It’s been on t-shirts, it’s been on posters, it’s been on tv-shows, it’s been on movies. It’s been paid tribute to, parodied, remixed and re-modelled. The iconic cover of Joy Division’s 1979 debut album Unknown Pleasures is perhaps the most enduring image of the post-punk era. You’ve probably got a t-shirt of it. Even if you haven’t, you almost certainly own the album in some shape or form.
The stark white-on-black line drawing conjures up so much mystery. Before the internet, information about Joy Division was scarce: the band’s name did not appear on the record and there was no way any photos of the musicians would appear on a sleeve.
An air of mystery grew up around the Unknown Pleasures cover. What did the enigmatic waveform symbolize? Was it a heartbeat? Was it a mathematical analysis of something sinister? Was it the cosmic scream of a dying star? Or was it just the sound wave of those terrifying synth-drums that Joy Division is known for?
Answer: none of the above. Although one suggestion was close.
In simple terms, the image is a stacked plot of radio emissions given out by a device, which is called a pulsar, a “rotating neutron star”. Originally it was named CP 1919, the pulsar was discovered in November 1967 by a student named Jocelyn Burnell and her supervisor Antony Hewish at Cambridge University. It turns out, that as the star turns, it emits electromagnetic radiation in a beam, like a lighthouse if you will, which can be picked up by radio telescopes. Each line on the image is an individual pulse. Since they’re travelling a long way across the universe, all lines are different because of interferences.
Initially the image was published in a science magazine in January 1971. But, how did the image make its way on the cover of one of the most influential post-punk indie albums?
The image was reproduced in the UK in 1977 as part of a book called the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy. It was here that Bernard Sumner, one of the members of the band, saw the image. He was on his lunch break and was really fond of scientific books. As soon as he saw the image, something clicked right away.
After that, the band goes to the in-house designer of the label, Peter Saville, to discuss about the founded image and to brainstorm about the cover. On an interview, Saville recalled that the band was fond of the cover being white on the outside with dark lines. However, Saville contradicted the band’s instruction and reversed the concept, since he personally thought it had much more presence. And he was right, since the cover today remains the same as it was, initially 40 years ago.