Many rock bands have portrayed angst in their music but few have embodied it with such bracing, profound clarity as the iconic postpunk band Joy Division. The band existed for less than three years, from January 1978 to May 1980, producing two quintessential albums and a scattering of non-LP singles (including the classic "Love Will Tear Us Apart") that would influence countless bands, from U2 to Interpol. It is some of the most darkly sublime rock music ever made, a visionary alloy of dank, postindustrial northern England and the digital future, alchemizing beauty out of alienation, despair and decay.
By Peter Hook
It, 386 pages, $27.99
The thing is, it wasn't an act. Joy Division's redoubtable mystique was both tainted and heightened in sadly time-honored rock fashion: On the eve of the band's first American tour, lead singer Ian Curtis hanged himself in the kitchen of his modest little home in northern England, leaving behind a wife, a baby, a mistress, a band—and one of the most impeccable legacies in rock music.
"Unknown Pleasures" is Joy Division bassist Peter Hook's tragicomic account of the rise and fall of his former group. Mr. Hook tells a raffishly charming and, in the end, heartbreaking story, full of the burning ambition and abject blundering that accompany any band's road to glory. "I'm a working-class yobbo," he declares, and he delivers proletarian pragmatism in an affable tone dosed with British slang and copious cussing. Yobbos, it turns out, can make revelatory, enduring art.
To his great credit, Mr. Hook doesn't revise his life story in retrospect, and his candid, plain-spoken approach is a valuable complement to previous portrayals of the band: two romanticized biopics (Anton Corbijn's "Control" and Michael Winterbottom's "24 Hour Party People"), a profound film documentary (Grant Gee's "Joy Division") and the gloomy but potent memoir by Curtis's widow, Deborah ("Touching From a Distance")—as well as 30 years' worth of cerebral critical appreciations by outsiders.
Mr. Hook and his childhood friend Bernard Sumner grew up in Salford, a borough of Manchester—once the cradle of the industrial revolution but, by the mid-1970s, a decaying shell. It was amid this forbidding landscape that, on a lark, Mr. Hook, Mr. Sumner and their friend Terry Mason attended a June 4, 1976 performance by a scandalous new band from London called the Sex Pistols. (The show has passed into legend: Also in the audience of 40 or so were Steven Morrissey, Mark E. Smith and Pete Shelley, who soon founded the Smiths, the Fall and Buzzcocks, respectively.) On the way home, the friends decided to form a band, undeterred by the fact that Mr. Hook didn't play a musical instrument. That was the germ of Joy Division. "We were just dead working-class," Mr. Hook writes, "and had no pretensions."
They eventually picked up a 21-year-old singer who did: Ian Curtis. "He had 'hate' written on his jacket in orange fluorescent paint," Mr. Hook writes. "I liked him immediately." They went through two drummers before inducting Stephen Morris, who "dressed like a geography teacher" and lived with his overprotective parents; at one point in the book he gets a cold and his mother locks away his drums so he can't rehearse. (Mr. Mason became the band's long-suffering tour manager.)
Mr. Hook vividly recalls anecdotes about the petty but fierce rivalries in the Manchester punk scene, the band's inglorious dues-paying, and an inordinate number of shows that descended into sometimes spectacular violence. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the complexities of life and art than the fact that a history of Joy Division is often laugh-out-loud funny. They check into a sketchy hotel in Antwerp, Belgium, and gradually realize it's a brothel; Mr. Morris accidentally takes a quintuple dose of LSD and threatens to kill everyone in the band with an ax; their end-of-tour prank on the Buzzcocks involves mice, maggots, shaving cream and eggs. Along the way, the story intersects with a pantheon of punk and postpunk greats such as the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Undertones.
The four yobbos eventually find a coarse but brilliant manager: Rob Gretton, "a larger-than-life us" who seemingly communicated entirely in f-bombs. One of Gretton's masterstrokes was ordering Mr. Sumner and Mr. Hook not to speak at interviews. "He didn't do it to create a mystique around the band but because he thought we were a couple of cretins," says Mr. Hook. "Absolute genius." Joy Division album art never included the band members' faces or even their names. The iconic photographs of the band show them at a distance, sometimes with their backs to the camera (partly because, as Mr. Hook cheerily notes, they were "a bunch of ugly bastards"). A mystique quickly began to accrue around them and their ineffable music.
The band's artistic power came down to intuition, dumb luck and unintended consequences. Famously, Mr. Hook played in the higher registers, making the bass a lead melodic instrument, not only establishing a mainstay of Joy Division's sound but pioneering a staple of postpunk music. But according to Mr. Hook, this distinctive style only came about because his faulty bass amp couldn't handle low notes. As it happened, his melodic approach perfectly complemented Mr. Sumner's elliptical guitar playing. And while the band created songs by improvising, they rarely recognized their best riffs. Instead, Curtis pointed them out and had the band flesh them out into full-fledged arrangements.
That intuitional approach extended to their career as well. Driven by punk's iconoclastic, do-it-yourself ethos, not to mention sheer Mancunian feistiness, Gretton and the band made the then-radical decision to build a following in dowdy Manchester rather than London. And rather than sign with a big label, they chose complete artistic freedom on the fledgling Factory Records. Factory eventually became a major pop cultural force and a keystone of Manchester's renaissance, turning the city into a global template for the transformational powers of the creative class.
Throughout, Mr. Hook blithely notes the fascinating disconnect between the band and their art. Joy Division recorded their first album, "Unknown Pleasures," in the spring of 1979 with the mercurial, cantankerous and autocratic producer Martin Hannett, a genius who radically altered the band's punky roar, building a sonic temple of pristine reverberation, edged with sounds of breaking glass and field recordings of ominously humming machinery. It's deeply foreboding music, and yet Mr. Hook writes of the sessions, "We were focused and relaxed and enjoyed the wonderfulness of being young and in a band." And while U.K. music paper NME immediately hailed "Unknown Pleasures" as an "English rock masterwork," Mr. Hook quite forthrightly admits that he didn't initially care for the way it turned out.
Mr. Hannett stripped Joy Division's music to its essence: the sleek modernity of Kraftwerk, the dissolute incantations of Berlin-era Iggy Pop and David Bowie, the glacial, doomy riffs of early 1970s Black Sabbath. Curtis, only 22, sounded like a man peering into the abyss, not with horror but with sorrow; as eminent Manchester music journalist Paul Morley put it, Curtis "crooned anguish." It's desolate, harrowing stuff, the music's agonizingly hollow spaces a metaphor for the yawning spaces between people, or perhaps between the derelict Brutalist tower blocks of late 1970s Manchester—spaces that are, paradoxically, confining. Those unbridgeable chasms were a key to Joy Division's terrible beauty; they were also the undoing of the band.
The truth is, most rock bands aren't like the Monkees, a chummy little gang who all live in the same house. Mr. Hook says the members of Joy Division, except for Mr. Sumner and Curtis, were never very close. Mr. Hook had a closer relationship with the roadies (who, refreshingly, play a key role in his recollections). The members of Joy Division didn't dissect the power of their music, perhaps for fear of jinxing it, or maybe because, being yobbos, they wouldn't discuss or even acknowledge their feelings, instead venting them in their music. Ultimately it is distance, not intimacy, which lends this memoir its poignancy: Most insights Mr. Hook has about his own experiences—and about Curtis—came only in retrospect, gleaned, as he himself notes, from the act of writing this book.
And so, while "Unknown Pleasures" offers plenty about the genesis of postpunk, the Manchester scene and Joy Division itself, its great strength is as an object lesson in how oblivious people can be—all too often, even friends don't recognize the warning signs of a suicide until it is too late. Sadly, Mr. Hook was no different. "I'm ashamed of the things I've been put through / I'm ashamed of the person I am," Curtis intoned on the typically bleak "Isolation." Curtis's anguish was hiding in plain sight. As Deborah Curtis put it in her book, "It was too incredible to comprehend that he would use such a public method to cry for help." Mr. Hook says he had little idea what Curtis was singing about—all but the passion in the singer's voice was drowned out by the din of the other instruments. "Who cared what he was saying," Mr. Hook writes, "as long as he said it like that." Later, he acknowledges, "Now I'm older and wiser, and now I've looked at his lyrics and worked out what a tortured soul he was."
Among other things, Mr. Hook and his bandmates failed to grasp that Curtis was genuinely in love with his mistress, Annik Honoré, an elegant, pretty Belgian who interviewed the band in August 1979. They teased him mercilessly about the affair. "He wasn't tragic Ian Curtis the genius then," Mr. Hook explains. "He was just our mate and that's what you did with your mates up North: you ripped the piss out of them." Curtis, Mr. Hook writes, "adapted the way he behaved depending on who he was with." Besides conducting an affair, Curtis was the family man, the aesthete who read Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, the guiding force of an up-and-coming rock band, and one of the lads. "There were," Mr. Hook surmises, "just too many Ians to cope with."
"What's never really come out," Mr. Hook writes, "is the Ian we saw. . . . That's because it doesn't fit neatly into myth, which prefers the idea that Ian existed on another plane from the rest of us." It is that seeming contradiction, particularly as it pertains to Curtis, that gives back this mythologized band its humanity. Mr. Hook makes clear that Curtis often joined in the band's antics, as when he urinated in an ashtray in a Belgian hotel room and had to talk himself out of trouble after security burst in the room. Right around this time, Joy Division recorded one of their most hauntingly sorrowful songs, "Atmosphere," which Mr. Hook now calls "Ian's death march."
All the laddish high jinks stand in stark contrast with the dark problem at the band's core. In December 1978, on the ride home from a London show, Curtis suffered a terrible seizure. He was diagnosed with epilepsy and advised to rest—precisely what a touring rock musician rarely gets. But the band soldiered on anyway: It was Curtis, Mr. Hook notes, who "out of all of us most wanted us to taste the fruits of success and didn't want his illness to get in the way."
"Instead of getting together and working out how to adapt to our lead singer's epilepsy," he writes, "we buried our heads in the sand, all of us, Ian included, and . . . we just carried on."
The fits increased, often occurring during shows, triggered by flashing lights, exhaustion and the consuming intensity of Curtis's performances. "He should have rested, of course," says Mr. Hook. "And why didn't we insist? Because he said he was all right, that's why. And because it suited us to take his word for it." And besides, Mr. Hook writes, "When you're twenty-two, it feels like if you don't seize the moment then it'll be gone in a puff of smoke."
Curtis was depressed by the barbiturates and other drugs prescribed for his epilepsy, and the (apparently unconsummated) affair with Ms. Honoré was destroying his marriage. It quickly went downhill from there: In February 1980, Curtis slashed up his arms with a kitchen knife after the band returned from a tour. But, says Mr. Hook, "We carried on like everything was all right," adding bitterly, "I should call the book that, shouldn't I? He Said He Was All Right So We Carried On." They played a show the next night. "Nowadays," says Mr. Hook, "you wouldn't f—ing do that, would you?" Sadly, you might. The juggernaut of a rising rock band remains difficult to stop: All kinds of people—bandmates, crew, management, the record label—have a lot at stake. Besides having lofty ambitions, Curtis was what Mr. Hook calls a "people pleaser," and it must have been impossible for him to just step off the train.
In April 1980, Curtis took an overdose of epilepsy medication that could have killed him, but in yet another astonishing display of either denial or naiveté, the band decided he was OK, because he'd had second thoughts and alerted his wife before it was too late. Six weeks later, Curtis was dead. "I look back and keep seeing where we should have stopped. It's the part of doing this book that's the hardest," Mr. Hook writes, his regret practically leaping off the page.
Just about anyone who has known a suicide obsesses about what they didn't do. But, as Mr. Hook notes in a moving passage, "What's harder—what's much, much harder—is to accept what you actually did do." Still, it is hard to pin too much blame on Mr. Hook or the band—they were all in their very early 20s, after all, and northern England in the late 1970s wasn't the most enlightened time or place. "Great thing, isn't it, hindsight?" Mr. Hook remarks. As "Unknown Pleasures" shows, hindsight truly can be great. It is also heart-rending, ruthless and redemptive.—Mr. Azerrad is the author of "Our
Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes
From the American Indie Underground, 1981-91." He is the editor in chief
of the Talkhouse, a music website.
A version of this article appeared January 26, 2013, on page C5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Blindness That Touched Perfection.