“This is why events unnerve me
They find it all, a different story
Notice whom for wheels are turning,
Turn again and turn towards this time.”
“Ceremony” – Ian Curtis (music by Curtis / Hook / Morris / Sumner)
In the spring of 1996 I was getting very serious about music. I had just come back from London and I had the spark of an idea to write a novel about punk. It would be broken down by its various years with an epigraph for each one and it would begin with that brilliant line from Patti Smith: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” I had Horses and I had Never Mind the Bollocks and Boys Don’t Cry and they were fueling all of it. But clearly there was stuff I was missing. And, already being a fan of New Order (thanks to my sister Stacy who had Substance on LP), one line in the Rolling Stone Album Guide: “Bassist Peter Hook, drummer Steven Morris and guitarist Bernard Sumner founded New Order on the ashes of their previous band, Joy Division.” lead to me reading “Joy Division’s brief recorded legacy towers over the subsequent efforts of its imitators. The suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis in 1980 guarantees that the group always will be misunderstood, or stupidly romanticized; for all the harrowing detail of Curtis’s obsessed monotone, Joy Division breathes fresh musical ideas into punk rock.” So I knew what I was missing. I needed to hear Joy Division and I knew that I needed to hear some Clash. So I went to Tower Records and, without listening to a second of either, I bought The Story of the Clash and Permanent: Joy Division 1995.
It’s 16 years later and the novel remains a work in progress. But the research didn’t go to waste. I don’t know every song that would go on my Top 10 list of all-time. But I can guarantee you that making appearances in that Top 10 are “London Calling” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” They are the soundtrack to much of my life, the two best songs to come out of what was probably the single best stretch in all of rock and roll, the explosion that came out of the Sex Pistols and gave us The Clash, Joy Division / New Order, The Cure, U2, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen. I’ve already read the Joy Division story once, in the book by Ian Curtis’ widow Deborah, a bittersweet tale of her husband and the legacy he left behind. And I’ve seen it dramatized twice – the first in one of the funniest most original films I’ve ever seen (24 Hour Party People) and one that struggled more with the myth and from attempting to be too artistic (Control). Now comes a book from inside the band itself: Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook. Hook was not only one of the members of Joy Division and a founding member of New Order, but he was there from the very start, starting with that famous show on 4 June 1976 when the Sex Pistols played Manchester for the very first time.
There’s an bit in the book about his early life, about meeting Bernard Sumner at grammar school (and a hilarious bit about when they go back to have their picture taken and are chased off by their old geography teacher who’s now headmaster), but it really begins with that show. Because watching Johnny Rotten on stage, with his sneer and his attitude, Hook knew what he wanted to do and so did Sumner (and their buddy Terry who wouldn’t last as part of the band but lasted for years and years as part of the larger group): “On the way home that night we decided to form a band. If they can do it, we said, meaning the Pistols, so can we.” And it turned out to have a basic idea for how Peter Hook became the bass player in one of the greatest bands in rock history: “Terry volunteered to be the singer. Barney had been given a guitar and a little red practice amp for Christmas, which made him the guitarist, so I thought, ‘Right, I’ll get a bass’.” Back then it was as simple as that. You got your instruments and you played the hell out of them and you formed a band.
They didn’t have a name (before long they were the Stiff Kittens, but that didn’t last long before they became Warsaw). They didn’t have any songs they had written or really even songs by other people that they could play. “Didn’t have a lead singer unless you counted Terry, which – after a couple of disastrous practice sessions – we didn’t. But still, we were a band.” So they still needed something more by the time the Pistols returned to Manchester. They had played a second gig on 20 July at which Hook briefly met Ian Curtis (who had missed the first gig and was annoyed). But it was the third show, at the Electric Circus on 9 December that became more important for the band’s history: “The first time I remember Ian making an impact was at the Electric Circus, for the third Pistols gig. He had ‘Hate’ written on his jacket in orange fluorescent paint. I liked him immediately.”
This is the real start of Hook’s story, the story of Joy Division, of the music they made, of the times they had, of the impact that would be to come. He shares everything he can remember, from the funny (he owned the band’s van and always had to drive it and once was abandoned by the rest of the group who went to get food while he had to wait for the promoter; noticing another band’s van parked nearby he starts talking to the driver and it turns out to be Les Pattinson, the bass player for Echo & the Bunnymen, who had also been abandoned my his mates) to the dark (he minces no words about the famous Derby Hall riot that broke out after their gig on 8 April 1980) to the mournful (his choice not to go see Ian lying in rest) to the reflective (he finally gets to stop driving the van when it is totaled and he finally gets to live it up with the others and get pissed and get girls: “On the one hand, it was absolutely magnificent. On the other hand, I ended up an alcoholic.”) to even the utterly surreal (he is questioned by the police as a possible suspect for the Yorkshire Ripper case because his van had been spotted near places where the murders had happened, because their gigs were in the same parts of towns where the murders were).
There are great stories in here about all the band members. And there are great memories of Ian Curtis. Because to Hook, Curtis wasn’t the rock legend who would be romanticized or mythologized. He wasn’t the dark genius who could write “Love Will Tear Us Apart” or “Ceremony” and would later end his life on the edge of Joy Division breaking open into America on tour. “In a way we’re all of us to blame, but none of us are,” Hook writes. To Hook he was just a mate, another guy in the band that was the main part of his life during those years. Look at the last line of Deborah Curtis’ book: “He cajoled us, nurtured us with his promises of success. After showing us what it looked like, he offered us a sip before he abandoned us on the precipice.”, the words of a wife and mother left behind to explain this death to her daughter. Now look at what Hook takes with him:
And this is one of my lasting impressions of Ian – an image I have in my head of him, like the image of him chasing the drum down the motorway or pissing in the ashtray. It’s of Ian, who liked to read Burroughs and Kafka and discuss art with Annik, asking this French guy where all the girls were. “Girls” he was saying, “Where are all the girls?” Holding his arms up to his chest and waving them up and down like a pair of jiggly boobs. “Where are all the girls?”
But in the end, it’s the music that matters most to Hook. He doesn’t reprint all of the lyrics like Curtis did in her book (a great reason to own it even aside from the fact that’s a worthwhile book). But he takes the two LPs that Joy Division released, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, and he breaks them down, song by song, talks about recording them, the process of writing them and what you are hearing in the songs. “I really recommend listening to the record while you read.” he tells us and I did. And for that reason alone, never mind how funny the book can be, never mind how interesting it is, never mind how good it is, you should read it. Because these are two great albums and if you haven’t listened to them then you need to. I did, while reading those pages. And I remembered so much about what pulled me into this band to begin with when all I knew was one sentence in a book.