Tuesday, May 19, 2020

A Stacked Plot of Radio Signals From a Pulsar - 40 Years





I’ve played nothing but Unknown Pleasures for the past two days. Here’s my tribute to Curtis without once saying RIP.

1. The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomyedited by Simon Mitton. Prentice-Hall of Canada, by Terwin Copplestone Publishing, 1977. No source credit for the plot can be found in the text, other than a general book-wide "diagrams and graphs by Michael Robinson" nod. There's a four-page summary about pulsars and several diagrams but not much detail about the stacked plot itself, beyond the figure caption: "Successive pulses from the first pulsar discovered, CP 1919, are here superimposed vertically. The pulses occur every 1.337 seconds. They are caused by a rapidly spinning neutron star." 

2. Graphis Diagrams: The Graphic Visualization of Abstract Data, edited by Walter Herdeg, The Graphis Press, Zurich, 1974. Included in a catalogue of data visualizations on scientific topics, attributed on the credits page to the Arecibo Radio Observatory: "Von einem Computer erzeugte illustration von achtzig aufeinanderfolgenden Pulsperioden des ersten Pulsars, der beobachtet wurde. Die Durchschnittsbreite der Pulse ist weniger als eine 50tausendstel-Sekunde. Das Diagramm wurde vom Arecibo Radio-Observatorium in Puerto Rico hergestellt. Aus Scientific American, 'The Nature of Pulsars,' von J. P. Ostriker (U.S.A.)." A translation includes the definition of a Pulsar: Pulsars are types of neutron stars; the dead relics of massive stars. What sets pulsars apart from regular neutron stars is that they're highly magnetized, and rotating at enormous speeds. Astronomers detect them by the radio pulses they emit at regular intervals.

3. “The Nature of Pulsars” by Jeremiah P. Ostriker, Scientific American, January 1971 (pages 48-60); Credited to Arecibo Radio Observatory in the issue's illustration credit box on page 4.

4. Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures, 1971 (AM10). In the infinite debate of influence or confluence, Joy Division's place is as secure as its equally esteemed mythos, yet the lens of mythology ofttimes blurs the cruel and unforgiving nature of reality, ignoring the context that was responsible for the music we were enjoying in the first place. Though viewed as the catalyst for what would become New Order, the death of Ian Curtis is no less tragic even when cast in the positive light of his unparalleled influence. And while New Order's acclaim and success is deserved and historic in its own right, the band's clear distinction both in sound and in scope separate it from the overwhelming, albeit brief, presence of Joy Division.

Perhaps the most profound and uncanny part of Joy Division's story is found in the band's vapor-like existence, spanning only two full-length albums and an EP. It's the kind of story the world of rock 'n' roll readily mutates into lore, with the spectacle unfairly overshadowing the validity of the music itself. The song that arguably started it all (notwithstanding, of course, the single-only icon "Love Will Tear Us Apart," AM10), is unmistakably "Disorder." The first track from Joy Division’s debut LP immediately kicks in the obliquely subdued soundscape the band would pioneer. Beginning with Stephen Morris' hiccuped drums and Bernard Sumner's minimal guitar work, the song's pace is exacting, gradually unraveling both lyrically and musically, with Ian Curtis' icy baritone punctuating the song's staccato rhythm (and possibly mimicking his epilepsy). The song's gradual descent into sonic disarray is something that might have detracted from any other band whose vocalist wasn't Ian Curtis. He reverberates the word "feeling" in a fevered, isolated haze to close the song and to essentially begin and even end Joy Division’s tragic and influential story. "I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand" remains a startling opening line for any album. When Curtis wrote it he was emerging from an adolescent worship of decadent rock poets such as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and David Bowie, yet the line contains none of their bravado. Hindsight has robbed Curtis of much of his poetic genius. Today his lyrics are analyzed in reference to his suicide, they should really be read in deference to a young man in love with rock 'n' roll and suffering from a debilitating illness. Or maybe just from a young man.

Clear, stark and darker than night, "She's Lost Control" is one of the group's finest recordings. Disembodied, Ian Curtis' voice sits uncomfortably in the middle, intoning the lyrics that would come to define his battle with epilepsy. "New Dawn Fades," is perhaps the summation of the atmosphere of dread that exists on Unknown Pleasures. Defying description, the album seems to scream against an unknown terror. Half in love with darkness, Joy Division seem terrified of being consumed by it. Driven by a thick bassline from Peter Hook, the mathematical beats of Stephen Morris and the restrained guitar playing of Bernard Sumner, the track takes the dark tones of The Velvet Underground and melts them into thick black tar. When Curtis intones "a loaded gun won’t set you free" he may have had one eye on his own fate, but he was also looking at a country fast falling apart. Terrorist attacks at home and abroad, a government brought to its knee by militants, and Curtis in the middle "hoping for something more." It was the Clash with sorrow rather than anger.