The Story of Joy Division's “Unknown Pleasures"
Updated: May 15, 2022
After seeing the Sex Pistols perform at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1976 and inspired by their DIY ethos and lack of great musical ability, several attendees ran out to form their own band. Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley quickly formed The Buzzcocks, Mark E Smith joined The Fall, and Morrissey continued to dream of being in a band while writing letters to music mags like NME.
Other attendees Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner joined forces and later recruited singer Ian Curtis without an audition and finally drummer Stephen Morris. Named after one of their favourite David Bowie songs, Warsaw was born.
In an interview from the time on the radio show “Rock On”, Curtis described the early Warsaw days .“When we started initially playing we couldn’t really play to be honest. It was very loose and a bit of a fun thing – we’re in a group; we’re playing. It was about August 1977 when we really started getting our own particular way.” They started to work out and record many of the songs found on their later debut album initially because RCA Records were interested in signing them.
Because of a London band named Warsaw Pakt, they changed their name to Joy Division and played their first gig in January of 1978. In the spring they were writing and rehearsing new material and gigging around Manchester. At one of these gigs, they caught the eyes and ears of Granada TV presenter Tony Wilson who later signed them to his fledgling Factory label and DJ Rob Gretton who became their manager. Their sound continued to develop but needed one more key ingredient that would forever change and later define their sound.
As Ian’s wife Deborah Curtis recounts in her memoir “Touching from a Distance”, Joy Division had “reached a stage where they desperately needed Martin Hannett’s diverse ideas before they could go any further.”
Martin Hannett has been coined by writer Paul Morley as Manchester’s Spector and the region’s Eno. His use of sound effects, synthesizers and sound separation contributed a unique atmosphere and space to Joy Division’s debut album “Unknown Pleasures”. Initially, band members like Peter Hook were not keen on the sound but in retrospect concedes it was Hannett’s contribution which turned the band from a punk outfit emulating bands like The Stooges into one of the defining bands of the post punk movement. In the word of Morley, “The difference between Warsaw and Joy Division was the difference between the Sex Pistols and PiL; between sleepwalking and outer space.”
The debut was critically well received and Melody Maker’s Jon Savage said “Unknown Pleasures may very well be one of the best, white, English, debut LPs of the year.” However, it wasn’t until after the suicide of singer Ian Curtis and the subsequent release of the sophomore album “Closer” that “Unknown Pleasures” made a wider impression with more sales and an appearance on the charts.
The cover itself is a hugely recognisable cover, it’s been on t-shirts, it’s been on posters… it’s even been on trainers and babygrows. It’s been paid tribute to, parodied, remixed and remodelled.
The iconic cover of Joy Division’s 1979 debut album Unknown Pleasures is perhaps the most enduring image of the post-punk era. You’ve probably got a t-shirt of it. Even if you haven’t, you almost certainly own the album in some shape or form.
The stark white-on-black line drawing conjures up so much mystery. Back in the pre-internet days, information about Joy Division was sparse: the band’s names did not appear on the record and there was no way any photos of the musicians would appear on a sleeve.
An air of mystery grew up around the Unknown Pleasures cover. What did the enigmatic waveform symbolise? Was it a heartbeat? Was it a mathematical analysis of something sinister? Was it the cosmic scream of a dying star? Or was it just the sound wave of those terrifying syn-drums that swamp the Joy Div track Insight?
Answer: none of the above. Although one suggestion was close.
In simple terms, the image is a “stacked plot” of the radio emissions given out by a pulsar, a “rotating neutron star”.
Originally named CP 1919, the pulsar was discovered in November 1967 by student Jocelyn Bell Burnell and her supervisor Antony Hewish at Cambridge University. As the star turns, it emits electromagnetic radiation in a beam like a lighthouse, which can be picked up by radio telescopes. Each line on the image is an individual pulse. They’re not exactly the same each time as they’re travelling a long way across the universe and interference gets in the way.
As Jen Christiansen of Scientific American discovered in an exhaustive feature, the image was originally published in their very own magazine in January 1971, where it appeared as white on a bright blue background, a bit like this recreation (so those brightly coloured t-shirts ARE allowed):
But the magazine had actually reproduced the academic work of a graduate student, Harold D. Craft Jr, who had published his PhD thesis in 1970 called “Radio Observations of the Pulse Profiles and Dispersion Measures of Twelve Pulsars”. Working at the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico, Craft used new computer technology to plot the radio waves of CP 1919.
He told Christiansen: “I wrote a program that, instead of having [each line] lined up vertically, I tilted them off at a slight angle so that it would look like you were looking up a hillside – which was aesthetically pleasing.” Writing up his thesis, Craft handed the plots over to a female draftsperson at Cornell University, who filled the lines in with black ink… in a strange foreshadowing of a thousand Joy Division tattoos.
It was here that Bernard Sumner - himself a graphic designer working at the Cosgrove Hall animation studios in Chorlton, Manchester - saw the image. He told Maxim in 2015: “On my lunch break, I'd go to the Manchester Central Library, and get a sandwich at the cafe.
“They had a good art section and a good science section. I'd read through the books in search of inspiration. One of the images I found was the Unknown Pleasures image that clicked with me straight away.
“In Joy Division, I had insomnia and stayed up very late. I was building synthesisers - they took months to build, soldering all the components, and I’d have 2001: A Space Odyssey playing in the background. If you take the obelisk out of that movie, it has that same black shape.”
When Joy Division were looking to release their debut album with Tony Wilson’s Factory Records in the summer of 1979, they went to the label’s in-house designer Peter Saville to discuss the cover.
He told MOJO in 2005 that the band approached him with a file of cuttings and offered up the plot of CP 1919’s radio waves and another enigmatic image of a hand emerging from behind a shadowy door, which was taken from a 1970 book of photos by Ralph Gibson called The Somnambulist.
Saville recalled: “[They said] we’d like it to be white on the outside and black on the inside. I took these elements away and put it together to the best of my ability. No one said what size or where - I had to figure out how.
“I contradicted the band’s instructions and made it black on the outside and white on the inside, which I felt had more presence.”
A 40th anniversary edition of the album replicates the original white cover idea:
A textured sleeve was added to give the expanse of black a “more tactile quality”.
Saville added: “It was called Unknown Pleasures, so I thought the more this could be an enigmatic black thing, the more it might evoke the title.”
Meanwhile, Harold Craft, who had printed out the image in the first place back in the late 60s had no idea his work had been turned into one of the most iconic album cover designs in history. "I had no clue," he told Jen Christiansen "So I went to the record store and, son of a gun, there it was. I bought an album, and a poster too, for no particular reason, except that it’s my image, and I ought to have a copy of it."
So there you have it - the cover was created by a student and isn’t a cosmic scream but a radio transmission from the depths of space. Which is ironic, because Joy Division’s next single was, of course, titled Transmission.
But that’s another story…