On the 4th May, the Conservatives won the general election by a 43 seat majority. There were notable losses from Parliament (Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe) and additions (MP for Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire, John Major.) But the wider cabinet seemed almost a frippery considering the figure of the new Prime Minister, the first ever woman to take the role, Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher had been an MP since 1958, when she had been an MP for Finchley. Her first speech was supporting her private members bill. Three years later, she was promoted to front bench as Parliamentary Undersecretary at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance in Harold MacMillan’s administration. From 1964 she became Conservative spokesperson on housing and land. By 1970 she was shadow transport minister, then education minister, a role in which she was highly controversial; her scrapping of free school milk earned her the nickname “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher.”Â
It was another nickname which would come to define her, though. Once she became Leader of the Conservative Party, in 1975, she became a harsh critic of the Soviet Union. As a consequence, the Soviet Defence Ministry newspaper Krasnaya Zvedna (Red Star) gave her the nickname “the Iron Lady,”Â which would become forever associated with her image. So, as this Iron Lady became our Prime Minister, it was a time for music to reflect this ; a new age of musical austerity.
The post-punk genre was already representing this; the debut albums from The Fall and Public Image Limited had already been released. This genre was to reach its peak, though, in June 1979 with the release of Joy Division’s classic debut album, “Unknown Pleasures.”Â
The roots of this wonderful album had been planted in July 1976, when Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, friends since the age of eleven, were amongst the six people who attended the second Sex Pistols show at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall. The next day, Peter Hook bought his first bass guitar. They later recruited vocalist Ian Curtis, without asking him to audition. Bernard Sumner claimed “I knew he was all right to get on with and that was what we based the whole group on.”Â
The bands first gig saw them billed as Stiff Kittens, at the suggestion of Buzzcocks manager Richard Boon, but they instead chose to call themselves Warsaw. However, they would then go on to change this to Joy Division in order to avoid confusion with the band Warsaw Pakt. The name Joy Division evoked the darkest corners of European history, being drawn from the sexual wing on Nazi concentration camps (as outlined in the novel The House of Dolls.)
It would be easy to presume that at this time, Britain would be more concerned with contemporary Europe than with history. June 7th saw the first election for European Parliament ”â the turnout for Britain was embarrassingly low at 32%. But the Nazi connotation of Joy Division was quickly seized on by an angry press who accused the band of Nazi sympathies. Although they would later admit to being fascinated by fascism, drummer Stephen Morris said that they simply wanted to keep the memories of the sacrifices made by their parents and grandparents during World War Two alive.
The band had other ways of grabbing attention; Ian Curtis shouting at Granada television producer Tony Wilson, “Oi, Wilson, you cunt! You bastard! You put the Pistols and the Buzzcocks on television, what about us?”Â He responded by giving them their first television performance on “Granada Reports”Â ”â and then signing them to his label, Factory.
After this, the band made a rapid ascent, appearing on the NME’s cover and recording a John Peel session, but it was not all straightforward; Curtis was finding himself frequently hospitalised with epileptic seizures. This frustrating, malevolent condition was almost reflected in the aggression of the bands acclaimed live shows. The next step was to commit this sound to record.
However, once this album had been completed, under the authority and heavy influence of producer Martin Hannett, the band felt the aggression of their live shows had been lost, initially disliking the more atmospheric feel Hannett had added to the sound. However, they would go on to see that the “Joy Division sound”Â had truly been created, and “Unknown Pleasures”Â was adored by the critics. The public also took to the album on an unexpected level. Perhaps the gloom and Gothic edges of songs like “Shadowplay”Â and the intensley claustrophobic “She’s Lost Control,”Â were striking a chord; Thatchers Conservatives were already making some questionable decisions. On the 21st May, the rest of the cabinet backed Thatcher’s proposals to sell off parts of nationalised industries. During the year, the government would begin to sell its stake in British Petroleum.
Joy Division’s 24 date support tour with the Buzzcocks allowed them to quit their day jobs and further accelerated their support, in particular a devoted following nicknamed “The Cult With No Name,”Â who were stereotyped as “intense young men in grey overcoats.”Â
This sparse, bleak image was perfectly timed. Normal people were struggling in their day to day lives ”â on 25th May, the price of milk increased by more than 10%. The way the government dealt with this was certainly questionable ”â on 12th June, their first budget saw chancellor Geoffrey Howe cut the top tax rate from 83% to 60%, but on 23rd July they announced ÃÂ£4billion worth of spending cuts. In other words, the rich benefited while the masses lost out. Such public spending cuts created a world which felt wide and empty.
“Unknown Pleasures,”Â is a classic in every respect, right down to Peter Saville’s iconic artwork. But its value at the time was no doubt derived from its relevance in this empty, gloomy Britain.