Indie legends of the 20th century like The Smiths, Fleetwood Mac, and Oasis seem to blossom for a moment and then fade away into oblivion. For a moment, they represent everything that defines their time—but that’s never an eternal guarantee of fame and success. Whenever these artists attempt to reenter the foray, they try to assert themselves as contemporary artists whose work still belongs. But the public never really wants them—NME will continue to give Noel Gallagher and Robert Smith their annual “Godlike Genius” award for having made genre-defining music, but ultimately cease to care about what they continue to make.
New Order is surely one of those bands. Though the group’s contemporary work goes largely unappreciated, today’s hipsters idolize the ‘80s new-wave tour de force. And a look into the recent “tell-all” memoir of their bassist (and bassist for the band that preceded them, Joy Division), Peter Hook, might explain why this is true—and perhaps why it should not be. Though Peter Hook won’t be winning any awards for “Biographer of the Decade” for Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, the book is a wonderful way to get a firmer hold on the origins of the “indie” music scene.
Bassist for both Joy Division and New Order, Hook has always been one of New Order’s most outspoken members. After a prolific career in the 1980s, including five studio albums and over sixteen charted singles, the group began to lose steam and took a break in 1993. While New Order reconvened in 2001 to make their guitar-driven Get Ready and again in 2005 for Waiting for the Sirens’ Call, their music continued to get worse and worse. In lieu of their traditional club-electronic tracks like “Fine Time” or “Blue Monday” from the 1980s, New Order offered over-synthesized tracks with saccharine vocals in singles like “Krafty” and “Crystal.” By 2007, Hook left the group (again) while Sumner and original NO members Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert continued to make music.
This month, Hook published an autobiographical account titled Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, which details the group’s origins in Manchester in the mid 1970s. In 1976, Hook and long-time pal Sumner went to a Sex Pistols concert in Manchester and immediately knew they had to start a band. After a number of fights, run-ins with the police, and lines of cocaine, Hook and Sumner met Ian Curtis, future Joy Division frontman, at a Manchester punk venue. By 1977, Joy Division was formed and playing small gigs throughout the post-industrial scene in Northern England.
Most of Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division is made up of scattered conversations and playful (although often quite bitter) banter between Hook, Curtis, and Sumner. Chapter titles include “It was like The X Factor for punks,” “Stop fucking moaning Hooky,” and “He’s possessed by the devil, that twat.” Hook’s writing style matches his public persona—crass, upfront, and bold.
Even through Joy Division’s relative ascendancy to fame in 1978 and 1979, Hook reminds the reader of the band’s personal side. Even when describing the recording of JD’s most famous singles and albums, Hook treats them as individual projects that came together at the spur of a moment. In “I Remember Nothing,” the haunting closer on Unknown Pleasures, Sumner actually plays the wrong chord on his new Transcendent 2000 synthesizer for the whole recording—but the disharmony it gave to the song was too good to pass up.
Hook’s work demystifies Joy Division in ways that have never been done before. Biopic films like Control and 24 Hour Party People depict Curtis as a dark and brooding genius, but Hook makes him out to be a “pretty regular bloke.” If anything, Hook takes his time to remind us that music is not simply conceptual—it’s a man-made product. In a whirlwind journey through the gritty punk scene of late 1970s England, Joy Division ceases to be the inevitable beginning of post-punk and New Wave, but is a group of teenagers who got together to make music. Hook didn’t know from a young age that he was destined to play the bass—he stole one at age 16 from a music store in Salford and never learned how to play it right.
We can list Closer and Unknown Pleasures as two of the definitive albums of the late 20th century, and deem Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner, and Stephen Morris to be “Godlike Geniuses,” but we still won’t know anything about who Joy Division was. As Hook’s narrative tells us, the music world in the 1970s was a very different place than it is now. But the story of a band looking to score girls, snort coke, and get famous will always remain the same—no more glorious than today.