Saturday, July 13, 2013

Peter Hook's "Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division": Book Review

As a "working-class tosser from Salford," bassist Hooky tells his band's brief tale of sound and fury. Told not by a madman, but a droll, deadpan participant-observer, this long saga of Joy Division's short span signifies far from nothing. The nihilist poses traded in by those who imitated singer Ian Curtis, before and after his suicide, mock the serious intent of the four members to convey music transcending metal, prog, or glam. Inspired by the Sex Pistols, self-taught, spare guitarist Bernard "Barney" Sumner (né Dicken and Albrecht) and, soon, jazz-trained drummer Steve Morris pioneered not punk--it inspired them in greater Manchester--but expansive, tense, echoed post-punk.

A conventional rock-star bio's touchstones don't weigh this down. Hook begins in media res at a local gig, steps back to nod to Cockney Rebel's Steve Harley as a musical model, and gives credit to his inspiration, the Pistols. While a quick dramatis personae precedes his band narrative, and timelines intersperse comments on gigs, album tracks, and studio work with chatty chapters narrating the band's fortunes, Hook shepherds us rapidly along as punk bursts and fades as quickly into a cold future.

They blunder on in a grim British environment. They may come back from a gig at six in the morning only to go to work at seven. With little help (Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks advised them as a barely elder punk predecessor from their hometown), they learned how to play, how to record, and how to swagger--when no "careerists" or "The X-Factor" peddled advice.

No art school, no music lessons at the age of five, nearly no doting parents or off-stage siblings: this unpretentious narrative conveys conversation about what the "tone-deaf" bassist knows and the band's fans want to learn, but it strips away digressions. It may dash ahead here and there into New Order or current d.j.-related territory, but these detours branch from the musical path blazed from the late-1970s onward under a thoughtful if cranky, wry guide. Hook relies upon an understated, efficient, and acerbic tone, as if he's sharing his reflections and memories with you at his corner pub.

Brisk episodes in declarative form convey the chronology of the band which started as Stiff Kittens after the June 4, 1976, Sex Pistols show commemorated in 24 Hour Party People. At that time, the fifty-odd Manchester fans all dressed in mid-Seventies fashion: flared jeans, long hair, wide lapels. By the time the Pistols played their second gig in the city, on July 20, the punters had changed. Hooky, Bernard, and Terry (Mason, their longtime associate) had shorn their locks, razored their thrift-store gear, and vowed to follow Johnny Rotten's commitment to a wall of distortion, a fierce integrity, and a musical vision that transcended the limits of punk. Even by December, in the wake of the Pistols' televised appearance that led to headlines of "the filth and the fury," punk was giving way to deeper, harsher, more reverberating soundscapes. Within these, the band as Warsaw by May 1977 and then as Joy Division at the start of 1978 pioneered post-punk. Foreshadowing what fans of Joy Division and New Order know, first Ian and then manager Rob Gretton's deaths leave the three restive musicians as if "islands," stranded as their ship "captains kept dying on us," Hook confides.

The band never gelled as best friends. Three roles tangled Ian: a lad, a literate lyricist, and a married father carrying on an affair. Barney bickered with his boyhood pal Hooky. Steve kept to himself. But, as musicians, the trio energized Curtis' adroit lyricism, and riffs tumbled forth, from "Transmission" on, by mid-1978, a year after they first played in public.

Taking provocative stances in fashion--Scout uniforms for Barney, a plastic cap and mustache for Hooky, a rigid perfectionism for eccentric Steve, a brooding, unpredictable presence for Ian (exacerbated by his diagnosis of epilepsy, dramatized in the film Control, as they began to gain fame)--and given their name, from the prostitution wing in a Nazi concentration camp, the band made its sly and smilingly sinister impact known as punk waned and post-punk loomed. An Ideal for Living seven-inch e.p., despite abysmal fidelity, drew attention for Barney's cover art: a Hitler Youth beating a drum. Hooky admits to the band's WWII interest, as they grew up around bombsites, but he dismisses then as now any ties to fascist ideology. He's weary of such a facile association. (Two rejected names for the band may cancel out any alternative history of chart success imagined for the four: "Slaves of Venus" or "Boys in Bondage.")

The band vowed to outflank the divisive D.I.Y. Mancunian scene. Then, they stumbled upon their own sound. Hooky's cheap amp forced him to play high on the neck of his bass; Ian liked this as Barney's "low chords" rode over Steve's "jungle drums"; Rob approved, and they honed their style.

Starting with the insistent "Transmission," Hook commends Curtis: "His songs from that point were like having a conversation with a genius, sort of profound and impenetrable at the same time." The band wisely steered free of London's hype and major label pull, to keep their civic autonomy, their financial acumen, and to express their loyalty to local media maverick Tony Wilson and his nascent Factory Records ensemble. Driven by the tape skills and psychic manipulations of their manic, experimental producer Martin Hannett, they plumbed icy depths (often in frigid rehearsal spaces and a Northern English studio) for their accomplished 1979 debut LP Unknown Pleasures.

For this bleak, defiant album, despite all of the tension "sniggering" Hannett created and exacerbated, Hook credits this producer with steering himself and Bernard away from a "metal wall" to what Ian and Steve preferred along with Hannett: not "RARRGH!" but a "ptish" from its "spacey, echoey ambient sound." This conveyed what few records from any era sustain: the gift of "timelessness." From memory, from playing live in a studio over two weekends at night to save money (and a third weekend to mix), the relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere resulted in the only album Hooky played on where he combined focus with fun.

Soon, the press noticed. Hooky disdains media patter and PR, however. "One minute you're playing to a handful of people yawning their heads off, then six months or eight months later you're playing the exact same material to a packed audience all going bonkers." By the summer of '79, Joy Division toured more widely, not only Britain but France and the Low Countries. The second half of Hook's narrative mingles lighter and darker moods as the band found success (albeit limited as they still had to decide on whether to spend their £1.50 per diem on a meal or two pints, but not both).

A tour as the up and coming "rough cousins" to their "fat and bloated--musically and physically" neighbors the Buzzcocks enables Hooky a chance to entertain: maggots, mice, a magician, and shaving foam loom large. Ian's often-mythologized role deflates by Peter's affectionate reflections. Watch Ian laughing at a turd in a concert's portable toilet; see Ian miming the bosom of "girls" he tries to chat up after a concert via a clueless, monolingual Belgian. Hooky rises to the challenge here, mixing the fond vignettes with the painful revelations. His insights into his conflicted, boisterous, and wayward companion emerge through a series of plainspoken, compassionate, and blunt evaluations.

Ian's recently diagnosed epilepsy worsened with exposure to strobes onstage; his barbiturate addiction to counter his ailment increased his difficulties leading to a separation from his wife Debbie (and their infant daughter Natalie) during Ian's affair with Annik Honoré. Hooky laments the band's inability to solve Curtis' predicament. "Selfishness, stupidity, willful ignorance, and a refusal to accept what was going on right in front of our noses--we were all guilty of it, even Ian." But, as working-class jokers bent on pranks and taking down any pretentiousness which increasingly Ian and Annik indulged in, Hooky and his restive mate Barney "carried on" for the sake of the band and for lack of any alternative method of treating Ian. "Because this was what we'd worked and waited for."

What they waited for happened: the second album Closer as "the soundtrack" to Curtis' pain solidified their popularity. As Hook observes, it's hard to tell what is guitar, drums, bass, or keyboard with the band. Reliant more on electronics, chillier than even its predecessor, the album's success secured their first U.S. tour. Yet, the addictions, infidelity, and Debbie's filing for divorce signaled Ian's decline. On the night before their departure for America, he hung himself in May 1980.

"It took me a long time to realize that a child had lost a father, a mother and father had lost a son, a sister had lost a brother, a wife had lost a husband, a mistress had lost a lover. All a lot more important than me and the band; we pale in significance." At twenty-two, what do any of us know compared to what we do eventually? Hook wonders about Curtis' enigma: "on the one hand, he was ill and vulnerable; on the other, he was a screaming rock god." By taking Ian Curtis down to his own level, Peter Hook provides his mate with a fitting tribute, neither sordid nor facile, pat nor pandering.

Hook's maturation may have taken long to settle him down, but the honesty with which he accounts for his confusion then and his insights now sustain this detailed but engrossing narrative. Simply but vividly told, it wrestles movingly and boldly with contradictions. As one who had waited that spring nearly thirty-three years ago for Joy Division to tour my city, I never got the chance. (I did see the first New Order gig there.) At the time, many fans across the world heard of Curtis' fate and the decision of the band to continue from a distance, but through rumor.  In its stead, the truth now can be told by a comrade, and the gothic props buried. Unknown Pleasures as a book meets the challenge of the album, and the music Joy Division crafted: it enters the void but survives the plunge valiantly. (In 1000 words 1-29-13 to Amazon US; as above, 2-1-13 to PopMatters)

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