Joy Division’s existence was brief – just 2 ½ years – but its impact was immense in the world of post-punk rock. Their lyrics were often disturbing, introspective and self-critical; their music had a lush, crystalline sheen with deep and resonant pop hooks. U2’s Bono put it this way: “It would be harder to find a darker place in music than Joy Division. Their name, their lyrics and their singer were as big a black cloud as you could find in the sky. And yet … you felt from this singer beauty was truth and truth was beauty, and theirs was a search for both.”
New Order, the band Joy Division mutated into immediately after the death of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, in May 1980, also had a huge impact, as well – a much larger commercial footprint in fact. New Order became one of Britain’s top electronic, dance-rock pioneers of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with songs such as “Temptation,” Blue Monday,” “Love Vigilantes” and “Bizarre Love Triangle.”
But right now bassist-songwriter Peter Hook, is turning the clock back both Joy Division era and the New Order, which includes a soldout set at the Sinclair Saturday Nov. 26 with his young band the Light that starts with New Order’s “Substance” album and half-way through switches to Joy Division. And if you’re the reading type – and we do hope you are – there’s Hook’s memoir, “Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division.”
“I must admit I did think it’d be easy, in truly stupid naive fashion,” says Hook, with a laugh. “But the Joy Division book took two years and about 65 rewrites, a long time to produce something that I wanted to sound like I’m talking to myself.” A New Order book is in the works.
Occasionally, Hook steps back in the book to analyze what went on or to flash-forward to New Order, but “Unknown Pleasures” has a conversational tone.
“The Joy Division story is a tragedy in itself, a mix of celebration and a tragedy,” says Hook, who was in the Boston area this week doing readings at two bookstores. “It’s a wonderful story, almost a fairytale in a way, for groups. It’s not really soiled by influence of drugs or any extraneous factors. It’s literally about four young boys pursuing their dream and the problems they encountered trying to get that dream realized. Writing it, there was a sense of catharsis.”
“From my point of view,” adds Hook, “every time I read about Joy Division, it focused on one side of it: very gloomy, very intense, a real byproduct of the ‘70s in Britain, Thatcher’s children. You see the misery but never see anything beyond that. That was what I wanted to do. We had such a great time doing it and it was quite an unusual way we did it, quite independently. It meant that you have to suffer for your art and we did. You had nobody picking up the tab, you had pick up your own records, load them, very hands on. I drove the [tour] van all the time.”
Their pre-Joy Division band, Warsaw, coalesced around Hook and guitarist Bernard “Barney” Sumner. Various drummers occupied the seat before they found their man, Stephen Morris. Other singers were tried, too, but when Curtis came in, that was the final piece of the puzzle and Joy Division took flight. Hook, whose bass playing often carried the melodic line, credits their success with extreme good fortune at what he calls the “riff bank” – great songs just came flowing out of them.
“We were all so fired about what you were doing you literally never stopped,” recalls Hook. “Ian had a wealth of material. You lived and breathed the songwriting process every moment every day. It was a great, organic process.” Another asset, he writes, was that the band members weren’t trained musicians. They didn’t know which chord should “properly” follow another and this allowed them to take chances with structure and thus break boundaries.
“Our different styles all came together to make perfect bedrock for Ian to put his wonderful lyrics to,” Hook says. “We had a perfect fantastic recipe. With those ingredients, you couldn’t go wrong. You have to say the music has lasted as long it has because we were all perfectly in tune at that time.”
Hook says that like many English bands of the era they were inspired by rough-and-raw punk bands. “We wanted to sound like the Sex Pistols, but we weren’t writing Sex Pistols songs,” Hook says. Though at the time they disliked the sleek, layered sound producer Martin Hannett brought to the music, Hook says now, “He realized the maturity of your songwriting and treated it with the respect it deserved. Me and Barney just wanted to rip your head off.”
The tragedy, of course, was this: Curtis hanged himself on the eve of the band’s US tour in May of 1980. (In September of that year they toured as a trio, New Order. They played a seven-song set at the tiny long-defunct club in Boston, the Underground.) In retrospect, there are a number of possible explanations: A failing marriage and a newfound love, epilepsy that had taken a turn for the worse, an exhausting work schedule, albeit one that everyone desired.
Curtis’ lyrics, especially on the band’s second album, “Closer,” painted a picture of a man caught up in depression and desperation. In “Isolation” Curtis sang, “Mother, I tried, please believe me/I’m doing the best that I can/I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through/I’m ashamed of the person I am.”
Hook says the lyrics on the band’s debut album, “Unknown Pleasures,” “are very aggressive, very strong, delivered very passionately. By the time you get to ‘Closer,’ that was much more melancholy and more inward looking for Ian. I think in our minds when he delivered them he was at odds with his feelings. He was standing there singing them and he looked strong, confident and well. He was by no means an emotional blubbering wreck.
“You come back to that strange contradiction again of the performing man and what he’s saying, and what he seems to be doing. I think it was that thing that gave us the release. Ian gave us the golden ticket, if you like, of saying, ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m fine, get on with it, I’ll soldier on.’ We were like ‘Thank god for that,’ because really all the signs are telling you what he’s saying is wrong. But you’re so happy to hear it from the horse’s mouth, you go along with it. At the age of 22, 23, you were not really equipped with all of life’s, shall we say, dark moments. You were happy to gloss over it. Ian was such a nice guy and very generous so that he probably didn’t want you to suffer because of him. In a sporting way, he was taking one for the team. And at 23, you were so glad to hear it.”
Hook’s book puts a very human face on a band that many fans have mythologized, particularly, of course, because of Curtis’s suicide. “I was very aware of the deification of the group,” Hook says. The band members are both flawed and funny. Curtis, Hook suggests, was clearly the “artist” in the band, but in many ways they’re just lads, doing what young bands do – hooking up with young girls on the road – and playing pranks on each other and other bands like their pals the Buzzcocks. Curtis was part of it.
Hook writes about a time when Curtis was upbraided by hotel security for urinating in an ashtray. “That’s not the worst of it to be honest,” Hook says, laughing. “Ian did have a habit of going to extremes. There were a few occasions, only a few, where I’d look at the story and say ‘I’m not going to use that one.’”
Hook left New Order in 2006, not long after he says he found “clarity” after kicking drugs and drink. “I stopped Nov. 23, 2005,” Hook says. “I hit rock bottom. Alcohol had taken me aside and given me a really good kicking. I just knew my time as a drinker was over. At the time, I thought my life was over, but really my life was just beginning. It was like being let loose from a hungry obnoxious beast.”
New Order continues on. They play out live and actually just released an album of out-takes recorded with Hook in 2005 called “Lost Sirens.” But there’s bad blood, and lawsuits between Hook, Sumner and the others. Hook and The Light have also played the entirety of New Order’s first two albums, “Movement” and “Power, Corruption and Lies,” in concert, a tour he plans to bring stateside in September.
And he’s penning a New Order bio. “I was not going to do a New Order book,” says Hook, “but literally when them cqlot did what they did and reformed without my knowledge and consent, I thought ‘[Expletive] ‘em. I’ll do it.’
“The story spans 30 years of musical culture in England and the world. Unfortunately, it does come with a little bit of what you’d say clichéd behavior but, interesting nonetheless. New Order spawned a completely different type of music, a mix of dance and rock – and the things we went through, acid house, Madchester, doing the English world cup song. I know it’s going to be quite sad and traumatic emotionally to do it, but it’s going to be a great story. I have to thank the others for reforming without me and treating me like [expletive], so I can get the book done.”