I was staying near Manchester the summer of '79; I opened a music paper to find Jon Savage's stunning review of "Unknown Pleasures," the debut by what was then still a local band. I'd just turned 18, perfect for the punk era already fading into darker soundscapes that Joy Division created. From the cover into the songs, this first LP summed up the aesthetic that in turn would warp progressive and glam and metal traces into goth and industrial and, well, more post-punk that endures thirty years on.
Not an album for the fainthearted; Martin Hannett's inverted production (see the essay by Michael Bibby in the anthology edited by him and Lauren Goodlad as "Goth: Undead Subculture" or Simon Reynolds' "Rip it Up" history of post-punk for the recording techniques; I've reviewed "Goth") pushed the thuds of Peter Hook, who played bass like a lead instrument, and the steady beat of Stephen Morris, thundering over the diminished voice of Ian Curtis and the guitar fills of Bernard Sumner. This dislocated echo dramatized the effect of an alienated, despairing environment. As Factory Records' mastermind (see "24 Hour Party People" with Steve Coogan in the role) Tony Wilson notes in the liner notes to a so-so tribute album, "Means to an End" 15 years ago: punk lasted a couple of years with "F[---] you" as its message. Then, it ran out of energy. It led to Joy Division's "We're F---ed" as the only possible, and more sustainable, response. For me, this music at its best dates far less than much of punk that spawned it.
"Closer" followed the media hype and personal struggles (see the fine biopic "Control" by noted photographer of this milieu, Anton Corbijn) of Curtis and bandmates. For me it suffers by a lusher, keyboard reliance and weaker, less serrated arrangements, but it and the single hit that followed "Love Will Tear Us Apart" seemed to bring success for the group just before a Spring 80 tour (for which I was waiting back home) of America was cancelled after Curtis hung himself. The trio regrouped as New Order.
I recommend the 4-disc warts and all "Heart & Soul" package for those ready to take on the band. Live tracks, radio sessions and demos for me often work better than the studio tracks, much as I admire Hannett's mixing and miking skills. I prefer as with contemporaries The Cure, PiL, and Siouxsie and the Banshees their earlier, rawer tunes to the more assured, streamlined ones that followed as post-punk turned less aggressive and more danceable, but that may reflect my own state of mind. For, I came of age with these bands in the late 70s, members playing who were barely four or five years older than me. That made all the difference-- they seemed more than cartoonish punks so soon stereotyped to express the pain of growing up in a post-hippie, dispirited, constrained society after so much hype failed again.