'Unknown Pleasures' at 40: Joy Division biographer Jon Savage reflects

Cover art for Joy Division's 'Unknown Pleasures.'
Cover art for Joy Division's 'Unknown Pleasures.' (Factory Records)

In 1977, author Jon Savage, then a young music critic, received a tape in the mail with a strange note attached. "I'm enclosing a tape for an album we've just recorded in Manchester," the group's manager wrote. "It's absolute crap, but you've written nice things about the group so I thought you'd like to hear it."

"I thought that was funny," remembered Savage in an interview with The Current's Jay Gabler. "Most times managers and PRs are always saying, 'This is the best thing since sliced bread,' but here was somebody saying, 'Well, actually, it's a bit crap.' It amused me."

The songs on the tape were recorded by the post-punk group Warsaw, which, to avoid any confusion with London Punk band Warsaw Pakt, became Joy Division in 1978.

Savage spent decades after receiving that first tape covering the band, and in April of this year, released his latest work: This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else: Joy Division: The Oral History. The book, which spans the group's short period of activity before lead singer Ian Curtis died by suicide, includes lengthy testimonies from all three surviving members.

The immediacy of the oral history format, Savage explained, allowed him to tell the story without trudging through much background relating to individual members, and focus on the band as a whole. "It's a great story from the point of view of a writer because it's only over a period of three years," Savage explained. "It's about Joy Division, and their place in their time."

After Savage's move to Manchester, he made a point to see Joy Division live a few more times before the release of 1979's Unknown Pleasures solidified Savage's loyalty to the group. "I was expecting them to be hard and heavy because that's how they were live," he explained. "It's a listening experience; it's not the reproduction of a live show, but I think that's what made it last."

Additionally, the album's saturnine atmosphere helped Savage to acclimate to and understand his new home in Manchester. "It described to me the feeling and atmosphere and physicality of the city to which I'd just moved," he said. "It helped me orient my way around."

Like many punk and post-punk bands of that era in Britain, Joy Division were not immune to a disturbing trend: the co-opting of Nazi imagery. The group's name itself is a reference to a group of women forced into sex with Nazis in a 1955 novel. At shows, Savage remembered looking around to see fans, many of whom were born only ten or so years after World War II ended, adopting the imagery.

"It was a sort of mindless fad," Savage remembered. "It was a dangerous one and a stupid one, but in essence it wasn't meant to be taken much more seriously than that." Once Joy Division got wind of the trend, they took care to play "Rock Against Isolationism" benefits and made known their stance against fascism.

"That was 40 years ago when shock tactics were still quite new," Savage explained. "Now the President uses shock tactics. It's a very degraded discourse, so it's difficult to go back and see what they were thinking at the time, but it was shock tactics."

After Curtis's death, the surviving group members formed a new band called New Order. That band found greater commercial success, but ended in acrimony.

"The problem is with what's happened in the last decade or so — it tends to retrospectively color one's impression of the group," Savage said. "But of course they did get along very well when they were in Joy Division, and they got along well when we were doing the film from which the transcripts for a lot of the interviews [in the new book] are based."

"It is very surprising to me on one level how big Joy Division has become because back in the day, there were very few people involved — at local shows in Manchester, only a couple hundred people, and now they've become this gold-plated legendary rock group," Savage said. "I would never have thought of that, but on the other hand I think they deserve it because the music was really great, the art was really great."

Why has Unknown Pleasures become a classic?

We'd love to hear your thoughts! Please let us know in a comment below, or by leaving a voicemail at 651-290-1507 or e-mailing a voice memo to jgabler@mpr.org. We'll share selected comments in this feature.

Related Stories

comments powered by Disqus