Here is the conundrum: how does anyone write coherently about a band that has heretofore been mythologized and almost embalmed in prose that’s more parable than purple? If the band is Manchester’s Joy Division, and if you are that band’s chubby mid-50s, former bass player Peter Hook, then the answer is crystal-clear.
“The interesting thing from my point of view,” says the highly engaging Hook, who was in Dublin promoting his spiky, insightful book, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, “and one of the puzzles I had with Joy Division, was that they were viewed as very serious and fantastically powerful in a very cerebral way. Yet when the four of us were extricated from the group we were completely down-to-earth, normal blokes. What I feel has been lacking in anything written about Joy Division was the humanity.”
A recap might be useful: formed in the late 70s in Manchester/Salford, Joy Division helped create a different strand of post-punk music. It fused an intense form of dysfunction (via singer Ian Curtis, whose lyric writing motifs, formed around his bouts of severe depression and epilepsy, included words such as, and images of, failure, coldness, crisis, pressure, darkness, collapse, loss of control) with a sound that record producer Martin Hannett, an instrumental figure in the band’s brief history, once described as “dance music with Gothic overtones.” Naming the band after prostitution wings of Nazi concentration camps – a reference of which first appeared in Yehiel De-Nur’s 1955 novella, House of Dolls – only strengthened their nihilistic appeal.
Their time was brief, however: Joy Division as a band existed for less than three years, released two albums (1979’s Unknown Pleasures, 1980’s Closer) and split up shortly after 23-year-old Curtis committed suicide prior to the release of the second album and the band’s debut US tour. What has been written about Joy Division since (and, for a while at least, the band the existing members morphed into, New Order) has been, effectively, a series of eulogies, encomiums and hagiographies.
What makes Hook’s book so refreshing is the lack of linguistic and intellectual showboating, and its roots in simply laying facts on the line. The primary reason for writing the book, he says, was that, having been frustrated by other books and articles on Joy Division (some of which were written by his close friends, music journalists Paul Morley and Jon Savage), he simply tired of “reading stuff written by people who weren’t there, who weren’t in the group.”
The book also acts as the closing chapter to a long-withheld sense of grieving, as Hook explains. “It didn’t really bother us at the time, but when Joy Division split up, when Ian died, we just threw ourselves into New Order. We never took any time to wonder what had happened. Now, when you’re young – this is what I reckon, anyway – that’s probably the best thing to do. But when you get older, you kind of realize that you should have taken a few months off, if only to appreciate the enormity of what had happened. We should have gone round to Ian’s family, spoken to his friends, and not thrown ourselves – immediately, utterly – into another band. It was very, very sad that we swerved such unhappiness by throwing ourselves into another bout of frenzied work. You see, the English Northern mindset – that nothing’s a problem work won’t solve – didn’t really help Ian. Of course, now we have this softer, more caring, more thoughtful and much more knowledgeable society than we had 30-35 years ago – and that’s a good thing. But back then, once we were inside New Order and getting on with that, we just ignored Ian and Joy Division, lock, stock and barrel. As the years passed, we got more comfortable talking about things that were, actually, very deep and upsetting.”
There’s a warmth and spiritedness throughout the book as Hook writes vivid anecdotes and paints novelistic picture portraits of Manchester, his band mates, the record label, Factory, and its add-on nightclub, The Hacienda. Underpinning all of it, however, is his love of Joy Division’s music.
“I’m still impressed by the quality,” he beams. “It’s still wonderful, and so it’s quite odd when you look back at the legacy. One of the things in its favour is that – possibly because I’ve ignored it wholeheartedly for so long – like an old pair of boots you dust off and put on, they still feel good. The story of Joy Division, the story of Factory, the Hacienda – they were gifts to an author. The group was odd, the record company was odd, and the nightclub was insane, so everything fits in quite well.”
Speaking about the Hacienda has triggered a memory. “What has possibly been overlooked or forgotten,” adds Hook, “is that Joy Division’s awkwardness with the public and commerciality spread to the Hacienda. The nightclub was arty, it was uncompromising and it didn’t do whatever the usual nightclubs did. It fought against that, as did Joy Division and New Order. It’s difficult to be different – especially these days because the competition is so intense – but back then it seemed quite an easy feat.”
Hook, then, is proud of the legacy, but bemoans the fact that, as young lippy Northern lads, they were quite clueless as to its financial benefits. “We never bothered about the commerciality of it, so we let everyone run riot with it. For far too many years we just didn’t bother. I mean, it was only in 2008 that I discovered neither Joy Division nor New Order had trademarked or registered their names. Seriously – no one had bothered…” He shakes his head, both bemused and annoyed. It has all panned out, of course, and for a while at least a kind of creative purity existed: the belonging to a unit that only cared about the art. “Yes, it was unsullied,” Hook avers. “Groups normally fight about publishing and money once they become established, but Joy Division existed for just two and a half years, and we were only professional for six months before Ian died. There was none of the fighting that can ensue about money because there wasn’t any. That all came after, and so for that short period of time, when no money was being made, we were all united in our ambitions and hopes. The only thing we had to watch out for was Ian’s illness, and how best to cope with that.”
Which, in the end, they just couldn’t. Curtis (as has Joy Division) remains a totem in rock music, a caught-forever-in-monochrome poster boy for alienation whose illnesses finally, tragically overtook him. Does Hook ever get tired of talking about him? “Not at all. Ian has been so important to my life, as has Joy Division. And Unknown Pleasures set me up for life. It gave me my lifestyle, then and now, and for however long is left.”
Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, by Peter Hook, is published by Simon & Schuster, £14.99.
(This first appeared in The Irish Times, October 13, 2012.)