Joy Division ‘Unknown Pleasures’ Album Review

Voted by many as one of the strongest debut albums ever, Joy Division’s opening salvo still echoes strongly more than 40 years later.

The anglophilia that underpins most of my taste in music extends to other forms of entertainment as well–everything from Ricky Gervais Podcasts to Horatio Hornblower novels. Some years past my then-current Greatest British Thing Ever was The Trip, a BBC series starring comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Playing exaggerated versions of themselves, the two travel around the north of England, sampling the fare at a succession of real-life restaurants and bickering. Think Curb Your Enthusiasm meets My Dinner With Andre. The series is directed by Michael Winterbottom, whose credits include A Cock and Bull Story (also starring Coogan and Brydon) and the infamous 9 Songs (perhaps the only film to combine live indie rock concert footage with explicit sex scenes and somehow render both quite boring). There have been several incarnations of The Trip, none so well done as the first.

Back in 2002, Winterbottom directed Coogan in 24 Hour Party People, the fictionalized story of Manchester’s Factory Records and its founder Tony Wilson. Starting with the famous Sex Pistols concert at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976 and ending with the closing of Factory’s rave club The Haçienda 21 years later, the film centers around Wilson’s involvement with the band that effectively started Factory, Joy Division, and the band that helped end it, Happy Mondays.

Like most Americans, I became a Joy Division fan the first time I heard “Love Will Tear Us Apart”—though in my case it was not the official single, but the more muscular Peel session version that sealed the deal. As I went deeper into the band’s catalog, I came to appreciate the music’s rhythmic complexity, the way Peter Hook’s bass line often carried the melody and the subtly of Ian Curtis’ performances. This was not the cookie-cutter despair of later goth music, but the energy of punk directed inward. (Wilson himself captured this years later when he said “Punk enabled you to say ‘Fuck you,’ but somehow it couldn’t go any further. Sooner or later someone was going to want to say more than ‘Fuck you,’ someone was going to want to say ‘I’m fucked.’ ”) Joy Division’s sound was unique at the time, and somehow—despite having influenced everyone from early U2 to Interpol—it remains unique. The songs create a complete and instantly identifiable atmosphere, a sound as distinct and evocative as Jimi Hendrix’s guitar tone or Louis Armstrong’s voice.

My enthusiasm for the group has lasted decades. I went on to stream as much Joy Division as I could, starting with the 4 volume boxed set Heart and Soul, which includes expanded versions of the two official albums (Unknown Pleasures and Closer), a disc of rarities and radio sessions, and a disc of live material that was not as well-recorded as it should have been.

But what about The Happy Mondays, the other band at the center of 24 Hour Party People? Beats me: I was always a Stone Roses man myself. Tony Wilson contended that the Mondays introduced house music to white people—a claim so utterly ridiculous it makes me want to dismiss the band out of hand. Also, like most people I find it hard to love Shaun Ryder’s voice. But I’ve been wrong before, and if anyone wants to suggest some tracks to set me straight, please do. In the meantime, I’ll be sitting in my room, listening to Unknown Pleasures and thinking of Dear Old Blighty.

Joy Division ‘Unknown Pleasures’ Album Review