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Friday, January 5, 2018

Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures

JOY DIVISION: UNKNOWN PLEASURES (1979)

1) Disorder; 2) Day Of The Lords; 3) Candidate; 4) Insight; 5) New Dawn Fades; 6) She's Lost Control; 7) Shadowplay; 8) Wilderness; 9) Interzone; 10) I Remember Nothing.

General verdict: The absolute best that New Wave has to offer in the neural shock department.

For all the negative energy released during the punk / New Wave «silver age» of rock music, it probably took the movement a good two or three years before it started generating genuinely bleek, depressed, when-will-it-end sort of music. The punk crowds protested in hopes of a better life, the early post-punks went beyond that by deconstructing the very idea of protest itself, and for all the seriousness of Talking Heads' scenic image, the complexity, symbolism, and humor of their music never left much space for genuine terror or depression. Looking back at the big critical and commercial successes of 1977-78, I can find surprisingly few, if any, examples of records that suppressed, rather than nurtured, hope and optimism (maybe some of Patti Smith's material could be quoted, and the first albums of Siouxsie & The Banshees, but on the whole, Patti Smith is really just as idealistic as most of us, and Siouxsie were too much of a theatrical act in the first place). Not that, God forbid, there's anything particularly wrong with that, but great changing times do call for great tragic artistic outlooks, and just as the Flower Power age in 1967 sorely needed its Doors for balance, so did the revamped musical world of 1979.

That the band ultimately named itself «Joy Division», referring to the Jewish girls in House of Dolls, was not itself very indicative, considering the frequent fascination of punk bands, beginning with the Sex Pistols, with various Nazi imagery, for shocking allegorical purposes. However, once you actually give it some thought, this particular allegory becomes fairly frightening, and, if you ask me, the name choice and Ian Curtis' suicide are both rooted in pretty much the same psychological processes. As long as the band was still named «Warszaw», they mostly played routine, derivative punk stuff; the name change was accompanied with a major stylistic shift, as they toned down the raw energy in favor of extra heaviness and bleakness — the kind of music that still took its foundation from contemporary punk bands, but its spirit from Jim Morrison. In doing so, Joy Division opened more than just the doors — the floodgates for legions of bands in their wake: post-punk, Goth, grunge, alt-rock, emo, you name it, they all owe some sort of debt to Ian Curtis and his bandmates. Some of that influence may have become more strongly appreciated in retrospect, but the fact remains that, at the time of their existence, Joy Division simply had no competition in whatever it was they were doing, and in the end, as you investigate the roots of modern pop bleakness, it all comes down to Unknown Pleasures, whether you want it or not.

Recorded over the first two weeks of April 1979, in Stockport's Strawberry Studios — originally set up by founding members of 10cc and so named in honor of ʻStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ, although this bit of trivia is unlikely to provide any insight into the genesis of Joy Division's music (there's not much in common that it shares with 10cc, anyway) — Unknown Pleasures involved only the band members themselves, plus just one additional musician — the band's producer Martin Hannett, who contributed some synthesizer parts and was largely responsible for the overall claustrophobic sound of the record (allegedly, not too admired by the band members themselves, who were displeased that the studio record came out quite removed from the raw-aggressive sound of their live performances, but time has shown pretty strongly who was wrong and who was right about that). The music itself largely followed the classic Doors scheme: Ian Curtis as the lyricist / vocalist / «shaman», and the three bandmates actually writing and recording the music around his shamanism, with but a few minor exceptions.

Chart impact of the album was minimal (#71 on the UK charts, and not released overseas at all), not so much because the people were scared of the sound as due to complete lack of promotion: the band did not even put out any singles to accompany the record. (Closer would be far more fortunate, but its popularity was unquestionably much boosted by Ian's fate: cynically speaking, nothing like a good suicide to get your songs to sell). Contemporary reviews were largely positive, but still, to a large degree the legend of Unknown Pleasures and Joy Division in general was cultivated a posteriori, and the record's final deification must have taken place somewhere around the early 1990s, when depressed grungers and alt-rockers kicked out 1980s' hedonism and became the new flagbearers of guitar-based popular music. That does not mean that the impact of the music on contemporary musicians wasn't huge — if not for Joy Division, we probably wouldn't have The Cure the way we know them, or Bauhaus (or, for that matter, a large chunk of the Russian rock music scene, with Kino, the Russian national icon of rock music, often described as «Russia's Joy Division», with a modicum of truth to that). But yes, in terms of overnight popularity Joy Division could never match The Doors, although that may not so much be an indication of relative quality as it was of the relative difference between musical attitudes in 1967 and 1979.

Like all great artists, Joy Division made their music stand out so much because of skillful and inspired synthesis and «fertilization»: most of Unknown Pleasures sounds like the joint work of loyal and arduous disciples of Jim Morrison, Tony Iommi, and Tom Verlaine. Indeed, the similarity between the voices of Curtis and Morrison is so uncanny that I can easily imagine people in 1979 catching echoes of Joy Division songs on some underground radio station and going «JIM??!! I knew there was something fishy about that heart attack story!» — in fact, I do believe that one of the reasons why the man switched to different vocal registers so often on Closer may have been related to the desire to establish his own, fully independent vocal style. But even so, that is no flaw — the musical structures and arrangements are so different from The Doors that only professional haters could ever accuse the music of being a rip-off. It is not a rip-off; it is contemporary punk music, inseminated once again with elements of «old school» pop and hard rock, yet at the same time also looking to the future.

It is hardly a coincidence that the album opens with a few bars of Stephen Morris' drums, because the electronic drum sound happens to be one of the album's calling cards. Punk bands at the time preferred it raw, and «electronic drumming» was still a novelty, usually reserved for the likes of highly experimental artists; on Unknown Pleasures, you get this slightly «plasticized» drum sound all over the place, and the rest of the instruments sort of follow the drum lead — guitars and bass are all heavily processed, courtesy of Hannett and his extensive use of modulators, echo effects and various experimental production techniques. Pretty soon, that kind of sound, with new technologies revered and abused, would become a suffocating norm, but in 1979, it was still relatively novel, and it gives the record a unique dual personality — it's like «Kraftwerk meets The Clash», where at the musical core you have an energetic rock'n'roll band, but then they are placed in this «force field», as if you were watching them play their energetic rock'n'roll in a small containment area permeated with ion radiation or something. It's like... well, like something you'd probably do if you were playing «classic rock» and yet you hated the idea of having your music go to classic rock radio stations. I am not even sure myself that I actively «love» this decision, but to deny its artistic purpose and potential effectiveness would be highly unjust.

In a way, Unknown Pleasures still preserves elements of «transition» from the band's (and New Wave's in general) earliest days to the classic age. The first song, ʻDisorderʼ, is still something that you could — in a different arrangement, of course — theoretically imagine on a record by, if not The Clash, then at least The Adverts or some other intellectually-searching punk band of the times. But already the second track, ʻDay Of The Lordsʼ — the first of the album's several mini-masterpieces — kills off all excitement and sets you up for an atmosphere of ponderous gloom. My favorite part are the first thirty seconds — the introduction, where, to the sound of a jangly-droning guitar and a threateningly ascending bass part, you make your final climb, only to see below, with the thrash of one doom-laden power chord at 0:21 into the song, the terrifying wasteland panorama of that particular circle of Hell to which you have been assigned. The lyrics are, indeed, speaking of eternal torment — here on Earth, which makes the whole thing even scarier: Sumner's creepy, Sabbath-influenced riffage and Ian's stone-faced "where will it end? where will it end?", delivered with a frightening mix of Biblical solemnity and personal pain, have nothing «theatrical» about them, and I can hardly make myself apply the «Goth» moniker to it because most «Goth» music/art implies a certain amount of theatrical symbolism, whereas here, the music and the voice are all alive with the spirits of real demons inhabiting the band's frontman, and occasionally infecting his crewmates as well.

Actually, nowhere is this infection as vividly evident as (let us skip a few titles for the moment) on what has always been my favorite track on the album — ʻShadowplayʼ, a song that most perfectly combines the frontman's «determination-flowing-into-desperation» attitude with a well-oiled rock band's speed and tightness. There's the never-faltering bassline that keeps you pinned to the seat all the way through; there's the odd percussion effect when, after each culminating fill, the drums somehow «explode» as if the drumsticks were loaded, Keith Moon-style, with real gunpowder; there's the lyrics that you can interpret in a thousand specific ways, but all of them have to do with irretrievable loss of all hope and ideals. But most importantly, there is that guitar solo, first echoing the vocal lines, then temporarily exploding into maniacal white noise, and finally, towards the very end, skyrocketing into the atmosphere like a last desperate cry for help or, perhaps, like a musical banshee into which the protagonist's spirit ended up transforming. Odd enough, the closest musical analogy here that I can think of is neither punk music nor The Doors, but the fast-paced final section of Fleetwood Mac's ʻThe Chainʼ — which may very well have been an influence, especially if you think how much that hysterically ascending final guitar part is reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham's playing style; and, for that matter, no guitar player ever succeeded better than Lindsey at inducing an atmosphere of hysterical depression (remember ʻI'm So Afraidʼ?), so I'd be very much surprised to learn that the similarity was just a coincidence. Also, to truly appreciate the power of ʻShadowplayʼ it helps to listen to The Killers' cover of the song, thirty years later — technically competent, yes, but with about 0.5% of the emotion expressed here in Ian's vocals and in Bernard's guitar playing.

While the rest of the album has always paled a bit to me next to these two highlights, it is only because all the other songs have to scale almost unscalable heights of emotionality; but each of them tells its own story, all of them connected with a single thread but showing their own peculiarities. Sabbath influence echoes once again on ʻNew Dawn Fadesʼ, whose opening riff is reminiscent of Iommi's work on ʻN.I.B.ʼ — remember that superficially corny tale of the Devil and his bride, through which Tony and Ozzy actually delivered shades of eternal loneliness, worthy of Lermontov's poem? Here, there is no Devil in actual sight, but there is just as strong an aura of eternal damnation, generated by means of a relentless bass pulse, a nerve-rattling guitar drone, those «intentionally lifeless» drums, and Curtis' solemn singing, gradually increasing in volume and hysteria but never losing its romantic nobility — highly moving. Then there's a bunch of tales from the madhouse — ʻCandidateʼ and ʻShe's Lost Controlʼ, the latter sung from the outside point of view of a terrified observer and the former from the inside point of view of the committed patient; note that in none of these cases does Curtis ever stoop to blood-curdling screaming or barking — the point of Joy Division is to stay as cold as possible most of the time, to embody a state of absolute calm as the best equivalent for total spiritual chaos. Something much harder to do effectively, by the way, than the grinding madhouse of The Birthday Party; and, who knows, there might be something far more terrifying in the quiet resignation of Ian Curtis than in the wild exhortations of Nick Cave (at least, early Nick Cave).

But we should not forget, either, that Unknown Pleasures is not just, or even not so much a multi-movement philosophical statement as it is a collection of short, catchy pop songs — okay, so it is both at the same time, and without being both at the same time, it could have never achieved its current status. I mean, ʻInterzoneʼ, one of the loudest and punkiest songs here, is just so darn catchy, isn't it? Great garage-rock riff, high intensity, and that strange mantra of "I was looking for a friend of mine", delivered hurriedly and out of breath as if the singer owed us a quick explanation (please do not bother, Mr. Curtis; it might be in our best interests to remain uninformed about this particular friend of yours). The droning guitar/bass riffs of ʻInsightʼ and ʻShe's Lost Controlʼ, the odd broken patters of ʻWildernessʼ, the simple, but curiously optimistic power pop melody of ʻDisorderʼ (like I said, pretty much the only song here that is hiding under the belly of the Depression Train rather than riding first class), it's all cool from a simply musical standpoint, even if without Curtis' presence some of these tracks might have gelled together. And then there is the production — all those endless sound effects, incessant bits of clanging, scraping, factory puffing, and above all — breaking, breaking, breaking, culminating in the shattered glass soundbits of ʻI Remember Nothingʼ. It would be way too much of a stretch to call Unknown Pleasures an industrial album, but it was certainly influenced by early industrial experimentation, and put all those exciting, but much abused ideas by Throbbing Gristle and early Cabaret Voltaire to effective work in a pop setting way before Depeche Mode succeeded in monetizing them.

It would be a stretch to insist that all the melodies here are 100% original and emotionally resonant. Occasionally, it is the production that makes them come across as such: quite a few of the song structures do not stray far away from generic punk riffage, and for every fine touch like the Ramones-worthy riff of ʻInterzoneʼ there is a ʻWildernessʼ where the stop-and-start bits are attention-attracting, but the verse melody is really just a power chord mess (which still does not spoil the song too bad, because there is a compensatory mesmerizing bassline out there, and Curtis — well, Curtis is almost always compensatorily mesmerizing). ʻI Remember Nothingʼ almost has no melody at all — just a metronomic rhythm pattern, strewn across with seemingly randomized funky lead phrasing, fully dependent on production tricks and atmosphere (in a way not too dissimilar to ʻThe Endʼ by The Doors, and you could easily see the song extended from its six minutes to twelve in order to match Morrison's epicness; considering that they had plenty of space left on the LP, they probably did not do it just so that they wouldn't be written off as total Doors clones).

Theoretically, one could also complain about the monotonousness of the single permeating mood here; but that argument would ring hollow, since, as I said, there are many different shades to that mood (ranging from the moderately uplifting variety of ʻDisorderʼ to the detached-descriptive attitude of ʻShe's Lost Controlʼ to the utter hell of ʻDay Of The Lordsʼ), and besides, you do not really opt for diversity on an album whose main theme could be simplistically defined as «real Hell is inside you, and you'll be taking it with you wherever you go», so why even bring it up?

As far as I'm concerned, there was not a single LP out there before Unknown Pleasures that said "I'm in eternal pain with no hope of a better end" as explicitly, honestly, and with so much style. If you think this is an exaggeration, let me remind you that this statement is not necessarily a compliment — saying something, period, is not quite the same as saying it well, and in certain cases, too, it is better to shut up than it is to speak. In particular, the musical backbone of Pleasures is visibly straining from the psychological overload, and even with the astute help of the producer, the melodic content is not always fully adequate to the task, considering that, after all, nobody in the band at the time had too much composing or playing experience. Later on, Robert Smith's team would take this music to new heights of professionalism — but The Cure were very much about "Depression Theater", whereas Unknown Pleasures has the seemingly clear benefit of reflecting reality (and it is rather pointless to ask yourself the question, "would we think the same way if Curtis did not hang himself?", because the odds of Curtis making the record and not hanging himself should have been assessed as minuscule even back then).

So while I am not sure that Unknown Pleasures is the most depressing (or, rather, depressed) album ever made, I am sure that it is the most depressed album ever made by the most depressed frontman who ever set himself the goal to record the most depressed album there ever was. Its greatness, like almost any greatness, does not follow directly from that — more from a fortunate mix of circumstances, which placed this tormented frontman in the company of several talented musicians and an understanding producer in a general age of musical change and artistic innovation — but still, its major asset is in how well it expresses one man's emotional turmoil. It is influenced by a decade of «mope rock», yes, but where so many later dark-themed records, though superficially good, end up feeling like «Oh, I just listened to Joy Division and I decided to make some really depressed music, too», Unknown Pleasures never feels like «oh, I just listened to some Morrison and I thought, hey, this New Wave era of ours still doesn't have its own Morrison, so let's hurry up before somebody beats us to it!» It just feels like the state of mind of somebody for whom the world has already ended, and even if his bandmates are slightly lagging behind to reflect that feeling, the averaged result is still a timeless memento of what it feels like to be living a life with no purpose.

3 comments:

  1. it probably helped that New Order was wildly popular too.

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  2. Not a lot of comments on the bass? Joy Division in my mind might be one of the best bass driven bands in rock history. Yes, the guitar in Shadowplay is the highlight of the cd, but all too often Sumner just takes the background spot and fills in with atmosperical jangle and white noise, to let the fantastic rhythm section of Hooky and Morris take center stage and really drive the music here. For me JD has always been much more of a groove based band than any other punk band has been.

    Otherwise great assessment of the album. Personally, I prefer Closer, but I can understand people preferring the less theatrical and more melodical approach of NP over the grand show of Closer.

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  3. Black Sabbath's influence always seems to be understated when this album is discussed besides the borrowing of the N.I.B. riff on "New Dawn Fades". Thanks George for bringing it up especially since "Day of the Lords" is so doomy and heavy on the Sabbath sound.

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