Peter Hook served as bassist for the seminal post-punk band Joy Division (1976-1980) – a band often described as dark and gloomy. His new memoir “Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division” sheds some much-needed light on the experience.
Peter tells Brendan about their status as a ‘working’ band, the final days of frontman Ian Curtis, and how his bass took the lead.
Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s time for Chattering Class. This is the part of the show where an expert schools on a dinner party worthy topic. Today the subject is the seminal English rock band Joy Division. They existed for only four years, from 1976-1980, but their dark, poetic music has influenced countless bands and remains popular today.
Our teacher is the band’s bassist Peter Hook who just wrote a memoir called “Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division.” And Peter, since for some people Joy Division is an unknown pleasure, if you could, tell us about this band you were in when you were younger.
Peter Hook: Wow, well, I mean it changed my life, it really did, and the strangest things was it was how fast we progressed. I mean we started in punk, aping Sex Pistols, to very, very quickly establishing its own identity and turning into very adult, we’d have to say, music. Very individual music.
Joy Division were a very unusual band in that each instrument seemed to have a sort of very distinctive individual role in the music. And when it came together, it created a wonderful background to Ian Curtis to put his wonderful lyrics.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So one of the things I found remarkable about your book was how much fun you guys were having. Fun isn’t a word people usually associate with Joy Division, the music was dark and intense. Ian Curtis, your front man, is usually portrayed as a tortured soul, and yet in this book there’s a lot of joy. Tell me about that.
Peter Hook: I think the interesting thing, one of the spurs to do the book was that I always felt that there were two sides to Joy Division, and yet there’s only one side, which is the dark, gloomy industrial, very serious side that every gets quoted, and the sort of deification of Ian, who was a lovely guy. He really was, yeah. A great guy, very, very good at his job.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So, in addition to balancing out the gloomy perception of Joy Division, your book also spends a lot of time on the nuts and bolts of being in a band. You guys came from a working class neighborhood, and what I found interesting was you guys actually worked. You held down day jobs for almost the entire existence of Joy Division.
Peter Hook: It was actually quite accepted in those days that a music career was not something you did for security. It was felt to be very decadent, very frivolous, with no gravity at all. There was opportunity there but it was always looked on to be somehow kind of dark and seedy if you were in a group.
Brendan Francis Newnam: There’s that great scene in the book where the police… You drove the van for the band, it was your van…
Peter Hook: The clubs were always in the red-light district. What happened was that at the time there was a mass murderer called the Yorkshire Ripper, and in old-fashioned policing, they were collecting license plate numbers of people that visited these districts, and my van, because I was driving the van for Joy Division came up in about 10 districts along with Stephen Morris’ car.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Your drummer.
Peter Hook: Yeah, and so we both got questioned about being the Yorkshire Ripper. I swear when the guy knocked on my door, he must have thought, “I’ve got him.” And I said, “No, no you don’t understand, I’m in a group. All the clubs are in those districts, the red light-districts in each city.” He was absolutely devastated.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Let’s talk about Ian Curtis. He was the lyricist and lead singer for the band; a tragic hero for many due to his public struggle with epilepsy, and his early death that prevented him from enjoying the success of the band. Tell us what he was like from your perspective.
Peter Hook: He was a very, very generous man. I remember meeting him at the third Sex Pistols gig in Manchester, and I was talking to him and I thought this is a really nice guy, very mild mannered, very sweet, and then he turned around and on the back of his coat he had ‘hate’ in orange florescent letters. And now if somebody had said to you while you were talking to him, what’s this guy got on the back? Has he got three kittens? You know, has he got a picture of his gram or something like that? You would not have imagined ever in the world that he had ‘hate.’
Brendan Francis Newnam: The Joy Division story ends when Ian hangs himself on the eve of what would have been your first US tour. Throughout the book you can see the things that are weighing on him: his unhappy marriage, he was having regular seizures on stage triggered by his epilepsy. Now you and the band would try to look after him and take care of him offstage, but you also say that you guys were too young and distracted to really take care of him properly.
Peter Hook: The strangest thing about his whole character was that he was very much, I suppose what you’d say would be a people-pleaser. He didn’t want you to be upset by anything that he’d done. He was very, very nice and very, very accommodating. Now the thing is that we were all worried, and you’d say to him, “Ian are you okay?” And he’d go “I’m absolutely fine.”
Now the thing is, he’s a 21 year old kid, you’re going, “Oh, thank God for that,” and really sense would have said listen, he attempted suicide last week, he was in a self-harming episode the week before, he’s marriage is breaking down, he’s just had a child and now he’s got a mistress. Really, common sense should have said to you, regardless of whether he says he’s okay or not, he needs looking after. But we were so young and so, “That’s brilliant ’cause you know I was really worried about you.” And he’d go, “Don’t worry about me, I’m absolutely fine.” And we’d go, “Oh thank God for that.”
Brendan Francis Newnam: Quickly, I want to ask you a question about your bass-playing in Joy Division. I would listen to a lot of this music while I was reading the book, and it’s kind of notable how critical the bass is to the music. The vocal line often follows the bass riff. Where did you develop your three-fingered, rumbly riff forward style?
Peter Hook: It’s obviously a gift from God, mainly inspired by the volume of Bernard’s guitar when we used to practice, and the only way that I could hear myself was when I played high. As soon as I played high, Ian used to jump on it and go, “Oh, okay, that sounds great! Do that, do that!” And literally every time we came to write, ever rehearsal he’d say, “Okay, run them high riffs, run them high riffs, come on!” And I’d go, “Yeah, of course.”
You know, because it was so wonderful for him to be so enthusiastic about what you were doing, and he’d turn to Steve and go, “Steve: jungle drums. Bernard: give us a lead line.” I can see it like a crazy punk conductor, and there you had Joy Division.”