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The Cover Uncovered: Joy Division's out of this world artwork for 'Unknown Pleasures'

The debut album of the English rock band Joy Division has gained popularity over the time not just because of its music but also because of its cover art. In fact, people who are not acquainted with the band and their music are linked with them indirectly through the illustrious cover of the 1979 album. In the pre-internet days, people identified the band with the monochrome cover art more intently as pictures of the band members were neither easily available nor did they feature in the cover itself.

Released by the indie label Factory Records, the album garnered critical acclaim for its music but failed to bag commercial success. It would matter little as the record came to stand for everything Joy Division had been. Joy Division were, first and foremost, a group of artists and so, with the help of some art-savvy friends, the band’s album artwork fits perfectly for their sound and their ethos.

What exactly was on the cover that intrigued people and critics so much? It was a black and white diagram with white uneven lines rising and falling in succession against a black background. What did it portray? Was it a graphic representation of a heartbeat? Was it a pen diagram of mountain ranges? Was it the visual of sound waves? Or did it symbolise anything at all? The speculations knew no bound and the queries kept rolling in.

The cover was more mystifying and wonderous than it appeared to be too, as it was connected with the mysterious world of galaxies. Simply put, the image is a “stacked plot” of the radio emissions given out by a pulsar, a “rotating neutron star.” This sudden overload of astronomical terms might be a little overwhelming, but the concept though “unknown”, gives one immense “pleasure”.

To trace the pulsar’s origin, we need to rewind a little. The pulsar named CP 1919 was discovered in 1967 two Cambridge academicians – A student named Jocelyn Bell Burnell and her supervisor Antony Hewish. As per their observation, when the star turns, it emits electromagnetic radiation in a beam, much like a lighthouse overlooking a vast stretch of a dark ocean. Radio telescopes can pick up these radiations; hence, each line on the image is an individual pulse, varying in length as waves travel a long distance confronting various obstacles on the way.

The original image that was published in the January 1971 edition of the Scientific American magazine, was white on a bright blue background. But the magazine had actually reproduced the academic work of Harold D. Craft Jr, a graduate student who had published this in his 1970 PhD thesis called “Radio Observations of the Pulse Profiles and Dispersion Measures of Twelve Pulsars”.

Craft, who worked at the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico, used new computer technology to assign the radio waves of CP 1919. As he later told Jen Christiansen of the Scientific American, “I wrote a program that, instead of having [each line] lined up vertically, I tilted them off at a slight angle so that it would look like you were looking up a hillside – which was aesthetically pleasing.” After writing the thesis, Craft handed it over to a draftsperson at Cornell University, who filled the lines with black ink.

After processing this complex piece of information, the question that naturally arises in one’s mind is how did such a cerebral astronomical concept end up being a cover art? Joy Division’s co-founder, guitarist and keyboardist Bernard Sumner is responsible for this. As a graphic designer working at Cosgrove Hall animation studios in Chorlton, Manchester, for some time, Sumner discovered the photo during his visit to the central library. “On my lunch break, I’d go to Manchester Central Library, and get a sandwich at the café. They had a good art section and a good science section. I’d read through the books in search of inspiration. One of the images I found was the Unknown Pleasures image that clicked with me straight away,” said Sumner during his 2015 interview with the Maxim.

The image was reproduced in the UK as a simple line diagram, in 1977 in a book called ‘The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy’. “In Joy Division, I had insomnia and stayed up very late. I was building synthesisers — they took months to build, soldering all the components, and I’d have 2001: A Space Odyssey playing in the background. If you take the obelisk out of that movie, it has that same black shape,” continued Sumner.

Later, when Joy Division were set to release their first album, the only LP they released during singer Ian Curtis’ lifetime, Sumner, as the band’s leading art director, called Peter Saville to plan the cover. Saville was a graphic designer, the co-founder of Factory Records and its in-house designer. Fresh out of college, the 22-year-old art director was eager to find work. “At that age, no one was asking me to redesign the transit system but somebody asked me to do a record cover. So, I did a record cover the way I wanted — not just the way I wanted a record cover to be, but the way I wanted everything to be,” said Saville.

Apparently, the band had approached him with a file containing paper cuttings of the CP 1919 radio waves and another image of a hand emerging from behind a shadowy door. Saville located the source of the second image that appeared in the inner sleeve of the cover much later. It was taken from a 1970 book of photos called The Somnambulist by Ralph Gibson and was a well-known photograph titled ‘Hand Through A Doorway’.  

While explaining the concept to Saville, Sumner elucidated by saying: “I was aware how a single image could evoke an entire train of thought.” However, the band instructed Saville to do a black-on-white diagram. “The group asked for it to be white on the outside and I just couldn’t see it… I was afraid it might look a little cheap. I was convinced that it was just sexier in black. This is a radio energy from space. Space is black,” said Saville.

On another account, Saville explained: “[They said] we’d like it to be white on the outside and black on the inside. I took these elements away and put it together to the best of my ability. No one said what size or where — I had to figure out how. I contradicted the band’s instructions and made it black on the outside and white on the inside, which I felt had more presence.”

Talking about the sleeve, Saville described how it added to the black expanse giving it a “more tactile quality”. “It was called Unknown Pleasures, so I thought the more this could be an enigmatic black thing, the more it might evoke the title,” he added.

The cover was unconventional in another way. The original cover did not have the album’s name or the band’s name printed on it. Generally, producers aim at labelling albums since it makes it easier to find it in a store among hundreds of other albums and, at a time when record stores were the only place to buy albums, it was essential. But Factory Records functioned on utopian ideals. “I made the decision to not put the name on the front, and they were okay with that…We were all the age that bought records, and you don’t need the title. It’s patronizing to its audience,” said Saville.

But was the creator aware of this artsy evolution of the image? Apparently, he had “no clue.” As Harold Craft later confessed to Jen Christiansen, “So I went to the record store and, son of a gun, there it was. I bought an album, and a poster too, for no particular reason, except that it’s my image, and I ought to have a copy of it” after he got to known about its popularity from friends.

The cover art went ‘viral’ after the release of the album. From T-shirts to tattoos, it featured everywhere, sometimes independent of the association with the album. In 2003, Raf Simons collaborated with Saville for a clothing line based on the design, followed by the American brand Supreme three years later. Musicians have also manipulated the image for their own needs. For example, the cover of Vince Staples’s 2015 album “Summertime ‘06,” is a modification of Unknown Pleasures with the interstellar radio waves rendered as ocean waves, but still an ocean in a space of black. Similarly, it appeared in the clothing of various movie characters such as the protagonist of the 2013 series The Carrie Diaries and in Steven Spielberg’s 2018 film Ready Player One.

Saville says Unknown Pleasures is “cool, in all of the meanings, from cool to cold,” which helps to keep it trendy at all times.