The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’ image went from underground album cover to a piece of cultural ubiquity

(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Peter Saville was 22 years old, fresh out of college and ready for the opportunity that presented itself. “At that age, no one was asking me to redesign the transit system but somebody asked me to do a record cover. So I did a record cover the way I wanted — not just the way I wanted a record cover to be, but the way I wanted everything to be,” says Saville, now 63, about his work on Joy Division’s 1979 morose masterpiece “Unknown Pleasures.”

Joy Division was a rock-and-roll band from the industrial city of Manchester, England. Rock-and-roll only because whether they were punk, post-punk, new wave or goth is a debate best left to depressives at any bar at any hour. The music of Joy Division, raised to mythology by the suicide on May 18, 1980, of singer Ian Curtis, was too much for easy categorization. Forty years after its June 1979 release, “Unknown Pleasures” stands as at least one of the defining albums of the punk era and maybe one of the defining albums of the last halfcentury, the answer depending on just how much black is in your wardrobe. And just as there’s no doubting the canonical impact of the album, the same can be said for its cover. The album art, for good or ill, has arguably surpassed the music in terms of ubiquity, if not necessarily influence, looming larger than ever. You can see it on the shirts of characters in major motion pictures, on shower curtains, full back tattoos and populating every last corner of the Internet.

The cover of “Unknown Pleasures” is simple. It’s a diagram of a series of pulse waves, stacked in white, over a background, and centered, as if in a box held static in space. The pulsar image, as ably summarized for us dummies in Scientific American by Jen Christiansen, is a data visualization that “shows a series of radio frequency periods from the first pulsar discovered.”

The radio pulsar was discovered on Nov. 28, 1967, at Cambridge by the astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell (for which, as part of a dubious tradition continued in both science and post-punk today, her male thesis adviser was awarded the Nobel Prize).

Soon after, working at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, Harold D. Craft Jr. would diagram these stacked waves, best known as CP 1919 (briefly called LGM-1 or “little green men”) and now, correctly if somewhat less memorably, PSR B1919+21.

Craft’s diagram ended up in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy, and there was found by Bernard Sumner, the lead guitarist for Joy Division, who was looking for something neat to put on his new band’s first record. (This is the story in Saville’s telling; other versions of the story credit drummer Stephen Morris for finding it).

The original cover has neither band name nor album title printed on it. While the music industry standard was labeling all product for easy finding at the store, Factory Records, which released “Unknown Pleasures” as its first proper full length album, ostensibly operated on more utopian ideals.

“I made the decision to not put the name on the front, and they were okay with that,” Saville says. “We were all the age that bought records, and you don’t need the title. It’s patronizing to its audience.”

The stark monochrome image that Sumner gave Saville was in line with album art that was moving him at the time. “I was aware how a single image could evoke an entire train of thought,” he says, noting Kraftwerk and Roxy Music as particular inspirations. Joy Division wanted Saville’s design in white. But Factory Records was built on autonomous notions; the band made the music and the designer made the cover. “The group asked for it to be white on the outside and I just couldn’t see it,” Saville says. “I was afraid it might look a little cheap. I was convinced that it was just sexier in black. This is a radio energy from space. Space is black.”

From this beginning — scientific discovery, credit deferred, young men in a ruined town, autonomy and space — the cover was born.

The death of Ian Curtis meant the end of Joy Division as a band and the beginning of Joy Division as something of a lifestyle.

By the late ’80s, despite the members of Joy Division’s aversion to the term, no goth gathering was complete without more than a few prematurely withered young souls in black shirts with white lines across them.

But it’s more notable where the stacked pulse waves didn’t appear. There are no Joy Division posters or shirts in any John Hughes movies. Even the filmography of a walking flagship of college rock T-shirts like John Cusack is entirely devoid of “Unknown Pleasures” art.

The band’s presence burbled under the surface of much black-clad subculture (see: The Crow comic, “The Crow” movie, the soundtrack to “The Crow” movie), but the absence of “Unknown Pleasures” cameos on-screen in the ’90s should not be regretted. Consider, after all, two more recent, egregious uses of it: Carrie Bradshaw’s younger sister Dorritt wearing an “Unknown Pleasures” tank-top in the 2013 “Sex and the City” prequel series “The Carrie Diaries” and the shirt worn by Art3mis in Steven Spielberg’s 2018 time-killer, “Ready Player One,” a movie about a future where teenagers only know pop culture from before 1995 and don’t listen to rap. At some point, the “Unknown Pleasures” image began to feel like nothing more than a signifier, a stand-in for “cool” or, worse, “this is a thing I’m aware of.” (An accurate documentation of celebrities wearing the shirt would require its own fanpedia site.)

For Saville, the phenomenon of the image’s proliferation is always “interesting,” with him only conceding, after much prodding, that arguably “over the last 20 years it has, to a certain extent, become gratuitous and tedious and insincere.”

He says its utility (“It’s very easy to wear with things”), combined with the implied detachment of stark black, would lend itself to the ubiquity of fashion, high or low. And, though the ever-positive Saville doesn’t say this, its backlash.

In 2003, two years into the post-punk revival, the world of fashion went directly to the source. Belgian fashion designer Raf Simons collaborated with Saville to make Simons’ Fall/Winter “Closer” line (named after Joy Division’s second album, also designed by Saville). It included knit sweaters, black leather jackets and full length parkas emblazoned with the iconic pulse waves.

By 2006, hypebeast mecca Supreme was making clothing using the pulse design, and from there the floodgates were open. Between limited edition fashion house runs, bootlegs, official merch licensed through Warner Bros., Hot Topic and Urban Outfitters, there was suddenly a bounty of options for hardcore to passive Joy Division fans and those who just found a series of nice wavy lines slimming.

Still, there’s much to agree with in Saville’s optimism. Much of the use of the image is made by enthusiasts. When Brooklyn’s dub experimental tribute to Joy Division, Jah Division, released “Dub Will Tear Us Apart” in 2004, they flipped the colors of “Unknown Pleasures” to green and gold and red. And they turned the cover upside down “for a more melting, psychedelic vibe” not as ironists but as fans who’d worn their Joy Division shirts in high school and now were combining their interests: post-punk, dub, being total weirdos.

In the same vein of musicians manipulating the imagery for their own needs, the cover of California rapper Vince Staples’s 2015 album, “Summertime ‘06,” is the cover of “Unknown Pleasures” with the interstellar radio waves rendered as ocean waves, but still an ocean in a space of black. Staples (who declined through Def Jam to be interviewed for this article) has talked in the past about getting into Joy Division from Mexican neighbors and intending “Summertime ‘06” as a take on “Unknown Pleasures” but with themes more commensurate to his bleak and black Long Beach background than the bleak and white Manchester-driven original.

In the album’s art inside and out the sleeve, he succeeded in making the only nostalgia free Joy Division album possible in the 21st century, one that transcends its influence and is more true to the initial spirit than all the pastiche guitar bands combined.

Saville says “Unknown Pleasures” is “cool, in all of the meanings, from cool to cold,” which helps makes it an image where fashion and design and online irony all can occupy the same territory.

After seeing message board posts of Jimi Hendrix/Bob Marley mash-up shirts, Chris Ott, author of a book on the making of “Unknown Pleasures,” came up with the image of the pulses with “Depeche Mode” inscribed on top and “Boys Don’t Cry” (as in, the hit single by the Cure) as the bottom text in June of 2013. He did so not as an empty riff but as a “gloriously compound blasphemy” meant to poke fun at “stuffy record-collector types and fragile Ian Curtis worshipers.”

Adam J. Kurtz was a struggling designer in (again, always) Brooklyn when he made his hugely popular “What Is This? I Saw It On Tumblr” shirt, the sales of which he says helped him pay off his credit card debt. “I honestly have never listened to the album in full which I appreciate is disrespectful and I just put it on right now,” he says. “I would say I am a casual fan only for lack of digging deeper. However I am a very big fan of Tumblr and taking a joke too far and making products that nobody’s asked for.”

The borders between fan and online provocateur are not just blurred, they’re practically nonexistent. There are hundreds of permutations of the image now — cats in waves, waves shaped like all 50 states, waves altered to shape, God help us, the face of Jim Varney. Even gormless corporations try to get in on the act, like when Disney attempted a Mickey Mouse/“Unknown Pleasures” mash-up in 2012, causing people to ask — Is this real? Is this a joke? Will there be a Joy Division themed-day at the Magic Kingdom? (It was real until it was pulled after two days.)

The Disney episode set the scene for the current point in the history of the “Unknown Pleasures” cover, a format where irreverence and confusion reign: memes. Go to Instagram. Type in #UnknownPleasures or #JoyDivision. Reap the fatuous whirlwind. The people got jokes, and those jokes want to be free.

Meme expert Joelle Bouchard, a co-host of the strange, delightful, borderline-unwatchable-to-anyone-over-the-age-of-23 Adult Swim streaming show devoted to meme culture, “Bottom Text,” says that the “Unknown Pleasures” cover “transcends the Internet medium, trends, and subculture specific recognition.” She then proceeded to show me a self-made meme where a series of layered jokes that somehow combined Whoopi Goldberg and a French clothing line made absolutely no sense, were unquestionably funny and couldn’t be further from the kind of art Joy Division was creating as a band 40 years ago.

So how does a serious thing — radio waves from a dead star in the service of a suicide’s art — resonate faithfully in deeply unserious times? Does art’s transformation to a series of references negate its initial power? The sight of an “Unknown Pleasures” shirt might have once caused the person wearing it to have to prove his or her (let’s face it, her) fandom by naming a dozen Joy Division B-sides in the face of skeptical questioning; that gatekeeping insecurity seems almost impossible at this point.

Peter Saville saw possibility in his peers’ art and the freedom his label gave him, and he believed in young people and in the kinetic power of pop culture, so we reach not an ending, but just part of “Unknown Pleasures’s” journey: a million anonymous kids at their keyboards, hipster designers at every strata of gentrification, rappers and rockers from Brooklyn to Long Beach, all moving ancient radio waves around. Maybe it’s for novelty, for commerce, for their own artistic ambitions and, presumably, at least more than a few doing so just because they heard the band’s music for the first time and it moved them.