Jim Murray explores the notion of space in Joy Division’s seminal debut, 40 years after its release.
Text: Jim Murray
If anything can arguably define Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division’s unsurpassed debut album, it’s space.
Space in between the instruments, sounds and atmosphere conjured up by studio wizard Martin Hannett. It’s also in the space conjured up by the claustrophobic lyrics of frontman Ian’ Curtis’ astonishingly mature and perceptive lyrics. It also summons the space of late 70s Manchester as a bleak post-industrial landscape of greys and browns, streets pockmarked with the scars and bomb craters left behind by the Luftwaffe’s efforts at accelerated urban decline in World War Two.
Joy Division: (L-R) Peter Hook (ฺbass) / Ian Curtis (Vocals) /Stephen Morris (drums and percussion) / Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboard) (Photo: Paul Slattery / Retna Pictures)
Take a step back to the first track of Joy Division’s first EP – released but a year before Unknown Pleasures. ‘Three five oh one two five go’ announces Curtis to launch a rough and ready and badly reproduced four track EP An Ideal For Living, (although naturally one of the most collectible records in the world), where a clumsy reference to leading Nazi Party official Rudolf Hess did not bode well for the band to become more than a footnote in the flurry of independent self releases that fuelled the DIY spirit of post-punk in 1977.
Take a step forward and observe the space in between the first song on that record and the opening track of Unknown Pleasures , the newly sonorous but urgent tones of Curtis intoning ‘I've been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand, could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal man?’ The gigantic leap between those two opening lines released a year apart is realised by a song in which the precise delay effects used by Hannett on the drums drive an ethereality in which their propulsive rhythm is also divided by an enormous sense of space between each of the individual drums.
The notion of space in Unknown Pleasures is also arguably what gives it its resonance with fans from 17 to 70 today – an alchemic mix of claustrophobia, ennui and despair all separated by and contained in an expanse that plumbs the depths of human existence. Simultaneously it also conjures up a rare beauty in an attempt to define an analogous cognitive experience.
Space might also assist in our understanding of why some recordings become iconic as in the case of Unknown Pleasures, and others remain rarely noted signposts of an otherwise unremarkable moment in time. It was an album that sounded like it came from the future and certainly remains so now, the continued fascination with its otherworldliness perhaps defining a an ongoing listening relationship with it – with fans returning to it constantly over the years while it becomes a companion to the space life’s journey takes us through.
It would be remiss to also not note – or perhaps just too damn obvious – the literal depiction of space in the album’s iconic sleeve. Taken from the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy, the visual rendering of radio waves from the first pulsar, CP119 reversed on to a black background by album sleeve designer extraordinaire Peter Saville, the depiction of radio waves has been bootlegged, reproduced, re-appropriated and flung into the endlessly regurgitated status of an internet meme.
However at it’s core as so often mistaken by more casual fans and observes, the radio waves bear more than a passing resemblance to heartbeats on a monitor. Again, a measure of space and perhaps appropriately a metronomic rhythm which Stephen Morris’ drumming anchors the space that permeates the recording 40 years later.
Jim Murray is a music nerd based in Melbourne, Australia when he’s not at gigs or record shopping in other parts of the world.
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