Unknown Pleasures (1979)
Disorder/Day Of The Lords/Candidate/Insight/New Dawn Fades/She's Lost Control/Shadowplay/Wilderness/Interzone/I Remember Nothing
I distinctly remember first seeing Ian Curtis singing with Joy Division on "The Old Grey Whistle Test" for the first time and just thinking "what he hell was that?". This totally wired-up, frankly disturbed-looking weird bloke jerking, as if electrocuted, to a dense, throbbing sombre beat. It all seemed most bizarre and it took me a while to get into Joy Division. Indeed, I have probably appreciated them more in the last twenty years or so than I ever did at the time, when, for a while they simply weren't for me. That said, this was a completely innovative, ground-breaking piece of work and has rightly been acknowledged thus in the subsequent years.
Magazine and Public Image Ltd had started the whole "post punk" thing, but this pretty much wrote the handbook. Dark, brooding, industrially heavy rhythms. Scratchy, metallic guitars. Thumping, sonorous drums. Rumbling deep bass. Introspective, creepily haughty-sounding vocals. It is all so atmospheric and evocative of those dark evenings of 1979-1981. Even the cover is monochrome and full of foreboding.
Not much had been recorded like this before - the rhythmic but disturbing Disorder hits like a steam hammer. Day Of The Lords continues in the same vein. Just listen to that huge bass on the morose, enervating Candidate. Also the doom-laden portentous lyrics. It all seems to point to some sort of miserable apocalypse, with the population dying in its own depression.
Insight has an intoxicating, deep throbbing rhythm and some wonderful electronic sound effects a minute or so in, as the insistent guitar and programmed drum beat continues, inexorably, like some nightmare you can't shake off. The "when we were young" bit brings to mind Roxy Music's If There Is Something. New Dawn Fades has echoes of David Bowie in places on the vocals. Or maybe Bowie's later work had echoes of this? She's Lost Control has always been a favourite of mine, with its eighties electronic percussion sound and beguiling vocals.
Shadowplay is another good one. The whole sound influenced so many "electronica" bands. Ultravox's Vienna album is full of influences from here as is much of Gang Of Four's material. Peter Hook's bass on Wilderness is simply sublime. Booming but melodic in its massiveness. Interzone is as rocking as they ever get, with a faster drumbeat and a punky vocal. Things slow down for the spooky, "Heroes"-esque I Remember Nothing that also has real hints of The Doors' The End about it and some weird breaking-glass noises too. You actually think something has broken in your room at the beginning.
This album is certainly no uplifting one, but it gets under your skin and you become oddly addicted to it.
Atrocity Exhibition/Isolation/Passover/ColonyA Means To An End/Heart And Soul/Twenty Four Hours/The Eternal/Decades
From the jagged, edgy opening of Atrocity Exhibition, with its addictive drum rhythm and grinding guitar interjections, and the dour, self-explanatory and very atmospheric Isolation, this is an even more challenging album than their debut from the previous year, Unknown Pleasures. The group push the "post-punk" boundaries even further into the realms of paranoid introspection. They really were a perplexing, inventive group - yes there were others with a similar sound and dour image, but none did it quite so genuinely disturbingly as Joy Division. I have to say that Atrocity Exhibition, turned up loud, sounds marvellous. Totally infectious.
Tracks like Passover are classic examples of the Joy Division sound - pounding, doleful drums, big rumbling bass, mysterious keyboards and quirky vocals. It is one of the album's best cuts. Colony ploughs the same furrow, as also does the ghostly A Means To An End. It is all pretty unnerving stuff. They sort of re-wrote what "rock" music, whatever you call it, was about, for a short while, at least, setting a new benchmark for musical misery. However, bassist Peter Hook scoffs at how influential they have been subsequently considered to have been, saying that they were just kids who hadn’t got a clue what they were doing.
Ian Curtis was said to have hated the album and there was considerable intra-band tension around at the tine of the album’s completion. Nobody could have predicted the tragic denouement, however, as Curtis heartbreakingly took his own life at the age of twenty-three a few months before its release. The rest of the band, understandably traumatised, could not stand to listen to the album, it is said, and re-launched themselves as the eventually more dance-oriented New Order. After Curtis's untimely death, they regrouped and continued in the same vein until it was clear they couldn't keep putting out stuff like this and reinvented themselves as an upbeat, positive dance music group, mastering that particular genre. The charts at the time were full of effervescent, tuneful new wave material, lively, joyful ska, commercial reggae and poppy disco-ish stuff was still around and it was probably a wise move as they sensibly avoided putting out a stream of depressingly bleak albums. Despite New Order’s more accessible, upbeat sound, though, the foundations for much of the bedrock of their sound were laid down here - the seeds were sown, just listen to that intoxicating bass line on the beguiling Heart And Soul and the metronomic drum sound too. This material influenced so many subsequent bands, both in the comparatively short-lived post punk genre and the dance/rock music boom beyond.
There is more sumptuous, industrial bass on Twenty Four Hours. Despite being very adventurous in the UK in 1979-80, this is all very much created under the influence of the Krautrock German bands - Kraftwerk, Neu! and Can and, of course, David Bowie's late seventies work, although he never was as gloomy as this. A sombre, insistent track like The Eternal is rock noir, if there was such a thing. Deep and dark. The only thing coming close at the time was Talking Heads' The Overload. Decades is very similar. This album, if anything, was even more dour than its predecessor. Beautifully dour, at times, however. Personally I quite like an occasional half hour or so of it. It sort of gets into your system. I wouldn't want to listen to little else, though.
The 2007 remasters of both albums are excellent, too. The bass sound is really highlighted and there is a warmth and depth to the sound.