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Review “Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division” by Peter Hook

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The name Peter Hook may not mean much to the average music fan, but his work over the last 30-plus years will certainly conjure up great affection amongst many. Peter ‘Hooky’ Hook is the bass player, and founding member, of seminal post punk band Joy Division, and later dance-rock pioneers New Order.

Although only active from 1976 to 1980, Joy Division has seemingly increased in popularity, reaching something of a cult status among not only music fans but bands active today. From contemporaries like U2 and R.E.M. to recent arrivals like The Killers, many have cited Joy Division as having a profound effect on their musical careers. As Joy Division’s manager Rob Gretton said in 1980: “Don’t worry, Joy Division will be really big in 10 years’ time,” and how right he was.

Although one of the most influential rock bands ever, Joy Division is also one of the most tragic, as the group’s success was cut short by the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, which led to the band’s dissolution and subsequent reinvention of its remaining members as New Order.  It is the mystery that shrouds Curtis’ premature end which makes the tale of Joy Division such an endearing one even now, some 33 years later.  In the book “Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division,” which was released Jan. 29, Hook’s account of the band’s short history is as much about him as it is Curtis. Many readers will look to the book for an explanation, or at least a better idea, of the legend of Curtis and why he took his own life.

Joy Division’s tale is retold in a hugely engaging manner through Hook’s trademark wit; the countless amusing anecdotes that are featured prominently throughout are where the writing is it at its most enjoyable. Chapters on the bands disastrous trip to Brussels and its tour with the Buzzcocks are two of the most amusing stories. Hook is refreshingly honest and writes with frankness that shows the constant struggles the band faced, denouncing the romanticism that surrounds Curtis and its work.

What sets Joy Division apart from the predictable tales of rock excess is the naivety and innocence of four young lads creating a band out of nothing but belief based on seeing the infamous Sex Pistols in 1976. There are no tales of drugs and partying (Hook is saving those stories for his next book on New Order) but plenty of dark days; playing to 20 people in dingy basements, being spat on at gigs, fighting with the crowd, sleeping on hostel floors and accidentally being branded a “Nazi band.” The book truly is an inspirational account of the trials and tribulations of starting a band from scratch. As Hook says, “Kids in bands these days, they don’t know they’re even born.”

On top of the chronological narrative of Joy Division, the book is punctuated with appropriately placed timelines, which allow the reader to scrutinise Joy Divisions’s hectic schedule of performances. The timelines themselves will be of little interest to all but the most diehard fans, yet it is reassuring to see that Hook has done extensive research, chronicling every concert and key moment precisely. Another feature of the book that is especially intriguing is the song-by-song analysis of the band’s two albums “Unknown Pleasures” and “Closer.” The detailed account of how the sounds on each track were created certainly adds another dimension to their work upon listening back to it.

The only downfall of the book is the fact that it only focuses on Hook’s few years in Joy Division, a relatively short period in comparison to his 25 years in New Order, as well as the fact that the story has been covered extensively before. Anton Corbijn’s 2007 Curtis biopic “Control” and acclaimed 2008 documentary “Joy Division” along with Deborah Curtis’ harrowing account of her troubled marriage to Ian Curtis, “Touching From a Distance,” have somewhat saturated the market. Even though the book approaches the Joy Division years from Hook and band’s first-hand account, much of what is written will already be familiar to most Joy Division fans.

Curtis has before been portrayed as an arty, troubled genius as well as a heartless coward who abandoned his wife and child, but Hook again places him in a different light: just a normal guy, one of the lads. It’s this new insight into who Curtis was that will be most fascinating for fans; Hook explains Curtis as having different acts for the band, his wife and his lover, Annik. Still, no one knows the “real Ian.” This, however, is the only new light shed on his life. His suicide still baffles all, including Hook: “Sometimes you can see why he did it, other times, it just makes no sense at all.”

“Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division” is a thoroughly enjoyable read, not just for new fans, who will benefit from the meticulous story telling of the bands life span, but also for Joy Division fanatics who will find great interest in the latest details of Curtis and the bands experiences. Hook’s no nonsense approach breathes fresh life into the timeless tale of one of Britain’s most influential bands and makes for a compelling read.

Jonathan Smith can be reached at jnsmi0@student.umass.edu

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