An Unknown Pleasure: The Woman Behind Joy Division’s Famous Album Cover
Keaton Patti is a rock and roll writer currently interviewing lesser-known figures in music history for a yet unnamed and uncreated magazine. This article is a part of that project. If you’d like to be interviewed for the project, that’s nice.
Miriam Douglas is not a short man. She’s actually a tall woman. I sit in her cozy Bristol art gallery sipping a warm beer, the British equivalent to a Wendy’s Baconator, I’m told by Miriam’s wife, another artist. I find out her name is Rebecca and that she once kissed Andy Warhol.
“It was like kissing a broom on crack,” she says after making sure no brooms are nearby.
But Rebecca’s not why I’m here today, and I tell her that to her face while she’s standing next to the woman I am here to see. Miriam Douglas is the genius behind the album art on Joy Division’s 1979 debut, Unknown Pleasures. The iconic minimalist image has graced magazine covers, t-shirts, posters, and my own bicep before my tattoo artist forcefully lasered it off due to lack of payment. I tell Miriam about that last fact and she chuckles.
“We’ve all been there,” she says and clinks my warm beer bottle with her hot wine glass. “I’ve had more tattoos removed than I’ve had put on in the first place. Life’s funny that way.” Her wife starts to add something, but I shush her like a librarian on crack. I don’t even look to see if there are librarians nearby, and, of course, there are.
As we walk around the gallery, Miriam tells me where she got the inspiration for the album art, the piece she titled, Untitled (That’s The Title).
“Bernard [Sumner, Joy Division’s lead guitarist and lead Bernard] called me one day saying he was in a new band and they needed some artwork. He said he could send me over some demos to listen to, if I wanted to get an idea of what they sounded like. I was about to say yes when, out of nowhere, a full bottle of syrup fell from my kitchen cupboard and landed on my head. I came to a few hours later covered in syrup and blood, like a pancake at Dracula’s house, I’m sure.”
“I’m sure,” I say, even though I’m not.
“The thing is, my black out wasn’t completely black. It had some white in it too. White peaks and valleys and such. And that’s the image I used for Untitled (That’s The Title). Meanwhile, after coming to in my syrupy haze, I started hearing this faint noise and realize Bernard’s been on the phone the whole time I was unconscious! I grab the receiver and say, ‘Bernie, thanks for holding. You can keep those demos because I already know what to make.’ He, being a musician with a great ear, asks if a full bottle of syrup fell on me, and to this day I’ve never told him the truth. I always lie and say it was a half bottle. Haha. Hope he doesn’t read this interview.”
I tell Miriam that I’ll wait to release it until after Bernard is dead, if she’d like. She says she’ll think about it. (NOTE: I RELEASED IT ANYWAY AFTER BERNARD SUMNER STUBBORNLY REFUSED TO DIE)
Miriam and her wife invite me to dinner at their home located just a few blocks from the gallery. I accept it feeling that it is owed to me for having to listen to Miriam’s wife’s disgustingly long Andy Warhol story.
Along the walk over we run into a man wearing a black t-shirt with Miriam’s iconic album art on the front. We stop and chat with the man for a minute.
“I like your shirt,” I say.
“Thanks,” he says.
“You like Joy Division?” I ask.
“No. I just like the design,” he says.
“Oh, well the designer is right here,” I say and point at Miriam.
“Wow,” he says. “I read somewhere a robot drew it.”
“Nope,” I say. “This woman drew it after a whole bottle of syrup fell on her head.”
“Wow,” he says. “I have to see my probation officer before 6:30 or else I’ll go back to jail.”
“Oh. It’s already 6:35.” I show him my watch.
“Dang,” he says. “Nice watch, though.”
I thank the t-shirt man and head off with Miriam and her wife. We all agree that whatever jail he goes to is going to get a lot nicer and more pleasant to be in.
At dinner, the food is served on a tablecloth emblazoned with Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album cover artwork. It’s also on the napkins, the seat covers, and the utensils. The food is arranged in a way that it looks like it as well. A seat at the table is occupied by a large print of the album cover. The whole thing is really fucking weird, but the food is good. Can’t go wrong with spaghetti and oranges.
Before heading out, I ask Miriam if she believes art and music are intrinsically linked to one another, and if so, are there ways in which the balance between music and art has altered throughout the years she has been immersed amongst them. She asks me what “intrinsically” means, and I really don’t want to have to define it, so I just leave.
Her wife never apologizes.