Rock bios used to be one of the main types of books I read and the first section of the bookstore I would visit. After awhile, I grew tired of the poorly-written ones – accounts that were either overly fawning without introspection, or maybe they were inaccurate, or perhaps they held too much of a grudge. One’s music taste is highly personal, and it bothers me to see someone do a poor job with material that I love. Still, there are great music-related books out there, and certain subject matter is always going to get my attention.
For instance, Just Kids by Patti Smith goes above and beyond (though it’s not strictly about music), and I quite enjoyed Willie Nelson’s recent Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die. It seems that the better music biographies are written by those who lived through their subject matter, but that’s not always a sure bet either. Music and memoir meet at a difficult intersection, is all I’m trying to say.
Rock from the North of England is one of those subjects that consistently holds my interest, which is no surprise to anyone who has paid any attention to my writing. Upon discovering Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, I knew it was a book I needed to read. Peter Hook, bassist for Joy Division and New Order, has produced a satisfying, insightful account of the formation of Joy Division up until singer Ian Curtis’ suicide. 33 years have passed since Curtis hanged himself, and perhaps those decades have provided an adequate amount of time to gain some perspective. Hook writes in a relatively grudge-free and informal way, and ghostwriters (if one is to read between the lines in the acknowledgments) further flesh out the timeline in italicized paragraphs between sections.
I am not begrudging the use of a ghostwriter or two, to be clear. Musicians are not always natural prose writers, but that shouldn’t prevent them from telling their story. It is merely the difference in writing styles that alerted me to an additional writing presence. Consider this paragraph:
On May 29, 1977, at the Electric Circus, the band played their first-ever gig, supporting Penetration and the Buzzcocks. Tony Wilson was in the audience, as well as Paul Morely, who by this time was writing for NME and was impressed by Warsaw’s “twinkling evil charm.” “The bass player had a moustache,” he later wrote. “I like them and will like them more in six months’ time.” Photographer Kevin Cummins was also there, as well as Steve Shy of local fanzine Shy Talk; John the Postman, who led the crowd in a rendition of “Louie Louie” at the end of the night; and punk poet John Cooper Clarke, who performed after Warsaw.
Warsaw, by the way, was one of Joy Division’s previous names, after they’d changed it from Stiff Kittens. Now, read the account of the same evening written by Peter Hook:
Anyway back to our first gig. Clueless or not, we got set up. The changing rooms were in the old projection rooms. (Not that we ever changed clothes as such – in fact, we used to look down on bands who did. I bet those bands on the Alex James program “change” “¦ ) I remember we walked down the steps to the stage, and Ian saying, “We’re not Stiff Kittens. We’re Warsaw,” and that was it – we were off – and I can’t remember a thing more about it because I was so frightened. When we came off we felt we’d done okay and there was a lot of relief that we’d got through it, that first step of playing in front of people. Because it’s the weirdest sensation: I mean, I find it pretty weird even when I do it now, to be honest “¦
The writing styles are quite different, aren’t they? Most of the book is indeed in Hook’s voice, but I think it’s all right to include the information he can’t remember, rather than having him pretend that he can. We go on and on about honesty in memoir, so why not let another writer help you research? Yes, it’s a bit strange when it’s your own life, but compared to the absence of that information, can the reader really complain?
Another way the book provides additional detail is through press clippings and commentary from audience members who were present at some of the old shows, who now frequent joydiv.org‘s message board – a site whose layout looks unchanged from its 1998 origins. Still, fair play to the die-hards, and fair play for consulting with an unofficial site because there is something to be said for having an outside view.
There are some photos and artwork interspersed throughout the book, but the nearly 400 pages are text-heavy, which is great to see for a period of only a few years. The cover is also gorgeous – a black-on-black reproduction of the Unknown Pleasures album cover, fitted with a separate white band featuring a band photo and the book’s title. The page edges are also dyed black. The web-sized image I have embedded here does not quite do it justice. It’s just one more way that the book spends a lovely amount of attention to detail.
Okay, yes, yes – I’ve gone on about what the book looks like, who wrote it, and other miscellany, but what of the actual content of the book itself? As I said before, 33 years have passed and have provided Hook with some perspective, and though he’s the first to admit that he could be a wild, laddish-type, he is not angry about the same things anymore. One of the highlights for me was Hook’s willingness to say, repeatedly, “He was right, and I was wrong.”
[Producer] Martin [Rushnet]’s big thing was still clarity. He always said that for a recording to have a lasting effect and impact it had to have clarity and seperation. Now, remember: me and Barney [guitarist Bernard Sumner] still didn’t like the sound of Unknown Pleasures. I mean, I suppose that by then we’d grudgingly accepted that it was a great album, and knew that part of that was due to the work Martin had done, but it still wasn’t how we heard Joy Division. We wanted a harder, harsher, more metallic sound, like a group playing in a garage with metal walls, like the Stooges or Velvet Underground. He wanted us to sound like – how did he describe it? – adult gothic music or something.
Well, he was right and we were wrong. Sorry, Martin, if you’re up there. But it didn’t stop us bitching at the time because he’d make us play the song then take it apart.
Barney went on to be in New Order too, and more than once, Hook references clashes of personality that they’ve had over the years, and how they’ve grown into different people. However, he does not belittle his former bandmate, nor does he go out of his way to speak poorly of him. There isn’t a sense of trying to “get back at him,” and things like teasing him about bringing a sleeping bag along or hogging the space heater in freezing rooms are the same sort of teasing one would probably do to any bandmate.
I point this out – and this is certainly an aside unrelated to Unknown Pleasures, but bear with me – because this perspective and even-handedness is certainly not present in Tony McCarroll’s book about his time in Oasis, in which he jabs at everything about Noel Gallagher, save his songwriting, while everyone else comes out mostly unscathed. There is a grudge, an attempt at trying to “prove” something, and reading this other Northern band account, I had to wonder, if we gave McCarroll another decade, would he not be quite so angry? Or am I comparing apples to oranges? Probably, but again, if you know my writing, everything music comes back to Noel Gallagher at some point – a quirk/narrow-focus of mine for which I make no apologies, but do openly acknowledge.
Perhaps death has a way of forcing perspective onto a person, even more so than time. Hook does an excellent job of talking about Ian’s growing problems – marriage troubles, epilepsy, fatherhood while near-broke – without speculating too much. Ian Curtis began frequently having seizures during gigs, yet would often come back on stage when he’d “recovered.” The saddest lines in the entire book are when Hook talks about why the band did not slow down:
Guess what? We brought him round, he said he was all right, and we carried on. I should call the book that, shouldn’t I? He Said He Was All Right So We Carried On.
How could they know what was coming? They couldn’t, of course, and their success, while slow-building at first, had transformed into a marathon sprint.
With hindsight you can look back and say that he wasn’t going to be right at any gig, whether in America or in outer space. Even so, the idea of canceling or rescheduling America never came up. We were so excited about going, so wound up about it and desperate to do it. Ian, the fan of the Doors and Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and Burroughs, especially. I don’t care what Genesis P-Orridge says, he was looking forward to going. I mean, we had so much going for us then. The word was getting out that we were a great group to see live. We had “Love Will Tear Us Apart” up our sleeve. We were on our way up. That’s what always gets me about what he did. Sometimes you can see just why he did it, and it makes a kind of sense. Other times, it just makes no fucking sense at all.
I’m not going to parrot Joy Division’s timeline or talk about the book in terms of a “plot.” As far as its place in the world of rock bios, I believe Peter Hook has written a book that is as honest as he can manage, and it’s also a fitting tribute to his departed friend. If you want to know more about Joy Division, from a man who was in it, about everything from the formation, the songwriting, and the silliness that was also present in the process, read Unknown Pleasures.
Full Disclosure: !t Books sent me this book as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews. This review originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters