Joy Division’s Peter Hook: ‘These gigs are the right way to do Ian Curtis justice’

Peter Hook performs the entirety of the albums “Unknown Pleasures” and “Closer” on stage. Before his concert on September 26, he evokes the legacy of Joy Division and its singer Ian Curtis who died in 1980.

Peter Hook hadn’t played Joy Division songs for almost thirty years. © Adam Hampton Matthews

It’s a celebration, not nostalgia”, enthuses Peter Hook, 66, eternal biker look and salt-and-pepper beard. Since April, “Hookie”, as he is nicknamed, has been on tour with the musicians of The Light to pay tribute to his group Joy Division, which disbanded forty years ago after the suicide by hanging of its singer Ian Curtis. Every evening, he reproduces Joy Division’s two official albums in their original order and in their entirety. He also adds at the beginning and end of the setlist a selection of songs from New Order, the formation born from the ashes of Joy Division which he founded with guitarist Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris. “I no longer have any contact with them and I probably never will. It’s like that”, underlines the bass player bitterly. If the three Mancunian musicians unfortunately take advantage of each interview to settle their ego quarrels, they are, on the other hand, unanimous in saluting the memory of Ian Curtis and the relevance of the music they created together with Joy Division. A music which today has acquired a mythical dimension for a new generation.

Thousands of young people around the world still wear “Joy Division” t-shirts today and buy your vinyl reissues. Do you have a rational explanation?
Peter Hook –
The only explanation is musical. Joy Division is always relevant because our songs remain relevant. Nothing is dated. Guitar, bass, drums, vocals… Each band member created their own part and the combination was unique. Martin Hannett, who produced our first two albums, understood that. Joy Division came from punk, we had a rotten sound on stage. Martin turned this punk band into an adult band. He gave a dimension and a feeling to our songs which allowed them to go through the years. We were young and dumb, we didn’t have that vision. If we had produced ‘Unknown Pleasures’ and ‘Closer’ ourselves, the albums would have sounded like all the punk stuff of the time and nobody would care about it anymore.

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For nearly thirty years, you refused to play Joy Division songs on stage. Does this tour take you back to a period you wanted to erase?
There is a bit of that indeed. Depending on your age, you react differently to grief. After the suicide of Ian Curtis, we were devastated but we wanted to hide it. The day we learned of his death, we went to get drunk with the group at the pub. I did not attend the funeral. We turned the page and founded New Order without looking back. With New Order, the rule was not to play Joy Division. “Closer” was not promoted at the time. This legacy was denied as Joy Division grew a little more popular each year after from the public. There were reissues, films, books, merchandising. Artists took over our songs, sometimes even very badly, and we deprived ourselves of that. It was a ridiculous attitude.

Are there any Joy Division songs that resonate with you more today than forty years ago?
The strength of certain songs of “Closer” touches me particularly. And then there are the texts of Ian. When we performed on stage at the time, there was so much noise that I didn’t pay attention to what he was saying. And that makes me feel guilty because I never had the opportunity to talk about it with him. Very quickly, Ian Curtis imposed a mature writing. When you read the texts of Decades or of Love Will Tear Us Apart, it’s hard to imagine that it’s a 20 year old guy who wrote this. He read a lot, was inspired by what was happening in his own life, but he also observed the people around him. The loneliness, the sense of isolation, the uncertainties, the lack of communication… It still speaks to new generations.

Don’t you feel like you’ve become your own cover band?
I thought about this question for a long time. When I started performing Joy Division songs on stage after leaving New Order, I knew I was going to get a kick out of it. But I think I’ve found the right way to pay homage to my first band and justice to Ian. Most people who come to see us live today never saw us back then. On the other hand, they know our records. Today, I don’t try to play like the very punk Joy Division of 1979, but like the Joy Division that we hear on “Unknown Pleasures” and “Closer”. The public loves this music as much as I love it myself. The reactions are fantastic and that makes me happy. The rest, I don’t care. I would add that if there is a group that has become its own cover band, it is New Order.

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In your autobiography Unknown Pleasures, you talk about your first encounter with U2 while Joy Division recorded “Closer”. You weren’t very cool.
In March 1980, we book Britannia Row Studios (the studios built by Pink Floyd – editor’s note) for three weeks to record “Closer”. Every minute counts, especially since Ian is in poor health and we are broke. One day, our producer Martin Hannett tells us that he has an appointment in the cafeteria and he’s gone for more than half an hour. Furious, I go to look for him and see him drinking tea with four kids full of acne. It was the guys from U2. They wanted to hire Martin for their 45 rpm 11’ O’Clock Tick Tock. I gave a big “fuck off”, and without looking at these “youngsters”, I told Martin to go back to his recording booth. Bono didn’t flinch. We became friends afterwards, I assure you…

What’s the weirdest place you’ve heard a Joy Division song?
My son Jack is a bassist. He accompanies me in The Light. The first time we did the whole thingUnknown Pleasures on stage together, I had a funny feeling. Same game, same sound, same attitude, same face, same age as the one I had at the time. I felt like I was playing next to my own ghost.

If Ian Curtis were in front of you today, what would you say to him?
I would hug him, which I didn’t the last time I brought him home, two days before he died. I would then tell him that he was right all along. Ian Curtis kept telling us: “Joy Division is going to be bigger than the Doors or the Velvet Underground. People will love us everywhere. In Europe, the United States, Australia. We will still be listening to our music in fifty years”. He was not mistaken.

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On 9/26. The Madeleine (full).

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