One of the good things about being off work is that while you do things around the house at a Doctor’s orders sloth-like pace – cooking inventive new meals, the occasional trip to the cupboard under the stairs to retrieve the hoover every couple of days, a bit of ironing maybe, emptying the dishwasher, rearranging the record collection – you can listen to what you fancy at neighbour-bothering volume knowing that 1) the neighbours are at work so won’t be bothered and 2) the house is empty, save yourself.
The past week or so I’ve massively rediscovered Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. It was played that often in my late teens it became embedded in the music section of my brain, hard-wired to be heard without the necessity of having to actually play it again. Long before Steve Jobs had thought of the iPod, I had my own non-tangible music file that could be recalled at will and played wherever I happened to want to hear it. Sandwiched between the back catalogues of The Beatles and The Smiths and an occassional Dylan and Bowie, it keeps esteemed company. Super Furry Gruff Rhys has said similar things about The Velvet Underground And Nico, so I know I’m not alone. It’s been a while since Unknown Pleasures was actually played though, and played at volume at that, so the past few days have been soundtracked once again by its cold, uninviting touch.
I came to the album in a very round about way. Like many, I’d wager, I discovered New Order before I’d even heard of Joy Division. It’s an age thing – while Joy Division were initially thrilling those teenagers who were outside looking inside (that’s a wee label reference for any geeks out there) with their other-worldly post-punk, I was doing the Nutty Dance and ah-ha-eh-ha-ing my best Adam Ant impressions, but once I started reading about New Order and discovered they’d been a different band in a previous life, I was curious enough to look for a Joy Division record in Irvine Library.
Simultaneously, just as I was having my moment of enlightenment, Paul Young’s No Parlez album happened to be something of a popular record in my peer group at the time. Go on! Judge us all you want…
On Paul Young’s album he did a version of Love Will Tear Us Apart, all rubberband fretless bass and other such 80s wankery. Being a trainspotter-in-training, I noticed the writing credits on the label and put two and two together. So, if it hadn’t been for the unlikely bedfellows of New Order and Paul Young, I may never have got to Joy Division until much later in life.
When I first heard Unknown Pleasures, it sounded other-worldly, claustrophobic and not entirely pleasant. But I stuck with it. Nowadays it’s synonymous with the record sleeve imagery and Kevin Cummins’ iconic, epoch-defining monochrome shots in the snow, graphics that mirror the cold intensity of the music created and played by these serious young men. It’s the drums that get me. While the guitar, a howl of electrified cheesewire, bites in all the right places and Hooky’s trademark bass meanders up and down the frets with determined focus, the drums sound both futuristic and olde worlde.
The rudimentary synth pads hiss like a steam-powered Victorian workhouse, military in precision, rhythmic, never losing the pace. It wouldn’t be long until Depeche Mode and Yazoo took the blueprint and ran with it in their own chart-chasing directions, but Joy Division were the originators. Or maybe that was Kraftwerk…
Eerie whirring sounds (on Insight) were the sounds of the actual lift inside Strawberry Studios, where the album was created. At one point, the density of I Remember Nothing is punctuated by a shattering glass. That used to make me jump, even after I’d heard it 10 or 15 times. The album still sounds quite like nothing else. Imitators have managed to spit out Tesco Value versions of the real thing ever since, but Unknown Pleasures is peerless.
Every listen transports you back to the dark days of the end of the 70s. Now, to be clear, my end of the 70s was a brilliant time; Scotland had a decent football team, I was discovering pop music, I lived near a big field where we could play in safety, I was never off my bike, all my pals lived in the same street as me….being young at the time was magic. But Joy Division, a decade or so older than me captured the bleakness of their times perfectly. Set against a backdrop of social division, mass unemployment, strikes, Thatcher, the music becomes the only possible soundtrack. It’s much more sophisticated than Lydon’s “nO fUTuRe!” gobby snarl. Nothing wrong with Johnny’s war cry, but Joy Division did it far more artily. And I like my music on occasion to be arty and self-indulgent. Stick with it and it offers up greater rewards. A BBC4 documentary last year on the band had fast-cut, black and white film footage of inner city Manchester soundtracked by Shadowplay. And it was perfect.
Joy Division – Shadowplay
The first copy I had of Unknown Pleasures was on a hissy C90 version I’d taped from that LP I borrowed from Irvine Library. For all its scrapes and scratches (every time I hear Day Of The Lords, I expect my CD or needle to skip half-way through, and it always throws me when it doesn’t), that record had real life in it. If you held it up to the light, it changed colour from black to a deep maroon. I borrowed it more than once, to play loudly – it sounded far better than the tape I’d recorded – but sometimes just to look at and impress any pals who may have shown half an interest. It never occurred to me that I could buy my own, pristine copy. It was enough for me to have a badly recorded version on tape. Certainly an original Factory release, Irvine Library’s copy would command a high fee well into triple figures if it was still around and up for sale. Makes you (or me, at any rate) wonder what other treasure – unknown treasures? – loitered unassumingly in their racks.