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Peter Hook: Tragic Joy, Electrified Order

Nenad Georgievski By

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Joy Division existed for three and a half years before it reached its tragic end in 1980, but its musical legacy still resonates strongly today. Within that limited period, four young lads from Manchester changed the direction of music—first, by pioneering what is now called post-punk, and inspiring countless other artists along the way, most notably U2, The Cure, Interpol and Editors. Formed by bassist Peter Hook and guitarist Bernard Sumner after seeing the Sex Pistols play in Manchester in 1976, the group took shape when singer Ian Curtis responded to a "seeking singer" ad.

The band was a product of the bleaker parts of Manchester in the depressed late '70s, and its music echoed the emotional and psychological pain of life in a post-industrial wasteland. Two near-perfect and timeless records released during its active lifetime—Unknown Pleasures (Factory, 1979) and Closer (Factory, 1980)—were masterpieces, introducing some of the most influential sounds of the era and changing rock music's aesthetic parameters.

While Curtis was a mesmerizing performer onstage and an enigma, he was struggling with depression, epilepsy and a failing marriage, dying by his own hand on the eve of Joy Division's first American tour, just as the band's best known single, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (1980) was released. Instead of plowing their old furrow, the remaining band members opted for a new kind of music aided by sequencers and drum machines; Joy Division became New Order.

New Order fused Joy Division's gloomy aesthetic to electronic dance Music, spawning a myriad of signature songs. The immortal pop dance track "Blue Monday," from Power, Corruption and Lies (Factory, 1983), is the biggest selling 12" of all time, celebrating its 30 anniversary in 2013. The band released the excellent Lost Sirens (Rhino, 2013) in January, with leftovers from Waiting for the Siren's Song (London, 2005), and is likely the last studio material to be released with Hook's involvement.

More than three decades later—and three years after leaving New Order—Peter Hook decided to commemorate the life of Ian Curtis by performing the band's music, but with a new group, The Light, and when New Order regrouped without him he decided to take the music of Joy Division on the road. He also wrote Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (It Books, 2013), with his recollections of that tumultuous period. The book is a brilliant portrayal of an important moment in music history, including the life and times of a working band. In late January and early February 2013, he went on a 10-date book tour in US that also included an onstage conversation with noted journalists and authors. On March 21, 2013, Peter Hook and the Light performed a set of Joy Division songs in Zagreb, Croatia to ecstatic audiences, as part of its spring tour, and with tremendous fierceness and enthusiasm.

All About Jazz:What was the impetus behind writing Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division and what did you want to achieve with the book?

Peter Hook :Well, I suppose there were two main reasons. The main reason for writing the book was just that I was getting sick of reading lots of books about Joy Division that were written by people who were just not there at the time. There have been lots of books and stories about Joy Division but they are all told by people were never really there with us the whole time, so how could they know? So I decided to write the book so that people could have a firsthand account of the band, written by someone who was there—me. I suppose the second reason was that I was spurred on by the success of my first book, The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club (Simon & Schuster, 1999), which I wrote about the Manchester nightclub. It did really well and was more successful than I was expecting, so it made me more likely to write another book, this time about Joy Division.

AAJ: Was writing it a cathartic experience for you as, apart from telling the Joy Division's history, you touched sensitive issues?

PH:I really enjoyed writing the book because it brought back a lot of nice memories and reminded me of a lot of positive things. It helped me to remember the fun we had when we were recording music as Warsaw or Joy Division and it reminded me of the excellent chemistry that the four of us had as a group—the songs just seemed to come to us quite easily at times. Obviously, within the story of Joy Division, there are some sensitive issues and at times it was quite difficult to write about them, but writing the book was mainly a very positive feeling.

AAJ: What is your assessment of all those books that were written about Joy Division, including (amongst others) Deborah Curtis' Touching from a Distance (Faber & Faber, 1995) and Paul Morley's Piece by Piece (Plexus Publishing, 2008)?

PH:Well, they are both great books in their own right but, like I said before, the majority of books that have been written about Joy Division were written by people who were not there, so are simply not able to know about the actual stories and issues; ok, Deborah was obviously there as she was Ian's wife, but she was not present at rehearsals or writing sessions or some of the gigs, so I think my own book can help to explain that side of the band a lot better. Paul Morley's book is an interesting one but, like I said, it's very difficult to write about something that you did not actually see. I feel like my book is a very honest and truthful account of what it was actually like to be in Joy Division.

AAJ: It seems that with any legendary band, like the Doors or The Beatles, people always have a thirst for new information, new stories and, with all the books, movies, interviews and more. Is there anything left to be said?

PH: I think that as with any band that is not around anymore, there will always be a desire from people to hear more and to discover more, because there is no chance of any more music, so the only thing left to discover is as many stories as possible. Such is the desire to always have something new. I think it's just a natural thing. The fact that so many great films and books are made about so many bands, it's just great to be able to have that information at our fingertips.

AAJ: The book sheds a light not only on the times when the music was made, but also analyzes the group's two albums in detail. What are your thoughts on them now, with the passing of time?

PH: Looking back now, over 30 years later, I can say that I love them both and that I am very, very proud of them, and always will be. It is a real pleasure to be able to play both of them live all around the world now. A lot of people have said that the best part of the book is when I analyze the music—I recommend that people listen to the music at the same time and then I go through it track by track; I think it works quite well. At the time of the albums' release, we were not really in love with the sound or the feel of the records, because all we wanted to sound like was the Sex Pistols or The Clash, but looking back now I can see that we were wrong because they sound fantastic—even after all this time.

AAJ: Were you aware of just how revolutionary the band's sound and songs were at the time and were you surprised at the impact they made?

PH: No; we had no idea. Like I said, we just wanted to sound like a real punk band, The Sex Pistols or The Clash for example, because essentially we still saw ourselves as punk. Our producer, Martin Hannett, actually gave us a very different sound to what we wanted and at first we did not like it that much, we did not understand it. But obviously we are more mature now and I can look back and see that we were wrong and he was right. Martin gave us a gift: over 30 years later, the recordings still sound fresh and interesting. As for the impact of the albums, we knew we had some great songs but nobody could have predicted the impact those two albums would go on to have.

AAJ: Were there parts you really didn't look forward to when writing in the book?

PH: Yes, obviously it was not easy to write about Ian's death. Writing about that was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Time helps you to get over things but even now, over 30 years since Ian's death, it is still a difficult subject for me to talk about.

AAJ: What's your most enduring memory of Ian Curtis?

PH: My most enduring memory of Ian is definitely that of Ian as a friend; at the end of the day he was one of my closest and best friends. Regardless of also being band mates or anything like that, he was a great friend. I will also always remember him as a wonderful lyricist and wordsmith, a very gifted musician, and also as the leader of the band—if anything negative happened to the band it would always be Ian that would pick you up and tell you that everything was going to be ok.

AAJ: Do you ever think that the cult of Ian Curtis overshadows the other band members' contributions to Joy Division?

PH: I think it is inevitable really that sometimes this can happen; the fact that Ian left us while he was still very young means that sometimes there can be a cult following or there can sometimes be quite a mythological aspect to the band. But it is important to remember that Joy Division had another three members who were also equally important in terms of making the music. I had managed to create some good bass lines and started to develop my own sound, while Bernard and Steven also pushed the boundaries of their instruments and developed very distinctive playing styles of their own.

AAJ: To your opinion, how would have Joy Division's sound and music evolved for the next record if circumstances with Curtis had been different?

PH: That is the big question, I suppose. I think that we would have continued to write great songs and that, yes, we would have progressed into a more electronic influenced style of music, as New Order did. While we were in Joy Division we were experimenting more with electronic styles, some of this you can hear on tracks like "Isolation"; Bernard and Steven, in particular, had become very interested in synthesizers and drum machines, so I think that we would have progressed the same way but obviously the difference would be that Ian would still have been our front man.

AAJ: How does it feel like emotionally to be revisiting those two watershed records in their entirety years after they were recorded?

PH: It feels really nice, actually—it's nice to be able to get the songs back after all this time, because when we were touring as new order we did not play many Joy Division songs, and we didn't actually play any Joy Division material again for a long time. So I am really enjoying getting the music back again, and the band I have put together play the songs really well which is just a bonus for me; they work so hard. It's great to perform the album as a live set because it demands more concentration than just doing the same old greatest hits set every night, like certain other bands do.
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