Thursday, May 22, 2014

Book Review: 33 1/3 Unknown Pleasures

"The title Unknown Pleasures in all likelihood refers to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, a divisive, drawn-out autobiography of the author's willful, self-absorbed youth."
Before reading this book, I had to go back and re-listen to the album as a digital feed. Although I'm a big New Order fan, the Joy Division era always seemed more of a curiosity than anything that deserved more than a listen to the singles collection, Substance.


And my instincts were confirmed. Unknown Pleasures is a fairly amateur collection of songs. It's obvious that the band could still barely play their instruments, and Ian Curtis' voice sounds like a muppet parody of a rock singer. As with most celebrated pop albums, all the power here is in the production.
"Martin used that digital delay not as a repeat echo delay but to make a tiny millisecond that came so close to the drum it was impossible to hear. I would never have thought of doing that. Nobody else would. I don't know how he could have possibly envisaged the final sound." -- Vini Reilly
And so producer Martin Hannet becomes the uncelebrated hero of Joy Division's story. Chris Ott writes a lot about the studio technique that props up this album, but heaps most of his praise on the band members. And it's fairly overwrought praise given that he also documents how amateur they were at this point. The real breakthroughs wouldn't come until after Unknown Pleasure's release and the band started falling apart.
"The older, wiser (and admittedly commercial-minded) Anderson calmly explained the dilemma to Brandwood: 'They just can't play.' His dismissive treatment of Joy Division betrays a staid expectation of airtight, virtuosic material aimed at the radio, but in his defense the group were stifled by the unfamiliar, imposing situation, and sounded tentative working outside the comfortable, self-determined world of their rehearsal room."
In other words: ability isn't the standard for rock music. Which is true to the extant that it's a performance art that relies on an undefinable quality to please the audience at a concert. An album, however, surely must have harsher standards applied to it. Especially if it's going to be held up as an item of importance itself, rather than as a cultural artifact.
"If you played higher up the guitar, it was easier to hear yourself, 'cos your equipment was so crap." -- Peter Hook
The book really is more of a mini-history of Joy Division, rather than a discussion of the recording itself. Ott takes the trouble to point out various bootlegs and compilations that are worth hunting down to explore the evolution of the band's sound. The author is also fairly good at discussing the influences, whether they might be Black Sabbath's grinding bass sound or Ian Curtis' obsession with the holocaust "memoir" House of Dolls.


Joy Division in retrospect, seems to have started out as a conceptual art group that revolves around this book. Other punks, notably Siouxsie Sioux, were wearing Nazi armbands as a form of confrontation with the elder generation, but no one else seems to have used the imagery in such a theatrical way.


"'3-5-0-1-2-5 Go!' Curtis shouts, using a concentration camp identification number as a morbid alternative to '1-2-3-4!'" -- on Warsaw
Ian Curtis' need for theatricality comes through in the later (and best written) parts of the book. With the band on the verge of actually making money from being pop stars, Curtis seems to fall into the romantic, lead singer role, writing moodier lyrics and ignoring his marriage responsibilities. Too much has already been made about his epileptic seizures and subsequent medication. Chris Ott takes a middle ground, showing his self-destructive behavior while acknowledging the possibilities of barbiturates influencing his personality.
"We were on speed, Martin was into smack." -- Bernard Sumner
At times this book really grates with its hyperbolic descriptions of the music as, for example, "without parallel in its beauty, resonance and terrifying volume" or the crowning of Curtis as "a lyrical genius." In fact, by giving a solid cultural context of this album's arriving at the height of disco and the formation of Public Image Ltd., Ott inadvertently fails to make his central argument for it's importance in the rock pantheon. Which is fine, I wasn't looking to be converted, just to have some things to think about. And in that, the book succeeds.

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