In December 1978, Factory Records released A Factory Sample, a double 7-inch sampler EP featuring Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, The Durutti Column, and John Dowie. Joy Division were not yet a year old. On New Year's Eve 1977, they'd played their last gig as Warsaw, becoming Joy Division to avoid confusion with the London-based Warsaw Pakt. The few who'd been following their career thus far would have noted that the band's two contributions to A Factory Sample—"Digital" and "Glass"—were a departure.
Joy Division's only other releases before A Factory Sample had been a live track on a compilation album and the An Ideal for Living EP. The EP had been recorded in a day in December '77, when the band was still Warsaw—but it was released as Joy Division in June '78. It's the sound of a punk band just embarking on the process of trying to become something else: shouty unison vocals, homemade production, and schoolboy guitar solos. At the time, there were a lot of records like that.
By contrast, "Digital" and "Glass," recorded just 10 months later in October '78, provided clear glimpses of something different. Drummer Stephen Morris had become metronomically efficient, his playing combining with bassist Peter Hook's repetitive, melodic bass patterns to provide a foundation for Bernard Sumner's minimal, circular guitar phrases. Ian Curtis, meanwhile, was edging close to his mature, troubled baritone vocal style. Then there were the space and depth in the production, courtesy of the man calling himself Martin Zero.
"Digital" and "Glass" sounded nothing like Ideal For Living, and not much like anything else. With hindsight, they're a rehearsal for Joy Division's debut album, Unknown Pleasures. This was recorded over three weekends between April 1 and 17, 1979, at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, near Manchester, with Martin Zero—now using his real name, Martin Hannett—once again producing.
Strawberry Studios had been operating for just over a decade by this point, starting as little more than a demo studio for Eric Stewart, then lead guitarist with The Mindbenders, who was soon joined by the other musicians who collectively became 10cc. By the mid-'70s, it was a well-equipped facility turning out multiple hits, including 10cc's epic "I'm Not In Love."
Joy Division were a loud, dense, tightly drilled live band. On Unknown Pleasures, Hannett made them into something else. He further hollowed out the space and depth he'd located in the Factory Sample sessions, by virtue of a production style that emphasized reverb, delay, and panning, and which had more in common with dub than punk.
At the time, most of the band weren't convinced. Sumner and Hook are on record saying that they were disappointed with Hannett's work, though by 2006 Hook was telling Mojo magazine that the producer had "created the Joy Division sound."
So how did Hannett and the band create that sound? As with all great records, the better part of the answer to that question lies in an indeterminate chemistry involving band, studio, producer, and a whole lot else. In this case, it's also a story of the protagonists imaginatively combining cheap instruments, low-tech production ingenuity redolent of Joe Meek, and state-of-the-art technology.
Bassist Hook, whose distinctive high-up-the-neck melodic style can be heard most prominently on "She's Lost Control," used a Hondo Rickenbacker-copy with suspect intonation, which he'd bought for under £100. Sumner played a Shergold Masquerader, a middle-ranking British guitar of the time. But it's the album's synths that best encapsulate the cheap/expensive dichotomy.
There are photos of Hannett using an ARP Omni-2 at the sessions. Among the first polyphonic synths in mass production, this was a popular piece of pro gear at the time, noted for its string sounds.
During the album sessions, Morris bought a Star Instruments Synare 3 drum synth, an electronic drum pad designed for mounting within a conventional acoustic kit. Star Instruments had been producing synth drums since 1975. The Synare 3 looked like a flying saucer with its controls ranged around half of the deep rim. It was introduced in 1977 and produced until 1982. Other users included Gary Numan, Ultravox, and The Cure.
On "Insight," Morris uses the Synare's classic "boo-boo" disco sound. On "She's Lost Control," the Synare's obviously electronic hits are mixed in with Morris's precise live drum pattern to sound almost like a drum machine. According to Morris, in "She's Lost Control" the Synare was augmented by a typical piece of Hannett improvisation, with the producer sending the drummer into the vocal booth with an aerosol can to record the squirting sound.
The ARP and Synare were expensive enough instruments to be the preserve of professional musicians. By contrast, Sumner had a PowerTran Transcendent 2000, a British kit synth he'd built himself. Designed by Tim Orr, who worked with EMS and Akai, this was an entry-level instrument for players on a budget, advertised in the back pages of Melody Maker and other musicians' publications.
The 2000 shared most of the features of "proper" small performance monophonic synths, but its build quality and capacity depended much on the skill of the person who'd put the kit together. That's probably the PowerTran panned left on the album's opener, "Disorder," sounding like some unpleasant creature breathing in the corner of the studio as the band play. On the last song, "I Remember Nothing," it fights with the sound of manager Rob Gretton and Morris smashing bottles, while Ian Curtis sings a little flat.
The space in the production is attributable to the band's minimalism and Hannett's enthusiasm for panning. Synth embellishments aside, Joy Division were a straightforward guitar/bass/drums combo.
By 1978, with multitracking long established, it was normal for a lineup like this to double-track guitars in solos, so a rhythm part continues to play under the lead line. As we hear on "Shadowplay" and "Disorder" in particular, Sumner didn't do this. Indeed, across the album he sometimes drops out altogether, leaving Curtis singing over bass and drums only.
Hannett, meanwhile, found extra room in "Interzone"— musically primitive and punky—by placing the call-and-response vocals centre and right in the stereo spectrum, with the guitar to the left.
The sometimes cavernous depth in the album's sound is much to do with Hannett's use of delay and reverb. This, too, was achieved through combining low- and high-tech approaches. He fed the drum sound into a speaker in a toilet to record the room's natural reverb, while simultaneously making extensive use of the then-brand-new AMS 15-80 digital delay unit.
With its ten tracks coming in at just under 40 minutes, Unknown Pleasures was released on June 15, 1979. Like a lot of its songs, it was a slow burner, building up over time. Sales were respectable for an indie record, although it didn't chart. The critical response at the time was warm.
Ian Curtis took his own life 11 months after its release. Two months later, Joy Division released their second album, Closer, also produced by Hannett. He died of heart failure in 1991. Unknown Pleasures, though, lives on, now almost universally acknowledged as one of the great albums.
About the author: Mark Brend is an author and a musician. His most recent book, The Sound Of Tomorrow (Bloomsbury 2012), explores early commercial electronic music. He lives in Devon, England.