What’s That Sound? How Joy Division created the ‘hissing’ snare drum on ‘She’s Lost Control’
Although it has been forty years since Ian Curtis’ death, Joy Division have remained one of the most notable bands in the history of popular music with a legacy that has gone on to inspire countless artists. Their debut album Unknown Pleasures has established itself as one of the most influential albums of all time, but its sound is famed as much for its now-iconic producer Martin Hannett as it is for the band themselves. Known for his eccentric personality and recording techniques Hannett led the way in the pioneering the album’s experimental construction.
The album, famously released in on 1979 by Factory Records, was recorded and mixed over three successive weekends at Stockport’s Strawberry Studios as the budding band prepared to launch their pioneering new sound to an unsuspecting music industry. Fronted by the enigmatic Curtis and backed by Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris, Joy Division found a united team of innovators who, with the combined effort of changing the musical landscape, pushed the sonic boundaries of what was previously imagined.
While the band’s material was strong enough to make seismic waves alone, producer Hannett was intent on persevering with unusual and unconventional production techniques in a bid to forge a unique and one of a kind record. “Joy Division were a gift to a producer, because they didn’t have a clue. They didn’t argue,” Hannett once famously commented. It was a factor that allowed the producer to explore the deepest realms of his imagination, none more so is this evident on than on the band’s unforgettable song ‘She’s Lost Control’.
The track, lyrically inspired by a young woman experiencing a violent epileptic seizure, now acts as a sad foreshadowing of Ian Curtis’ future. Lyrically, the song, once understanding its conception, is stark and cold. It handles the arresting fear of witnessing such a thing with clinical brutalism. It’s one that would sadly offer a shocking vision of Curtis future. Written before Curtis’ first epileptic seizure, the song is a hard reminder of the illness which plagued the singer.
While the track may feel harsh on first interpretation, a deeper dive explores some of the most unusual and innovative approaches to recording and producing. Amongst many other things, Hannett was heavily credited for the drum sounds on the album which he achieved through his combination of live and electronic instruments and heavy sound manipulation. The album track ‘She’s Lost Control’ is one of the band’s most regarded and instantly recognisable—especially for its ‘hissing’ snare drum which has since been heavily sampled.
The snare was actually created by layering the sound of a Syn Drum; an early electronic drum pad, with the sound of an aerosol can tape head cleaner being sprayed. Before the days of Pro Tools or even reliable triggers, the spray had to be recorded live while being played in time to the initial drum track. Due to Hannett’s obsession for isolated recordings (a technique used to ensure there is no ‘bleed’ between instrument tracks) it is rumoured that drummer Stephen Morris had to play the respiratory blocking percussion while sealed off in a small recording booth.