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Great bands never die. Maybe an old tune gets sampled in a pop star’s new single. Maybe a hook inspires a TikTok dance. Maybe an old tour shirt gets popular with non-listeners, non-fans – kids who just dig the look.
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This happens all the time. Tweens have been rocking the Nirvana “Nevermind” Smiley and the Ramones “E Pluribus Unum” logo for years. But the most persistently popular shirt among the young and oblivious has long been the Joy Division “Pulsar” tee. And, unlike other bands, Joy Division doesn’t see a penny of those sales.
Joy Division "Pulsar" Tee
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“Ironically, Joy Division didn’t believe in merch, we thought any self-promotion with singles on LPs or any picture of yourself was the work of the devil. That’s how we progressed for a long time,” says Peter Hook, the band’s co-founder and bassist.
“The pulsar symbol is of a star exploding. Bernard [Sumner, the band’s guitarist] found it in a reference book and sent it to Peter Saville.” Specifically, the image shows a “stacked plot” of radio emissions given out by a specific pulsar, a rotating neutron star named CP 1919. Saville, a legendary designer, went with the found art.
The visual featured on the cover of the 1979 album Unknown Pleasures, but it has since taken on a life of its own. When the first pulsar shirts debuted, Joy Division merch was suddenly everywhere, which irked the band. Hook and his bandmates didn’t want their chief concern to be policing the folks selling bootlegs in parking lots. That was not remotely in the spirit of their band – or in the spirit of the found art.
“That image doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to the star, and now it means myth and mystery. You have an image around the group that’s compounded by a design, but with a coolness and darkness,” says Hook.
Bootleggers love that because it means the shirt can be sold without paying royalties. And that hasn’t just happened in parking lots; it’s happened in Urban Outfitters and Forever 21. The downside of this is that the band loses income. The upside is that the shirt remains endlessly in circulation and gets iterated upon constantly. Hook’s seen all kinds from hand-drawn tees to text printed in Japanese on the ad hoc concert merch.
It’s a fine outcome as far as Hook is concerned, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some dustups along the way. Hook himself got sued at one point for putting “Joy Division Manchester” on a shirt. That was after he left the band in 2007, when he was doing merch work for both Joy Division and his other wildly popular band, New Order. The royalties issue led to a drawn-out legal battle with his former bandmates that started in 2015. The band resolved their disagreements and a settlement was agreed to in 2017.
“It’s a bastardization of Peter Saville’s art that these bootleggers put the name of the band on the shirt when they weren’t supposed to,” says Hook, but he’s come to terms with it. The shirts inspire at least some new listeners to dig in on Age of Consent or New Dawn Fades. Star CP 1919 still throws off some illumination.
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