rudimentary guitat solos. Throughout, there are strange washes of sound ebbing and flowing in the background almost like whalesong or perhaps strange echoes of industrial sounds formerly heard in the disused factories in the area.

"Day Of The Lords" is much slower with a grinding ominous bassline and fractured guitar backing Curtis in full-on Jim Morrison mode. The song seems to be about bleak youthful sexual encounters but the references to "the bodies obtained" and "the car at the edge of the road" inescapably bring to mind Manchester's other Nazi-fascinated Ian, still alive in Ashworth Hospital down the M62. The synths screech in to accompany Curtis on the disturbing refrain "Where will it end ? " . It's possibly their most frightening song despite the bathetic line "Withdrawal pain is hard, it can do you right in" one of the occasional lapses into Manc-speak that had been cut out by the time of

Then comes "Candidate" a song I've never learned to love. Gradually fading in from a quiet start the music is very sparse , a dragging beat with intermittent interjections from Hook and Sumner and jarring sounds evocative of vehicles passing nicked from Autobahn . Curtis tunelessly intones in a sedated mumble lyrics which seem to be a comment on his failing marriage -We're living by your rules, that's all that we've known".

"Insight" is comparitively sprightly once it emerges from a lenghty ambient intro full of pre metal-bashing industrial noises, Morris's crisp beat augmented by Love Don't Live Here Anymore syn-drums. Instead of a conventional chorus it has two passages of scattershot synth noises over a punishing one-note bassline recalling Pink Floyd's Astronomy Domine. The title is a bit of a tease since the lyric is elusive although the line "But I remember when we were young" alarmed his wife at the time.

She didn't like the next track, "New Dawn Fades" either, actually confronting him about the meaning of the lyric although not getting the answers she was seeking. This is a recognised classic; I recall John Peel introducing it for the Festive Fifty in 1981 (it was in the top 5) with the words "By a terrible irony most of the requests I received from Poland were for this song " (martial law having been imposed to counter Solidarity the previous month). It starts off sounding very similar to "Candidate " but then Hook imposes himself with a determined bassline and Sumner overlays a tortuous slow solo before Curtis comes in. The first verse is calm and measured climaxing ominously with the line "A loaded gun won't set you free - so you say" but the second gets angrier with each line culminating in Curtis holding on the word "Me -ee- ee" for a devastating two bars pregnant with accusation. No wonder Deborah didn't like it.

Side Two kicks off with another of their best-loved songs "She's Lost Control" a sort of tribute to an epileptic client of his at the employment office who died in her sleep. According to Deborah Curtis the incident disturbed Ian so much they'd wait up half the night for Ian to have a seizure whilst fully conscious. Starting with an isolated beat, Morris then uses the chattering drum sound from Pink Floyds "Pow Row Toc H" and a snare drum that sounds like a ping pong ball when he hits it to create a very odd percussive track over which Hook lays down one of his most melodic and mournful basslines. Sumner's work on the track is punky thrashing well suited to the subject matter. Curtis comes in with oceans of echo and unidentifiable background chunter caught between pathos and admiration as the girl "walked upon the edge of no escape and laughed". As the song winds up the snare is distorted further by Hannett to sound almost like a lost child's cry.

"Shadowplay" is a great driving song with its propulsive bassline and a lyric not too far removed from Iggy Pop's The Passenger. The intriguing second verse with its "assassins all grouped in four lines dancing on the floor" is possibly inspired by T S Eliot's Murder In The Cathedral . Whatever it's one of Curtis's best vocal performances switching from a weary mumble to a sonorous exclamation on the line "I let them use you FOR THEIR OWN ENDS !"

"Wilderness" is like a post-punk update of Itchykoo Park borrowing the "What did you see there " line but Curtis is envisioning the centuries of religious warfare and of course it's all too horrible. With its queasy, lurching bassline and Sumner's Andy Gill-esque guitar slashes this is a challenging listen but it's quite brief.

Stylistically "Interzone" is the joker in the pack. A survival from their early days as Warsaw, the music is a punk update of NS Porter's Northern Soul classic Keep on Keeping On and lead vocalist on the track is Peter Hook (doing a passable imitation of Pete Shelley) with Curtis singing alternate lines as a counterpoint until they concur on the line "I guess they died some time ago". The song title comes from William S Burrough's Naked Lunch (a not exactly-trumpeted connection to East Coast ironists Steely Dan here ) where the interzone was a sort of drug-fuelled dreamworld and the song's concern with looking for a friend in a dangerous landscape fits.

I never look forward to the end of this LP because the last track "I Remember Nothing " is irredeemably a dirge (at nearly six minutes long) with Curtis's vocal aggressively tuneless in a way that recalls Patti Smith at her most challenging. Neither the sludgy bass or Sumner's guitar give any melodic relief, there's just a sustained synth chord (a pale echo of Rick Wright on Shine On You Crazy Diamond) to sweeten the pill. There's also a Floyd influence in the occasional sound effect of glass breaking , the first instance of which is quite startling. The repetitive lyrics aren't up to scratch either; I'd be surprised if this was anybody's favourite JD song.

This is a review I've enjoyed doing. I've always thought of this LP as a bridesmaid to Closer and played it a lot less but I've found new things in this process and could well be returning to it more often.

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