“We Were Strangers”: The Ballardian Soundscaping of Unknown Pleasures

by Mindy Clegg

The iconic artwork for the album by graphic designer Peter Saville

Forty years ago, a band from Manchester recorded and released their first full length album. It arrived after a year or so of gigs, an EP, and several tracks on a sampler LP put out by their new (and newly created) label, Factory Records. Thanks to producer Martin Hannett, it sounded unlike anything else at the time, much to the chagrin of the band, who hoped to capture their manic live spirit to vinyl. They didn’t feel the album was quite punk enough. Instead, they made a postpunk masterpiece that still speaks to the modern listener 40 years on.

One can argue that much of the punk or postpunk music from the late 70s and early 80s has taken on a dated feel in terms of production, musical structure, lyrics, or all of the above. History has moved on, after all. That historical distance does not detract from the music or diminish its cultural and historical importance; it’s just that some of the bands are far more time-bound than others. Not Joy Division, though. All aspects of the album manage to be of their time and still relevant. At the risk of dancing about architecture, I will explore why this album both represents its historical moment AND speaks to us with a fresh voice today. Joy Division’s overall body of work reflects the nature of the second half of the twentieth century, the dark overtones of our hyperconsumerist age. This album sounds fresh 40 years on precisely because it represents historical processes that continue to work themselves out across time and space while giving emotional resonance to our Ballardian world.1

During the 1960s and 1970s Britain experienced a period of social and economic unrest that would usher in the dominance of the Tory Party and the rightward shift of the Labour Party. Punk and postpunk music captured the sturm und drang of the era. In order to understand this relationship, a couple of working definitions are needed to put this analysis together. First is the definition of punk and postpunk music. Punk rose out of a deep dissatisfaction felt with rock music in the 1970s. Punk musicians were influenced by various “proto-punk” bands and genres of music: the garage rock and power pop bands like the Troggs or Flamin’ Groovies, the late 60s heavy hitting Detroit sounds of the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges, the avant-garde and literary Velvet Underground out of Andy Warhol’s factory scene, the German Krautrock explosion including Can and Kraftwerk, and the androgynous British glam rock movement, epitomized by David Bowie and Slade. Local punk scenes full of disenchanted youths in the United States, Britain, West Germany, France, Japan, Yugoslavia, and the Eastern Bloc began to take these influences and hammer them into something new. At first, some of these punks got major label attention (the controversial Sex Pistols chief among them) but the industry eventually deemed punk poisonous, especially in the United States. Bands there that wanted a path to the big leagues had to abandon a punk identity—the Go-Gos were part and parcel of the LA punk scene for years prior to their early 80s MTV hits. 2

By the late 1970s, the status of punk as a subculture had grown in the public imagination, bringing in new punks and causing ruptures to various scenes. The second wave of punk saw a variety of new genres emerge. Hence was born postpunk and hardcore. For most people, the latter is the working definition of punk, in terms of both the sound of the music (loud, fast, harsh, with traditional guitar, bass, drum set up) and the mode of production of the music (independent labels and distribution chains). Postpunk encompassed bands playing in a variety of musical styles (that spun out into various subgenres over the years), with a greater variety of instruments employed, also on independent labels. These three distinct movements (punk, hardcore, postpunk) in music still influence popular music today. Many of the progenitors of these genres are regularly hailed as pioneers. Punks are being inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame regularly now. Many mainstream artists expect greater degrees of independence in their music making, as well as greater access to the wealth they generate. It seems unlikely this would be the case if it had not been for the robust independent movement in popular music kicked off by punk in the 1970s.

This brings us to our second definition, the meaning of Ballardian. JG Ballard was a British author with a particularly insightful take on modernity. Born at the end of the British empire, as a child he spent several years in a Japanese internment camp outside of Shanghai during the Second World War. At the end of the war, he and his family were saved from execution by the dropping of two atomic bombs. That singular moment influenced his work (in Empire of the Sun, he claimed to have actually seen one of the atomic bombs go off). But so did the rise of hyperconsumerism and the suburbanization of many western populations during the postwar boom, which combined into a kind of youth-obsessed hypermodernity. His work falls into several categories. He wrote semi-autobiographical works, such as The Kindness of Women and Empire of the Sun, which pulled on events in his life to examine the history of the twentieth century. He also examined environmental degradation in dystopic works such as The Crystal World and The Drowned World. But it was his near future exploration of hypermodernity and hyperconsumerism that marked Ballard as a unique voice in fiction and put the term “Ballardian” on the map. Along with other speculative fiction writers like William S. Burroughs and Phillip K. Dick, Ballard delved honestly and nakedly into the real world consequences of the hyperconsuermism of late capitalism. Books like High Rise, Crash, and Kingdom Come focused on how consumption shaped—or more accurately warped—our society and relationships. “Ballardian” stands in for a dystopian landscape that disconnects individuals and attempts to replace community with consumerist identities, mediated by forprofit corporations. These changes brought about new and exciting pleasures, but at the same time transformed our physical landscapes in deeply isolating ways. In response, hippies rebelled against that deadening consumerism in their back to the land movements. Punk was far more urban in orientation, and sought to reconstruct community via consumerism. In both cases, resistance to the market was itself commodified and sold back to consumers, making such acts of resistance difficult to discern at times.3

Punks and postpunks sought to understand and contexualize the landscapes they occupied. In Britain specifically, the 1970s saw a rise in youth unemployment and social unrest. Although the Labour party had opened up privileges to the working classes during the postwar period, there seemed to be limits to how effective that was, especially with serious push back from the Tories. As unemployment rose and violence spiked—in some cases, racial violence aimed at the South East Asian, West Indian, and African populations that had been arriving in Britain since the 1940s—young people struggled to find a meaningful path forward. Punk and postpunk offered one viable path to greater authenticity, via a pastiche of do-it-yourself culture. Much like the 60s hippies, punks and postpunks rejected crass, empty materialism, but embraced creating culture that embodied deeper meaning. Joy Division regularly juxtaposed literary lyrics against a punk music background. Punks and postpunks sought to more firmly control and benefit from these cultures they created. New technologies and the influence of performance art gave young artists a means of expressing themselves in new ways, while punk kicked open the door to more experimental approaches to “pop” music.4

In many respects, Joy Division’s Manchester was no different from London, New York, LA, or Paris: an industrial city experiencing social changes and economic uncertainty. During their childhood, several of the band members moved from the inner city to alienating new council tenements being built on the margins. In 1976, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Ian Curtis, and Stephen Morris all saw the Sex Pistols perform in Manchester, which influenced their decision to form a band. They initially named their band Warsaw, but soon renamed themselves Joy Division (after the sexual slavery in concentration camps, described in the novel House of Dolls). One could easily say that history was instantly made, but of course that’s too easy—it was made, but not instantly and not automatically. Perhaps better put is that the future was made in hindsight. By 1979 a postpunk band named after an event in the biggest atrocity of the 20th century, began creating transcending works of art in their studio recordings. They combined the raw edge of punk, the experimental production techniques of Martin Hannett, and the despair of the 1970s British economy with literary insight into the nature of the 20th century to produce a work of art that challenges the notion that pop music exists solely as a piece of pleasurable ephemera.5

Today, the band’s influence appears everywhere. Soundwise, many bands still seek to imitate the very iconic Joy Division/Hannett sound. A band like Interpol wear their Joy Division influence on their sleeve. The band Grizzly Bear’s 2012 album Shields most certainly rather successfully replicates the deep resonance that Hannett pulled off on Unknown Pleasures. Shields, like the Joy Division classic, replicates the flattened, dead sound created by Hannett.

Lyrically, Joy Division upped the game, too (though they were not alone in that). Pulling from more literary songwriters, such as Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, Ian Curtis sought to bring deeper meaning to his lyrics. Much like Reed, he sometimes wrote about the people around him, such as in the classic “She’s Lost Control”, a song about a woman he knew suffering from epilepsy (a condition that Curtis himself tragically soon developed, which most likely contributed to his 1980 suicide). Other lyrics on the album prove far more ambiguous, yet no less compelling, like “Shadowplay” or “New Dawn Fades.” Both songs certainly evoke a late night cityscape, full of lurking uncertainties for young people.

As deindustrialization transformed the global north into a consumer/service sector driven economy, the music young people made inherently reflected the uncertainty that process unleashed—a process that continues today. Young people coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s had a harder time pinning down the social ills of the late Cold War in the same way their older counterparts did in the 1960s. Vietnam was in the rearview mirror and the troubled economy made a much less effective rallying cry than an obviously unjust war being waged by a superpower. For sure, by the 1980s, protests in both the West and in the Eastern Bloc were emerging once again, in the former against nuclear proliferation and in the latter against the continued suppression in the Eastern Bloc. But the 1970s and 1980s saw fewer specific targets to rally around. On top of that political uncertainty, the sort of job security enjoyed by the boomers began to evaporate, in part due to Reagan-Thatcher era deregulation. Bands like Joy Division reflected and continue to reflect that unease with the state of the world.

Perhaps more than any other band of this period, Joy Division captures a moment of uncertainty in 10 songs. Starting in the 1950s , the working classes in Britain and the United States embraced the suburbs. The suburban landscapes presented new challenges to young people seeking out a more authentic life. But by the 1970s, the hippie lifestyle of dropping out seemed equally flawed to many. Suburbia’s carefully managed edifice stifled difference and demanded outward conformity. Meanwhile, the peace and love preached by the older counterculture was giving away to empty moralizing or a greater focus on self-actualization instead of comprehensive social change. The hippie counterculture proved to be as easily commodified as any other culture. If the first wave of punks and then the second wave of hardcore and postpunks were far too late to march against a brutal imperialist war, they instead could interrogate the Ballardian landscape of suburbia. As Dewar MacLeod argued in his comprehensive history of the LA scene, hardcore punks in the 1980s rebelled against the deadening sameness and deep strain of conservativism of suburban Orange County.6

Much the same could be said of Joy Division. Although not specifically politically motivated, their engagement with the atrocities of the middle of the century inherently questioned the nature and priorities of the modern world. Their work also functions as a Bauhausian argument for great art for the masses. If we can easily mechanically reproduce works of art, why shouldn’t the common people benefit from and participate in that. Like many of their contemporaries, Joy Division expresses themselves via mass culture, while also seeking to elevate pop music to a higher plane. Unknown Pleasures stands as a contradiction, a great work of art as a commodity. It’s unclear if that was their intention. What is clear is that punk (and hip-hop) led the way for people historically unable to breach the high walls of access to cultural expression to do just that. Mass culture became more ubiquitous, more political, and more culturally expressive over the final decades of the 20th century, much as Ballard described, culture came to reflect political and social issues of a hyperconsumerist society. Artists like Joy Division sought to make their work reflective of their environments, but also to engage in criticisms of modern society. They also sought to make a living selling albums, a contradiction artists have been seeking to square for the past century.7

Today, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures feels relevant (even new) 40 years after its initial release. The Ballardian landscapes of Manchester merged with a desire to be heard and make meaning out of one’s existence. The music, lyrics, and production choices together demand greater meaning out of a mass produced commodity, while encapsulating the contradictions of the Ballardian world. In doing so, the music is elevated to something more. Something worth remembering, not just as a piece of art for its time, but one that still has something to say to us today.

Footnotes

1 “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture” is a quote often attributed to Laurie Anderson or Steve Martin, however, its origins are disputed.
2 There is a rich scholarship on punk and postpunk music scenes, including, but not limited to: Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1991, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored History of Punk, New York: Grove Press, 1996, Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen, We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001, among many others.
3 Thomas Frank, Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998
4 On youth unemployment, “The Thatcher Years in Statics,” The BBC, April 9, 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-22070491 and “Life in 1970s Britain,” Bush Theater, April 24, 2015, https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/bushgreen/life-in-1970s-britain/ For punk/postpunk, see Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, London: Routledge, 1981 and Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990
5 For Joy Division’s story in their own words, check out Jon Savage, The Searing Light, The Sun, and Everything Else: Joy Division, the Oral History, London: Faber & Faber, 2019
6 Dewar MacLeod, Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010
7 See for example Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, Boston: Belknap Press, 1936, Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, Boston: Zone Books, 1967, and Evan Eisenberg, The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture From Aristotle to Zappa, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986, among others.

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