Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bought the T-shirt... Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures

As any music head will tell you, usually at length, the golden age of record buying was in part defined by the artwork that appeared on their covers.

Sticky Fingers, Sgt. Pepper, Warhol’s work for The Velvet Underground & Nico, Houses Of The Holy, all those Roger Dean prog covers, Barney Bubbles’ work in the New Wave, and Pennie Smith’s iconic photograph of Paul Simonon smashing up his bass on the cover of London Calling - prime examples of an era when records could be framed and hung on a wall or filed, spine-out on a shelf.

But one record stands apart, 35 years after its release on this very day in 1979, for remaining an icon for its cover as much as the music within: Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures.

It was their debut album, an appropriately gothic, nihilistic serving of profoundly Mancunian gloom, providing the raw blueprint for almost every indie and electronic album to follow in the 1980s, from OMD and Heaven 17 to Gary Numan and even U2.

Consciously or unconsciously it quite liberally evoked The Velvet Underground, The Doors’ Strange Days and Bowie's Berlin era, largely thanks to Martin Hannett’s spacious production and use of tape loops, non-sequitur sound effects and recording in basement toilets just to deliver the right degree of ambient froidure.

Hannett has quite rightly taken much of the credit for creating Unknown Pleasures' musical reputation, but as with so many impactful debuts, production had to have raw material to work with: thus, Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris and Bernard Sumner were like tent pegs at each corner of a tent, maintaining a taught, nervy dynamic.

For its legend, Unknown Pleasures is far from perfect: Curtis’s vocals sound, at times, like he was making demos.

Sumner has complained that Hannett flattened the guitars so much that Joy Division's aggressive stage sound completely disappeared from the record, while Hook has compared the album's overall moody sound to Pink Floyd. And not in a good way.

Morris, on the other hand has been far more complimentary about Hannett's production, although his experimentation with the-then new syndrums (you hit a pad and a synthesiser plays a fart-like drum sound, as opposed to just hitting a drum…) is one of the album's weak points.

But, then, compared with some of the over-produced monstrosities that were to engulf pop music over the following decade, Unknown Pleasures stood out as an album that baffled, shocked and even frightened those unused to such spartan qualities.

Which is what makes its cover art so distinct. Created by Factory's in-house graphic designer Peter Saville, it was based on an image of image of radio waves from a pulsar that Stephen Morris had come across in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy, reversing it into a monochrome white-on-black waveform resembling some sort of Middle Earth mountain range.

Much like Storm Thorgerson's Dark Side Of The Moon prism, Saville's cover art for Unknown Pleasures has remained a source of ironic hipster attire long after making its debut.

30 years ago I remember seeing Marillion's Fish wearing a capped-sleeved Pleasures shirt at The Marquee. More recently, Twilight's alabaster-skinned (and 24-year-old) Kristen Stewart was papped wearing one.

It has endured like no other album cover I can think of, appearing on just about every possible form of merchandise you can think of, from skateboards, coffee mugs and shoes, to - unbelievably - a deeply edgy Disney T-shirt that was subsequently withdrawn.

Few of those buying the Unknown Pleasures T-shirt today will have much knowledge of the original album, let alone any kinship with its angst, with the punk movement that inspired it and the Manchester at the start of the Thatcher era that shaped it. But that doesn't prevent the knowing teenager appreciating the design simplicity of that waveform on its front cover.

"The reason I got that top is because I thought it was a cool design, but also because my mum mentioned it was a famous design," says Paige, a couple of weeks shy of her 17th birthday. "She said I would look cool in it and told me they were really famous." And she does. Which makes mum quite cool too.

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