With a cover image resembling a mountain range but revealed to be radio waves, Unknown Pleasures was split (on vinyl and cassette) between “Outside” and “Inside”. The sound on both sides is cold, claustrophobic and somewhat industrial. (They were, after all, signed to Factory Records.) Drums sound almost electronic even when they’re not, and the bass player drives a melody without any notice of what the rhythm is. The guitar parts are inventive in a way that only someone with limited ability can find, and that’s meant as a compliment. Over it all, Ian Curtis sings with anger and frustration, emotion compensating for pitch, occasionally echoing Iggy Pop and, dare we say it, Jim Morrison. The band’s devoted following have spent decades ingesting and interpreting the lyrics, so we’re not about to try and do that; these brief descriptions will have to suffice for now.
With an invitation to pogo, “Disorder” is an excellent opener, even with sound effects that appear to be a toilet flushing. Things slow down right away for “Day Of The Lords”, describing a scene of some remembered horror, culminating in repeated queries as to “when will it end?” “Candidate” seems a lot longer than it is, possibly because it’s so low-key—mostly drums and a bass sounding like a cello, with atmospheric noises here and there. “Insight” is about as minimal, except for the truly silly synth-drum hits and electronic meltdown in the bridges. Things truly coalesce on “New Dawn Fades”, which deftly pairs a poetic lyric with a song structure.
The nearly robotic “She’s Lost Control” is an “important” track, being apparently about witnessing somebody’s else’s grand mal seizure, which will loom large in his legend. In any other band, the bass and guitar would play the same riff in unison, but not these guys. “Shadowplay” begins very slowly before acquiring more energy through minimal changes. Some of those seem so arbitrary that one occasional deviation sounds like a mistake, except that the band hits it at the same, seemingly random instance, that it’s either genius or a happy accident. As for “Wilderness”, this time the guitar and bass do move mostly in unison until they get bored and start wandering, well, off into you know where. With an intro borrowed by Devo for “Whip It”, “Interzone” is downright energetic, with its dueling Lou Reed vocals. It’s also the shortest song on the album, coming right before the longest, the gloomy and foreboding “I Remember Nothing”, the machine eventually running out of fuel to the sound of breaking glass and crashing metal.
The influence of Unknown Pleasures can be heard on the debut albums by such bands as U2, R.E.M. and The Smiths, so it’s safe to say that college alternative started here. The production does make it sound dated, but it’s also a style that indie bands are still trying to emulate. It’s also a case where the real thing does justice to the legend.
Joy Division Unknown Pleasures (1979)—3½