For music fans of a certain age and outlook — old and misanthropic — there is nothing quite like Joy Division, the brooding yet strangely buoyant British band that oozed from the punk movement of the 1970s.
Though it recorded only two albums, neither of which attracted much attention at the time, Joy Division’s jagged melodies were an important influence on U2, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, and a host of lesser talents — I’m talking to you, Depeche Mode — who made a mint mimicking their sound. But the mythology surrounding Joy Division also has to do with its baby-faced singer, Ian Curtis, who was 23 when he hanged himself on the day before the band’s first US tour.
In “Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division,” a new and, for fans at least, entertaining memoir by bassist Peter Hook, we learn that a group famous for seeming oblique and arty, dangerous and doomed, was actually an unpretentious lot, just four working-class lads from Salford, a suburb of Manchester. OK, maybe this isn’t a revelation — we got the same sense reading “Touching From a Distance,” by Deborah Curtis, the singer’s widow, and from Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People” and Anton Corbijn’s “Control,” two terrific films about Joy Division — but Hook, whose low-slung bass laid the bedrock for the band’s songs, has a credibility and perspective the others do not.
He’s also funny. While the book details Curtis’s debilitating mental and physical problems — he routinely suffered hourlong epileptic seizures that required his mates to hold him down — it doesn’t dwell in the darkness or indulge those who would deify Curtis. There’s plenty of amusing stuff here about the band’s humble beginnings, including how they developed “the Joy Division sound.” (Hint: It helps to have a “dreadful, absolutely . . . awful” bass amp.) About the pranks pulled on touring partners the Buzzcocks, one of which involves 10 pounds of maggots. And about the many sketchy clubs the band played. (Hook was a suspect in the Yorkshire Ripper killings because his van was so often sighted in red-light districts.)
UNKNOWN PLEASURES:Inside Joy Division
To his credit, Hook isn’t bitter that Joy Division died with Curtis in 1980, just as the band was on the brink of commercial success. Perhaps that’s because he and guitarist Bernard Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris carried on as New Order, a highly influential band in its own right. But Hook does wonder what might have been.
“[N]owadays if we’d released an album like ‘Unknown Pleasures,’ we’d have been nominated for the Mercury, be swanning around Glastonbury fighting off mates of Kate Moss, and sitting on sofas with Fearne Cotton,” he writes, sounding, by his own admission, like an “old fart.”
“[K]ids in bands these days,” he writes, continuing in fuddy-duddy fashion, “[w]ith their sound men and stage managers, and overproud parents, poncing in and expecting everything laid out for them. You go to a gig now . . . and it’s got toilets with paper in them, and central heating, and everyone gets a rider and coffee and clean towels and all that.”
This is what makes “Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division” a worthwhile read. It’s an unromantic, nitty-gritty account of a band getting going in the punk era. Writing, for example, about the Nazi imagery Joy Division used early on to provoke — to “get up the noses of the older generation” — he doesn’t make excuses or apologize.
If Hook does have one regret, it’s that he and the others didn’t make Curtis take a break, or at least baby-sit him until he got on that plane to start the US tour. But they didn’t. On April 28, 1980, Joy Division shot the video for their classic song “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and on May 18 — less than a month later — Curtis was dead.
“I really think that if he’d made it to America he’d have lived,” Hook writes.
Of course, we’ll never know, will we?