Peter Hook on Joy Division, New Order, and His New Book, Unknown Pleasures
There are few bands that have generated as much mythology about their origins and eventual destruction as Joy Division. But most of the discussion around this pioneering Manchester punk outfit has come from the perspective of an outsider looking in. With Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division fans can finally hear the band's story from someone who was there from the very beginning -- iconic bassist Peter Hook. We caught up with Hooky at the beginning of his American book tour to get his take on where this book fits into the band's enduring legacy. He speaks at San Francisco's Jewish Community Center this Thursday, Jan. 31.
Mark McNulty Peter Hook, bassist for Joy Division and New Order.
It's been a long time since Joy Division came to an end. Why did you decide to write about it now?
That's always the same first question, the most pertinent. When I did the Hacienda book, which was about four years ago, I'd never considered writing about anything to do with my career. Then I realized that anything was possible. What happened after that was that I got used to reading books about Joy Division, which to me focused on just certain parts of our appeal. And I read one book too many about Joy Division by somebody who wasn't with Joy Division, and I just thought it was time to write the story with focus on the human side -- you know, what the people were like, opposed to what the group did.
Was revisiting the events that happened towards the end a difficult thing to do, or was it more of a catharsis? Obviously you still remember things clearly, but is there an emotional distance?
No, I still felt as guilty about the outcome as I did at the start. The thing is, we re-lived the stories -- both me, Bernard and Steve, over and over again. Every time you do an interview about New Order, somebody will ask you something about Joy Division. I remember it because most of it was really exciting, it was the first time it happened to me. So it was very sharp in your memory. I was hoping, in a way, that it would be cathartic. But it wasn't. You knew what was gonna happen, unfortunately. As I was writing it, I knew that Ian died. There's always guilt and an anger and a frustration that you felt because you couldn't stop his death. You couldn't stop him doing that, and that's something that you're gonna have to live with forever, and I don't think you could write any amount of books that would ever take that away from you.
I think it's also nice to celebrate the fact that Ian was a very funny guy! A very warm, generous man! And it's nice to write about that aspect. People know him as the tortured artist -- live fast, die young -- the whole rock 'n' roll cliche, but I felt it was nice to be able to celebrate him as a person -- as a human being.
You've been involved in multiple other projects since Joy Division, but it seems like that's the band that you still feel most emotionally invested in. Did New Order not feel the same way, and if not, why was it different?
Yes, that is true. The simple reason is that the chemistry felt perfect between us in Joy Division. The songwriting was so wonderfully mature, considering we were only 21. You did have a feeling of confidence in each other and confidence in the whole thing, whereas by the time you got to New Order you were trying to survive without Ian, without much help, it has to be said. Whilst Gillian [Gilbert; keyboards] did come along to help, I'm afraid to say -- and I'm not being malicious or anything -- she was nowhere near the musician that Ian Curtis was. While she did help, there was still always wobble in us for a long, long time -- it took us a long time to find our feet. The interesting thing is, is that we made great music while we were finding our feet.
So, yeah -- I mean, it's a longing, isn't it? You always want what you can't have. What's taken away from you does have a certain allure. There is that longing for what could have been because it was so short and so badly curtailed.
You seem to have taken on the role of unofficial archivist for the band.
Bass players always do!
Is it that no one else wanted that role and therefore it's yours by default, or are you just more interested in thinking through what happened and maintaining the band's legacy?
I'm much more proactive to do with anything like that, to do with the group and New Order. It was always me that used to take on the battles with the bootleggers. The others never bothered. I'm very proud of what we achieved and I don't like somebody just coming along and using it with no courtesy or respect shown. When we catch these people, the only thing that we ask for is a charitable contribution, to a charity of our choice. It's all about respect, to me. Our heritage is pretty safe, really. No one's going to take that away from you. You were in Joy Division, they were fantastic -- BOOM. You were in New Order, they were fantastic -- BOOM. And that's the end of that. As long as you make great music, you can literally survive with anything. A bootlegger may steal your image for a while, but ultimately it's not that damaging. It's the music that lasts.
It seems as if the band's sound, like everything else, wasn't really planned so much as it came about through a series of fortunate accidents that you were able to build on. Do you think that's an accurate way to describe things, or is it just the nature of how your memory works that makes things seem that way?
No, we didn't plan anything. In New Order, we didn't even talk about music. In Joy Division, Ian would bring us a lot of records and school us. It was him that introduced us to the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, things like that.
The thing is, musicians -- their skill and talent -- it's a quite intangible thing. You don't know whether you're gonna gel with someone until you play. That's the intangible part of it -- you don't have to be friends to do that. It's a gift, really. It's a strange, strange thing to witness that you can play really well with someone and yet have no attachment or no common ground other than the fact that you can play well together. I mean, Steve [Morris; drums] is a very, very introverted person; he was never someone to tell you all his problems or his thoughts -- he was very, very closed in. Even when he was off his head on drugs, he never used to open up. Everybody else was telling you everything! But he was very guarded. Even when he was off his fucking rocker. Yeah, it was unconscious -- it really was.
You've always been fundamentally influenced by the region you grew up in. How do you feel about your position as part of the most influential band to ever come out of that area? Do you still feel plugged in to what's going on now?
I'm very proud to be an ambassador for Manchester. I'm very proud to champion the legacy, and when I say to all these young kids that criticize you for harping on about it is, "C'mon then, smartass. Surpass it. Leave us behind, then, put us all in the shade. I'd be delighted if you did."
Manchester is a very, very unusual place -- it has been at the vanguard for musical achievement for year after year, and it amazes me that it keeps such a hold consistently on that crowd. It really, really is a very inventive and... rich... what's the word? It just produces group after group after group. I don't think any other city in the world can surpass what Manchester has achieved and achieves over and over again. And I'll shout it from the rooftops! I love it! I'm lucky, I get to travel around the world and then go home. And maybe, in a way, that's why I love it so much, because I get there and relax. Tony Wilson and Rob Gretton always did say to me, "People of Manchester put you where you are. You owe them." And I do -- I think it's true. One of the reasons I opened a club in Manchester was so that there was a venue -- so that you could keep the circle complete, to keep it turning, to give something back.
Reading the book, there's a sense that I've seen from you before that none of you really knew how badly Ian was doing until it was too late. Do you still feel guilty about that, or have you forgiven yourself?
No. I've lost a few other people to suicide and you always feel the same way about each and every person that you love that does it. It's anger and a frustration and a hurt that you were the only one that worries about them, 'cause they don't. They're in the best place, hopefully. It's just you that has to put up with that. Suicide is very good at leaving the people behind with all those ingredients unfortunately -- for you to ruminate over.
No... I live with it. The sad thing is that I have a great life as a father, as a musician, a club owner, a brand runner, so that's the sort of thing that makes you think "Oh, god. Ian helped us on that, and he never got to enjoy any of those aspects." The fact that he's frozen in time at 23... quite an odd feeling, that.
At what point did you really know how important the band was going to turn out to be?
I don't think I ever knew while we were together. When we got to New Order it never crossed my mind -- it just wasn't important -- I was concentrating solely on New Order. People used to tell me all the time how important Joy Division was, and Rob Gretton was forever going on about how popular it was going to be in the future. But it wasn't something that was interesting or important to me then.
Now, it's not something that keeps me awake at night. You have to get on with doing what you're doing and not really think about things like that. Every time I write a song I don't think, "Oh, I hope this is as influential as 'She's Lost Control' or 'Blue Monday.'"
Given how professionalized the industry has become, do you think that it's possible for a paradigm shift as big as punk to happen again?
No, without a shadow of a doubt. The biggest change in music in the past few years has been the change from analog to digital and the way the record companies ignored it and hoped it would go away. As to whenever you're ever going to see a musical movement like punk or like post-punk or like new romantic: I suppose that every time there is one, it lessens the chance of there being another one. Tony Wilson always used to say that music was in [a] seven-year cycle, and I've seen so much music really nothing frightens me or invigorates me in that way. For the Lady Gagas of the world, you've seen it before, you know, Madonna. It's just that as you get older you feel that less and less, and that's just a part of age, really.
Now that you've done tours playing through both albums and the book, do you feel that you've done justice to Joy Division's legacy? If this was the last thing directly related to the band that you were to do, would you feel satisfied that you've told your story and done your duty as unofficial steward of the band's legacy?
Yes, I have. We're playing some dates in March which will be the end of Joy Division and that scares me more than anything. Now that I've moved on to playing New Order and there's a big interest in me, in people seeing us do that, it's coming to another close and that's a scary feeling. For the past three years, it's been so wonderful to have the music back and it's made me feel a hell of a lot better. Playing the New Order music because of what's happened this past year has made me feel a lot better, like someone had stolen my wallet and now I've got it back by playing it.