Interview: Peter Hook
"Play It High, Hooky"
You can blame the Sex Pistols for all of it, really. Their debut Manchester gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall sowed the seeds of a musical revolution that would put Manchester on the musical map and define much of the sound of the 1980’s, across the UK and beyond. Amongst the nascent luminaries rumoured to be in attendance that night were Howard Devoto and Pete Shelly, Mark E Smith, Stephen Patrick Morrissey, Tony Wilson and, perhaps most importantly, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook.
The band they went on to form, Warsaw, would quickly evolve into the legendary Joy Division, an iconic outfit who have generated unprecedented influence, analysis, revisionism and out-and-out worship for a group that burned brightly for such a short time. The band’s dizzying ascent was cut tragically short by the suicide of enigmatic lead singer Ian Curtis in May of 1980, cruelly just days shy of their first American tour.
The remaining members would regroup under the banner of New Order, who in their desire to scurry out from the shadow of Joy Division’s legacy, would evolve radically into one of the most unique and influential bands of the 80’s, ushering in a new era of dance oriented rock.
Throughout all of this, Peter Hook slung his bass low and picked out some of the most unique and memorable lines in rock history. February sees Hooky bring his current band The Light back to Australia to perform the New Order albums Brotherhood and Low Life in their entirety, along with a selection of Joy Division classics. Collide called Hooky to get the lowdown on Joy Division, New Order, The Light and his ongoing mission to preserve and play these songs in the fashion they deserve.
You developed such a unique, iconic and influential playing style. It’s been said that this was partly because you had such duff equipment that made it harder to hear the lower frequencies, so had you had to switch to playing the higher strings. Can you tell us a bit about this and how you went about developing your style?
Well I have to thank Ian Curtis, because it’s true - my equipment was crap and when I played the bass, we couldn't hear anything, so I played high and he loved it. He loved the fact that it drove the songs along and that it added more melodic input than most normal bass players. Literally every time we came to jam or to write, he would say "Hooky, play it high, it sounds great when you play high". That was the reassurance and direction that I needed and, as my mother said, God rest her soul, “You need a gimmick”. In music it’s great to have a gimmick and that became my gimmick.
Speaking about Joy Division, do you think people can tend to be a bit precious and academic when discussing the band and its legacy? Do you ever get tired of the endless mythologising of Joy Division?
No. I love Joy Division and anything they get plaudit-wise is fine by me. It’s so shocking to realise how short a career Joy Division had. It’s now 35 years since Ian Curtis very sadly left us, and the fact that the music is still so lauded and influential now is amazing. We literally only existed professionally for 6 months. The music was just so fantastic though, and I must admit that I get as much of a buzz playing it now, if not moreso, as I did when I was in Joy Division. I love the reaction it gets from people. It’s great.
They were two fantastic records, they really were. Closer is still one of my favourites of all time. So I’ll have anything that’s heaped on! I think Ian Curtis was a fantastic lyricist and a fantastic vocalist and I still miss him today.
Do you think that’s perhaps a reason why there was a bit of a controversy and outcry from some corners - unjustly I feel - when you began doing the Joy Division material with The Light? Were you expecting that kind of backlash?
No, and it didn’t really bother me. But the people I had lined up to sing? It scared them to death. I had about 4 singers lined up and none of them would do it because they were all scared of the backlash.
The internet is a wonderful thing 'cos it gives everybody a voice, but if you start listening to all those voices you’re going to get some very mixed up and confused messages. So what I’ve learned over the years is as long as the comments are 50% 'Go for it Hooky' and 50% 'Get fucked Hooky’, I’ll be alright. You have to go down the middle.
One incident that made me laugh was when we did Movement and Power, Corruption and Lies for the first time in London. We finished 'The Village' and as the music was dying away, a voice on the left shouted “Well done Hooky! That was mega, mate! Miles better than Barney!” and I thought 'Ooh!', and then a voice on the right yelled out "Fuck of, Hooky ya twat bastard! Barney sings that better than you!". I thought ‘Wow, that just about sums it up!’ (laughs).
But in a wonderful way, they were both there to see us, so they were both prepared to give us a chance. You know, opinions are like arseholes, aren’t they? Everyone’s got one. The interesting thing about doing the New Order songs was that there was definitely nowhere near as big of a backlash as there was with the Joy Division stuff. And as you said, the proof of the pudding is that everybody who’s seen us do it realises that we do it with dignity, with enthusiasm and with a lot of passion. Most importantly we’re not pretending to be Joy Division. We’re not pretending to be something we’re not.
When I saw you do Unknown Pleasures I was really blown away by how faithful and respectful you were to the original material. I’d seen New Order do it, but Barney always seemed to ruin it by going "WOO! WOO! COME ON! Love will tear us apart! WOO! Again!”
Do you know what one of my mates said? My old fitness trainer said to me one day after he’d been to see New Order in Manchester, “Hooky, why does Barney do that WOO thing all the time?". And I said, “Y’know, I don’t know - I’ve never asked him!”. But yeah, he did do that that kind of thing a lot. It’s all taste innit? I mean, that’s his taste, and he thinks that’s okay.
To be honest with you mate, the mantra in New Order before we split up became very much ‘Don’t upset Bernard’, because when Bernard was upset, it was like having your grumpy father banging around the room. It became a thing where, no matter what he did, you just tried to ignore it. When I was drinking that wasn’t much of a problem - but when I got sober, it become a big problem.
Is it satisfying to be able to revisit those songs and do them justice in a way that perhaps New Order didn’t do?
It’s absolutely wonderful and I suppose, in a funny way, it’s the ultimate revenge. They may have the name and pretend to be New Order and reap its benefits, but to me it’s always far more important to do the music justice and give it the proper respect it deserves.
I always felt that towards the end of New Order, before we split up, it was a bit like a pantomime. We were just doing the same things over and over again, even down to the bloody matinee. It just became desperately boring.
I also found Bernard and Stephen’s reluctance to revisit any of the earlier material to be an insult to the fans - we had gained our following with that era of material and I thought it was fantastic stuff, yet we’d never play it! We were just regurgitating the same old crap over and over again. I was actually absolutely delighted to see them come back as New Order and just do the same thing again. As my wife quite rightly said to me, “If you were there, you would have died of frustration”.
You’ll be primarily playing New Order songs on this leg of the tour. I suppose they’re quite different to revisit than the Joy Division songs. Is there perhaps less emotional weight attached to that period? Are there any songs that you particularly enjoy playing or that are particularly difficult to revisit?
Well, it’s very puzzling because the New Order stuff is much more difficult to play than the Joy Division stuff. I’ve sat down and tried to analyse it and I just can’t figure it out - when you look at songs like 'Paradise' and 'Weirdo', they’re fucking hard to pull off professionally!
I think the reason that we dropped them in New Order was that they were hard to play, and in my opinion Gillian just wasn’t up to it. Barney was writing these wonderful guitar lines and keyboard lines, and she just couldn’t play it like him - so the easy thing was for us to dump them, which was a great shame. This is why The Light is a different vehicle. These boys are fantastic musicians. I’m like ‘YES! AT LAST!’.
That said, there is also a magic that New Order had, a fragility and an awkwardness that we can’t recapture. But then again, we aren’t pretending to be New Order. They are.
You can see that fragility written on your faces in the early footage of the band, and even in the film clips…
Doing the New Order book, as I’m doing at the moment, I’m realising what a huge step we took - taking all that early electronic equipment with us on the road and insisting on it being played live. It was such a hard job to get it all running on any given day. We were travelling all around the world with it. It’s no wonder we looked scared, because to be honest with you we were terrified! There was no chance of getting it working the same in two places. But the thing is that it gave us something that the other bands didn’t have. New Order were absolutely unique, they really were. In the same way that Joy Division were unique. And there’s no way that I could sound like New Order or Joy Division live, because it’s a completely different line-up.
What I’m celebrating is the records, because the records were very different to how we played live, especially in Joy Division. It’s been nice to celebrate Martin Hannet’s input too, because in the early days Martin was a very big influence. Not in the songwriting, but in the sound of Joy Division and New Order.
I was going to ask you about that actually. Much has been made of his contribution to your sound, and famously you and Barney both hated the production on Unknown Pleasures at first. How do you think the band would have evolved differently without his involvement?
It’s interesting, because I think we would have produced ourselves. If you listen to An Ideal for Living which we produced ourselves, it does have a good sound - so I think we would have been able to pull it off. As to whether we would have made Unknown Pleasures? I think the answer is no.
Bernard and I were very young and we really wanted to kick our music down everyone’s throats. What Martin gave us was a subtlety and an ambience that has lasted over the years. If me and Barney had done Unknown Pleasures it would have sounded like the first Clash LP or Never Mind the Bollocks. I think we’d have fucked it up to be honest.
We missed out on hearing you perform the material off Closer when the Australian leg of that tour was cancelled. Is there any chance we might get to hear some of those songs this time around?
Have no doubt. You have my word! And if I don’t, you can come back and kick my arse, as Alan Partridge says (laughs).
When we were in America doing the New Order tour we got an offer to play Closer and Unknown Pleasures at the Roxy on Sunset Strip, and it was great to be able to say yes because my boys are amazing nusicians and can handle it. In those three gigs at the Roxy, we did the albums Unknown Pleasures, Closer, Movement, Power Corruption and Lies, Low Life and Brotherhood. In total we played over 80 songs! The most songs we ever played in New Order would have been about 17, and the difficulty you would have had to go through to get another one in? It just wasn’t worth the effort. The freedom of being able to do this with The Light is fantastic.
So for you, we’ll play Decades in Sydney. I hope you enjoy the shows. I must admit that the enjoyment I get from giving these albums the attention that they richly deserve is enormous. I’m really enjoying myself and I’m looking forward to playing these live shows. I’ve spent a long time with this music before I’ve been able to say that (laughs).
Peter Hook & The Light will be touring around the country throughout February. Get tickets here and keep up to date with the band on Facebook and Twitter. All Australian dates listed below -
Saturday 14th February – The Astor Theatre, Perth Sunday 15th February – The Gov, Adelaide Wednesday 18th February – Tivoli Theatre, Brisbane Thursday 19th February - Metro Theatre, Sydney Friday 20th February – Summersalt Festival, Melbourne Saturday 21st February – Corner Hotel, Melbourne
Sunday 22nd February – Wrestpoint, Hobart