Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division
London: Simon and Schuster UK Ltd., 2016.
XVII + 343 pp
I never had the chance to watch Joy Division play, although I was present at one of the very earliest New Order gigs, where the band played Ceremony and songs from the Movement LP and the atmosphere was a bit fraught. This was, of course, shortly after the suicide of Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s singer, in what in those days seemed to be unknown or mysterious circumstances – this was 1980 and there was no internet or social media to provide details or immediate context, accurate or otherwise. Indeed, there was very little I knew about the people in the band other than some photos of the lads (this was before Gillian joined as New Order’s keyboard player) looking moody in dark rooms or slightly cold in outdoors locations in Lancashire. As a result, I rather assumed, listening to the records (I had them all, apart from the earliest release, An Ideal for Living, which was very rarely seen) that the musicians were as cool and artistic as the music sounded. In particular, Peter Hook, the bass player, must surely have been some kind of visionary to lead such a ground-breaking path with heavy and compelling bass riffs (with only Steve Hanley of The Fall for company in this regard). It comes as something of a shock, therefore, to discover in Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division that Hook is a completely different kind of person – robust, disrespectful, probably quite inarticulate and unreflecting as a young man, which is perhaps why he waited so long to come up with this memoir (there is a rather longer one, substance, about the New Order years available).
The book begins with the start of the relationship between Hook and Bernard or Barney Sumner, the guitarist who later took the role of vocalist after Ian’s death. In common with other parts of the book, it is stated that this relationship was problematic and subsequently has broken down completely. However, it is all a bit tell and not show so the reader is left to wonder how and why this might have happened. Based on his own recollections, it is possible to believe that Hook (pretty universally known as ‘Hooky’) was quite a difficult person to get on with but his account is that all the members and attendants were lads of the same stripe, more than willing to take part in practical jokes and horseplay of many types. In part, this might be the result of the way the book has been written, with some parts being lists of dates and gigs to which Hooky appends any comments that come to mind when confronted with them. No ghost writers or researchers appear to be mentioned anywhere but presumably must have been involved.
In due course, bassist and guitar player set up the band with middle class drummer Steve Morris and then the doomed singer Curtis. The band achieves a level of fame and success but, maintaining their status as independent labellists, this comes without money and a constant stream of gigs is necessary to keep everything going. Hooky is the only one able to drive, apparently and is lumbered with the job of loading and unloading the gear at different venues around the country using his own van, which remains perilously close to total collapse for a period of time. They are poor and cold and do not get enough to eat. On the other hand, the songs for which they have become famous do start to appear and are included in the various set lists – Transmission, She’s Lost Control, Atmosphere, Love Will Tear Us Apart – although the relatively short list of completed works is a reminder of how briefly the band were together, as well as an indication of what might have come in the future.
Perhaps unavoidably, as the book continues, it takes on a teleological feel as the death of Curtis approaches, which signifies the end of the band on the day before they were due to depart on a breakout tour of the USA. There is the consideration of the strain on the marriage to Deborah, whom he married very young and abandoned to attend gigs for which he was not well paid, there is the epilepsy, the relationship with the Belgian punk Annick, the fatigue and the fits during gigs, the self-harming and then the hanging. Hook tries to come to terms with this and his and others’ failures to note what was being done to Ian and why no one took seriously the suffering revealed in the poetry of his lyrics. However, he does not manage to articulate a meaningful response to this- which is rather the conclusion to the book. His company is fascinating and exuberant and gives a great sense of what it was like to live through it all but there is something missing still. Some of the more fascinating passages relate the production of the LPs Unknown Pleasures and Closer by the legendary Martin Hannell of Factory Records, but Hooky can tell us little about how this actually took place other than that his own opinions were continually rejected and that Hannett preferred to work in the absence of the musicians themselves. Hook may have been present but he does not always seem to have been there.