How Joy Division’s Iconic ‘Unknown Pleasures’ Album Cover was Inspired by ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

New Order frontman Bernard Sumner on the classic cover, the Manchester music scene and his hard-partying past.

Even if you aren’t a fan of gloomy post-punk icons Joy Division, you probably recognize the cover of their classic 1979 album Unknown Pleasures. The black and white rendering of a pulsar—a rotating star that emits radio waves—has been appropriated for riffs on Darth Vader’s helmet, Mickey Mouse, the Misfits skull, and Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons, among other pop culture mash-ups. The original Unknown Pleasures t-shirt remains a well-worn emblem of indie cool, and the album’s Instagram hashtag dutifully celebrates sightings of the cover art in the wild.

Bernard Sumner, a founding member of Joy Division who is perhaps best known as the frontman for synth-pop veterans New Order, discovered the original image that graphic designer Peter Saville turned into the album’s cover, released only months before Joy Division singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980.

Sumner, who recently published his memoir Chapter and Verse and is touring in support of New Order’s latest album Music Complete, spoke to Maxim before headlining Houston’s Day For Night festival about why the image inspired him, Manchester’s musical legacy and his hard-partying past.

Tell me how you found the image that became the cover of Unknown Pleasures.

I used to work at a place that did cartoon animation. 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. It was in an astronomy encyclopedia.

What was it about that particular image that connected with you?

I’ve never really thought about this before. But in Joy Division, I had insomnia and stayed up very late. Back then there wasn’t loads of TV channels. I played videocassettes. I liked Stanley Kubrick’s films and watched 2001 a lot. That was probably my inspiration. If you take the obelisk out of that movie, it has that same black shape. I was building synthesizers for Joy Division. They took months to build, soldering all the components, and I’d have 2001 playing in the background. I think that left a subconscious impression. There’s just something about that black shape.

Joy Division came from Manchester, as did The Smiths and the “Madchester” scene of the late ’80s and early 90s. Why do you think Manchester produced such enduring music? 

It can be a pretty bleak place. At this time of year, it goes dark at 3:45 in the afternoon. Winter in the UK is like putting a black cloak over the country for six months. It does your head in—you’re living in the dark a lot. In the days of Joy Division, when it was a decaying, urban post-industrial city full of red brick warehouses with smashed windows that no one worked in anymore, it was quite a brutal landscape. That combined with the shit weather and the black cloak of winter makes people turn inwards. It makes you creative. Music is an escape. You either leave, or you stay and think of something.  

New Order’s “Blue Monday” is the best-selling 12-inch-single ever. But you guys accidentally erased the original version of the song, correct?

I built a synthesizer and a sequencer to run the synthesizer. Everything was linked together like the gears of a car. What happened was, we got it all going and said, “let’s write a song with it”, and wrote “Blue Monday.” Me and Steve [Morris] programmed the drums. He tried to save it to a cassette tape, and it erased the drum program. We had to do it over again, straight away. I think the first one was a bit funkier. But it did pretty well anyway, so we must have done something right.

There’s a great anecdote in your memoir about the time you checked a bag of vomit at an airport after a night of partying with Seal and Johnny Marr, your bandmate in Electronic. Care to explain?

It was during a promotional tour, when the Manchester acid house thing was happening. There was Full Moon party under the Twin Towers in New York, and 3D from Massive Attack was deejaying. Then we went to a soul club in Harlem afterwards. We were flying to Dallas the next day. I was slumped on the floor at the airport, and started puking into my bag. It’s a wonder I didn’t get arrested. I’d been throwing up for hours. I looked so dodgy, the security guy was looking at me, not the bag, when I checked it. 

That’s truly impressive. Are you listening to any current electronic dance acts? 

For the past six and a half weeks we’ve played a gig every three days so I’ve not been listening to a lot of music. When I’m not playing it, I listen to classical music, because it doesn’t have beats and it’s nothing like it. It’s the opposite.

There’s been several movies featuring Joy Division, including 24 Hour Party People, Control, and the documentary Joy Division. Do you have a favorite?

24 hour Party People showed the humorous absurdity that did exist at the Factory [nightclub]. People say to me, “Was it really like that, or was it exaggerated?” I said, “No, they toned it down.” It really was that absurd. We had a great time, and I think the film captures that very well. Control is about Ian really, and the story of his ultimate demise. So it’s sort of two sides of the coin.