Roots of Electronica: Joy Division
Even if you have never listened to Joy Division’s 1979 debut Unknown Pleasures, you’re probably still familiar with its iconic cover art: a column of white CP Pulsar 1919 radio waves resembling stylized mountain peaks drifting quietly in the center of a barren black backdrop. Mysterious, bold, sinister, and cool, the pulsar mountains still look, nearly four decades after they were first seen like they’ve been beamed back from some chilly dystopic future where the state of human music has become really, really strange.
Though Joy Division was not the first rock band whose shtick was “futurism”, they remain one of the most iconic, enduring examples of the concept. Whereas other “futuristic” bands from the past often come off as kitschy and flamboyant, Joy Division managed to pare down its science fiction undertones into something deadly serious and minimal, positing a future-music steeped in the grim realism of the industrial present rather than a sexy speculative utopia. Like the album art that defined their image, Joy Division’s sound was an exercise in brooding mystery, and such mysteries have a tendency to endure.
Joy Division was first formed in Salford, Greater Manchester in 1976, under the name “Warsaw”. Like many of the other experimental bands produced from the Manchester area, Joy Division was influenced by the highly industrial, modernistic atmosphere around them. The aggressive urbanity of their stomping grounds generated an interest in unnatural, mechanical elements and themes which found their way into much of the band’s music. Frontman Ian Curtis drew lyrical inspiration from dark sci-fi writers like JG Ballard and William Burroughs and complimented his songs with atmospheric soundscapes that contained as much of an emphasis on electronic manipulation as they did straightforward rock.
Much of the electronic edge found in Joy Division’s music was thanks to producer Martin Hannett, who saw in the cool simplicity and future-mindedness of the band an opportunity to introduce sonic experimentation into the conservative world of punk rock. Eschewing warmth and naturalism, Hannett drenched the band’s songs in deep reverb and colored them with angular synthetic flourishes and bizarre sound effects sourced from everyday objects (for instance, on the sinister “She’s Lost Control”, an aerosol spray can is fused into the drum sequence to simulate a crisp cymbal).
Probably the most famous innovation used by Hannett is his unique recording of drums. In several songs, Hannett recorded each drum sound separately to avoid bleed and then fashioned the individual parts into a whole, creating something of an organic drum machine. Combined with his unusual effects and aggressive spatiality, the end result was live music that didn’t sound live at all: rock and roll transmitted from an unknown place, stripped of conventional grace by cold machinery. On top of this, the manipulated drums pushed all the swirling weirdness into bouncier areas, and pushed the band, at times, past the edges of conventional rock and into the realm of primitive electronic dance music. A cursory listen to “Isolation” (off 1980’s Closer) hardly sounds like “rock”; it’s jittery beat and loud synths suggest a far more modern category.
Like the Velvet Underground before them, the aesthetic influence of Joy Division extends far beyond the actual popularity of the band. Sonically important as they were, the very concept of Joy Division has probably meant the most in the long term; the concept being a band fully embracing the unnatural ambiance of electronica in order to produce something dark and otherworldly. The clichéd “problem” of electronic music for years has been that music manipulated by machines is inherently “inhuman” and “soulless”. Joy Division managed to solve this problem by paradoxically refusing to address it: rather than trying to make electronic ambiance feel natural and humanistic, they intentionally made it sharp, unnatural, and cold. They knew that music was soul enough and that the uncanniness of mechanical music was something to be embraced as a dramatic accessory, rather than avoided as a corny nuisance.
In the modern era, moodier outfits from Crystal Castles to Nine Inch Nails owe Joy Division a heavy artistic debt; one could even argue that the genres of post-punk and industrial both begin in full with Unknown Pleasures. Joy Division brought a new type of electronic influence to rock and a new type of aesthetic influence to electronica; in an era when snappier, brighter outfits like Kraftwerk defined the electronic world, Joy Division was boldly black-hearted, confident in the idea that synthetic, danceable tunes weren’t solely the domain of the optimistic. Manchester dance records remained loyal to this code for years after; iconic house cuts like A Guy Called Gerald’s “Voodoo Ray” managed to evoke echoes of the “classical gothic” aspects of Joy Division in the minds of British music journalists nearly a decade after Unknown Pleasures debuted.
Perhaps the most obvious extension of Joy Division’s influence is New Order, the band formed by the surviving members of Joy Division after frontman Ian Curtis hanged himself at the age of 23. New Order is recognized today as one of the most important dance-rock bands ever; their famed single “Blue Monday” was the best selling 12″ single ever, and remains a potent gateway drug into the world of house and synthpop, as well as an endlessly revisited template for remixes. Though New Order’s sound is far brighter than Joy Division’s, the rudimentary elements are the same: angular beats and sparse arrangements caught between the worlds of rock and dance and electronica, run undisguised through machine-manipulation.
Most musical icons are united by their ability to be many things to many people, and Joy Division fit this description well. With elements drawn from a myriad of unrelated genres and as much of an ear for doomy atmosphere as for chippy electro-dance rhythms, they forged a new road for willing experimenters interested in further exploding conventional notions of mood and production, and helped bring rock out of its conservative shell and into the boundless world of electronic dance.