Joy Division’s grand, proto-Goth masterpiece ‘Unknown Pleasures’ turned 37 last year. Here are 20 facts you might not know about it, starting with the band’s indispensable collaborator, producer Martin Hannett. He originally worked under the name Martin Zero, producing Buzzcocks’ genuinely seminal ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP in 1976, and first hooked up with Joy Division on the 1978 ‘Factory Sample EP’.
The producer was originally going to be Martin Rushent, who would later take the controls for The Human League’s 1981 synth-pop classic ‘Dare’. Rushent’s company Genetic was offering £40,000 for a deal subsidised by WEA, but the factions didn’t gel. They did four demos together before Joy Division plumped for Factory.
Bernard Sumner (or Stephen Morris; accounts differ) found the haunting cover image in the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Science. It’s a Fourier analysis of the radio waves emitted by the Pulsar CP 1919, of course. A pulsar is the remnant after a dying sun collapses in on itself. Hotshot Factory designer Peter Saville did the rest.
‘Unknown Pleasures’ was recorded at Strawberry Studios in Hillgate, Stockport. The studios belonged to 1970s MOR sonic specialists 10cc (about as far removed from the Joy Division sound as possible, this side of a Stock Aitken Waterman production) who had a state-of-the-art, 24-track set-up.
That frosty sound is no coincidence, nor an illusion. Hannett would whack the air-conditioning in the studio up to freezing temperatures. His story was it was good for engineer Chris Nagle’s diabetes.
The original Factory budget for the album was £5,000 but costs soon spiralled to £12,000 over just five days of recording (although label boss Tony Wilson later disputed the timeframe), in a prescient reflection of future Factory budgeting. Think ‘Blue Monday”s die-cut sleeve, or the legendary Hacienda moneypit.
According to Chris Nagle, Hannett used every trick at his disposal. The lift sound on ‘Insight’ was an actual antique lift. “Stick a mic on the shaft and wind the tape back a bit,” he told Nagle. “Hit record!”. He also used smashing glass as a percussive element on closing track ‘I Remember Nothing’.
The NME had an interesting take on the album in a review published on 14 July 1979. According to Max Bell, “‘Unknown Pleasures’ is an English rock masterwork, its only equivalent probably made in Los Angeles twelve years ago: The Doors’ ‘Strange Days’, the most pertinent comparison I can make.” Another NME writer, Paul Morley, called it “private music forced out into the open”.
‘Unknown Pleasures’ was a big influence on U2, then just starting out. In fact, according to Peter Hook, Bono had a typically puffed-up vision about the band. Hook heard that “after Ian [Curtis] had died Tony [Wilson] met Bono somewhere, and Bono was telling Tony not to worry because he would take over from where Ian left off.”
There were no singles released from the album. Only ‘She’s Lost Control’ eventually emerged on 7-inch, as the AA-side to ‘Atmosphere’, released a few weeks after Ian Curtis’s death in 1980.
Engineer Chris Nagle recounts how Ian Curtis would listen to a song once before doing his vocal in one take. He would also have “sheets with his lyrics on, but he always recorded with the lights off,” the only aide-memoir being his head.
Joy Division didn’t include the lyrics with ‘Unknown Pleasures’, to avoid being pinned down. “Our lyrics may mean something completely different to every single individual. You could hear one thing, the bloke next to you could hear something completely different,” said Peter Hook. “We don’t want to say anything. We don’t want to influence people. We don’t want people to know what we think.”
Drums were paramount in the Hannett sound. Stephen Morris’s playing was a big attraction. “One of the things that drove me to drum machines was the appalling quality of drummers,” said Hannett. “But Steve was good, so immediately they had a red hot start.” Hannett fed the drums out of the studio to a microphone he’d placed in the bathroom, then put the results through a digital delay.
“At Factory, no one’s restricting us, the music or the artwork,” said Ian Curtis in 1979. The inner sleeve included a newspaper clipping of a photo of a hand near a door handle, an image that Peter Saville later found out was a famous shot by Ralph Gibson, the Californian art photographer.
The band were pals with Northern Soul DJ Richard Searling who encouraged them to record a cover of Wigan Casino favourite ‘Keep On Keepin’ On’ by N.F. Porter. It didn’t quite come off but the riff morphed into ‘Interzone’, with Hooky on co-lead vocals.
‘She’s Lost Control’ was about a girl with epilepsy – an affliction Ian Curtis shared, of course – who used to come into the Job Centre where Curtis worked. “One day she just didn’t come in anymore,” said Bernard Sumner. “[Ian] assumed that she’d found a job, but found out later that she’d had a fit and died.”
Having been berated by Ian Curtis for not putting Joy Division on his Granada TV show So It Goes, Tony Wilson finally fronted up and showcased the band on Granada Reports on 20 September 1978. They played ‘Unknown Pleasures’ track ‘Shadowplay’ in a performance intercut with footage from a World In Action CIA documentary.
A year after the release of ‘Unknown Pleasures’, disco/new-wave diva and early-80s style queen Grace Jones covered ‘She’s Lost Control’ in reggae style. It was released as the B-side of ‘Private Life’, her first UK hit.
Factory played fast and loose with Joy Division’s finished product, not even inking a contract. “We had a sheet of paper saying that the masters would revert to us after six months if either of us decided not to work with each other,” Peter Hook said later. “That was it. It was amazing that the agreement lasted so well.”
And what did Joy Division think of ‘Unknown Pleasures’? They hated it. “The production inflicted this dark, doomy mood over the album,” said Sumner. “We’d drawn this picture in black and white, and Martin had coloured it in for us. We resented it.” Everyone else loved it though, so, according to Sumner, “We swallowed our pride and went with it.” Good job.