Joy Division are one of the bands that shook the music world. Formed after seeing a Sex Pistols gig and given early encouragement by the Buzzcocks, Joy Division rapidly eclipsed both bands in musical craftsmanship and critical acclaim, although commercial success eluded them for a long time. They only briefly tasted the fruits of success thanks to the success of the single "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and their second album Closer, both released after Ian Curtis's suicide. The band's influence was huge and long-lasting: Radiohead, Manic Street Preachers, Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Moby (amongst many others) were inspired by Joy Division and would cover their songs or perform alongside them in their later guise as New Order. Other bands, such as Interpol and Editors, would base their sound more directly on Joy Division, to great success.
The story of Joy Division is bound up in the story of Ian Curtis and the story of Factory Records, that great Madchester outfit which brought so many great musicians to public notice. It's a story that has, over the course of forty years, been mythologised to a great extent, with Ian Curtis held up as a tormented soul, a wounded poet and artist-genius too good for this world etc etc. This mythologising would be fine except for the fact that most of it was done by people looking on from the outside or long after the fact. It wasn't until 1995's Touching from a Distance, written by Curtis's widow Deborah, that a more thorough and human perspective was brought to events. Two feature films have also explored the period: Michael Winterbottom's Twenty-Four Hour Party People (2002) is good but its comedic elements and the fact it tried to cover the entire history of Factory in a limited timespan meant the Joy Division era was given relatively little coverage; Control (2007) is far more in-depth and intricate, but it focuses more on Curtis's marital problems than his life in the band.
Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division provides another viewpoint of the band. Bassist Peter Hook, always the band's most garrulous and painfully honest member, delivers a 300-page account of the band's history and does so in a readable and fascinating manner. Having been a Joy Division fan for over twenty years, I was pretty familiar with the story and thought that there was little else to learn. However, Hook's book is packed full of incidents and details that will be new to many readers. This is, after all, the first time we've had a book written by someone who was actually in the room when they decided to pick a new name, when they decided to recruit machine-like drummer Stephen Morris and when they played "Transmission" live for the first time at a sound check and stopped all of the other roadies and technicians dead in their tracks.
It's this inside perspective which makes the book a compelling read. Hook is a great story-teller but also a bit of a geek, having collected various Joy Division bootlegs and unauthorised recordings of gigs over the years. He provides a timeline mentioning every single gig the band played (where possible with setlists) and spends some time mentioning the gear he played with, such as the awful speaker which led to him switching to playing high notes so he could hear himself (and inadvertently giving the band their trademark sound). However, the majority of the focus is on the human story of the band and its curious internal relationships.
From left: Peter Hook, Ian Curtis, Stephen Morris and Bernard Sumner.
A lot of the book is taken up by thoughts on the band and their musical direction, but also about their laddish tendencies: the juvenile pranks they'd pull on support acts or their willingness to chat up girls despite having wives or girlfriends at home. Joy Division have a reputation for being an artsy and doom-laden band, but on the road they worked hard and partied harder.
The book achieves a surprising emotional charge once Curtis is diagnosed with epilepsy. The flashing lights at their shows would often trigger fits right there on stage, but Curtis was adamant he didn't want to leave the band and demanded they keep playing. His bandmates would oblige. In the book Hook admits this was a titanic mistake, but their own urgent desire to escape their crappy jobs in Manchester and enjoy life on the road made them turn a blind eye to common medical sense. It's at this point you remember these guys were only in their early twenties when all of this went down, as was their manager. Hook admits to feeling guilty that they didn't do more to help Curtis, but it's also clear (from both this book and Touching from a Distance) that Curtis believed absolutely and utterly in the band and would not countenance leaving it under any circumstances. Ultimately the pressure of wanting to stay in the band, being stricken with a debilitating medical condition requiring a huge amount of medication and being in a failing marriage all took their toll.
The end of the book is abrupt, but then the end of the band was abrupt. In the opening months of 1980 the band recorded the album Closer and the singles "Atmosphere" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart". They'd recorded their first-ever music video and several appearances on TV. They hit a new level of critical acclaim and were booked to play a tour of the United States. They had a series of impressive new demos in hand (which would later become New Order's first few singles, including the magnificent "Ceremony") and they seemed poised to explode into megastardom. Instead, their lead singer hung himself at home whilst listening to an Iggy Pop record. The long-lasting appeal of Joy Division, beyond the fantastic songs, has always been that idea of a band forever trapped in that moment, with no bad songs or phoned-in albums to their name, poised forever on the cusp of greatness but having it denied by tragedy. It's a mythic image that even Hook cannot dispel with his down-to-earth stories of four mates having a laugh on the road.
But Unknown Pleasures (****½) is also a very human book, very funny at times, touching at others and mainly free of rancour (Hook saves that up - with interest - for its follow-up Substance, about New Order). It'll certainly make fans want to reconnect with Joy Division's back catalogue and check out Hook's thunderous live shows where he plays the albums by the band in full. The book is available now in the UK and USA.