Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Great Albums of All Time in No Particular Order (entry #8)

Joy Division-Unknown Pleasures & Closer 1979/1980 (Factory Records)

So in 1980, at around the ripe old age of 16, I was getting into New Wave and Electronic music in a reaction to the same old “Cock Rock” that my annoying high school peers seemed to fall so easily into (when I was younger it was mostly only the Beatles that did it for me-my Dad had most of their stuff-though I also got in Queen and ELO for good measure). So yeah, it was stuff like Gary Numan, Ultravox and the Cars that were doing it for me and I was immediately an outcast with a very small horde of like minded folks at my typical, middle class suburban high school. I recall one day during a “do nothing in the school library class period” getting a hold of the latest issue of Rolling Stone and hitting the record reviews. There was a combo review of Joy Division and PIL (Johnny Rotten aka Lyndon’s new act). They were reviewing Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” and “Closer” post the suicide of Ian Curtis and PIL’s “Second Edition” (or the Metal Box-a novelty in record packaging). All three records got 5 stars and they sounded, based on the reviews. to be even more alien that the New Wave and Electro-pop I was already measuring.

It didn’t take me long to hit my local record shop and seek these out. And boy was this a new sound to my young ears for sure. I’ll address PIL another time (Second Edition is mind blowing and also has easily stood the test of time) but Joy Division fit perfectly in my happy but seemingly bleak/dismal suburban circumstances and my black hole got blacker and better with each listen. I was on my own. The Metalheads could never understand and that was great as a budding elitist-they could never “get” Joy Division and they could never have it.

This is the first in my series to combine two albums and it is because the reality and mythology behind them are so very intertwined. As you should know, Ian Curtis, the lead singer, committed suicide after the release of “Closer”, on the eve of their US tour. He suffered from epilepsy and the main story of this is documented in the 2007 movie “Control” which does a great job of capturing the zeitgeist of the situation.

Regarding the tracks, I will not comment on all of them. For example, the first track on “Unknown Pleasures”, “Disorder” is a forgettable proto punk/disco/funk workout that doesn’t work out. But immediately, the rest of side one, is pure perfection-I can’t think of a string of 4 songs that are any better. “Day of the Lords” might be the best heavy metal song ever laid down. “Candidate” is a metaphor for how a lover is like a politician-“I tried to get to you, you treat me like this”. “Insight” is a post Krautrock nervefest-it drills and drills and works out a compelling urge. “New Dawn Fades” portends what will happen to Ian, of course, in hindsight. It is a completely enthralling, brooding track with this caveat- “Directionless so plain to see, A loaded gun won't set you free. So you say”. He used a noose instead of a gun.

Side Two is kicked off with “She’s Lost Control”, the track famous for the beat augmented by the aerosol canister effect make famous by their supposed “hippie” producer Martin Hannett. All happy accidents and random genius. “Wilderness” and “Interzone” are probably the most future seeking punk tracks out there and have stood the test of time.

And then we arrive at their second proper album and, of course, the last one. Funny thing about me-I always thought side two was side one and vice versa. After all, the last track on side one is “A Means To An End”. Ergo.

But I will not defer to my preferences but report out on the way it was. “Atrocity Exhibition” name checks the novel by JG Ballard who is best known for “Crash” which was adapted for the screen by David Cronenberg. If you want to see what Ian sees, “This is the way, step inside” as if he is at a total freak show. Which he was. “Isolation” is the epitome of new wave post-disco of that era. It’s bleak but you can dance to it.

Side Two is the piece de resistance. “Heart and Soul” is a droning, repetitive treatise on what might be considered “love”. This track racks my mind forever. “Twenty Four Hours” creates the quiet/loud formula that Nirvana worked so well. Again, the lyrics are very foreboding: “Just for one moment, thought I'd found my way/Destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away”. The tension and the rhythm on this track are very intense.

This album closes out with “The Eternal” and “Decades”, two of the most sad dour tracks ever laid down yet utterly poignant. This is not punk, not rock, not nothing. It is pure art. To be sure, there is nothing that was like this prior. Joy Division set a new standard with these tracks and nothing has matched it since. The End.