June 1979: Joy Division Release UNKNOWN PLEASURES

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Stark, foreboding, beautiful, ominous, prophetic... Countless adjectives have been hurled at Joy Division's brilliant Unknown Pleasures. Released June 15, 1979, the singular statement was an instantly iconic moment that still stands among the greatest debut albums of all-time. The LP dutifully captured the desperate angst of singer Ian Curtis, buoyed by the aggressive but precise sonic rush from the band: Peter Hook (bass), Bernard Sumner (guitar), and Stephen Morris (drums), all under the eccentric but innovative guidance of producer Martin Hannett.

"Hannett didn’t think straight, he thought sideways," Hook once said. "He confused you and made you do something you didn’t expect. He was like Pan; he loved making mischief and messing things up, just to see what happened...We gave him great songs, and like a top chef, he added some salt and pepper and some herbs and served up the dish. But he needed our ingredients."

Creating Unknown Pleasures was an economical affair, crafted over the course of three weekends for a whopping six days in the studio: “[We’d] record until seven in the morning, then return later in the evening on the Saturday and work until seven in the morning," Hook recalled. "We recorded for the first two weekends and Martin mixed the third weekend... When you think of how well it’s lasted and the impact it’s made, it’s fucking unbelievable. It’s a very odd thing that the longer you’re a musician, the longer you take to make a record. Waiting For The Sirens Call [New Order album] took three years from start to finish.”

Recording the album provided something of a revelation for the bassist: Ian Curtis' lyrics, which he was able to decipher for the first time.

"You could never hear them live and we just couldn’t listen to the demo version we did for RCA because it was so horrible. So when I heard what Ian was singing, I was just really proud," Hook told NME. "It was a wonderful feeling of power and contentment to know that you had that in the band’s arsenal. I think people were very touched by Ian — his lyrics, his personality, and unfortunately his untimely demise. It struck a chord with a lot of lonely, depressed people who felt they didn’t quite fit in life. That connection started with Unknown Pleasures."

The enigmatic status of Unknown Pleasures isn't confined to the music; the album's legendary cover art (featuring a plot of the waves emitted by the first radio pulsar ever discovered, back in 1967, which ended up in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy) designed by Peter Saville has become an iconic symbol that's appeared on everything including sneakers, skateboards and even bathrobes.

“The funny thing about the sleeve is that Peter Saville got the credit for it but it was Bernard that found the image on the cover in a book," Hook said. "The inside of the sleeve was done by (manager) Rob (Gretton) because he wanted to use a picture of the door because I think he felt it was symbolic because opening a door is like a beginning. The only contribution Saville had was the typeface and the texture of the cover. And he’s been dining off it for 30 years!”

The Unknown Pleasures cover art quickly became ubiquitous on t-shirts around the globe, none of which were issued by the band or its label, Factory Records: “We never actually did an official Unknown Pleasures T-shirt until 1994 but they got bootlegged all over the world. When we got investigated by the taxman because of the Haçienda being all fucked up, he said that he couldn’t find any receipts for Unknown Pleasures T-shirts. We told him we were a punk band and we didn’t believe in that kind of self-promotion. He said that he thought we were either lying or just completely stupid and he ended up fining us anyway. So we had to pay a load of money for not declaring profits on a T-shirt that we didn’t do!”

While critically lauded, Unknown Pleasures initially had a woeful chart run, not even charting in the band's native UK. Reissued after the tragic death of Ian Curtis, the record reached #71 on the UK Album chart. On the UK Indie Chart, however, the LP flew straight to #2, peaking at #1 after Curtis' passing. The overarching legacy of Unknown Pleasures far exceeds any chart performance, with the album considered among the greatest ever made; on the Rolling Stone "500 Greatest Albums of All-Time" list, it currently sits at #211.

"I think I deliberately ignored it because of what happened to Ian," Hook recalled about his evolving relationship with Unknown Pleasures. "For a while, it was almost unmentionable, which is a very New Order and Factory thing to do. But I had to listen to it for the re-mastering a couple of years ago and I was fucking gobsmacked at how good it still sounds and how radical Martin’s production was. It’s not hard to understand why Martin did what he did with the album now, but at the time it was very hard. Bernard and I would have just made a standard punk record and tried to take people’s heads off with the guitars. Martin made it a masterpiece and ensured it lasted 30 years.”