Listening to Joy Division again, for the first time in at least two decades, a few things cross my mind. 1) My god they were fucking brilliant. And 2) My god I must’ve been depressed as a teenager. Who listens to this and walks away feeling even vaguely hopeful about the future? But nothing about their music, as wrist-slashingly wonderful as it was, makes me think, “I’d love to hang out with these guys. I bet they’ve got some hilarious stories.” Seriously, never. But reading Unknown Pleasures, a new memoir by Joy Division bassist Peter Hook, is like talking to a bawdy uncle after his fourth beer. But better, unless your uncle has stories about trying cocaine for the first time at the Pretty in Pink premiere. Apparently being in the saddest post-punk art-goth band in history can occasionally be pretty fucking funny.
Unknown Pleasures is also weirdly relatable, even if you never played in a band that spawned its own music genre. Hook writes about his mom in ways that will feel instantly familiar to anybody who’s ever had a parent worry annoyingly about their career choices. Mama Hook didn’t just fret during the band’s pauper years, when she at least had reason to doubt her son’s chances of feeding and clothing himself. When Hook tells her that he’s doing an interview for British music magazine NME, “she burst out crying, hugged me, and said, ‘At last. You’re getting a proper job!’ This was in 1986.” It’s probably the most mind-blowing thing I’ve ever read in a rock memoir. During the very year when I had a Joy Division poster on my bedroom wall with Peter Hook’s face on it, and I’d look at him and think he must have a perfect punk rock life, somewhere across the pond, 4000 miles away, that same guy’s mom was lecturing him about getting a real job.
I called Hook in New York just hours after he’d landed in the U.S., after a grueling eight-hour flight from London. If he was jet-lagged from the trip, he didn’t show it. He was relaxed and quick to laugh and even quicker to share NSFW stories about his former band. I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to hear “Love Will Tear Us Apart” again without thinking of German dildos and sandwiches filled with human excrement.
My first impression after finishing your book was, “Trying to start a band in the late ’70s sounds fucking horrible.”
No, no, starting the band was easy. It was promoting the band, playing the gigs, that’s when it could get dangerous. In the late ’70s, the conditions that bands had to endure were, shall we say, not as civilized as they are today. People were a lot more aggressive back then. So there was definitely a lot of suffering for your art. But I would argue that was a good thing. Generally people make better music when they suffer.
You think so? Why is that?
When you’re fat and comfortable, your music is going to sound fat and comfortable. (Factory Records label owner) Tony Wilson always said that we should thank god for the English taxman, because they kept us miserable and kept us making great music.
Do you miss the suffering? Do you miss audiences spitting at you?
No. I don’t think there’s any way you could ever miss somebody spitting at you.
But if it makes you a better artist? Keeps you on your creative toes?
I miss it mostly as a spectator. I went to a Killers concert in Manchester, at the Manchester Arena, and there were 16,000 people. And (lead singer) Brandon (Flowers) lost his voice after three numbers. He left and then came back on and apologized. The concert was cancelled, everybody had to go home. I remember thinking, “Fucking great, there’s going to be a massive riot now. People are going to be burning the chairs and smashing the stage!” But the audience just quietly left, no complaints. They were so well mannered and behaved. I actually heard some of them saying, “Oh, I do hope Brandon’s alright.”
What is wrong with kids these days?
I honestly don’t know. It was disappointing. I never felt older than I did right then. I was like, “Fucking hell, times have changed.” Compared to some of the gigs we went through, where literally you were lucky to get out with your life. Every night was like the Blues Brothers, when they’re playing behind the cage.
Oh yeah, yeah. In the country bar?
Yeah. That was very much the ’70s English punk scene. That was the atmosphere.
But without the chicken wire protection.
Exactly. It seems ridiculous to say you miss it, but it does make you wonder sometimes what you’d have to do anymore to get a riot. They’re very few and far between now.
What was the most ridiculous, borderline lethal thing thrown at you by an angry crowd?
I remember getting hit on the head by a knuckle-duster.
Yeah. This was as New Order. We played a concert in Hamberg for a bunch of skinheads.
We went on and did our usual trick of only playing for 20 minutes. One of the bastards threw a knuckle-duster at me and hit me square in the head. We left the stage thinking, “Fuck ‘em!” But then we got to the dressing room and the dirty bastards had robbed us. They’d taken our bags, everything.
That is so like a skinhead.
So we thought there was only one thing for it. We went back on and played for another twenty minutes. We played “Everything’s Gone Green” over and over and over again, until we bored them shitless. That’ll fucking teach them to throw a knuckle-duster at me.
As frightening and violent as it was, there was something innocent about the music scene back then.
In a way, yeah.
Would you have been happy if you’d never picked up a guitar?
Oh sure. I was quite happy before the band. I was working nine to five, I had weekends off, and I was having a great time. I wasn’t on the streets, I wasn’t in an unhappy job. It wasn’t the most fulfilling job in the world, working at Manchester Town Hall, but I was content doing the normal things that 21-year-olds do all around the world. Just drinking and trying to get laid and funding it with a shit job.
You probably had more discretionary income pre-Joy Division.
I absolutely did. For the first 18 months of Joy Division, we used our jobs to fund the band. We’d all chip in three, five quid to go and do a gig. But it was worth it. It was amazing we could afford to feed ourselves. But we were so creatively and artistically satisfied. You can’t explain that to somebody who’s never been there.
How can you be satisfied without security or health insurance or Tivo?
And yet we were. We were writing these great songs. We started writing shit songs and then they got better and better and better very quickly. And then one day we listened to them and thought “Fuck me! These are fucking fantastic!” And they just kept coming. All the time they were coming. Even the stuff I used to think was shit, like the songs on Still, I played them again recently and sounded fucking great. Joy Division never wrote a shit song.
Speaking of shit.
[Laughs.] Oh yes.
You set me up for the perfect segue. I can’t just let that opportunity pass.
The shit sandwich?
My favorite story in the book. Which probably says more about me than it does you.
You did bring it up.
Can you explain what a shit sandwich is to readers who may be unaccustomed to such things?
I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. You’ve got two pieces of bread with shit in the middle. Good god, have you never been to Subway?
You allegedly paid somebody to eat this sandwich. Somebody named Sarge?
Well, okay, let’s back up. Sarge was a bodyguard for the Buzzcocks, who we used to tour with. He was a dear friend of mine. He still is, I spoke with him last week. Before working for the Buzzcocks, he was in the Hell’s Angels. He was a sergeant-in-arms for them, which is how he got his nickname, I think. So by the time he got to us, he was already accustomed to being shocking. Plus he was much older than we were, so he looked at us and was like, “Oh, these turkeys are ripe for the plucking.” It started with these initiations. He came up with this idea that all the new guys had to drink a pint of piss.
Yeah, a full pint. Obviously none of us were going to do it, and we tried to turn it on him dared him to do it instead. And he was like, “Sure, I’ll drink it. But it’ll cost you a fiver.”
You paid him to drink your piss?
Sure. We put together our money and all pissed in a glass. He upped it to ten pounds cause it was warm.
Which really disgusted even him, the fact that it was warm. And we weren’t going to let him put ice cubes in it.
He seriously drank it?
Drank it all. Downed the pint in one gulp. And then he said, “Okay, shit sandwich for twenty quid.”
That sounds like a lot of money for an unsigned band in the ’70s.
It was a small fortune. As a group, each person in Joy Division was on like a pound a day. But we were determined to make it work. We wanted Sarge to eat that poop sandwich. It was five o’clock in the morning, and we’re running around a hotel in Glasgow, looking for bread, asking for donations.
Did you ever decide who was actually going to … donate the poop?
The making of it? [Laughs.] Never crossed our minds in all the excitement. But we never got to that point, because we never raised the twenty quid. Never even found two pieces of bread. Maybe I’ll have to put it on my bucket list of things to do before I die.
A lot of bands have these types of gross backstage stories. Why is that? Do you just get bored on the road?
For us it was bravado, not boredom. Northern men tend to be quite aggressive to each other. You Americans — if you are indeed American, you have a strange accent — you always look at the way the English are with each other as very self-deprecating. We take the piss out of each other. We’re always putting each other down. Americans look at this as like, (with a pseudo-American accent) “Oh my god, how can you speak to him like that when he’s your friend?”
You nailed us.
It really freaks you lot out the way we are with each other. But the whole Northern thing is built on that. “I’m going to make him look a dickhead if he doesn’t do this ridiculous dare.”
There weren’t any groupie stories in your book. Did Joy Division not have female fans?
There were very few. The only ones we ever got near had already been used by the Buzzcocks.
You got their sloppy seconds?
Pretty much. One of the wonderful things about a Joy Division book is that it’s so much different from a typical rock n’ roll tell-all. It’s not your standard Mötley Crüe sex, drugs and rock n roll book. It’s funny, I wasn’t going to do a New Order book, but when them lot reformed without me and did it so sneakily, and in my opinion so snidely, I thought, “Okay, fuck you. I’ll do a New Order book.” Because the New Order book will be like Mötley Crüe.
New Order was that filthy?
We totally degenerated. When I write that book, there will be some filthy, dirty, dark secrets coming out.
Hindsight being 20/20, do you wish the band hadn’t been called Joy Division? You could’ve saved yourself a lot of years explaining to journalists why you’re not fascists.
No. Because it was never about that. The Joy Division is the oppressed.
Watch the promotional video for Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”:
Where did it come from again? Brothels in Nazi concentration camps were called Joy Divisions?
Right. It was the name for the Jewish women. They were called the Joy Division. It has nothing to do with the other geezers.
The Nazi soldiers who raped them?
Right. It’s about the abuse of the Jewish women that are used and abused by the German officers. Ian was absolutely right in his connotation for Joy Division. New Order, on the other hand. [Laughs.] You might have an argument there, mate. But we’re not talking about that, are we?
According to your book, there was also a Joy Division in Germany that made sex toys?
They still do, mate. Just Google it. They make lube and all sorts of shit. They’ve been doing it for something like 20, 30 years. I believe they call it “sex aids.”
Wow. That is wrong on so many levels.
It really is.
Any other country, it might just be inappropriate. But in Germany, selling anything sex-related with the name Joy Division is just icky and wrong.
Yeah, but in Germany, especially 20, 30 years ago, they played down the Nazi part of their history so much that they probably never realized.
They never made the connection? “Oh, Joy Division comes from Nazis?”
I actually own one of their sex aids. I bought it at a Hamburg sex shop. I saw that it had Joy Division stamped on it, and I thought it was fucking hilarious.
What kind of sex aid? A dildo or vibrator?
Well sure. How could you not buy it?
That’s it exactly. Because when I saw it, I just couldn’t believe it was real. It wasn’t until years later when I came across the Joy Division brand of sex toys on the Internet, when I was doing my usual Sunday afternoon bootleggers hunts.
That’s when you call people who are trying to make a profit on the Joy Division name and berate them?
That’s right. Bootleggers quake in fear of me ringing them on a Sunday afternoon. I call after dinner usually. I did contact the Joy Division sex aid company in Germany. I didn’t realize until I called that they were in Germany. The thing is, with the Internet, everybody appears much closer than they actually are. So I thought they were in England. But they’re based in Germany.
Getting back to the Joy Division dildo.
[Laughs.] Of course.
Do you display it in your home? Is it out where guests can see it, as a conversation piece? “Oh, I couldn’t help but notice that penis on your mantel.”
Well, I used to use it on Bernard if he asked really nice. But only if he asked really nicely. I won’t be using it on him again.
That’s very sweet of you.
Maybe if he lets me back in the band, I’ll let him use it again.
Do you want back in New Order? Is that relationship repairable?
I don’t think so. The problem is, I’m trying to find a legal remedy to the business that they left behind. It’s like splitting up with your misses, and then going round to your house and she’s cutting all your suits in half and going after your dog with a saw. And someone asks, “Do you think you’ll ever get back with her?” You’re like, “Not at this precise moment, no. She’s just about to cut me fucking dog in half.”
Dog-butchering is hard to forgive.
Let’s put it this way: Them three are delighted with the way the new New Order has turned out, and I’m really unhappy with it. You’re never going to get any movement towards anything unless all four of us are happy. That’s the way it stands at the moment.
It is sad. That’s the only word for it. It’s sad. I’ve learned more in this past year about the cruel nature of this business than I did in the other 34 years put together. It’s not been a nice lesson, to be honest with you. But, you know, life goes on, and sometimes it leaves you behind.
Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division is out now on IT Books. You can buy it here.