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Peter Hook – interview

Peter Hook is nothing if not honest. Ahead of his visit to Norwich, where he’ll be performing the landmark Joy Division record Unknown Pleasures in full – promised to be “a real balls out, rocky set” – the former Joy Division/New Order bassist talks openly about the experiences that inform his latest book, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division – a refreshingly raw account of his life in one of post-punk’s most influential bands.

Of course, just like his book, Hook’s upcoming live shows with The Light are equally a celebration as much as a commemoration. Many consider New Order a singles band, whereas Joy Division’s limited output requires start-to-finish listens.

Hook explains what makes playing a record such as Unknown Pleasures live in its entirety so rewarding: “it means you get to play some fantastic tracks that were a little bit overlooked back when the band was touring and so are still a bit overlooked today. For example, I love playing songs like Candidate or I Remember Nothing from Unknown Pleasures.”

There’s also a sense that this is a necessary move. He adds: “I feel it demands a lot of concentration not only from us lot in the band but also from the audience in a way. I like how people can lose themselves listening to the LP being performed live, even though they know what exact song is coming up next. It’s quite a powerful thing.”

Yet Hook’s foray into his musical back-catalogue never feels like your run-of-the-mill band reformation, or an opportunity to capitalise on his work’s uncompromising relevancy. Speaking on the origins of The Light, his touring band, he reveals that their first performance – also an Unknown Pleasures set – was originally a one-off gig “to celebrate Ian [Curtis]’s life after 30 years in aid of the Keith Bennett appeal and the ‘Mind the Mental Health’ charity’”. This sparked worldwide interest, sending the band to Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Japan.

However, Hook openly admits that “there was quite a backlash to this decision, mainly from people on the internet, and it did put me off playing in the UK.” Now, revitalised by new management, their recent UK shows in May and June proved that there was still a demand.

It’s unsurprising that such a demand still exists. Although Joy Division were only together for a short period of time, fans have retained a strong relationship with the songs. “I think it’s a real compliment to the musicianship of Ian, Barney, Steve and I, and to the chemistry we had together at the time.”

Indeed, there’s often a Romanticism attached to the late 70s/early 80s post-punk movement, particularly in Manchester. Hook asserts that it’s down to such pivotal characters as manager Rob Gretton, Tony Wilson, Martin Hannett, and Peter Saville: “It’s amazing to think that all those different yet strong and creative characters all met and helped to forge the scene”.

When asked whether such Romanticism is alive in today’s musical climate, he responds: “Times have definitely changed a lot since then. I really do think it is extremely different now for young bands than it was for us back then, partly because the wider music scene has become so saturated with more and more X-Factor crap. You really do have to just stick at it and believe in yourself”.

Indeed, Hook and his old band members experienced this firsthand. Rather candidly, Hook reveals that “[Joy Division] were actually only professional for around six months – if you can call professional being paid seven quid a week!” This candidness is echoed throughout his book, reinvigorating the long-told story of Joy Division. Recent years have seen an influx of biographical work out on the band – a documentary, the biopic Control, and Deborah Curtis’ biography Touching From A Distance to name a few – though Hook’s own perspective supposes that there is more to the story to be told.

Elaborating on the process, he explained: “it felt like the right time to release the book as I had been involving myself in everything to do with Joy Division again after years of mostly ignoring it all when [I was] in New Order. I released the Hacienda book in 2009 [The Hacienda: How Not To Run A Club], and I was surprised at how well it did really. So I have to say I was spurred on by the success of that as well.”

In the book Hook expresses his initial dislike of Unknown Pleasures, so it’s interesting to track his perspective on the record as time has progressed. “When Barney and I first heard Unknown Pleasures and heard the sound that our producer Martin Hannett had given us, it’s true that we really were not happy” he affirms.

“We wanted it to sound like The Sex Pistols or The Clash – really loud and brash and in your face – and obviously the record doesn’t sound like that, thank God! Looking back, I realise just how wrong we were and I really appreciate the work that Martin did … what he gave us with that sound was like a gift, in that the album would still sound great over 30 years on from its release. He was a genius.”

Speaking on his approach to such classic songs after changes to performing partners and a developed audience, he says: “I am conscious of the fact that the overwhelming majority of people at the gigs have not seen Joy Division live, and so because they only have the records to go by, me and the lads do try to stay faithful to the records, right down to the little noises and nuances such as the sound of the lift at Strawberry Studios at the start of Insight. Over time the lads in the band have become a real tight unit and they are making the songs sound great to my ear.”

Perhaps what’s most interesting about Hook’s latest book is his presentation of late band mate Ian Curtis, whose life is often attached with mystery and stereotypes of the tortured artist. Hook argues that this wasn’t necessarily the case. “He was always there to pick us up, he was always the one who would grab you by the scruff of the neck and say ‘come on, we can do it!’”

Would Ian have felt comfortable with the way he’s been immortalised today? “That’s a tough question”, he says, “and one to which we will never really know the answer. Ian really was a normal, down to earth, lovely guy. However, he had so much going on in his life at such a young age – a marriage, a child, a mistress, an illness, a rock group – that it was extremely difficult for him.

In a way the fact that he has been immortalised could be seen as a good thing because it means he will live on forever, not only through his words and music but in the hearts of new generations of people, which is a wonderful thought.”

However, the ongoing legal disputes between Peter and his New Order bandmates run the risk of eclipsing the Romanticism that makes Ian Curtis and his legacy such an enigma. Does the release of the long-awaited Lost Sirens outtakes album hint at any form of reconciliation? Not likely, as Hook explains: “It should have been released ages ago, and finally it looks like people can hear it and we can close that chapter.”

Quick to dispel the abundance of rumours surfacing around New Order’s intense breakdown, he adds: “I’ve seen a lot of people saying that the delay in getting it out was down to me … but this could not be further from the truth. The delay was due to the record company taking ages with the business side at their end. But no, despite of this, there is absolutely no sign of a reconciliation between us.”

He goes on to say: “if anything, it is further away than it has ever been. We are locked in a legal dispute as – contrary to what people might think – I am not trying to stop them playing … I am taking issue with the way they handled the business side of their alleged ‘reformation’. To be honest, I think the slanging match is getting a bit ridiculous now, but it shows no sign of ending.

Just look at Barney’s recent interview where he accuses me of ‘opening the gates to hell’ or something to that effect. At the end of the day it’s just three fat old blokes arguing like kids, but I’m not going to stand by and let them get away with how they acted in terms of “getting New Order back”, as in my view it was disgusting.”

Despite this, Hook acknowledges that playing in Joy Division “is a feeling that I never again managed to capture again”. Nonetheless, both Hook’s book and shows demonstrate a passion that reflects his status as one of the most innovative bassists of all time.

Indeed, like Joy Division before, Peter Hook and The Light are taking charge of these memories, trying to recreate the feeling he describes as “a car that all four of us were pushing in the same direction”.


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Hayden East

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January 2022
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