More than 30 years after the suicide of their compelling lead singer, Ian Curtis, and their transformation into New Order, the Manchester post-punk band Joy Division continues to grow in legend. Now adding to their legacy is the new book Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, written by the band’s founding bassist, Peter Hook (and available here). It offers a firsthand look at the band’s entire history: from Hook and schoolmate Bernard Sumner starting the group after seeing the Sex Pistols in 1976, through the making of the landmark albums Unknown Pleasures (1979) and Closer (1980), to Curtis’ death in 1980 just before the band’s first U.S. tour.
The book does not deal exclusively with the group’s dark image and music; there are some light-hearted and funny moments in the book, including the musicians’ practical jokes on each other and on their fellow touring band the Buzzcocks. While Hook describes Curtis as “poetic and romantic and soulful,” he also writes that Curtis “was still a guy in a band and he liked to do what guys do in a band. Which is to cop off with girls and have a laugh.”
During a stop in New York to promote Unknown Pleasures, Hook – who now leads his own band, the Light, after splitting from New Order a few years ago – spoke to Rolling Stone about writing the book and his memories of Ian Curtis. He also addressed the recent comments made in a Spinner interview by former bandmate Bernard Sumner over their contentious split, as well as his feelings on New Order’s reunion tour last year.
There’s the perception that Joy Division was a band that had a somber, melancholic aura. But your book shows that the band had a very humorous side as well.
That was one of my problems reading books about Joy Division – that while I recognize some of it, I always thought, “You did not get the right end of the stick.” There is something, from my point of view, lacking, which was the humanity and the humor. I always felt that making Ian out to be this deep, dark genius was sort of committing the same sin as the musical dinosaurs used to commit – whereas Johnny Rotten and the punk movement were all about demystification and that anybody can do it.
I felt that the story that I had – that we went through – was much more entertaining than this sort of very, in a way, clichèd book. We really did have a laugh at the struggle. After being in New Order for as long as I have been, the fact that you were all very unified and very together in Joy Division, you were all literally going the same way. There was no fight, no tussle. You weren’t in it for the money because we didn’t get any. As soon as we lost Ian, it actually became very difficult.
You and Bernard saw the Sex Pistols perform at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1976, and that led the two of you to form a band.
What I loved about the Pistols was the attitude, and the fact it seemed more human, and you could relate to it. I went to see Led Zeppelin just before the Sex Pistols, and I never looked at Led Zeppelin and thought, “I could do that.” Yet, when I looked at Johnny Rotten, for some insane reason, which I still can’t actually explain, I looked at him and thought “That’s what I want to do.” And all he was doing, basically, was screaming at everyone to fuck off. When I saw the Sex Pistols, it was like being in a darkened room, and somebody opening the door, and you thought, “There’s the way out. Yes!” My whole life changed over the period of that half-hour. I went in completely normal. . . and I came out a bloody musician.
You met Ian Curtis at a third Sex Pistols concert a few months later. What were your initial impressions of him? He wore a very distinctive jacket at that gig.
I thought he was a really, really nice guy. Very softly spoken, very friendly. We’d seen each other probably at a few gigs, not just the Sex Pistols gigs. There weren’t that many people who went to all the gigs. So it was quite easy then to talk to him because you were part of a gang.
He had a donkey jacket . . . and when he turned around, he had “HATE” [on the jacket]. That was like a real shock for him because he just didn’t seem aggressive at all. Real nice kid. Right from the first moment, he sang for you in the same way that right from the first moment, Steve [Morris] drummed for you – it was absolutely perfect. And you didn’t have to tell him what to do. That was the great thing. The only thing he used to say to me was, “Play high. It sounds great when you play high.” When you find those people that make the group complete, to fill the chemistry, your job is so much easier.
As you said in the book, you didn’t really pay much attention to Ian’s lyrics until after his death. He sort of gave you, Bernard and Stephen space to concentrate on the music.
The sound was shit, so you really couldn’t decipher – in the same funny way that I never really heard what Bernard played in any detail until we went in with [producer] Martin Hannett. I always knew he sounded good and he delivered it with the right amount of passion, but you don’t get the detail when you’re playing onstage. You concentrate on what you’re doing. That’s the thing with Ian. The equipment was so bad that you couldn’t make out what he was saying. But it sounded fucking great and it looked great. He went for it. If you’ve seen him on those early TV programs that we did. . . . he literally looks like he had been in the band for 10 years. He wasn’t acting – we were all living it.
Early on, it was kind of a struggle for you guys starting out – trying to get gigs and the debacle surrounding the recording of the EP An Ideal for Living. Then Rob Gretton came in as your manager and turned things around.
One of the funniest things about Rob is when he came in, he seemed like an authority figure. I sat there the other day and I was thinking, “Rob was only 23 when he came.” That’s the same age as my son. Oh my God. It’s like my son running in and demanding, “I’m running everything now,” and you’d go, “Piss off!” When [Rob] came to us, because we were younger, he was so much better at expressing and handling himself, he literally did take over instantly from the word go.
What I was really upset about reading that Spinner thing where Bernard was saying, “Hooky said I was miserable in Joy Division.” I never said that, I never said that. And I’m really saddened he thinks I said it. Because he wasn’t miserable in Joy Division and was happy about what we were doing as the rest of us. It was only with New Order that we were all fucked. Missing Ian as we did in New Order fucked us all off. It took us a long, long time to find an equilibrium, and in many ways the relationship was never the same and it was never as good between us once Ian had gone. But in Joy Division, Barney was fantastic. He delivered 100 percent, he played fucking fantastic guitar.
As eccentric as he was, the late Martin Hannett really did masterful production on Unknown Pleasures and Closer. It’s been said that you and Bernard weren’t thrilled with his mix on Unknown Pleasures back then because both of you wanted a more raw and rocking sound.
Now it pains me to realize what a genius he was. But I didn’t have the maturity to recognize the beauty in what he’d done. I was 21. I wanted the LP to rip your fucking head off in the same way that the Sex Pistols, Richard Hell and the Clash did. I didn’t want this mature, wonderful-sounding album that was going to last 30 years. . . I couldn’t see past that. I got it with Closer. Although the bass was a little bit quiet, I thought [Martin] did a wonderful job on Closer. But by that time, Joy Division’s chapter was over. Martin was an absolute fucking lunatic, but his ideas were revolutionary.
Before his suicide, Ian went through a lot of stress in his personal life: being diagnosed with epilepsy, having domestic problems with his wife Deborah, being a father for the first time and having an extramarital affair with Annik Honore.
Yeah, he was. And for us to witness it, considering how easy our lives were – we were healthy. We were living at home. We may have had girlfriends, but we didn’t [have] half the responsibility he had. It was quite shocking. You’re like, “Fuck, this guy’s got a lot of baggage.” Being in a group and being that poor meant that your life was very difficult. We were actually paying to play. He was going home to his own home with a young baby. The tangled love affair – it could have been any one of us, any of us could have succumbed to a love affair. Annik was such a lovely girl; I’m still in contact with her now. I always liked her. She was no walk-over and she really did try to help Ian and look after him, but he was his own worst enemy. The doctor said to him, when he was diagnosed with epilepsy, “If you live a quiet life, no loud noises, no alcohol, you should be okay.” Being in a group does not let you do any of those. And he didn’t want to give the group up. He was just as passionate and enthusiastic about it as all the rest of us. He had a terrible dilemma with himself. It must have been awful, and we were absolutely no fucking use.
As for New Order, they recently toured last year without your participation. Did you feel betrayed?
I felt betrayed by the way they did it because they did it without consulting me and without asking my opinion. As Bernard explained in Spinner.com last week, they found a legal way to do it, that I couldn’t stop them. Not that I would have stopped them anyway. They just presented it completely as a fait accompli, and I heard in the same way as everybody else heard on the radio. So it’s not a good start, is it?
What I am protesting about – what I am still very unhappy – is the business arrangements that they left for the company that owns the New Order trademark. Them three have decided what I should be paid and I think the four of us should have decided what I should have been paid. Them three are happy with the arrangements of what I get paid and I’m not. I’m seeking a legal remedy to that, and that’s where we’re at the moment. They refuse to cooperate, they refuse to negotiate and that’s it.
Do you foresee a reconciliation of some sorts in the future?
Say you went into a really bad breakup, and breakups tend to build up, build up, build up. Then it gets to that bit where [it’s like] “Ergggh!” We’re still at that bit. It’s not coming down.
I suppose I should be complimented by the way Bernard is still having these massive personal attacks on me like in the way he had in Spinner, accusing me of refusing to work on the New Order record, Waiting for the Siren’s Call, because I was off DJing. Barney used to do everything on his own anyway. They wouldn’t wait for me. He’s completely mistaken. That isn’t true. They’ve never waited for me since [the 1986 single] “Bizarre Love Triangle.” But I suppose I should be flattered after having New Order back for a year, earning fucking millions, and getting everything that they wanted back – that they still have to have a stinging personal attack on you every time he has an interview. Maybe he’s missing me, do you think?
Is there going to be a New Order book from you?
I wasn’t going to do a New Order book because the great thing about the Joy Division book is that even to me, it’s not a normal rock & roll book. It’s not full of girls and drugs. But I’m afraid the New Order one is going to be a pretty normal rock & roll book. It’s like an indie Mötley Crüe.
Still, judging from the Joy Division book, you still got to be pretty proud of the musical history that you were a part of.
Joy Division is a great story and New Order is a great story. The fact that you pulled it out of the ashes of Joy Division and went on to achieve as much as New Order – it says a lot about our strengths and character. And really the saddest thing about the arguing over this past year and the years before that when Bernard and I fell out: it makes you forget the good bits.