Incredibly this week marks the fortieth anniversary of the release of Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’ LP. I don’t want to get into competitive hyperbole or start lists, but it is hard to think of a debut album that is quite so fully formed and reactionary… so deep and affecting… and yet in many ways basic and simple.

It is for me perfect in so many ways, right down to the cover which has entered into our culture life in an iconic way. Peter Saville’s use of a ““stacked plot” of the radio emissions given out by a pulsar, a “rotating neutron star”” that first appeared in a PhD Thesis in 1970 can these days be found on everything from t-shirts, to duvet sets, to shoes… even Joy Division oven gloves… for good or ill.

I bought the album on cassette, a beautifully simple box with embossed inserts that, like all Factory Records releases, gave you the feeling that you has something special before you even put the music on.

This combination of factors means that I can still remember vividly listening to the album through for the first time. Of course I remember ‘Disorder’, ‘She’s Lost Control’, ‘Shadowplay’ and ‘Interzone’ because they were the more immediate and upbeat tracks; but the one that affected me more than any other was ‘I Remember Nothing’. I was struck by the absolute clarity, even listening on a budget tape player, of the broken glass at the beginning of the track. Given the title this may be somewhat ironic, however, this stayed with me as I explored the album more deeply, and have continued to do so over the last forty years.

Much has been written about Ian Curtis’s state of mind when writing and performing these songs, and I don’t want to go into that too much here. However when you look at the lyrics, set out in full below, you are struck by their depth and how they reflect his biography as we know it. Yet despite this profundity there is also an emptiness… an absence… a sense of isolation and despair… of being trapped… of fading; and ultimately, from the track’s title, a sense that he too is losing control.

We were strangers.
We were strangers, for way too long, for way too long,
We were strangers, for way too long.
Violent, violent,
Were strangers.

Get weak all the time, may just pass the time,
Me in my own world, yeah you there beside,
The gaps are enormous, we stare from each side,
We were strangers for way too long.

Violent, more violent, his hand cracks the chair,
Moves on reaction, then slumps in despair,
Trapped in a cage and surrendered too soon,
Me in my own world, the one that you knew,
For way too long.
We were strangers, for way too long.
We were strangers,
We were strangers, for way too long.
For way too long.

Songwriters: Bernard Sumner / Ian Kevin Curtis / Peter Hook / Stephen Paul David Morris
I Remember Nothing lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

What is remarkable is how this is then also portrayed through the music by a group of young men who essentially appeared out of nowhere, put together with a maverick producer in Martin Hannett… who somehow found the perfect outlet for his avant garde ideas.

If you were to listen to this as an instrumental I am sure that you would still pick up the meaning of the song. Stephen Morris’s funereal drums are consistent and dour as they set the tone from start to finish… a slow and deliberate pace which provides the backbone of the track. Peter Hook’s bass adds depth and is played so sparingly, in between Curtis’s vocals, providing that emptiness and sense of deep despair. Bernard Sumner’s modulator provides a sense of sinister jeopardy that is not something you immediately notice, but without it the track would, for me, sound unnecessarily thin.

Listening to it again now as I write this I am struck once more by how heartbreakingly powerful it is, on an album that in many ways reads like a call for help. It feels like Curtis is trapped in the song unable to release himself from the acute feelings that engulfed him, and ultimately overpowered him.

What we are left with in ‘I Remember Nothing’ is a track that, not matter how many times you listen to it, is massively affecting and never really dims the simple vibrancy with which Curtis depicts his state of mind. It is a track that will continue to stay with me… at the same time utterly disturbing and formidably remarkable.

-o0o-

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