Peter Hook Talks Joy Division, New Order, And ‘Unknown Pleasures’

Yahoo! Music
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By Lori Majewski

You don't have to be a hardcore Joy Division disciple to know how band co-founder Peter Hook’s new memoir, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, will end. Thanks to biopics Control and 24 Hour Party People, as well as the countless documentaries, books, and articles that examine the iconic post-punk band’s short but influential career, even the casual fan knows that singer Ian Curtis will hang himself in his kitchen.

Then there was the music. Masters of melancholia, Joy Division was the inspiration for innumerable doom-and-gloom rock acts: The Cure, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Moby, Interpol, My Chemical Romance...As Bono says on the book jacket for Unknown Pleasures, “It would be harder to find a darker place in music than Joy Division. Their name”—a regrettable reference to a group of Jewish women at a World War II concentration camp who were kept alive to sexually service their Nazi captors—“their lyrics, and their singer were as big a black cloud as you could find in the sky.”

Yet for all the morbidity surrounding Joy Division (even Anton Corbijn’s Control was shot in black-and-white), Hook manages a colorful and surprisingly upbeat read for much of the book. Indeed, the charming, straight-talking, working-class Englishman serves up a number of laddish, laugh-out-loud moments as his band ascends from Sex Pistols-inspired punks in the late '70s to the indie-rock trailblazers whose canon of classics include “Atmosphere,” “Transmission,” and the oft-covered “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

“I wrote it as if I didn’t know the end,” the bass player, 56, explains in a Midtown Manhattan hotel restaurant. “We were all enjoying ourselves so much, and the enjoyment was only tempered by Ian’s illness”—a much-documented battle with epilepsy. “But even when he was really ill, because of the way he fought his illness and kept positive and kept you positive, you were always upbeat. His whole reason for living seemed to be to make sure you heard what you wanted to hear: ‘Don’t worry. I’m fine. Let’s carry on.’”

Hook says he even considered calling the book He Said He Was All Right So We Carried On. And carry on is exactly what he and surviving Joy Division members Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris did. In the days following Curtis’s 1980 suicide, Hook skipped out on Curtis’s wake but, still numb with shock, went straight back to the studio to finish the tracks they’d begun with the singer. When it came time to release them, though, they’d do so under another name: New Order.

Unknown Pleasures—a Best Book nominee at this month’s NME Awards—was released in the U.K. last fall, and has been embraced by fans looking for the gritty, detailed reality behind what is usually romanticized as a Shakespearian musical myth. “I’d read Mick Middles’s book with Lindsay Reade about Joy Division [Torn Apart: The Life Of Ian Curtis], and I thought, 'Oh, another one that goes with the deification of Ian and Joy Division by people who weren’t there,’” Hook says. “Anton was there a little and used that insight to do Control, which I think is by far the closest thing to us forever. But this book was actually written by someone that was there. I was there every moment.”

In his book, Hook pinpoints when Curtis came into his own as “arguably one of the best lyricists ever”: during the writing of the 1977 EP An Ideal For Living. “His songs from that point were like having a conversation with a genius, sort of profound and impenetrable at the same time,” Hook wrote.

We also get his version of his first major argument with Sumner, which set the stage for their decades-long tempestuous relationship that eventually led to Hook’s departure from New Order in 2007. It was over Sumner’s dismissal of a skinhead who’d been dragged backstage to apologize to Hook after spending the duration of an early Joy Division gig pelting the bassist with pint pots. Thus, Hook never got his apology. “It opened the floodgates,” Hook said, “because from then we were always arguing, worse than a married couple.”

Speaking to Yahoo! Music a couple of hours before greeting several hundred admirers at a book signing event at the Strand in Greenwich Village, Hook delved deeper into his estranged partnership with Sumner, Joy Division’s enduring affect on music, his plans for a follow-up book on New Order, and more.

Yahoo! Music: Ian Curtis died the day before Joy Division were set to come to America for your first U.S. tour. You’ve never even had so much as a hit single here, yet the group is beloved and much imitated—your signing in Brooklyn was packed! Are you surprised by the reception?

Peter Hook: I’m absolutely flabbergasted! I’m overwhelmed by how people genuinely seem to love that I’ve done the book. Joy Division is a huge influence on most musical rock groups. I hear U2 rip off Joy Division now. As to why that is, the only thing I can put it down to is we wrote f***ing great music. When you’re writing music, it’s like you have nothing, this blank, and then you go, “Well, what do we want to do? I know: We want to sound like Kraftwerk. Because Kraftwerk are good, aren’t they?” So you go and put a Kraftwerk record on, and you’re like, “Let’s try and do that.” You use the influence and the inspiration to create something from that blank canvas. And that’s what people do with Joy Division. They love the songs, they love the story of the band. The tragic ending is very rock ‘n’ roll—very alluring, very romantic, that “live fast, die young” story. It’s like the perfect ending to your life to go out in a blaze of glory, blowing up onstage at Glastonbury in front of 125,000 people. Rock ‘n’ roll, man! That’s why I loved Iggy Pop. Iggy Pop lived for rock ‘n’ roll, he epitomized it, cutting himself up rolling in broken glass, getting the s*** kicked out of him at gigs. That’s what it was like in those days. It doesn’t happen now. If Iggy Pop performed now, they wouldn’t attack him, they would applaud him.

Yahoo! Music: In your book, you describe a gig where Ian seemed to be channeling Iggy by rolling around on the floor, writhing in broken glass.

Hook: It f***ing scared the shit out of me. It was the first time I’d ever seen him do that!

Yahoo! Music: But your book doesn’t deify Ian Curtis the way so many versions of the Joy Division story do, Control included. Was it important to you to humanize Ian?

Hook: Most of the time that [I] spent with him was not under scrutiny. It was relaxed, and we used to have a lot of laughs. The image that we built up was actually quite opposite of the way we acted. We were very irreverent, not very serious. Bernard and I in particular had a lot of trouble coming to terms with the sort of professional respect that you have to put across in interviews. We were always being flippant, taking the mickey, as we say in England. Rob [Gretton, the band’s late manager] felt that you shouldn’t do that, and that’s why he told us both to shut up. He said: “You’re idiots. Shut up.” The only thing we took seriously was the music. When it came to the music, we were deadly serious.

Yahoo! Music: Did you ever consider replacing Ian and carrying on as Joy Division before you decided to form New Order?

Hook: No. That would have been absolutely 100 percent impossible, without a shadow of a doubt. There was no chance, and we all knew that immediately. It’s like when INXS got that guy in. You could have gotten someone who sounded like Ian to come in, but it wouldn’t have been the same. Because when we started, we were nothing, and yet he was fantastic then. So to get someone in who would just copy him just didn’t seem right at all, it really didn’t.

Yahoo! Music: This isn’t your first book. In 2009 you wrote an exposé on the infamous Manchester night spot of which you were a co-owner, The Hacienda: How Not To Run A Club. [It was published in the U.K., France, and Japan.] Chronologically, though, the Joy Division years came first—why did this book come second?

Hook: When I went to publishers with the idea for the Hacienda book, they said, “Why are you doing a Hacienda book? You should do a Joy Division and New Order one. They’re much more popular than the Hacienda. Do one book, and we’ll give you this amount of money.” And I was going, “No,” because I can’t do those three stories in one book, because you wouldn’t be doing any of them justice. So I got dropped by all the publishers. It was only Simon & Schuster that took me on on a much-reduced deal to do the Hacienda book. The Hacienda took three years, and I was immensely proud of it. Being an author has a gravity that a bass player doesn’t have. My mother would be very proud of me as an author, whereas she was never particularly enamored of me as a musician. She always felt it was a bit seedy—she never considered it to be a valid occupation for her son. My brother’s a policeman, an upstanding member of the community. “Why can’t you get a job like your brother?” she used to say. When The Hacienda was very successful, then I knew I could do it: I could write a book about Joy Division.

Yahoo! Music: Many of the events you write about took place more than 35 years ago. How did you recall them so vividly? Did you keep a diary?

Hook: I did keep a diary, but I couldn’t find them! [Laughs] The history of the band is quite widely documented, and there are a lot of fan sites that are very detailed, which was very useful in spurring my memory. Those sites even have pictures of a hotel we stayed in in 1978. I was looking at them, and I’d go, “I remember it now!” I could remember, because I wasn’t drinking that much. We had no money—we couldn’t afford it. I wasn’t blacking out the way I was at the end of New Order, waking up and not remembering what had happened.

Yahoo! Music: In Unknown Pleasures, you talk a bit about New Order but say that that story “is for another time.” How will that book be different?

Hook: The Joy Division book was a lot easier to do, because we were all very focused and very together, and the only problem was Ian’s illness. If Ian hadn’t been ill, he’d probably still be here today. The degenerative effects of the drugs he was taking heightened his depression and made him unable to cope with all of the other things in his life. The great thing about the Joy Division book is that it’s very pure. There weren’t wild parties; we had no money; there were no drugs, particularly. There were no girls—it was just us in the back of a van, playing great music. Just when you’re getting to the point when it could have been poisoned, it stopped. That was lucky. New Order, on the other hand, went through all the normal rock ‘n’ roll clichés associated with most groups. Now, I’m not proud of it, and I was as bad as all the rest. The stories—you’re just not proud of them, are you? It’s like an indie Motley Crue. So to write about it...I didn’t want to cross that bridge. But maybe on my part, there is a bridge. If [Sumner and Morris] hadn’t have reformed without me [in 2011], then I would not do the New Order book.

Yahoo! Music: Any word on whether Sumner and Morris have read your Joy Division memoir?

Hook: They tried to stop Unknown Pleasures. They tried to sue me for libel, and they demanded the book as evidence in a libel prosecution. But they didn’t succeed, because there was no grounds. No grounds at all. Bernard, Stephen, and I have talked a lot about these stories in the book. I’m not betraying anything by doing it. But I’ve been in the room with Bernard and Steve, and we’ve talked about a story, and they’ve told it in a completely different way. I’m going, “No, that’s not what happened.” And I’ll tell my version, and they’ll go, “No, that’s not what happened!” So memory is completely subjective. As I say in my book, this book is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the I remember it! We’d been offered band books in the past, but the thing about a band book is that it would have to be a compromise. While New Order was together, [I] could never have written that Joy Division book. In a way, because we’re not working together, it’s easy, because the book that you would write while you’re together would be pasteurized, homogenized and have to please everybody.

Yahoo! Music: In Unknown Pleasures, you say, “Joy Division and then New Order were ships that needed captains, but our captains kept dying on us.” Clearly Bernard wanted to captain New Order.

Hook: Yeah, he did. But he’s a lousy captain. He’s only interested in himself, he’s not interested in his crew. Bernard is a very selfish character. He believes in making himself comfortable, and he doesn’t take into account other people.

Yahoo! Music: Yet together you anchored two seminal bands, which you acknowledge in the book, saying you “changed history not once but twice.”

Hook: Joy Division were an absolutely unique group. The chemistry between the individuals was absolutely fantastic. And the individual playing styles of each one of us has been much emulated. Each of us had a different style; not one of you was piggy-backing off of the other. And it was that strength that you got together that actually is very unusual in a group, and everybody tries to emulate that. And the fact that [we] stayed independent, on an independent record label, that [we] didn’t go to London like everybody else, [we] stayed in the place that made [us], and stayed true to it. We actually entertained a whole f***ing city at our own expense for 16 years. I think that is changing the world of musical and world culture. And New Order sacrificed a lot to run the Hacienda. We sacrificed our own security. I didn’t earn any money until I was 30, and I’d been in major, successful groups but had never earned any money. That’s changing the world, isn’t it? [Laughs]