This British masterpiece turns forty this year. And we went to find out about the cover art – created by Peter Saville – which has been a landmark in music history since 1979
“Unknown Pleasures”, the ground-breaking debut from Joy Division which celebrated its fortieth birthday this year (it came out on 15th June 1979), also owes its success to its iconic cover which, over the years, has become a recurring subject for fashion designers as much as for tattoo fans.
The image, mysterious and evocative, was unearthed by the drummer of the band, Stephen Morris, in the pages of a text book, “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy” and passed on to the designer of Factory Records, the brilliant Peter Saville, who would use it for the cover art of the album.
The famous diagram represents the waves from the first pulsar (CP 1919, also known in scientific circles as Cambridge Pulsar PSR 1919+21) discovered in Cambridge in 1967 by scholars Jocelyn Bell and Antony Hewish.
Saville inverted the colours of the image (from white to black), adding nothing else to the overall design, not even the name of the group or the album. Nor is there a list of the tracks by Joy Division on the back cover, only an oppressive black.
Saville himself, during a famous interview with a British newspaper, tried to explain the sudden stroke of genius which would distinguish him in artistic terms for the next four decades (and beyond): “It’s both technical and sensual. It’s tight, like Stephen Morris’ drumming, but it’s also fluid: lots of people think it’s a heart beat.”
In an article in the magazine “Scientific American” another theory on the subject emerges. Here it is claimed that the inspiration for the band came from the doctorate thesis of a little known student at Cornell University, one Harold D. Craft.
The image used by Craft is simply the graphic rendition had been published in 1970 with the title “Radio Observations of the Pulse Profiles and Dispersion Measures of Twelve Pulsars”. The magazine also published the stages of preparation of the thesis:
“Tracing the movements of the stars,” writes Craft, “I decided to use ink in order to make the lines more easy to distinguish.”
which was the day when, without even meaning to, Harold D. changed the history of design forever…