Celebrating with influential Joy Division/New Order singer and bassist’s first day as a proper senior citizen
“To be in one band that changed the world musically is pretty good, but to be in two bands that changed the world musically, that’s amazing.” That was Peter Hook, who turns 65 Feb. 13, and he was talking about the two British bands for which he played bass and wrote songs: Joy Division and New Order.
If it’s true, it’s not bragging. Iconic is an over-used word, but the term applies here to both bands. Can you think of another group where its lead singer exited and the rest found a new groove – in this case synths and moody, propulsive dance music – and prospered to an even greater extent? Joy Division might have become huge and their profile in England was certainly much greater than it was in the States, but New Order exploded worldwide.
Joy Division ended when Ian Curtis, suffering from epilepsy and depression, hanged himself on the eve of the band’s first US tour. The band members wanted to persevere but didn’t find a new singer or songwriter. New Order had some same personnel as Joy Division (plus keyboardist Gillian Gilbert) and reigned through the ‘80s and ‘90s. After various solo projects and other bands, and various spats and breakups, New Order went away in 2007. But they came back in 2011, with bassist Tom Chapman filling Hook’s spot. There’s long been bad blood between Hook and guitarist-singer Bernard Sumner.
Hook says that these days they even live not far from each other in Manchester, occasionally crossing paths but never speaking.
VIDEO: Peter Hook & The Light Salford Music Festival 2020
Joy Division was supposed to play Boston’s Underground in May of 1980, but it was New Order that made that first Atlantic crossing in September. “I have it on the Joy Division itinerary,” recalls Hook, of the May date. “The proposed tour.”
Hook remembers the Underground. Well, sort of.
“Eh, I’ve got a tape of that,” he says “Someone filmed it. I do remember that we had to sleep on the promoter’s floor, and we had cockroaches running over us while we fucking slept. The swine! Good character-building stuff, though! It was the longest night in my life. We couldn’t afford a hotel. We had so many adventures on that first American tour as New Order. It was like that film where the family goes on holiday and everything that could possibly go wrong did. It was hilarious. Ian must have been pissing himself laughing.”
Jim Coffman, the then 19-year-old promoter / booker / manager, on the Underground remembers, too, sort of. “Everybody else slept on the mats in my loft,” says Coffman. “Maybe they did, too.” Because New Order’s equipment and van had just been stolen two days earlier in New York, Coffman had to rent gear, which knocked down the band’s take to $300.
AUDIO: New Order Maxwell’s Hoboken, NJ 1980
Over the past few years – the post-New Order years – Hook has helmed Peter Hook and the Light, which is himself and younger musicians (including his son, Jack) playing the first two Joy Division albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer (plus singles) with Hook, as a singer, making a surprisingly strong Curtis replacement, and various combinations of New Order sets. And the band perfectly recreated the crystalline sound producer Martin Hannett achieved on those Joy Division albums. (It wasn’t a sound Hook liked at the time; they were a much rougher live band, but he’s grown to love it and appreciate what Hannett did for the band.)
Hooky and I have spoken lots over the years; here’s some of those exchanges and anecdotes.
Music is, of course, made in the moment and is often of the moment. A slice of the zeitgeist, which was true for both Joy Division and New Order, Joy Division’s sound an agitated, but melodic and melancholic expansion of punk’s fury and New Order some of that, but with more synths and more of an eye toward the dance floor. When you look back on the best moments of each what do you see? And, I suppose, the worst moments of each?
Peter Hook: I look back on Joy Division very fondly indeed. I know that, of course, the band came to a tragic end, but that does not change the fact that Joy Division was a great band to be a part of. Everybody was just really focused on the music; there were no distractions at all. We were all completely focused on making it the best we could. It was a very pure atmosphere which I will always remember fondly. We had our issues of course – Ian’s illness, riots after the gigs, difficulties in the studio – but overall it was a great time. With New Order, things like drugs, girls and money had become more of a factor and had definitely started to pollute the atmosphere. That is not to say we didn’t create some wonderful music still and that New Order is not something I am completely proud of, but the atmosphere was very different indeed when compared to that of Joy Division, and of course towards the end of New Order myself and Bernard fell out spectacularly, a feud which still continues today, only exacerbated further by their alleged “reformation” without me.
Still considering that “made of and for the moment” statement, how does the music’s meaning – or the playing of it – change over time?
It’s interesting because when I play gigs today as The Light and we play the Joy Division stuff, I am amazed to see such young audiences at the shows, particularly in places like South America. I thought the audiences would just be full of old people like me, but I could not have been more wrong really. This is amazing to see because it keeps the legacy of the music alive as new generations discover it and enjoy it. So of course, that means the meaning of a song can change too. I see “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” for example, as quite a dark song, but when played live in 2014 audiences find it very uplifting.
I’m always curious, too, about what musicians feel when they’re playing live. What you play is pretty emotional stuff. Are you feeling those emotions while playing or is that for the audience – your job being to put the notes in the right place and let the emotion wash over them?
I experience a wide range of emotions when I play this set – pride, love, hatred, anger, feelings of humour, being reminded of great memories, being reminded of some that are maybe not so great… I get the whole range! That’s the great thing about this set – it really takes both the band and the audience on an amazing journey.
Is the emphasis on capturing the sound on the albums?
Well, I am aware that more people are used to hearing the records than actually saw Joy Division live or saw the early incarnations of New Order live. For that reason, when we play as the Light, we try to find a good balance between trying to recreate the unique sounds of the records whilst also translating the songs into the live format for 2014, over 30 years after they were written. Some of them are more difficult to bring back to life than others and this could lead to quite a painstaking process, but we got there in the end and I am so proud of the lads in the band who make this all possible.
You wrote a terrific, eloquent book about Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures, which captured the ups and downs of the band, and cast blame all around for not perceiving the severity of Ian’s depression. One thing that impressed me is that while you took shots at other band members, you very much included yourself in the critique. It wasn’t by any means an “I was right/they were wrong” scenario.
Of course, yeah, I am man enough to be able to admit my own mistakes. I think that is an important trait to have. I am also man enough to be able to separate my view of the others because while I am their bitter enemy now it seems, that does not change the fact that Bernard and Steve [Morris, drummer] are fantastic musicians.
Looking at the New Order catalog, there are those certainly who question the credibility of a Peter Hook and the Light Tour playing New Order material while there is still, at least in some form, an actual “New Order.” But that material is yours as well. How do you stake your claim to it and do you care if detractors get up your nose about it?
I suppose what I would say is you can hear them lot do it, then you can come and hear us lot do it properly! Ha ha. Only joking of course, or am I? At the end of the day, I helped to write this material so I will continue to play it for as long as people want to hear me do it, anywhere we are invited to do so. There are those that question our credibility, but I know for a fact that there are also many people who question theirs – just because they are using the New Order name does not make them New Order, far from it!
Have you any interaction with your old New Order mates since you and the Light have been doing this? And do you care what they think?
Unfortunately, the only interaction I have these days with the others is through my lawyers. I do not agree with the business side of their supposed “reformation” and so I am fighting it with my legal team at the moment. It looks like it will come to a head soon. The others refuse to negotiate and will not sort anything out, so it is very frustrating but you have to fight for what you believe in.
Is it difficult to retain your respect, or love, for the music with all the bad blood that later went down between you and Bernard?
Like I mentioned earlier, I think it is very important that you do not let current issues cloud your view of the others as musicians or to cloud your view on what you achieved in the band. I have always tried to be measured in my outlook, and have tried to be as even-handed and equivocal in my books. I am sure that the fans are just as sick of us arguing as I am.
How did the songwriting generally work in New Order? Who did what?
At first the reality is that it was very much a collaborative process – all of us chipped in musically and lyrically. Over the years however this changed a lot. Bernard wanted more and more control and so began to take on all of the lyrics on his own. Steve’s input also diminished over the years – Get Ready for example was mainly done by me and Bernard.
Bernard was the primary – if plain-voiced – singer in New Order. He got the job, if I’m not mistaken, by default. You and Stephen both had a go, and Bernard was the best of the bunch. In retrospect, was it a good call?
I think so, yeah. We all had a go at first and he was the best at it. It also allowed us to develop one of our early trademark styles, as because at that time he could not sing and play together, a lot of our songs were very sparse guitar-wise while he was singing, then it would all come crashing in for these big instrumental choruses, “Truth” from the “Movement” record would be a good example of that.
You’ve said that the change from a guitar orientation to a guitar/synth mix in New Order, although it perhaps appeared radical to Joy Division fans, was, really, where Joy Division was headed – and would have headed had Ian not killed himself. Do you ever think about what “New Order with Ian” – which of course still would have been Joy Division – might have sounded like?
I think about it now and again, yeah. I can see Ian singing “Blue Monday,” honestly. The band was heading in a more electronic direction because Steve and Bernard in particular were becoming more and more interested in synths etc., so it was a natural path to go down and Ian always loved electronic music like Kraftwerk so I can definitely see that we would have gone more electronic if he had not passed away.
You’ve been candid about your own drugging and drinking years, leading to a personal and professional crisis. Away from that for some time now, how do you look back? Can you have regrets or do you simply say “That was me, then and this is me now?”
I lived to excess, but I am now proud to say that I have been sober for 10 years. I realized that it was a problem and thankfully was able to sort myself out with the love and support of my friends and family. I don’t shy away from it as maybe others will then be able to learn from my mistakes.
How has your perception of what you do evolved over the years? Is it as much fun – or perhaps a different kind of fun – as it was back in the late ‘70s and ‘80s?
I am having more fun than ever touring as we are at the moment as the Light. We have such a great time on the road and it is a pleasure to work with his band and crew. It is a total contrast to how I felt towards the end of New Order where I was very unhappy.
Your bandmates in the Light are of course far younger than you and obviously didn’t grow up with what you did. Do you think they’ve been able to understand what was at the root of its creation?
They totally get it, yes. I am very proud of everything they have done in order to make this crusade of mine possible, which is to play everything I have ever done live once again. Jack might be very young in the grand scheme of things, but he has grown up with this music and understands its importance and understands how it should be approached. The other guys, [guitarist] David Potts, [keyboardist] Andy Poole and [drummer] Paul Kehoe have also played with me for years in Monaco, my side project, so there is a great chemistry between us all and I think this does show in our performances.