Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division
By Peter Hook (Simon & Schuster)
Reviewed by Des Cowley
You’d be within your rights to believe there was nothing new to say about Joy Division. After all, there have been countless books about the band and singer Ian Curtis, including wife Deborah’s Touching from a Distance. And even if you’d managed to avoid these, chances are you’ll know the bare bones of the story from Michael Winterbottom’s brilliant 24 Hour Party People or Anton Corbijn’s beautifully shot black and white film Control. Peter Hook notes that he didn’t even notice that Corbijn’s film wasn’t in colour when he first saw it, so closely did it evoke his childhood memories of Salford, Manchester, with its ‘dark and smoggy’ tones, the ‘colour of a wet cardboard box.’
This obsessive documentation seems all the more remarkable when we consider the band was around for little more than three years, and officially released only one album prior to Curtis’s suicide in May 1980. Aside from the obvious mystique of Curtis’s early death, which catapulted him into the select company of Hendrix, Jim Morrison and others, Peter Hook puts the band’s longevity down to the fact that, unlike so many bands of the period, Joy Division’s music hasn’t aged at all, it’s timeless. Having spent the last week assiduously working my way through Joy Division’s complete catalogue, I’d have to concur with his assessment; it’s nothing short of otherworldly.
As bass player with the band, Hook is at least in a position to offer something new to the story. He previously published The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club, his take on the rise and fall of the 80s Manchester nightclub, in 2009, and his new book bears many of the same hallmarks. It’s fair to say he’s not shooting for literary immortality, with much of the book reading as though he’s regaling you about his debauched salad days over a pint at the local. Hook thankfully dispatches his dreary school days, which is when he first met future Joy Division guitarist Bernard Sumner (and there’s no love lost between those two), in a couple of brief chapters, before moving on to that life changing evening, the infamous Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Less Free Trade Hall on 4 June 1976. While the gig was attended by fewer than 50 people, those present included both Hook and Sumner, Howard Devoto, Mark E Smith, Morrissey, and Mick Hucknall, all of whom would go on to form bands and play a key role in the burgeoning Manchester music scene.
For a band whose song titles were directly lifted from literary writers such as William Burroughs, JG Ballard and Gogol, it’s almost a comedown to be confronted by Hook’s overly down-to-earth narrative, in which band members are constantly playing ‘japes’ on each other whilst on tour, and otherwise getting pissed, ogling girls, or being plain old wankers, bastards, or ‘twats’. It’s clear that Curtis was the intellectual of the band; and if nothing else, Hook’s book points to the miracle of music, wherein four different personalities can come together, none professionally trained in the art, and produce what can only be termed genius. If you can get past Hook’s somewhat annoying tendency to exaggerate his stories, or labour his humour, then there is plenty of interest to be gleaned from his account.
First and foremost is his take on Curtis. Whereas he’s generally portrayed as a dark and brooding Kafkaesque figure, Hook remembers him as one of the lads, behaving most of the time in the same fashion as the rest of band, a bunch of young guys on the make out to have a good time. Still, with hindsight, Hook now recognises that Curtis was caught up in a series of roles, desperately trying to please everyone in his life – the band, his wife Deborah, and Belgian girlfriend Annik. Add to this his epilepsy, which increasingly prevented him from finishing gigs, the failure of his marriage, the pressures of touring – well, it was a recipe for disaster. Sadly, Hook acknowledges they should have all seen it coming; but they were too busy wanting success to care or worry. Even Curtis’s desperate lyrics by-passed Hook at the time; he couldn’t generally hear them over the music, and it wasn’t till years later that he read them for the first time. As he says about the posthumously released Closer, it was ‘a kind of soundtrack to his suffering’.
Hook is modest about his own bass playing, which was such an integral part of Joy Division’s sound. Self-taught, he discovered his forte, which was playing the higher notes, by chance. From then on, instead of following the ‘root notes’, like most bass players, he effectively played lead, driving the songs forward. He pays tribute to Martin Hannett, whose wizardry in the studio did so much to create the Joy Division template. Being with Factory Records also meant the band had complete creative freedom, though the downside was they never really made any money. The non-commercial decisions are often hilarious. As Hook points out, what other band would release two of its best songs, in this case ‘Atmosphere’ and ‘Dead Souls’, on a limited edition French EP, for which they weren’t even paid.
Between the main narrative, Hook provides a song by song assessment of Unknown Pleasures and Closer, which allowed me to listen to some of the tracks with new ears. He bemoans the way in which New Order later got caught up in studio pyrotechnics, spending months tinkering with a track, and still not sounding as good as something Joy Division laid down in a couple of hours with Martin Hannett.
In the end, however, he recognises that his book is as much about Ian Curtis as it is about himself. Sadly, the one account of the band’s brief history we’d like most – Curtis’s – is the one we’ll never have. He remains an enigma to all who knew him.