For a band that lasted only a few short years, Joy Division has had an enduring, quantifiable impact on modern rock. Alternative rock, emo, shoe-gaze, and goth all pay homage to the British foursome, who released only two studio albums and a handful of singles / EPs before their enigmatic, epileptic singer committed suicide. U2’s early guitar feedback, Achtung-era electronica, and latter-day menace bear traces of Joy Division. The eerier, hypnotic, ethereal sounds purveyed by The Cure, Radiohead, REM, Smiths, and Red Hot Chili Peppers also have roots in Unknown Pleasures and Closer.
Energized by the rising tide of punk in the mid 1970’s, the band from Salford, Manchester broke rules, eschewed convention, and defied industry expectations with a dry, sinister sound that captured its bleak environs on tape. Dark but danceable, minimalist yet deep, tunes like “Digital,” “Shadowplay,” “Transmission,” and “Atmosphere” carved a musical niche that would receive a few notable, well-intentioned emulators after Ian Curtis’s suicide but never be truly replenished.
Joy Division’s three surviving members achieved global success in the eighties and nineties as New Order, but their tenure with Curtis would haunt them, their early days forever tainted by tragedy and shrouded in a mythos largely fabricated by others after-the-fact. Fans and filmmakers have rendered their own interpretations of Joy Division’s trajectory, with movies like Michael Winterbottom comedy 24 Hour Party People and the Anton Corbijn-directed Control receiving critical acclaim. Curtis’ widow penned a biography (Touched from a Distance) about their strained marriage fifteen years ago.
But now an actual band member has come forth to tell the tale from inside-out. To provide rumor control and offer insight on one of the 20th Century’s most innovative acts. We’re not surprised it’s the affable, unassuming bassist, Peter Hook—but we couldn’t have guessed Joy Division’s legacy was founded upon this much mischief and laughter, and not half the heartbreak we’re lead to believe.
“Hooky” reflects on his mates, discusses the Manchester scene in the late ‘70s, and demystifies the Ian Curtis phenomenon in the new Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (It Books, 386 pages). Written from the perspective of an older, wiser musician, it’s one of those rare rock tomes that hits upon a magical balance because its writer relays historical facts without allowing time and distance to sugarcoat his delivery. Hook has no use for nostalgia and says as much; he faithfully reports how he perceived certain people and events back then, when he—like most twenty-somethings—was a bit stubborn and self-serving. But he also confesses when age has tempered his worldview, whether his opinions on certain subjects have changed.
“This is the whole truth—as I remember it!” reads his caveat.
Yet Unknown Pleasures isn’t a proper memoir or first-person retrospect, either. Indeed, we learn precious little of Hooky’s upbringing in postwar Britain, are teased only with crumbs regarding his tenure with New Order circa 1982-2006, and left with but a sketch of his post-JD career and current home life. In other words, the author really does restrict the dissertation to his Joy Division years (1976-80), riffing on milestone moments and pertinent parties as objectively as possible, even when an accurate retelling of key sequences necessitates his becoming a minor character in his own book.
Hook acknowledges early on that it was luck as much as talent than put a bass in his hands, brought the group together, and nurtured their creativity. Rather than filter the past through rosy lenses, he ponders the serendipity of seemingly random occurrences that resulted in his picking up a flawed instrument, playing it in a unique way, and performing and recording with the guys in Joy Division instead of jamming with other musicians in other groups.
“You start seeing your life as a series of chance happenings that somehow come together to make you what you are,” he surmises.
The story begins in medies res, dropping us in the middle of the band’s first gig (as Joy Division) at Pip’s Discotheque in January 1978. Curtis is tossed out for kicking broken glass and his mates must grovel with the guards to readmit the singer the show. Even then, the concert ends in a scrap—all of which would seem familiar to Hook and co. in a few months.
We learn how music struck Hooky early on. He watched Bowie, Bolan, and Black Sabbath on Top of the Pops, tuned in to Radio Luxembourg, and scanned trade magazines like NME and Sounds. He bought a Dansette record player off a friend but stole albums and 45s because he was broke. Cockney’s Rebel’s “Sebastian” bowled him over, but it was The Sex Pistol’s raw, visceral performance at Manchester Free Trade Hall in June 1976 that convinced him “I could do that…I need to do that.” The same show (depicted in the above-mentioned movies) also prompted fellow attendees Steven Morrissey (The Smiths) and Mick Hucknell (Simply Red) to jumpstart their own careers.
Salford Grammar schoolmate Bernard “Barney” Sumner already played guitar, so Hook became bassist by default. He plunked down ₤40 for a Gibson EB-0 at Mazel Radio (with a garbage bag for a case) but, on examining the instrument at home, discovered his fret hand would have to compensate for a bum string. With Ian’s encouragement, he favored high, trebly notes that cut through the mix to augment Sumner’s distorted guitars (and resist being drowned out by them). These quirks and adaptations (along with some choice amplification) forced Joy Division’s sound to evolve into a signature blend of rhythmic punch and beguiling melodic textures underpinning Curtis’ distinct baritone.
They masqueraded as Warsaw (it was a better moniker than the other possibilities, Boys in Bondage and Slaves of Venus) but rechristened themselves in 1978 to avoid confusion with punk outfit Warsaw Pakt. Curtis plucked Joy Division from a book by Holocaust survivor Ka-Tzetnik, The House of Dolls.
Steven Morris settled in on drums after Hook and Sumner tossed a previous stickman from their car and then—in what Hooky describes as a “eureka moment”—lured fellow scenester Curtis into the fold. Their first 7”, An Ideal for Living, sounded “like shit” because the studio engineer neglected to tell them the grooves on vinyl get narrow after about three minutes and can’t maintain fidelity. The mix was so bad, in fact, that it cleared the dance floor when tested by a disc jockey at a local club. Manager Rob Gretton’s first order of business was to re-master the project for 12”.
The band’s name, sleeve art, and fashion (non)sense—all derived from Nazi culture—didn’t help. Hook and crew were routinely barred from certain venues and denied airplay because of their alleged sympathy for the Third Reich. Hook explains that the real Joy Division comprised of prostitutes tasked with servicing the guards at Nazi concentration camps. They were the oppressed, not the oppressors, and Sumner felt the name and visual aesthetic would remind fellow Manccs how WWII reduced their bustling city to a cold, crater-pocked wilderness of concrete and steel. Those who forget the past….
Eager to sign with a reputable label just get their music out there, the lads recorded a “turkey” version of N.F. Porter’s “Keep On Keepin’ On” at Arrow Studios. A Warner Bros. subsidiary offered a ₤70,000 advance and goaded them into cutting a demo with Martin Rushent at Eden Studios, but the young men ultimately sign with Tony Wilson’s fledgling Factory Records, an “indie” whose deal offered no advance but proposed a generous share of profits. Hook had to keep his day job at Ship Canal, Curtis stayed on at the Employment Exchange, and Bernard couldn’t quit coloring cartoons at Cosgrove Hall Films.
Wilson and his Factory cohorts (Alan Erasmus, Peter Seville, etc.) become like cartoon characters in an ongoing serial, and other peripheral-but-important figures like penny-pinching Gretton, eccentric producer Martin Hannett, and hapless roadie Twinny round out Joy Division’s daily rank-and-file.
Hooky takes readers inside Cargo Studios in Rochdale, where Hannett presided over recording sessions like Napoleon. Engineer John Brierley captured the sounds that would comprise Unknown Pleasures on a Cadley 16-track valve recorder, with a few touch-ups from Hannett’s arsenal of toys (compressors, echo plates, gates, delays, etc.). We learn why the producer ordered Morris to assemble his drum kit on the studio roof, or to play just one drum at a time, ghost-drumming the rest of his phantom kit in synch with the band. Hooky admits he initially hated the album’s sanitized sound but grew to appreciate Hannett’s production over the years: “He made it timeless.”
The road held many Spinal Tap moments: Hooky grows a mustache and takes to wearing a plastic cap after his mother suggests a gimmick. The band’s first manager accidentally overdubs their first demo tape with incidental voices from home: “Tea’s ready, Terry!” Hook’s favorite shirt is nearly ruined in one of many pub brawls. The Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley is showered in gobs of spit onstage. We meet Sarge, a bodyguard with a bad attitude and disgusting appetite.
Practical jokes include the usual (buckets over doors) and original (ambushing rivals with maggots, mice, and shaving cream). Hooky’s blue transit van (license VRJ 242J) and Sumner’s traveling sleeping bag become like characters themselves. Police question the lads about a rash of killings in Leeds. Joy Division had no affiliation with the Yorkshire Ripper, of course, but weren’t above shoehorning news their interrogation into its publicity campaigns: “We were looking promotion in the face.”
The bassist casts Curtis as a bright but brooding intellectual who was eager to please others, and whose lyrics exhibited “a sort of genius that was profound and impenetrable at the same time.” With a wife and baby at home, he had more of a stake in “making it” than his band mates and was more perturbed than they by the early lack of success. Hooky says the singer was embarrassed by his onstage seizures (which were often triggered by flashing lights) but rebuffed talk of canceling shows or curtailing road trips. Ian’s Belgian mistress comforted him on tour but complicated things for him back home with wife Debbie. Hook notes Curtis was a people-pleasing “chameleon” who could alter his personality depending on the company. The singer was definitely one of the boys, but confidantes seldom knew when they were getting the “real” deal instead of another of Ian’s smooth acts.
“By the end he was juggling home life and band life and had two women on the go,” writes Hooky. “There were just too many Ians to cope with.”
Looking back, the author spots his growing pains and editorializes upon them. He concedes his hotheadedness, apologizes for being too pugnacious at times, and claims responsibility for his share of bum notes. But his largest regret is that he and his chums did little for Curtis’ deteriorating health and weren’t clever enough to spot the desperate warnings in their friend’s lyrics. He attributes his own non-intervention to naïveté: Epilepsy wasn’t well understood at the time, and neither he nor Sumner was astute enough to grasp the meanings behind Curtis’ verses (much less their emotional undercurrent). So the proceedings never halted, and Joy Division maintained a busy schedule—at the singer’s insistence—until he was found dead, on the very eve of the band’s first U.S. tour.
“The group was really balanced,” Hooky recalls. “The loss of Ian opened up a hole in us and we had to learn to write in a different way.”
The book features two eight-page photo sections showing Hooky as a baby, Hooky on his Santana-adorned motor scooter, Hooky onstage in S&M clothes. “They come back to haunt you,” he jokes. Several chapters are prefaced by artifacts like studio log entries, bills of sale, show flyers, and ticket stubs.
The book design itself is a wonder to behold. HarperCollins' VP / Senior Director of Art Richard Ljoenes borrows the distinctive “pulsar” image from the Unknown Pleasures sleeve for Hook’s cover and the stark band photo and font from Closer for the half-jacket. The page edges are coal-colored, which means the book is (fittingly) entirely black from any angle. The pages themselves, in contrast, are a bleached white. Curtis would love it.
Hooky’s anecdotes and asides are priceless, but perhaps the book’s most indispensable bits are the five “Timelines”—wherein the bassist plots a comprehensive chronology containing every studio booking and live JD performance, with brief explanations (he even lists birthdates for key players)—and two “Track by Track” essays guiding readers through the whole of Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Those interested in knowing why hits like “Transmission” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” were issued as singles rather than album tracks will find their answers here. Curious about the origins of “Shadowplay,” “Digital,” “Disorder,” and “Interzone?” The riddles unfold herein. Wanna know who inspired Hooky to sling his bass so low? Look no further.
Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division is a candid, revelatory, and unexpectedly witty survey of post-punk’s greatest (if shortest-lived) band—a fond but unfiltered look back by a self-proclaimed “twat” who challenged the form, confounded the media, and confronted audiences. Peter Hook avails himself an engaging, unpretentious celebrity storyteller. It’s high time we got a firsthand account of Manchester’s most influential pop quartet, an impassioned deposition by a principal player rather than tenuously-connected kinsman or bystander.
You can’t create timeless, transcendent music without taking the odd pint glass to the forehead for one’s muse. Those who pretend otherwise, well…they’re just wankers.
For information on Peter Hook’s Winter 2013 North American book tour or concert itinerary with The Light, please visit the sites below: