"The music of Joy Division was about the death of optimism, of youth," guitarist Bernard Sumner told Jon Savage in an essay printed in the booklet that accompanies Joy Division's Heart and Soul box set. From such bleak elements sprouted one of the most devoutly worshipped cult bands ever.
Joy Division made but two albums—1979's Unknown Pleasures and 1980's Closer—and a handful of EPs and singles, but their small output continues to resonate deeply with millions of fans worldwide. Singer Ian Curtis's suicide on the eve of Joy Division's first U.S. tour in 1980 ended the band but launched the mythos, creating a fascinating penumbra of martyred doom and soulful torment around every blackened, driving rocker and harrowingly atmospheric slow-burner. Curtis's tragic death at age 23—brought on by fractured romantic relationships and complications from epilepsy—bestowed on Joy Division's music an immortal gravitas.
Now, Joy Division bassist Peter Hook—one of the greatest melody makers ever to strap on a four-string—has formed the Light, a group of younger cats, including his 21-year-old son, Jack, on bass (Hooky will be singing), to play Unknown Pleasures in its entirety, plus a smattering of non-LP tracks like "Digital" and "No Love Lost." It's Hook's sincere way of honoring Curtis's memory on the 30th anniversary of his mate's death. The Stranger reached the master riffmonger by phone at his home in England.
When you were recording Unknown Pleasures, did you sense that you were creating a classic LP that would be revered decades later?
No. We were given the opportunity by Factory to record, and we just came in with the best songs we'd written so far. You can't say you're going to sit there and write a classic, because that's a judgment and an honor that critics or bands give you.
We hadn't done much recording before; we'd only recorded four songs or eight songs very quickly. We were very frightened, very nervous. [Producer] Martin Hannett was not the most communicative of people. He was like a mad genius in Back to the Future. The whole thing was quite unsettling. Making music and being in the group were the most important things in our lives. We literally threw our heart and soul into it and got on with it. All the accolades came later. Once Ian had died, the accolades didn't really mean a lot.
It seems like something significant happened between the Warsaw period [JD's early incarnation] and the recording of Unknown Pleasures. Can you recall anything that transpired to instigate changes in the band?
The album was all about the experience of growing up.
Would it be fair to say that Martin Hannett exerted a substantial influence on the band's sound and approach?
Not on the songwriting. The songwriting came from the four of us. There was very little input on songwriting from Martin Hannett; his input was purely to do with production.
What were the general moods of Joy Division's members during the recording of Unknown Pleasures?
We were absolutely fantastic. We were all enthusiastic and very confident in the way that we felt. It was the best time, actually. By the time we got to Closer, we were obviously very preoccupied with Ian's illness. It really threw a shadow over the whole recording of Closer. Unknown Pleasures was Joy Division at their best. That's one of the nice things about playing it now: You look at the lyrics and appreciate how strong they are and how strong the band was. I don't think you get that feel from Closer. Closer had a much more melancholy, introspective feel.
How did it come about that you would carry the melodic burden of the songs on Unknown Pleasures? That MO is unusual among rock bands.
Ian first spotted it while we were playing and encouraged us to focus on it and encouraged me in particular to carry on writing in that fashion. "Play it high, Hooky, that's what we want; give it that driving high bit." I do have him to thank for that quite unique aspect of playing. He actively encouraged it every day that we played.
Interesting. Everybody in the band was happy with that approach?
Yeah. But it changed by the time we got to New Order. [Laughs.] But at that time, everybody was happy. The thing was, we were writing great songs. The songs that you wrote in that fashion just poured out of you. "She's Lost Control," "Insight," "24 Hours"... nearly every Joy Division song has a recognizable bass line, which you have to put down to a cross between luck, skill, and talent.
My favorite bass line on Pleasures is from "Wilderness." It has an amazing, seesawing vertiginous quality that contrasts well with the truculent lurch of the rest of the instruments.
Ah, that's a great one. I was blasting 'em out in those days. Every time you write one, it makes the next one more difficult. [Laughs.] Strange that, but in the early New Order days, we still had some cracking bass lines: "Age of Consent," "Leave Me Alone."
Who were your bass-playing inspirations?
Jean-Jacques [Burnel] of the Stranglers and Paul Simonon of the Clash. Jean-Jacques for his sound and Paul Simonon for his strutting.
Did it take a long time to rehearse and get the Light to nail the songs on Unknown Pleasures, or did it come pretty easily?
I knew them all quite well, obviously, because I've lived with them so much over the years. I never thought the boys [in the Light] would throw themselves into it as well as they did and really make a meal of it. It worked very strongly, and the chemistry we have playing is quite close to what we had in Joy Division. Sometimes I close my eyes and I'm like, Fuck. Especially because my son [Jack Bates] plays bass. My son is the same age as I was when I started Joy Division, so there are some quite surreal moments whilst it's going on.
What emotions do you feel when you play Unknown Pleasures songs now?
When I first started, I was terrified, because I knew that people were expecting a lot. And a lot of people were not very positive about what we were doing. So I was very wary of making sure that I got it right. So [we practiced] until I was happy with it. And that was it.
What's your favorite song on Unknown Pleasures, and why?
I think it's "Insight," actually. It's really powerful and very melodic at the same time. The way that it doesn't have a chorus I find to be unusual.
What would be your least favorite song to play on Unknown Pleasures?
I haven't got one. There are a couple I find difficult, which are "Candidate" and "I Remember Nothing." But I'm absolutely ecstatic when I play any of 'em. Now that I've got a bit more confidence now that we've played 'em a few times, it really is amazingly enjoyable.
What's the biggest misconception about Joy Division, even after all the movies and books, and box-set booklets?
I think people felt we were very miserable—which wasn't the case, because the music always made us very happy. People thought we were very doomy and gloomy. Joy Division's music always made me amazingly happy. It was one of those funny situations to be in, when people used to say, "Oh, it must be so miserable to be in that band." "Nah, fuck off, man!" [Laughs.]
What impact, if any, did Manchester have on Unknown Pleasures? Do you feel like the city has even a phantom presence on the album?
Yeah, subconsciously. Barney [Sumner] has a very good observation: Your first album takes 21 years to write, and they expect the next one in six months. It's true. You have your whole way that you feel about what you're going through as a teenager and as a child that's represented in that first record. Your second one has to be six months later. There's a hell of a pressure. So Manchester, subconsciously, is there. It was a very bad time for Manchester in the '70s. There were a lot of changes people weren't happy about. The industrial revolution was dying. And Manchester had taken a whole new lease on life. It was a difficult time, to say the least.
Will the Light perform Pleasures as faithfully as possible to the original recorded versions?
I was very careful to capture what Martin gave the songs and put back something that I thought was lacking. Martin made a wonderful soundscape, but I was a 21-year-old punk. All I liked to do was rip your head off. [Laughs kind of maniacally.] So what I've tried to do is find a combination between how Joy Division actually sounded and how Martin Hannett wanted us to sound. I'm very happy with it. Otherwise I wouldn't be doing it. Because I realize how important this record is to a lot of people. And you know what? I've had no complaints. Anyone who's ever watched it has not had one complaint yet. It could be the first time, America. [Laughs.]
I think Americans will really embrace it and love it.
All these people make me laugh who are accusing me of cashing in. Cashing in, 30 years after? That doesn't really equate. This is my way of celebrating what a fantastic person Ian was and what a fantastic band Joy Division were. [I want] people to make up their own minds and approach this tour with an open mind. Unknown Pleasures is the most important record I ever made. It really set off the whole of my career, so I'm not messing about with it. I'm deadly earnest and deadly serious about it.
What are Bernard Sumner's and Steve Morris's takes on this tour, and why aren't they involved?
I don't have any communication with them at all. The fact that they play a lot of Joy Division songs in Bad Lieutenant means they're doing the same thing, but not in such a pure form as me. But they are virtually doing the same thing, aren't they?
Sorry to hear that you're not on speaking terms with your old bandmates.
So am I. It's a shame. I'm hoping as the years go by, as with any divorce, we can have some form of contact. Because we still have to work together. We still work together with regard to Joy Division and New Order; it's just that everything's going through lawyers, which is really sad, after all the mad time we spent together. Anyway, that's life.
I don't understand the people who are carping about this, really. I don't know about your financial situation, but you don't seem to be struggling...
Well, I still have to work for a living. But the fact that we're doing club dates and not taking it straight to an arena or concert hall... to me, playing it in a club, like 30 years ago, we were just about to leave to do a club tour in America as Joy Division. And here we are, 30 years later, and I'm just getting ready to do a club tour of America with Joy Division. [Laughs.] It is quite an odd feeling. I will be very wary the night before we go. It's an odd position to be in, because of what happened to Ian. It's a weird one, but the boys are very happy and I'm delighted to get back to America.
What do you think of the Paul Morley essay in the Heart and Soul box set?
I always have trouble reading anything by Paul Morley. [Laughs.] He exists on a different level to me, I'm afraid. While I appreciate his feelings with regard to Joy Division, he's a great fan of the band... You know, Paul Morley was down to be our first producer. He was supposed to produce An Ideal for Living, but he didn't turn up. He regrets it, so maybe that's the way he gets his own back, by writing things like that.
This is a shocking revelation.
It's true. He went out the night before and got pissed. We waited for him in the van to go to the studio. We waited for two hours, but we had to go because we had to pay for the studio. But even now he regrets it.