Behind the mixing desk of ‘Unknown Pleasures’: Remembering Martin Hannett, the man who shaped Joy Division’s innovative sound

Even in their earliest incarnation, Joy Division wanted to push things forward. The very fact that they initially called themselves Warsaw in reference to David Bowie’s ambient experiment ‘Warszawa’ (from 1977’s ‘Low’) showed their circle of knowledge wasn’t limited to the filth and fury of punk.

But while they were edging towards more adventurous realms mentally, physically they were lagging behind. 1978’s debut EP ‘An Ideal For Living’ is a case in point; dark. Agitated and uncomfortably sinister though the songs were, that hint of something special was flattened by club-footed recording. But with the depth and sophistication of ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (released just 12 months later), Martin Hannett took them into a future so distant even the Pro-Tools geeks of the early 21st century are still playing catch up. Perhaps Joy Division would have got to that highly evolved state eventually, but Hannett, with all his studio trickery, technological experimentation and demanding personality traits, opened up a musical wormhole.

In many ways, Hannett needed Joy Division as much as they needed him. Born in 1948, he went to Manchester Polytechnic to study chemistry but sound and technology was always his main fascination, to the point where he would even starve himself to save money for the kind of speakers he wanted. After leaving, Hannett made inroads into the Manchester music scene by playing bass, being an occasional roadie, writing reviews and operating Music Force, a co-operative for local musicians.

Over the course of the 1970s Hannett began to focus on production. Key to this were two engineers from Burnley who would meet with him and listen as he described the otherworldly sounds he imagined in his head in the hope that they could create a machine that would realise them.

The result was the AMS Digital Delay machine, which materialised just before Hannett went into the studio with Joy Division for the first time in 1978 to record the songs ‘Digital’ (named after the machine) and ‘Glass’. The nifty little gizmo placed a haunting echo on the drums to create what was then a largely unheard sound. By the time they worked on ‘Unknown Pleasures’, Hannett had three AMS machines to play with. “They [Joy Division] were a gift to the producer because they didn’t have a clue,” Hannett later recalled of the naïve young punks who nervously let him indulge his experimental streak.

It wasn’t just his new toys that gave Joy Division that uniquely sinister and spacious sound either. On ‘Insight’ he recorded Ian Curtis in the Strawberry Studios lift, giving the track its forbidding opening, while breaking the glass on ‘I Remember Nothing’ is the group’s manager Rob Gretton smashing milk bottles with a replica gun. On numerous tracks, he also insisted Morris play his drums one by one instead of as a full kit — an arduous process but one that made the band stand apart from anyone else around.

The trouble was, the band were less than happy about what Hannett had done to their punk rock cacophony — but the autocratic producer was prepared for that too. As someone who disliked musicians at the best of times, Hannett had no qualms about responding to the band’s mixing suggestions by tutting or just telling them to fuck off. If that didn’t work, he’d literally try and freeze them out. “Martin and the engineer Chris Nagle would keep the air conditioning in the mixing room on the ‘Arctic’ setting,” remembers Morris. “He kept the room deliberately cold because he didn’t want us there. It was like a war of attrition and eventually we’d go downstairs to have a cup of tea and leave him to it.”

It was these genius strokes that ensured Joy Division were way ahead of their time, but also made Hannett a legend and led to him working with bands like Magazine, OMD and U2 soon after. But as heroin and later alcohol took its toll on the producer, Hannett’s visions of the future got left in the past. Although his reputation still attracted The Stone Roses for their first single ‘So Young’, Ian Brown remembers “he was really, really deep into Class As. He’d spend a couple of hours under the desk cross-legged… then he’d put on his old Joy Division [tapes], to remind himself how to do it.” During the same session, Brown also recalls how Hannett’s ballooning waistline spilled over the desk and pushed the dials forward in the shape of an arc. But when an engineer tried to fix the levels, he insisted it should be left that way because it was “the curved sound of Martin Hannett.”

After one last slab of brilliance in the shape of Happy Mondays’ 1988 classic ‘Bummed’, Hannett died in 1991 of heart failure. “The unfortunate thing was that he had been clean for a few years but he’d already damaged his heart,” remembers Hook. “He actually died moving house. So there hangs a moral for us all: don’t move house!”

This article was originally published in June 2009