The Agit Reader

Peter Hook

November 6th, 2014  |  by Stephen Slaybaugh

Peter Hook

As the bass player in both Joy Divison and New Order, Peter Hook has been at the center of two of the most distinctive and influential bands to follow in the wake of punk rock. As he details in his recent book, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, that infamously short-lived band formed as a direct result of seeing the Sex Pistols and took up the gauntlet to create a distinctively austere sound juxtaposed with emotionally charged lyricism. The band came to an end when singer Ian Curtis took his own life in 1980, but out of those ashes rose New Order, who went on to fuse forms of rock and electronic and dance music into a wholly unique form of post-punk pop, with Hook’s distinctively melodic basslines leading the way. It’s unfortunate then that Peter and his former bandmates—guitarist and vocalist Bernard Sumner, drummer Stephen Morris, and keyboardist Gillian Gilbert—have separated on what can graciously be called unamicable terms. While the others have continued on under the New Order banner, Hook has put together a band consisting of his collaborators in Monaco and his son Jack Bates, dubbed the Light, and has been touring playing albums from his back catalog in full. (Without trying to take sides, having seen both acts within a couple months of each other last year, I can attest that Hook puts on a far superior show.)

After playing both Joy Division records and doing New Order’s Movement and Power, Corruption & Lies together last year, Hook and his comrades hit the States this week to play the entirety of 1985’s Low-Life and 1986’s Brotherhood—arguably New Order’s creative pinnacle—along with singles and B-sides from the period, as well as opening up for themselves doing a Joy Division set. I caught up with Hook on the phone from Montevideo, Uruguay last week, where they were doing the opposite: playing a New Order set before doing Unknown Pleasures and Closer.

Are you still opening up the New Order shows with Joy Division?

Peter Hook: Yeah, I was a bit terrified of losing the Joy Division songs again. I was desperately trying to think of a way to hold onto them, so I came up with the idea of supporting ourselves as Joy Division, which now seems absolutely ridiculous because we’re onstage for three hours. But I must admit it does work because it keeps all the songs fresh, and when we play Joy Division, as we are tonight, we support ourselves as New Order. I think my repertoire is up to about 110 songs.

That’s pretty impressive!

PH: You can say that again! I’ve never been able play that many. I hope it will delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. One of my eternal frustrations before New Order split was the reluctance by Bernard and Steve to play any of the old stuff. I never understood it. We got stuck in this rut of playing the same songs over and over again. I was delighted to see when they became the Frankenstein New Order that they just carried on. Incredible, I don’t understand it! But I’ve at last managed to shake off one of my eternal frustrations.

Is the plan to just continue on through the New Order catalog?

PH: Yeah, I’m looking forward to their new record so I can add that!

Do you plan to do new music with the Light at all?

PH: New music is a very interesting question. Sometimes when you have as big a catalog as I have, you have to question your motives. You lock yourself away for several months, do a hell of a lot of work, and then it just disappears into the aether. It’s something that I have great difficulty getting my head around as an old musician. I’m used to the ’80s and ’90s when we sold millions of records. It’s quite odd. But saying that, I do do a lot of new music. I have an outfit called Man Ray that’s on the Hacienda label; I have a partner, Phil Murphy, with whom I’ve done a lot of tracks; and I do a lot of other collaborations with people. So I’ve never stopped, let’s put it that way. But the Light is more or less a vehicle for working through the back catalog. All the boys in the Light are from Monaco and we play so well together, we may do something together, which we’ll probably do as Monaco. I can’t bear the thought of starting again, again, though.

Will you eventually do the Revenge album?

PH: It’s a bit tricky how to put them together. I do them chronologically, so really it should be Technique and then Revenge, and then Monaco. But obviously Revenge and Monaco are much less well known than New Order. So whether I could pull off doing that I don’t know. I’m going to have to think about that. I think the next one we’re going to do is Substance.

Here in Brooklyn, it seems like you can’t throw a rock without hitting somebody in an Unknown Pleasures t-shirt…

PH: I’m going to put that to the test!

I was thinking about whether it’s just one of those iconic things, in the way that people wear Ramones t-shirts or Misfits t-shirts…

PH: I think it definitely is because I don’t get paid for it! Amazingly, in Santiago, Chile—and this is no exaggeration—every second person had a Ramones shirt on. I was saying to the band, “Why do they all have Ramones t-shirts?” It’s a band where every member has died, so it’s a hell of an accolade.

Unknown Pleasures has become an iconic thing and that’s probably due to the very short life of Joy Division and the myth of Ian Curtis. It’s become something like Nirvana, hasn’t it? And the music shows no sign of going away. Joy Division is probably more popular now that it ever has been.

Right. What do you think it is that has created a larger audience with the younger generation?

PH: Well, I have to say the music, don’t I? When we played in Santiago, we had about 1,500 people and the majority of them were under 25. And there was nobody more shocked than me. It was wild and not something I expected. But in many ways, I’m probably too close to it to be a good judge. I enjoy it, though. To be to able, as we did the other night, to play Unknown Pleasures and Closer in full, which I think demands quite a lot from the audience as well as the band, and to have a reception the way that we did, it has to be the bloody music! There’s an image and a vibe that you get from Joy Division that is very intense. It came right on the edge of punk rock when England was deemed to be very grim and overdue for a change. Musically, there was a hell of a revolution in 1978–79, and Joy Division managed to capture it and carry it through to Ian’s death in 1980. But it has to be the music. It is very individual, and most bands—most four-piece, electric bands—seem to ape Joy Division in one way or another.

Nevertheless, there seemed to be a bit of backlash to you touring doing those old records. Did you expect that reaction?

PH: No, I was eternally naive. I thought being in the band might have been reason enough for me to do it. How silly I was! The best quote I saw was a journalist had written about the bass player for Nirvana performing Nevermind, and he said, “I blame Peter Hook for this.” I took that as a great compliment! Thing is, with internet comments, as long as they’re 50/50, then you can carry on and live with it. It it was 100% “no,” then I’d be worried. Doing Joy Division was only meant to be a one-off to celebrate 30 years since Ian’s death, but the comments scared off the singers. The people I had lined up to sing were really unsettled and scared. Of course, I am a bit more hard-headed—don’t forget I’m used to people throwing things at me for nigh on 30 years. That’s why I started singing because I couldn’t get anyone to do it. Stepping into Ian’s shoes was very daunting. Stepping into Bernard’s shoes was nowhere near as daunting, I have to admit. I’m a musician, and even though I djed for a few years when New Order split up, my love is playing bass and making music. It was very nice that Ian inspired me to do that, to carry on playing that back catalog. The interesting thing and the validation to playing the back catalog is that it’s been largely ignored. So playing Low-Life and Brotherhood, some of this stuff has never been played live and a lot of it hasn’t been played for 25 to 27 years. It’s like, “Oh, my god!” I was upset about the Joy Division stuff, which hadn’t been played for 30 years, then I’m looking at New Order and thinking, “Shit, we’ve ignored much of this as well!”

New Order is a quintessential ’80s band—we had all our huge success in the ’80s. We were huge in America in the ’80s, we split up and got back together again in a failed attempt to save Factory Records and the Hacienda club with Republic in the ’90s, then we didn’t get back together until 1998. So New Order really was a child of the ’80s.  As I sit here now doing the New Order book and thinking about playing the music of that era as we do, it’s amazing. It really was a bright, golden period. We did “Confusion” and “Shellshock” in New York. “Shellshock” was written specifically for John Hughes’ film, Pretty in Pink. It was a great period for art, film, and music, and it was great to be a part of it. Listening to songs like “Thieves Like Us,” “Perfect Kiss,” “Sub-Culture,” “Way of Life,” and “Shellshock,” it really takes me back to that period. It’s like Hot Tub Time Machine—try dipping your toes in that! It’s very, very strange. It’s a really weird feeling, but enjoyable.

What stands out in your mind as far as making those records?

PH: It’s interesting because for Low-Life, we were on very good terms as a group. Brotherhood became very fractious. There was a real divide between the rock aspects of New Order and the electronic aspect. It became quite difficult because Bernard didn’t want me to play on the electronic songs, which I was aghast at. I ended up playing on them—and I think I did a great job of it as well—but that’s why the record was split into two sides, with one acoustic and one was electronic. As a group we never recovered from that fracture so it’s bittersweet. I have very fond memories of Low-Life, but jaundiced memories of Brotherhood.

In the recent reissue of Brotherhood, Bernard mentions you were always pushing for the rock kind of stuff whereas he was pushing for electronics. But from the other comments in those notes, it sounds like you won out.

PH: We were both wrong! I was wrong for us to stay completely rock, and he was wrong for us to go completely electronic. Our genre and ingenious invention was a combination of the two. So there’s something that Bernard and I have in common: we were both bloody wrong!

In the Joy Division book, you make it sound like your relationship with him went south pretty quickly and went from a friendship to a professional relationship pretty early on, right?

PH: Yeah, it did. Working with your friends puts a whole different complexion on your relationship. I had an unfortunate relationship with Bernard because whilst he was my friend, my other friends weren’t friends of his. And what happened was, when I took them all away together, that’s when it went wrong. Bernard is an only child, and in my opinion, is very used to getting his own way. He’s very blinkered in his relationship with the world because all he thinks about is himself. I think that that lack of empathy—with audiences as well, it’s part of his charm—led to us just having a professional relationship, which I have to say was very satisfactory. Our professional relationship was a huge success. It’s only when we got to 2006 that unfortunately I couldn’t stand his behavior any longer and we split. After that he rallied and entered into this huge personal fight with me.

We were talking about the Ramones and you hear these stories about Joey and Johnny traveling separately and not talking for like 20 years. Was it that bad?

PH: No, it wasn’t that bad. What I took a dislike to was his attitude to gigging. He expected the world of us when it came to recording, but when it came to gigging he gave very little back. I know he says now that he’s the complete opposite, which is perfectly timed for the economic crisis from which we are all suffering. If you were cynical, you might think that he changed his mind to cash in, which it certainly looks like to me. It’s a weird thing. These things are not usually made public, but with our fracas, Bernard and I spend all our time making it public. With his book, he’s gone to great lengths to make me out to be the biggest bastard there ever was and deserved having the group taken off him. His version of events just isn’t true. I’m very proud of the fact that with my two books, I never lied. That makes me very happy. I suspect that his is manufactured more to justify reforming New Order without me, which is very sad because he had a fantastic opportunity to explain his musical methods. I mean, Barney is a fantastic musician. He’s an incredible guitarist, he’s a great lyricist, a great songwriter, a great keyboard player and programmer, and yet in his book, he hardly talks about anything to do with that. Instead, he concentrates on what a bastard I am, which I suppose I should take as a compliment, but New Order fans get to learn very little. It’s a wasted opportunity to me and it seems calculated more than anything else. And there are so many mistakes in it! I can’t believe he’s ever read anything about Joy Division or New Order. He’s the guy who infamously insisted that we were never called Warsaw. He always had a very dodgy memory when it came to anything. The guy with the great memory is Steve Morris. He’s got a fantastic memory for all things Joy Division and New Order, and I can’t believe Bernard asked him about anything.

I was actually struck by all the little details you remembered in that book.

PH: Doing the New Order book, I’m onto 1982 in doing rewrites, and it’s amazing the amount of detail I remember. But I have to admit that reading Barney’s book has really spurred me on because it has no detail in it. It’s crap. It’s a terrible history of New Order so he has left it wide open for me to do a great book, which I didn’t intend to do at the start because New Order has been quite pained over the years. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy. Also, it’s a hell of a length of time. I’m only doing up to 2006, when we split, because to be honest with you, after that the goings on have been absolutely disgusting. The business dealings would destroy everybody’s wonderful idea of our music so I wouldn’t want to dwell on that. But I don’t hide the financial aspects, which I know that most people who write a biography do. So yeah, it will be an honest, straightforward history of New Order. I must admit, New Order goes through some fantastic phases. The very fact that I’ve now gotten to play seven albums is an amazing achievement for me to get through all those songs. I’ve had the most enjoyment doing this than I ever had in New Order, which is a sad thing.

But doing those Joy Division songs, I have to wonder what that’s like for you emotionally.

PH: Well, there’s an emotional aspect to the whole thing because don’t forget with New Order, when we started, we were struggling to move on from Ian’s untimely demise. Joy Division, emotionally—I’m absolutely happy with it now, to be honest. I was scared to death at first, but I really enjoy it now. To play in Chile, where Joy Division never made it, and to see the wonderful appreciation makes me very happy. It was great because we were actually very happy in Joy Division. The only thing that darkened it was Ian’s illness. We never had any money and we didn’t have any great success so it was a very balanced episode in our lives. Once we got to New Order, it became very unbalanced when the money started coming in and causing all the problems with the Hacienda and Factory Records. It all went wrong very early on and those problems and that bitterness has lasted right the way through. Going back to Bernard’s book, he amazes me. He seems to forget that I was with him for that time, and I remember him arguing with Rob, and arguing with Tony Wilson, and arguing with Steve and Gillian. He had a massive row with them over Republic because Steve and Gillian said they wrote it. He fell out with them and didn’t speak to them for three years! But he forgets all that in his blind hatred of me. I suppose it worked out well for them. Maybe one day, I’ll get a card: “Thanks for that Hooky. Love, the Morrises.”

So how does it feel singing words that Bernard wrote then?

PH: Bernard didn’t write them, you see. We wrote all the songs and all the lyrics together—me, Steve, and Bernard—right up to Technique. They’re all ours in a way, so it’s not as odd as Joy Division, where the words and melodies were Ian’s. Bernard, Steve, and I spent many, many nights doing the words and vocal lines together, so it feels very much part of me. Doing Low-Life and Brotherhood, in particular, I can see a lot of jokes that we put in that people never got. People never saw that we were quite lighthearted, especially in comparison to Joy Division. Singing them now, I remember the daftness we put in while we were doing it. We did have quite a good time. That’s been nice, actually. Doing the book, actually, and reading Barney’s book to see what he got wrong about our adventures, has lightened it quite a lot for me. But I’m still right in the middle of a legal battle over what I consider an illegal use of the name, and the thing is, that kind of taints your feelings for everything.

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