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(Credit: Kevin Cummins)

Why Joy Division's 'Unknown Pleasures' is the greatest debut album of all time

A debut album has to fill a hole in your life that you never realised was vacant in the first place. Nobody has done that more than Joy Division and their rip-roaring first offering, Unknown Pleasures. With it, they brought in a new sound and showed the world that it was okay to be fragile.

Before Joy Division came along and tore about the rulebook, nobody quite dared to get introspective and stare at their demons in the mirror as blankly as Ian Curtis did. It was refreshing to hear a lyricist not try to pretend that everything was rosy and instead explore the darker side of life. Unknown Pleasures was revolutionary without ever trying to be, the innovation they had on music was just Joy Division being true to themselves, and that translated to listeners.

Curtis’ brutal honesty about his mental health battles in his music was unheard of for artists back in the 1970s when anything that deviated from the stiff upper lip mindset was rare to find. His woes stemmed from his struggles with epilepsy, a condition that prevented him from living the life he desired.

In the end, the musician tragically concluded that suicide was the only way of seeking peace. Throughout Curtis’ time in the band, his struggles worsened, and his lyrics paint a bleak but accurate picture of a harrowing period. 

The opening track, ‘Disorder‘, sees Curtis deal with Curtis becoming detached from the world in front of him. “Who is right, who can tell and who gives a damn right now,” he sings with ferocious energy. Curtis gradually becomes even more disconnected from his life throughout the track as the pitfalls of fame eat him up.

‘She’s Lost Control’ is an autobiographic tale from Curtis’ time working for the council and recounts the moment he witnessed a lady endure an epileptic seizure and, in the immediate time that followed, the singer later found out that she had passed away that day. It was a frightening experience for Curtis, who would soon start suffering similar seizures himself in a harrowing turn of events.

There’s twisted romanticism that runs through the album, and the visceral emotion that’s poured into every track on the record can even create intense moments of claustrophobia as a listener. It remains music that isn’t for the faint-hearted. Unknown Pleasures isn’t a fairy-tale; it’s a brooding glare into the darkest corners of life.

The influence of the record knows no bounds, too, with artists ranging from Tyler, the Creator, to The Killers citing it as in influence. The Charlatans’ frontman Tim Burgess told The Guardian: “Unknown Pleasures is one of my most played records. When I used to listen to it through headphones, trying to understand it, it used to put me in a trance: it did something to me.

“My friends called it ‘vampire music’. One of my first bands were called Interzone and we did a cover of ‘New Dawn Fades’. Ian is a major influence, as a singer and lyrically; if I try to borrow anything from him directly it doesn’t fit into what I do but he is my favourite frontman.”

Unknown Pleasures invites you into the warped universe that Joy Division created, and there is an intimate beauty to be found among the bleak grey skies that rest above the record. It’s an album that provides a new layer with each listen, even when the vinyl has grown tired — Unknown Pleasures never loses its vigour.

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