The Pleasure Principle:
Peter Hook Sees The Light
With a distinctive style that stands out to this day, those prominent, throbbing basslines sticking in your noggin for perpetuity, Peter Hook was one of the primary architects of the essential post-punk sound.
With the short-lived but tremendously influential group Joy Division, the interzone where his upfront pulse countered Bernard Sumner’s sharp, targeted guitar tones and Stephen Morris’ spare drumbeats propelled the despair of Ian Curtis’ painful lyrics and intense delivery into a realm that’s equally danceable and disturbing. Though many have attempted to replicate that sound, no one’s ever come close to the unnerving, powerful effect Joy Division’s music could ignite in the lost souls it touched. They were truly one of a kind.
That was all cut short when Curtis, only 23 years old, hanged himself on the eve of Joy Division’s first tour of the United States in May 1980. Perhaps surprisingly, Hook, Sumner and Morris almost immediately decided to carry on. Not as Joy Division – they wisely recognized such a course was impossible. Nor did they attempt to continue down the exact same musical style, but instead embarked on a fresh direction that, in its own way, proved every bit as influential as Joy Division had been. Soon joined by Morris’ girlfriend Gillian Gilbert (on keyboards, mainly), with Sumner now as singer and lyricist and, as always, Hooky’s bass melodies boldly pronounced in the mix, New Order weaved electronic dance music with their post-punk instincts, creating a style that defined the music of the ‘80s in a major way.
By the mid-90s, New Order went through alternating periods of inactivity and rebirth before splitting up in 2007, supposedly for good. Sumner, Morris and Gilbert, however, subsequently reformed New Order in 2011, sans Hook, much to the bass player’s dismay. For his part, Hook has formed a band called The Light, featuring his son Jack Bates on second bass as well as former members of Hook’s ‘90s bands Revenge and Monaco. And they’re doing something New Order never did – performing all of the classic Joy Division songs, as well as early New Order favorites, including full albums by both bands, to the delight of longtime fans and newcomers alike who never got to experience the authentic articles. And, like the fans, Hook seems to be thoroughly, unapologetically enjoying his modern day journey through the past…
As the story goes, you decided to start what became Joy Division after seeing the Sex Pistols, right?
“Right, June the 4th, 1976. And about 50 people at the gig. And I think about 40 of them went on to form Manchester groups. So, yeah, it was a hell of a night.”
That must have been just an incredible time period during which to grow up in England and see all those bands and become a part of it.
“Yeah, I mean, as a musician, you know, I’ve been very lucky – in England, particularly – to see a lot of musical movements. From punk, right through acid house, to Madchester – New Order were included in that, so were Joy Division – and you know, it’s amazing what an impact Manchester has had. On the world, really. Manchester’s been more consistent over the past 30-odd years, musically, than either London or Liverpool. So obviously, we’re very happy about that! (laughs)”
Why did you decide to pick up the bass over other instruments?
“It was quite simple – we were emulating the Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols had two guitarists, a singer and a drummer, so we had to have two guitarists, a singer and a drummer. I didn’t know the difference between a guitar and a bass. And because Bernard had a guitar already, I was elected to be bass. And I didn’t know what it was!”
Your bass playing style is so unmistakable. Can you tell me a bit about how it came to be?
“It was simply because the guitar was so loud, I couldn’t hear myself when I played low. So I switched to playing high, because it cut through. And when I did switch, Ian Curtis loved it, and every time we played, to record or jam, he would always encourage me to play high. And it developed from that.”
Were there certain bass players, or musicians that inspired you more than others?
“There’s only one, and that’s Jean-Jacques Burnel. The Stranglers. When they started, he was a very identifiable bass player. Very, very unique. You know, the bass was very high in the mix, very upfront. A real big part of the song, you know, ‘Peaches,’ ‘5 Minutes,’ songs like that. So he was definitely a big influence. I went to see him in Stratford, and I noticed he had a Vox speaker cabinet, and a Hi-Watt 100 watt head, and I came home and bought them! (laughs) Because I wanted to sound like him. But then his bass playing style changed as the Stranglers got softer, so I’d like to think I kept that particular flight flying, if you like. The Stranglers were an older band, actually. The Stranglers had been going, they weren’t really classed as a punk band, because they were too old, in the same way that the 101’ers were. And then the Clash formed out of the 101’ers. So these old pub bands like the Stranglers, they weren’t actually classed as punks at the time, yet they did have a hell of an impact.”
Your stance when you play is also much more like a guitar player rather than a bass player, with it slung so low on your body. It looks badass. Did you realize at the time how intimidating a look it was.
“I think it was mainly about survival and self-protection. As my mother used to say, ‘If you can’t fight, wear a big hat.’ So, it came really as a reaction to that. I went to see the Clash, and I was struck by how cool Paul Simonon looked. And it literally just came from that. I thought, ‘Wow – he looked really cool. I’ll emulate him!’ So I’m glad I went to see the Clash and not Level 42!”
Joy Division’s sound was groundbreaking because it was somewhat sparse but also really intense, and your bass carried the melody. It was often the lead instrument.
“Believe me, we didn’t plan it. It was just something that happened, I suppose you’d have to say quite organically. It just developed. We were very, very lucky. I mean, if you listen to the drums, and the guitar, of Joy Division, they were a very distinctive style as well. It wasn’t just me. Joy Division was very much a very balanced group, with each member bringing something different that came together to make something absolutely unique.”
You’ve credited producer Martin Hannett with creating the Joy Division sound with his work on Unknown Pleasures. You didn’t like the album when it was released, right?
“We didn’t. We just wanted it to be punkier. And, you know, thank heavens we didn’t get our own way. I mean, we were only 21. We were just young, we didn’t realize the power and the beauty of what we had. And Martin did, thank God. I mean, it’s one of those things you often think about. Those tracks, that sound is recognized all over the world. It shows no signs of abating, it’s still very, very popular, still able to connect with young people. When I formed The Light, and we started playing Joy Division, I did think that the audience would be full of fat old blokes like me. But when you get there, you know, the audience is very mixed. There’s some really young kids there. And you do have to take it as a fantastic compliment to the songwriting prowess of Joy Division, and Martin Hannett’s production that enabled it to get across, all these years and years. Three decades. It’s amazing.”
Joy Division proved to be tremendously influential. At the time, did you have any thoughts that you were on to something so lasting?
“Ian Curtis… was always the leader, always the figurehead, always the guy that told us how good we were. I think that myself and Bernard were a little bit too humble, and Steve was too shy. I mean, there were occasions when you’d play, and you’d be blown away by the reaction, but you do have to remember that we were playing to…on one occasion, Joy Division played to no people. Nobody came. Another occasion, we played to one person. Another occasion, you’d do 50, a hundred… You know, a big audience for Joy Division was two or three hundred people.”
How close were you with Ian? Was he someone that had close friendships? Or was he kind of distant?
“No, no, he was very normal. A very nice guy, really generous. He was one of those very rare musicians, actually, that took more delight in you doing your thing than he did [doing his]. And believe you me, there aren’t many musicians like that. I’ll tell you that for a fact. He was a very generous guy, both in character and in spirit. And he was a pleasure to work with. You know, when you contrast his way of working with how, say, when we got to New Order, you know, life became very difficult for us, because we didn’t have Ian. He really was very, very good to work with. But he just couldn’t cope with his illness, because of the way it was treated at the time. And that was an awful thing to witness, you know, you watch this guy, he was absolutely fantastic at what he did, the one that kept us all together, he was the glue that kept us all together, and kept us going when things got harder, or when the going got tough. So, it was hard to watch him suffer.”
Was the decision to carry on as New Order a difficult one, or not? What was the gist of those discussions?
“Very easy – I didn’t want to go back to work (laughs). I’d been working for five years in a normal job, and had, as we say in England, a sniff of the barmaid’s apron, and I really did not want to go back to work. And you know, as a musician, I felt okay with myself, I felt like I still had something to give, where I could still enjoy it, even without Ian. You know, it was thrust upon us. We didn’t have a choice. And I, for one, never thought for one moment that I’d give up being a musician, even then. And luckily for me, Bernard and Steven felt the same, and Rob Gretton, our manager, said rather than just play on, we were literally taking a huge chance. You know, to be in one band that changed the world of music is very fortunate. To then go on and form a second that changed the world of music in a completely different fashion, is amazing! I don’t think you can even get odds on that, from bookmakers. And, again, I’m delighted. I mean, we got a lot of firsts in New Order. Especially with the club in Manchester and things like that. And even after we’ve split up, it’s been a very unique situation (laughs). I’ve never seen band members sod each other off as much as we have after we’ve split up! I think we got a first there as well!”
Even though it was the same people, except for Ian, did the chemistry in the band change with New Order?
“It just became more difficult. I mean, you’ve gone down from four to three, which, obviously it’s going to be more difficult, if you like. Ian was so supremely talented, so supremely confident with his vocals and his lyrics. Basically Bernard, Steven and I had to learn how to do that. And so we did learn. Bernard did become very, very good at it, in the same way that we all did. You did learn how to do it. But on top of the grief, it was just a difficult process.”
What led to you leaving New Order? What caused the falling out with Bernard?
“I didn’t leave New Order, mate – New Order split up. New Order split up in 2006. Bernard agreed, so did Steve. Me and Bernard found the band, and me and Bernard split the band.”
Are you perturbed that he’s carried on with other players? What are your feelings about that?
“Well my first feeling is that they aren’t New Order. And please don’t be fooled, any of you, into one minute thinking they are… It’s sad. They decided to do it behind my back, without asking me and without even telling me, to be honest. They sent me a letter through the post. It’s cowardly, it’s chicken, it’s just not the nice way of doing things. It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and yet I’m telling the truth when I say that they aren’t New Order, and I hope the fans realize they aren’t, and treat them accordingly. I don’t call myself Joy Division, do I?”
With The Light, though, you’ve gone back to performing many of the old Joy Division and New Order classics, including entire albums. In fact, that’s all the band performs. Is that something that you personally wanted to do, or is it more for the fans?
“To be honest with you, I was struggling for an idea of how to do it without pretending to be the group. You know, you get these groups that lose a couple of members, they come back and they pretend to be the group. They play a greatest hits set like the group. And I was struggling for the concept, to be honest. I stole the concept from Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream, who were doing Screamadelica in full. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a nice, arty way to do it.’ And it did strike me that most people who’d heard Joy Division had heard them on record, and not live. So it became quite easy to champion the record. Because LPs, the way they’ve dropped from fashion, and the way that people concentrate on single tracks, I just think is a terrible shame. I was brought up my whole life with long-playing records, and I lost myself in them and built my whole life around them. And to celebrate them again is a wonderful, wonderful thing. I’m very happy about it. It’s also more difficult, which I like. I get to play all the songs, which I like. New Order got very, very lazy. They wouldn’t play any of the [deeper] tunes, all they liked to do was play the hits, it was really boring.,, So, yeah, it is a reaction. It’s a reaction against New Order, who wouldn’t play anything (laughs), so I’m gonna play everything! Bernard and Steve, they ignored all of the early material, and I used to say to them, it was the early material that got us the fans! But they didn’t want to do it. I must admit, I was delighted when they did come back in 2011, pretending to be New Order, playing pretty much the same set that we were playing in 1997, when we came back! And then again in 2000, and again in 2004. You know, the guys, they’re very consistent.”
The Light’s first gig was the opening night of your new club The Factory, in the old offices of Factory Records in Manchester.
“That’s correct. I mean, the idea for doing it came about because of that. It was the 30th anniversary of Ian Curtis’ [death] in 2010. And because we never celebrated anything to do with it in New Order, once New Order had split up and I was on the outside, I thought this seems a bit silly, not to celebrate anything. So I thought, alright, fuck it, I’m going to celebrate 30 years, and I’ve got my own club to do it in, and I’ve got my friends, and I’ve no contact with Bernard or Stephen, apart from our lawyers, so it just seemed right to go for it. And I must admit, the response I got, at first, was very negative. There was a really bad internet backlash on doing it, even before they’d heard it. Which was very sad. But, yeah, once we got into playing it, I got loads of offers to do it, and I must admit, The Light have been around the world playing it in some very unlikely places. And I do think that Ian would love that! The Light playing Joy Division in Mongolia, in Mexico, in all the places that Ian never got to, because of circumstances beyond his control. I think he’d be very happy about it.”
Is the club still open? How is it doing?
“My partner is a very good businessman, and is helping me not make the same mistakes I made in the Hacienda. So yeah, we’re doing very well with this one. It’s quite interesting, it’s not as radical, but, you know, it survives.”
How hands on are you?
“I used to be at the start. To be honest with you, it’s very young. Both me and my partner thought it would be an old clientele, that I fitted in. Whereas now, the clientele is 18 to 23, and basically I look like I’m looking for me daughter! So I don’t think it’s the best place for me to be. But, you know, we try and continue the ethic, and try and use the lessons, stylistically, we learned in the Hacienda. So, yeah, artistically, it’s nice to have something that propagates music. I’m a musician, so it’s nice to have a venue. We’ve played there a lot, as The Light. You know, we’ve premiered every LP there. It’s nice to have, but I must admit, time moves on and it waits for no man, does it?”
The Light recorded a previously unfinished Joy Division song in 2011 called ‘Pictures in My Mind.”
“What happened was, we had some tapes stolen from our manager, and the kid who stole them put them up on the internet. And a friend of mine, an American friend, actually, he sends me this sample of this song, and said, ‘Have you heard this?’ And I hadn’t heard it for years. And when I heard it, I thought, ‘My God, it’s nearly finished. It doesn’t need much to finish it off,’ and Ian Curtis was always a great one for finishing everything. So I thought, for him, I’ll finish it. Which is what we did.”
Are there any other unfinished or unreleased songs by the band that you know of?
“Yeah, I found a lot, actually. I found one called ‘In the City at Night,’ which is very tempting to finish off (laughs). I found another one called ‘She Has a Gun’ on some old tapes. So yeah, I’ve found a few that I’d completely forgotten about. It’s just figuring out what to do with them. The lyrics are on them. When I heard them, which is like for the first time in thirty-odd years, I was like, ‘Wow!’ I couldn’t believe we didn’t finish them. But I think it was the, uh, the takes I have are from a particular period of Warsaw going into Joy Division, so I think basically we were so prolific in writing so many songs, so many great songs, that these were in the same sort of style as ‘Pictures in My Mind,’ so they were just shelved. And we literally didn’t have no money, so you were using cassette tapes and recording over them. So we probably lost a lot of ideas on those cassette tapes that we recorded over. It’s just that I salvaged these from the end of the tapes. I’ll tell you, it’s really, really odd. I’m just itching to finish them.”
Photo by Mark McNulty.