Back in the pre-internet days, there were very few information about Joy Division: no band name on the record, no photos of the musicians on the sleeve. A mistery grew up not only around the band, but also around Unknown Pleasures cover art. A black-and-white drawing looking like a heartbeat or a digital display of mountain peaks. As the years go by, interest around the strange cover grew up and we find it as the subject of both an american scientific magazine article and a small documentary, Data Visualization Reinterpreted: The Story of Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” Album Design.
The mysterious image is literally a “stacked plot” of the radio emissions given out by a pulsar, a “rotating neutron star”. This pulsar was discovered in November 1967 by student Jocelyn Bell Burnell and her supervisor Antony Hewish at Cambridge University. The image was reproduced in the UK in 1977 as part of a big book called The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy.
Bernard Sumner, founding member of Joy Division, lead-guitarist, keyboardist and also graphic designer found out the image in the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy, as he himself narrates:
“On my lunch break, I’d go to the Manchester Central Library, and get a sandwich at the cafe.
They had a good art section and a good science section. I’d read through the books in search of inspiration. One of the images I found was the Unknown Pleasures image that clicked with me straight away.
In Joy Division, I had insomnia and stayed up very late. I was building synthesisers – they took months to build, soldering all the components, and I’d have 2001: A Space Odyssey playing in the background. If you take the obelisk out of that movie, it has that same black shape.”
When Joy Division were looking to release their debut album with Tony Wilson’s Factory Records in the summer of 1979, they went to the label’s in-house designer Peter Saville to discuss the cover.
“[They said] we’d like it to be white on the outside and black on the inside. I took these elements away and put it together to the best of my ability. No one said what size or where – I had to figure out how.
“I contradicted the band’s instructions and made it black on the outside and white on the inside, which I felt had more presence.”