Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook – Review
Of all the great doomed rock bands, with their mayfly lives and drawn-out, highly profitable after-lives, few have a legend as potent and precisely defined as Joy Division. They played their first concert in January 1978 and their last in May 1980. In that time they released two albums and a few other songs: a pop music close to unique in its icy, addictive bleakness. They wore stark, photogenic clothes and haunted the hollowed-out cities of a decaying northern England. Their singer, Ian Curtis, was so intense onstage that he had epileptic fits. The day before a pivotal first tour of the United States, he hanged himself. He was 23.
This solemn version of the Joy Division story has endured for decades, periodically reinforced by authoritative accounts such asTouching From a Distance, a claustrophobic 1995 memoir by Curtis’s widow Deborah;Control, an acclaimed 2007 band biopic, shot in reverential black and white and directed by onetime Joy Division photographer Anton Corbijn; and finally, by all the musicians who have drawn from Joy Division’s seemingly inexhaustible well of young male angst and moody looks and riffs.
Peter Hook was the band’s bassist. Much louder and more melodic than in traditional rock, his tough-but-tender throb and hum was the heart of their sound. Since their demise, he has been a leading curator in the Joy Division heritage industry, and gives over a substantial part of this book to a list of every concert the band played, sometimes with a set list as well. Even the group’s pre-history, as a less poised and original punk-influenced outfit called Warsaw, is lovingly detailed. Hook recalls his eager acceptance of a just-recorded live tape offered by the promoter of a Warsaw show, “the start of what was to become a collecting obsession”. And when the author listens to it? “What a great revelation – we were really good.” The rock star as fan writer about his own band is not, you fear, going to be the most rewarding of literary enterprises.
So it comes as a shock, and a welcome one, to discover quickly that the main project here is quite different. Hook wants to show his band’s rise and fall as messier, more collective and more human than the usual Curtis-dominated Romantic parable. Thus, instead of Joy Division as a quartet of tragic heroes – “Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders,” runs a much-cited Curtis lyric – Hook presents them as a gang of lippy, laddy northerners with a “reputation for trouble”.
There were frequent fights at their gigs: “All of my mates were involved,” he writes of one. “Like a giant ball rolling up and down in front of us as we were playing … Which of course wound me up. So I started kicking these kids from the stage … kicking them in the head.” To rehearse, the band used a disused mill near the centre of Manchester, “decorated with cans of our piss because the toilet was miles away”. At shows by rival groups, “We were terrible for nicking things … We used to [see] all this beautiful stuff backstage and nick it all.”