Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’ at 40: How they made the unimpeachable proto-goth masterpiece

In June 1979, Joy Division released the bleak masterpiece that is ‘Unknown Pleasures’, a record so majestic it changed the face of music. NME celebrates its genius.

There can’t be many people left in the civilised world who haven’t, at one time or another, sat down and discussed the influence of ‘Unknown Pleasures’ over the last few decades. But reeling off a list of indebted bands that’s longer than time itself is now only one facet of why Joy Division’s first album is so significant.

The story of how Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris and Ian Curtis teamed up with their peerlessly innovative producer Martin Hannett to make the album is so fascinating that it has provided for more books that most people will read in their lives. That’s to say nothing of the numerous documentaries which have provided a nice little earner on the talking head circuit for anyone who spent more than two weeks in Manchester during the late 1970s. Let’s not forget the two major motion pictures — 24 Hour Party People and Control — that also depicted the album’s recording and which were widely celebrated for it.

Then there’s the small matter of the unmistakable radio waveform lifted from The Cambridge Encyclopaedia Of Astronomy to be one of the most iconic album covers of all time. Not only does it inspire regular reinterpretations in the world of art and design, it also gets printed up on T-shirts and flogged in high-street shops to be worn by people who wouldn’t know a Joy Division song if they fell over one. Essentially, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ is not just one of the great British albums of all time, it’s a cultural cornerstone that spans languages, interests and disciplines like precious few others.

That widespread relevance means Joy Division’s first album has become far more crucial than when it was released in June 1979. So, three decades on, NME speaks to two of the surviving members (Bernard was unavailable) about how the album was born and more importantly, why it will never die.

Words: Hardeep Phull/Barry Nicolson

NME: Why did you go with Factory to do the first album?

Peter Hook (bass): “Genetic Records were offering us a deal. It was £70,000, which we were over the moon about — it was more money than any one of us had heard of, ever! The four of us were daft as brushes and I think Rob Gretton [manager] thought that taking us dickheads out of Manchester and putting us in a big London studio might mean that he ended up losing control over everything. He felt that it would be better to do it with Tony Wilson and Factory to keep us as we were — grounded. And the thing was, us lot were so stupid that we just went ‘Oh, OK!’ (laughs) There was 70 grand on the table, and then it was gone, and we went along with it. Trust is a wonderful thing, and we trusted Rob and Tony. In hindsight, that deal allowed us to develop. We could be as awkward as we liked and we didn’t have to sell as many records as Siouxsie And The Banshees or even the Sex Pistols to make a living.”

What was Ian Curtis’ mindset like during the recording sessions?

Hook: “When we did the album, it was only a few months after Ian’s first grand mal epileptic fit but he hid it really well on that session. I don’t remember it ever being a problem. By ‘Closer’ it definitely was a problem — he was much more ill. Ian could be very serious — almost to the point where I thought he was pompous. So me and Bernard would take great delight in ripping the piss out of him and playing jokes. Then he would relax and join in himself after a little while.”

Stephen Morris (drums): “Ian could be as much into the practical jokes as the rest of us. The level of sophistication was pretty low, though. He had a whoopee cushion for one thing…”

Joy Division

Did Ian ever talk about what his lyrics were about?

Hook: “No. In fact, the ‘Unknown Pleasures’ session was the first time I’d actually heard Ian’s lyrics. You could never hear them live and we just couldn’t listen to the demo version we did for RCA because it was so horrible. So when I heard what Ian was singing, I was just really proud. It was a wonderful feeling of power and contentment to know that you had that in the band’s arsenal. I think people were very touched by Ian — his lyrics, his personality, and unfortunately his untimely demise. It struck a chord with a lot of lonely, depressed people who felt they didn’t quite fit in life. That connection started with ‘Unknown Pleasures’. It was me that used to handle the fan mail. And as time went by there’d be some horrific letters that got sent to us. After he died, we even got some that were written in blood.”

Was there anything that Martin Hannett did or asked you to do that was a bit too much?

Hook: “Well, Ian was a very nice person and very in awe of Martin; he wanted to make Martin happy, so if me and Bernard started moaning about something, he’d say, ‘No, no, no, you’ve got to let him do it. He’s a genius.” Martin did make us dump the weaker, punkier tracks like ‘Ice Age’ and write new ones, and it was because of that that we ended up with ‘Candidate’, ‘Autosuggestion’ and ‘From Safety To Where…?’ [the latter two ended up on the ‘Earcom 2’ compilation EP]. Bernard didn’t like ‘Candidate’, actually, and he was very reluctant to play guitar on it.”

Morris: “I was alright with what he was asking us to do mostly, although he did make me use the aerosol can on the 12-inch version of ‘She’s Lost Control’ like you see in Control. He shut me in a room with a can of tape-cleaning fluid and made me press it in time with the song. By the end, the booth was just filled with noxious fumes. I think he was just trying to kill me. If I’d have lit up a fag, the whole of Strawberry Studios would have gone up in smoke.”

So how long did it take overall?

Hook: “I’ve got a feeling the whole of the album was done in three weekends — six days in total. And that includes mixing. When you think of how well it’s lasted and the impact it’s made, it’s fucking unbelievable. It’s a very odd thing that the longer you’re a musician, the longer you take to make a record. ‘Waiting For The Sirens’ Call’ [the last New Order album] took three years from start to finish.”

Morris: “Martin did the mixing during the middle of the night because it’s when your brain is at its most creative. He liked the unsociable hours and isolation, and I think he’d do a little speed if only because he was on borrowed time and we had to get it done.”

Joy Division's Peter Hook

How did the sleeve art come together?

Hook: “The funny thing about the sleeve is that Peter Saville got the credit for it but it was Bernard that found the image on the cover in a book. The inside of the sleeve was done by Rob because he wanted to use a picture of the door because I think he felt it was symbolic because opening a door is like a beginning. The only contribution Saville had was the typeface and the texture of the cover. And he’s been dining off it for 30 years!”

Is it strange seeing that design getting reproduced on just about anything and everything?

Hook: “We never actually did an official ‘Unknown Pleasures’ T-shirt until 1994 but they got bootlegged all over the world. When we got investigated by the taxman because of the Haçienda being all fucked up, he said that he couldn’t find any receipts for ‘Unknown Pleasures’ T-shirts. We told him we were a punk band and we didn’t believe in that kind of self-promotion. He said that he thought we were either lying or just completely stupid and he ended up fining us anyway. So we had to pay a load of money for not declaring profits on a T-shirt that we didn’t do!”

Did you expect the reaction to ‘Unknown Pleasures’ to be so positive?

Morris: “A lot of times when we did an interview, the journalist would say things like, ‘Oh well, there obviously is a deep symbiosis between the music you produce and the bleakness of your environment,’ and we’d look at each other and think, ‘What did he say? Symbiosis? What’s he on about?’ I think a lot of people had got into their heads that this album had come from the heart of darkness. We did try and contradict that idea but it didn’t do too much good, really. We’d rush out and buy NME because it was great that people were writing about us, but quite often we could only understand every 10th word! Sometimes, Rob would say to us, ‘We’ve got an interview, right, so here’s my idea: just let Ian do the talking.’ It was so people wouldn’t realise we were basically a bunch of idiots.”

Do you still listen to the album?

Hook: “Over the years, I haven’t really listened to it. I think I deliberately ignored it because of what happened to Ian. For a while, it was almost unmentionable, which is a very New Order and Factory thing to do. But I had to listen to it for the re-mastering a couple of years ago and I was fucking gobsmacked at how good it still sounds and how radical Martin’s production was. It’s not hard to understand why Martin did what he did with the album now, but at the time it was very hard. Bernard and I would have just made a standard punk record and tried to take people’s heads off with the guitars. Martin made it a masterpiece and ensured it lasted 30 years.”

How do you think the album stands up now?

Morris: “The other day I went into a shop to get a sandwich and the bloke behind the counter knew who I was. He said he had someone moaning about having Radio 2 on and his reply was (adopts strong Lancastrian accent) ‘Well, I can’t have bloody Joy Division on, it’d drive the customers out of the shop!’ At first I was a bit offended but I realised that it does say something. It’s not easy listening and it’s still not being sucked in by… the man. I went out feeling quite chuffed thinking that it’s not the sort of thing you can play in a sandwich shop.”

This article was first published on in June 2009