Peter Hook Talks Controversial Joy Division Tour
Brit bassist talks about playing Unknown Pleasures in the U.S. Plus: His new book, new band, and more.
Next month bassist Peter Hook will put his career and the legacy of his first band, the iconic post-punk quartet Joy Division, on the line.
The 54-year-old Manchester native will head to the U.S. for a nine-date tour performing 1979’s Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division’s landmark debut, in its entirety. But the tour has enraged many of the band’s fans, not just because he’ll stage the gigs without the participation of any other original band members, but also because he’ll be handling the vocal duties of the band’s late singer, Ian Curtis, killed himself in 1980 just as Joy Division was poised to embark on its first North American tour.
“The criticism has been aimed at me, saying I’m cashing in on Joy Division and Ian Curtis,” Hook tells SPIN. “But it took 30 years to cash in. So does that count? Usually you cash in after waiting 30 minutes.”
Hook and his new backing band — featuring longtime collaborators drummer Paul Kehoe (Revenge, Monaco, Freebass), keyboardist Andy Poole (Monaco), guitarist Nat Wason (Freebass), and Hook’s son Jack on bass — first performed Unknown Pleasures in May at the Factory, Hook’s Manchester nightclub, during two charity concerts honoring the 30th anniversary of Curtis’ death. The reception was positive, says Hook, and he sees performing the Joy Division material as his right.
“I should be able to go out and play the most important record I’ve ever made,” he says. “Literally my whole life and career have been founded on that record.”
Here, Hook talks in-depth about Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division and Ian Curtis’ legacy, and the upcoming release from his short-lived supergroup Freebass.
The Unknown Pleasures tour kicks off December 1 In Washington, D.C. Why, after all these years, are you playing the album live now?
It’s the 31st anniversary! [Laughs] Because New Order [Hook’s subsequent band] never celebrated the album. New Order never celebrated anything to do with Joy Division. It started when I was approached by the city council of Macclesfield, where Ian [Curtis] was born and lived. They wanted to do an exhibition celebrating his life and Joy Division’s influence. They also wanted to hold a concert for people to sing Joy Division songs and have the backing band be me, [guitarist] Bernard [Sumner], and [drummer] Stephen [Morris]. I thought, “Well, that sounds like a great idea.” And while I thought it was right for New Order to split up, I never rule out trying to recapture the wonderful thing we had with Joy Division, especially for charity. We started planning it then it all fell through. So I did it myself. I was inspired by Bobby Gillespie because I was reading an article about him playing Screamadelica with Primal Scream. I thought, “Fuck it. I’ll do Unknown Pleasures.”
What was the next step?
It started with me trying to find singers. I tried to get Alan Hempsall from Crispy Ambulance and Rowetta Satchell from the Happy Mondays to sing it so I could play bass. None of them felt up to doing it. There was a lot of criticism on the bloody internet and they all backed off.
What’s your reaction to the online criticism? Were you at all hesitant to do the tour?
Well, I’m not hesitant now. But when I first started this whole crazy idea, I was very sensitive. But nobody has had the balls to come up to me and say, “You fucking suck, you wanker.”
You’ve played in New Zealand, Spain, Australia, Portugal — how have the live shows been going?
The reception has been, “That sounded great. You did a really good job. I really enjoyed it.” I honestly thought we’d play it once. Then we sold out two nights at my club, the Factory, in Manchester, and we were inundated with offers to play. I thought the crowd would be all old fuckers. But it’s not. There are teenage girls crying and 55-year-old blokes crying. It seems to make everybody bloody cry. I’ve been very grateful and humbled by the fact that young people really dig Joy Division’s music. It’s a great testament to the chemistry and the songwriting prowess between the four original members.
What was it like stepping into the role of Ian behind the mic?
Absolutely terrifying. It’s given me such a wonderful appreciation for his craftsmanship as a singer and as a lyricist, which I took for granted as a bass player. Singing has been quite a revelation. I’ve been very flattered; fans are saying that I’ve been able to pull it off. I wasn’t sure; I wasn’t confident. But I didn’t want to mess around. Unknown Pleasures is a very important record for me. It was the first LP that I recorded.
How did your son Jack get involved?
When I decided to sing, I realized I needed a bass player. Funny enough, my son Jack, who also happens to play bass, is the same age now as I was when we started Joy Division. He’s not really into Joy Division, funny enough. He’s more into Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters. But we tried playing together and it worked. Playing Unknown Pleasures and seeing myself in my son 30 years ago is quite an uncanny, eerie feeling. It’s like watching Control [Anton Corbijn ‘s 2007 documentary about Joy Division].
The album has become iconic and very important to fans.
That weighs on me. I don’t want to be flippant about it and I don’t want to upset people. I’ve listened to the record over the years and, to be honest with you, I’ve really grown to love it personally. I didn’t like it at first because I didn’t think it was heavy enough. But [producer] Martin Hannett gave it an ethereal quality. He gave it longevity and made those songs feel like you could dive into them. He gave it a lasting quality, which I try to capture live. We’re very faithful to the record live. I’m very serious about doing this well.
What makes Unknown Pleasures so timeless? It appeals to many different types of listeners.
A lot of young musicians quote it; it has been a huge influence, especially to bands like White Lies, Editors. I was reading an article about Kings of Leon’s bass player, who said that he was directly influenced by Joy Division and by me. I was like, “Woah!” It surprised me. It’s a great compliment. The album caught the flavor and feel of Manchester and England perfectly. It has longevity because of the legacy of the punk DIY Factory Records ethic, too Joy Division were an uncompromising group. We were on an independent label and had no money. We had no advances to live on; we were all completely self-supporting. That enables you to keep control and behave how you want to behave. We were being very true to our ideals and to our punk ethics.
What do you think of Ian’s death and legacy 30 years later?
Death in rock’n’roll is very important. It has a huge impact. Look at people like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain. There’s a certain mystery. These people had to die in this rock’n’roll fashion, you know, die young and leave a pretty corpse and all that shit. But suicide is a long-term solution to a short-term problem. One of the most frustrating things in my life is that his kid is missing a father and his wife is missing a husband, and a band is missing a lead singer. That’s fucking unforgivable. Ian was a fantastic musician and a great father. There would have been a lot of people much happier having him around. It’s a romantic part of rock’n’roll. It’s the same way that everybody looks at Keith Richards and wonders how he’s still alive. [Ian’s] legacy is that he wrote great songs during a great period in British music, which still leaves people amazed today.
The debut album from your now-defunct supergroup Freebass, which featured Andy Rourke (formerly of the Smiths) and Mani (formerly of the Stone Roses), is coming to the U.S. in December. Mani criticized the Unknown Pleasures tour, saying you were exploiting Ian Curtis legacy for “blood money,” and now the band is done.
It’s very sad the way things worked out. Freebass was such a great idea and I had a great time doing it. We had a row, which most musicians do — we’re volatile people. But we patched it up. Mani and I are great friends again, but it left a sour taste for the record. Getting Freebass together coincided with Mani playing Screamadelica with Primal Scream and me starting the Unknown Pleasures shows. It couldn’t have come at a worse time. Starting a new group is difficult, even at 21 years old. When you’re 54, it’s fucking nearly impossible. We wrote a great record. But I wasn’t surprised when the group imploded because, basically, groups need to function without splinter efforts. It’s a great moment of Andy Rourke, Mani, and myself working and it has all elements of Manchester music. It sounds a bit like the Smiths, a bit like New Order, a bit like Joy Division, a bit like the Stone Roses, a bit like Primal Scream, but with a lot of reggae and northern soul. It’s sad how it all ended up. But that’s life — you’ve got to fucking get on with it.
You’re working on a new Joy Division book.
It’s a biography called Inside Joy Division. I’m doing it because I was sick of reading books about Joy Division by people who weren’t in Joy Division [laughs]. It was very hard work. I thought you journalists did nothing [laughs]. It was very cathartic and I was glad to get it all out.