Four decades after it was released, when Joy Division are part of the canon and Ian Curtis has been the subject of a biopic, it’s hard to conjure up how extraordinary Unknown Pleasures seemed back in June 1979.
Released when Margaret Thatcher had barely unpacked at Downing Street, here was a record that sounded, in all its foreboding glory, genuinely radical. Which was no mean feat in the post-punk year of PiL’s Metal Box, the Gang Of Four’s Entertainment! and The Slits’ Cut – a time when retreading old ground was frowned upon.
It’s also worth remembering that, in a pre-internet age when people found out about new music via the inkies and John Peel, Joy Division seemed impossibly exotic to so many who sought out their music. Unknown Pleasures sounded, and sounds, like a kind of psycho-geographic score for a snowbound, Ballardian city in decline, a place haunted by ghosts from both past and future.
With the benefit of hindsight, this means it was both a summation of the way Manchester’s history had caught up with it, and horribly prescient in anticipating so many of our current anxieties.
If that seems a lot to load on an album that, for all of visionary producer Martin Hannett’s studio wizardry, has rough edges, songs such as Disorder, New Dawn Fades, She’s Lost Control and Shadowplay easily stand such weight.
A perfect album? Maybe, maybe not, but a perfect summation of Joy Division’s extraordinary transition from punk wannabes to pioneers. It’s re-released on Ruby Red vinyl with a white-on-black sleeve.