Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’ Turns 40

The claustrophobic post-punk masterpiece still stuns four decades later.

Joy Division didn’t invent post-punk. The beginnings of the genre could be traced to artists like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Iggy Pop and David Bowie.

But with their iconic debut, Unknown Pleasures, they sure as hell perfected it, creating a claustrophobic, gothic masterpiece that still stuns a full 40 years after it was released.

A lot of credit for the record’s unforgettable sound goes not to the quartet of Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris, but to their producer and engineer, Martin Hannett, whose unorthodox production tactics were ahead of their time. Using the studio as an instrument to create negative space that he filled with delay, echo, bounce and found sounds, Hannett called Joy Division “a gift to a producer, because they didn’t have a clue. They didn’t argue.” The relationship was mutualistic; the band gave Hannett the songs, and Hannett synthesized them into a cohesive statement.

It resulted in songs like “Shadowplay,” with crisp, unrelenting percussion and brilliant guitar work, anchored by Curtis’s legendary baritone. Peter Hook’s bass carries the daunting “New Dawn Fades,” growing into a massive solo from Bernard Sumner. On “Interzone,” Hook’s vocals are back and forth, on one of the most apocalyptically danceable tracks here.

Of course, nothing beats the opener, “Disorder.” Morris’ drums kick things off, followed by Hook’s classic bass line, and topped by Sumner’s bouncing guitar. “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand,” sings Curtis, meandering in the disconnectedness he feels to everything around him. It’s painfully prescient, considering Curtis’s suicide less than a year following the release of Unknown Pleasures.

The death of Curtis still hangs over the album and Joy Division like a shadow. In a cruel twist, their shared fates also became part of a commodified legacy, one involving uncounted T-shirts sold at Hot Topic. Of course that doesn’t erase how good Unknown Pleasures is. Even 40 years later, it remains a daring, innovative and hauntingly beautiful classic.

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