Joy Division’s haunting, angular and atmospheric debut now enjoys its status as a much-revered classic. Andy Price has the insight…
Producer Martin Hannett
Engineer Chris Nagle
2: Day of the Lords
5: New Dawn Fades
6: She’s Lost Control
10: I Remember Nothing
Messers Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Peter Hook – formerly known as Warsaw, now Joy Division – entered Strawberry Studios in Stockport on 1 April, 1979, to cut their first LP, sporting a fruitful array of songs and ideas carved from years of writing, rehearsing and gigging on the Manchester scene.
Newly signed to Tony Wilson’s Warhol-inspired Factory Records (famously signed in blood) they, along with left-field producer Martin Hannett, had a pioneering new vision for a record that would ultimately become one of the most highly regarded British albums of all time.
“We gave (Martin) great songs,” Hook said in a BBC interview circa 2006, “and like a top chef he added some salt and pepper and some herbs and served up the dish. But he needed our ingredients.”
The ingredients that Joy Division were crafting for this record were deep and textured, from the ominous ascending/descending riffage of New Dawn Fades to Peter Hook’s melodic bass-driven She’s Lost Control, the set of ten songs is a tour de force of emotion, tight musicianship and atmospheric sounds that were difficult to categorise in a late 70s world of ten-a-penny punk and new wave artists.
Martin Hannett was the perfect choice to mastermind the production of the debut. A quirky and eccentric man with a mop of curly brown hair, Hannett was the typical ‘mad genius’ harbouring some progressive and occasionally challenging ideas about production. He took charge of the record and stripped away much of the ferocity of the live sound and instead painted a more spacious and desolate world for the songs to inhabit.
Hannett obsessed over the drum sound, believing it to be the fundamental element on which the songs hinged (so much so that he would record each drum separately to eliminate bleed). Perhaps the most famous story that illustrates Hannett’s OCD tendencies is that of sending drummer Stephen Morris to the roof of the studio to get the perfect drum acoustics for She’s Lost Control.
He later forced Morris to reassemble his kit with parts from a studio toilet in his quest for the perfect drum sound – a sound that many would argue he achieved.
Hannett used his three AMS digital delay units on many of the album’s tracks as well as the much less extravagant Melos tape and BBD echo units
Many of Unknown Pleasures’ lead lines were composed and recorded on the Transcendent 2000 from PowerTran
The ambient synth and lead lines were initially composed and recorded on Transcendent 2000s before switching to ARP Omnis – their analogue beauty shines forth during moments such as the staccato freak-out on Insight and the dramatic and slightly ethereal hums and stabs on album conclusion I Remember Nothing. Hannett also worked closely with Curtis to get the right takes, distance and effects for the vocal tracks, even resorting to recording Curtis’s lead vocal down a phone line during the recording of Insight.
An AMS Digital Delay unit much like the one used by Hannett throughout Unknown Pleasures
Hannett’s sparse and tense mixes became the album’s (and arguably Joy Division’s) defining sonic characteristic, imbuing Morris’ robotic yet effective drumming, Curtis’s anguished lyrics, Hook’s fluid bass parts and Sumner’s jagged guitar with a vast and doom-laden sonic sheen. This was a change for a band whose live sound was much smaller, adrenalised and aggressive.
When the album was finished and released, the band had mixed views on it, although they would later come to embrace Hannett’s approach as Hook would later testify: “It definitely didn’t turn out sounding the way I wanted it,” Hook revealed to Mojo in 2006. “But now I can see that Martin did a good job on it. There’s no two ways about it: Martin Hannett created the Joy Division sound.” The band would use Hannett again for second (sadly final) record, Closer.
Unknown Pleasures’ early sales were weak, though critical reception was positive and interest was spiked by the release of the non-album track Transmission as a single.
Tragically, it would take the suicide in 1980 of frontman and creative nucleus Ian Curtis to really push the debut album into the public consciousness, with the iconic cover image a totemic symbol of a band defying the boundaries and musical conventions of their time.
Although the posthumously released follow-up Closer arguably demonstrated a fuller and more colourful evolution of the Joy Division sound, it was Unknown Pleasures that would ultimately be regarded as the band’s definitive musical statement. The rest of the band, of course, would continue to pursue new musical frontiers under the guise of New Order, to varying degrees of success