Bassist Peter Hook has been the pulse of two of rock’s most enigmatic groups: Joy Division and New Order. He discussed the history of both bands at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Tuesday evening, November 30. The Legends Series session featured a sit-down interview and performance. The event’s free tickets disappeared quickly, and it streamed live via rockhall.com. If you missed it, some highlights are here.
It was a busy week for Hook, who stopped in Cleveland between a concert in Italy and a show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club. The DC show was the opening night of a US tour for Hook’s latest band, the Light. The Light is playing original material, but opens their set with Joy Division’s entire debut album, Unknown Pleasures. The Joy Division set is hotly anticipated and long overdue: In 1980, singer Ian Curtis committed suicide the night before the band was scheduled to leave for an American tour.
Hook sat for a two-hour Q&A session with Rock Hall Director of Education Jason Hanley, but first the Foster Theater screened the same short film that is preceding the Light’s live shows. The collection of vintage clips captured scenes of Joy Division’s rise through late-70s British post-punk scene, from live footage to the iconic black-and-white video for “Atmosphere.”
More recent real video footage chronicled the ascension of New Order, the surviving Joy Division members’ next band, which redefined dance-club music and eventually packed stadiums all over the world. Between old clips, scenes from the 2002 movie 24 Hour Party People presented dramatic recreations Manchester’s Factory Records-Hacienda night club scene, which New Order helped fund with smash singles like “Blue Monday.” That landmark dance track became the best-selling 12-inch single of all time, but still lost its label money.
Hook was his own opening act for this Legends session. Before the interview, he took the stage alone and played bass along with three instrumental New Order tracks, “Elegia,” “Sooner Than You Think,” and “The Happy One,” an unreleased song from the Technique sessions.
Then he opened up about his life and career, discussing his growth from an ordinary working-class kid to a self-described “old geezer” whose biggest groups are being honored in a Rock Hall of Fame exhibit. The transformation started at a Manchester concert by the Sex Pistols, who inspired a crowd of young Mancunians to form Joy Division, the Buzzcocks and the Fall.
Hook on the Sex Pistols:
“I’d never heard them, but I’d read about them in the press. The thing that intrigued me was: they had a fight at every gig. I’d been to see Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, and that sort of intensity was different. The Sex Pistols were awful, but what got you was the attitude.”
On his overnight conversion to the punk movement:
“I went home, too the collar off the dog, cut my clothes up — my mother didn’t talk to me for a month.”
On the grim British vibe that echoes in Joy Division’s material:
“There was maybe an air of desolation about Manchester and Salford that came through in your music, but what we felt was very, very well summed up in our music.”
On Joy Division’s relatively prolific output -- the band could only afford to rent a practice space for three hours a week, but still managed to write two songs each session:
“It was wonderful. It was like a deluge. Joy Division were absolutely fantastic, and it was so easy. Ian delivered all the time – everybody did.”
On the detached quality of Joy Division’s recordings, which Hook was long critical of:
“I didn’t [like it]. I wanted it to sound like the Sex Pistols. Thank God I didn’t get my own wish. You’re 20, you’re writing great rock music. You sound fantastic in the practice space. All you want to do is take someone’s head off. There’s no subtlety in it.
“[Producer] Martin Hannett, God rest his soul, saw something in it we didn’t. He gave it the longevity and depth and the ethereal sound that makes it sound great today.
“Today, playing it with the group, we use elements he gave it. He really did give it an otherworldly feel. It always reminds me of a pool on a moonlit night that you’re desperate to jump into. It took me 28 years to get there, but the guy was an absolute genius. He was an absolute lunatic. He never spoke to you in English. He’d say, ‘Make it harder, but make it softer’ or ‘Make it treble-y-er, but bottom-y-er.’”
On his trademark high-register bass sound:
“That came about early, when I paid 10 pounds for my first bass cabinet. It sounded dreadful, so I played high up. And Ian Curtis, God rest his soul, said ‘That sounds great when you do that. Let’s work on that. Right, Barney, you do some chords. Steven, you do those jungle drums.’ And there you have Joy Division.”
On starting fresh after Curtis’ death:
“We always said as a group, in those moments in the pub when you’re drunk, if any of us ever left, the band would be over. And when Ian died, then the band was over. It becomes very important to yourself, as a musician, not to trade on your past glories.”
On learning to write without Curtis:
“It was like driving a car with a flat tire. We’d always had Ian to spot the good parts.”
On signing to Quincy Jones’ Qwest label for US distribution:
“It was a great compliment when we gave [1983’s] Power, Corruption & Lies to Quincy – we just assumed he’d mix it again, because he was God, he was Quincy. I remember saying to Quincy Jones, ‘Aren’t you going to remix it?’ He said, ‘Remix it? You f**kers have done a great job! F**k that!’ And he just put it out. Like, ‘Wow, Quincy thinks we’re good!’ He really is a fantastic man.”
On the mixed blessing of New Order’s anonymity as musicians, even at the peak of their popularity in the States:
“You could play a gig at Six Flags to 30,000 people, and you could walk around, and nobody ever recognized you, because there was no pushing of you as a person in the videos or the records.”
On New Order’s famously synthesizer-driven aesthetic, and their love of flexible hardware like the Yamaha DX-7:
“We brought a lot of synths, and we found that generally the less you could mess about with them, the worse they sounded. What I found astonishing about Bernard was: you could give him a synth, and he could sit there for hours and hours, twiddling knobs until you were so bored you could put your head though the wall. But at the end of it, it was worth it.”
On New Order’s three post-1980s LPs, released in 1993, 2001, and 2005:
“Republic in particular was Bernard’s vision of what he wanted New Order to sound like. And the rest of us gave up, to be honest. That’s why Get Ready sounded more to me like a New Order record than Republic ever did.
“Unfortunately, when we got to Waiting for the Siren’s Call, it was a bit too far in the other way for my taste. It was too soft. We got all these producers in, ostensibly, so me and Bernard wouldn’t argue. But I said ‘When we argue, we make a better record.’”
On New Order’s multiple dissolutions:
“Tastes change, people change. All of us can testify to that if we’ve been in a long-term relationship. Our tastes and ambition and our drive change [as did] what we wanted to accomplish with the group. And it was time to knock it on the head. I felt that we were doing it for all the wrong reasons. The saddest thing was, the last gig was to 125,000 people in Argentina.”
On the band’s short-lived attempt to carry on without Hook following the 2006 breakup:
“I’ve always said that if any of us ever left, it was over. [Sumner] even tried to squirm out of that one. It’s inconceivable to me that you could have New Order without Bernard and Stephen. And that’s what hurt most, that they thought they could do it without [me].”
On not having a home studio, responding to an audience question:
“I don’t have one. I got sick of people tramping around my living room… I don’t like musicians.”
On Johnny Rotten, Hook’s early inspiration and, later, tour mate and friend:
“Johnny Rotten taught me that you’ve got to be true to yourself. If you’re not enjoying it, you shouldn’t be doing it. He’s a very difficult man. When we toured with him, he was hell. He’s a hell of character. He did not get New Order, and I don’t blame him. He’s still a great friend.”
On his current tour with the Light, performing Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. Hook fronts the band while his son Jack plays bass.
“I tried to get a couple guys I know to sing. They were very weary, ‘coz there was a lot of internet criticism — keyboard terrorists were out in force. They pulled out, wouldn’t do it. I though, ‘Shit — all right, I’ll have to do it.’ Then I thought, ‘Who am I gonna get to play bass?’ And I realized my son, who’s 20 now, the same age I was when I started.”
On the tour’s reception:
“It’s been fantastic. If I had a dollar for every old geezer I’ve seeing standing there crying, I’d be a happy man. And I love the old geezers. I am one myself. And it’s not just old geezers [at the shows] either.”
On finally bringing a Joy Division tour of sorts to the States 30 years after the tragically canceled American debut:
“It’s a bit odd. It feels very strange. America is the Promised Land to a lot of British musicians. When we finally did get here as New Order, we were very welcomed… New Order were larger than the Spice Girls and Oasis in America. So it’s great to be back.”