Peter Hook: Bernard and I could reconcile. "On the end of a pair of duelling pistols."

Rob Pollard speaks to the former Joy Division and New Order bassist.

Peter Hook was the bass player and founding member of Manchester’s influential post-punk band Joy Division. After the death of their iconic lead singer Ian Curtis, the remaining members went on to form New Order, an electronic band that had a string of 80s hit singles. Hook left New Order in 2007, and is now touring with his band The Light, performing tracks from the Joy Division catalogue. His new book, Unknown Pleasures, provides an insight into the time he spent with Joy Division, detailing their humble beginnings through to their premature ending.

Hook is known for his unique, esoteric playing style which completely redefined the bass guitar. Echoes of both Joy Division, the architects of post-punk, and New Order, designers of synth-pop, are still heard in music to this day.

Here, he talks about his relationship with Bernard Sumner and Ian Curtis’ genius.

You’re currently touring with your band The Light, playing Joy Division songs. How’s that been going?

Yeah, we’ve been playing constantly now for two-and-a-half years, and I must admit I never expected to get another career out of it. I’m very, very happy and very, very gratified by the reaction to playing it. In fact, the only people who don’t seem to like me playing it are Bernard [Sumner] and Stephen [Morris], which is a story in itself I suppose. They don’t mind when they play it but they just don’t want you to play it. They played New Order and Joy Division songs before me but they seem to have forgotten that and just criticise me for playing it. Some journalists have asked Bernard why he doesn’t want me to play it even though he plays it, but there’s been no explanation. But Bernard is a law unto himself. One of the problems in New Order was that it wasn’t "do as I do" it was "do as I say".

Do you think Bernard and yourself will ever be able to reconcile your differences?

Yeah, probably on the end of a pair of duelling pistols, or maybe in a boxing ring. That would be good for charity wouldn’t it? Like Liam Gallagher challenging Robbie. It’d be nice. Winner takes all, and all the winnings to charity.

Atmosphere is a truly remarkable song. Was there a sense in the studio that track was something special?

What you have to bare in mind is that it gradually got better. So, from the moment Bernard and I started after the Sex Pistols gig up to the end of Joy Division, the songwriting, when you look at it and put the songs in chronological order, had improved immeasurably. By the time you got to Novelty and then you moved into Transmission, and all the tracks on Unknown Pleasures after the EP, the tracks were amazing. The weakest song we did was one called The Drawback and yet I play that now with The Light and it sounds fantastic [laughs]. So all the tracks that we thought were weak, like Sound of Music, Something Must Break, The Kill, I play those now and think they’re just as good as the others.

Atmosphere is an amazing song but it does always have that connotation that people use it at funerals. It’s heartbreaking to watch Control and see it finish on Debbie screaming and then Atmosphere starts; it rips your bloody heart out. It’s like at Tony Wilson’s funeral as well, they chose Atmosphere to be played there. It was awful. The emotional power of it when it’s coupled with grief or loss is unbelievable. I don’t think Ian meant that either because Atmosphere was written very early on in our career, before he was ill or before he had his mistress and his problems. We ended up sitting on it for quite a while and then recording it for Licht und Blindheit which was the limited edition Sordide Sentimental. We never actually released Atmosphere as a single in England, it was only released as a single in America.

You mention your work improving over time but one of my favourite Joy Division tracks is Warsaw.

Warsaw is absolutely mega. It’s quite an odd thing really because when you look at the four [An Ideal for Living] EP tracks in isolation - Warsaw, No Love Lost, Leaders of Men and Failures - they are all rocking songs. We have done four gigs on the trot, we did Lisbon, Florence, Milan and Rimini, and the audience in Rimini were quite quiet - they weren’t really fired up - so the answer was to play Warsaw because it gets them going. Warsaw and Failures get everybody going; it really does kick-off when you play them. Failures was the only song that Ian Curtis actually wrote musically. He saw the way the music should go and influenced its direction. The EP was so different to the demos we’d done before. It really did surprise me sometimes how much we’d improved our songwriting. It’s interesting because the better songs we wrote were knocking off the punky ones, like Reaction and all that stuff was just consigned to the bin, but it’s funny because, when I listen to Warsaw live at Middlesbrough, some of those punky songs were actually quite good because they caught the spirit of the moment, and they caught our naivety and energy very, very well.

You mention in the book about Ian coming up with the name Joy Division. In my opinion, it’s the best name for a band I’ve heard. How important do you think having a great name is?

Honestly, you agonise over your name, you really, really do, and it’s the thing that you argue most about. It’s the backdoor test isn’t it? To test your band name out, you should go to a gig, whoever’s gig it is, and shout it out in the audience and see what it sounds like. My mum always used to say the best way to name a child was to open the backdoor and shout the child’s name out the backdoor, and if it sounded good then you were OK. I actually did that with my son. I opened the back door and shouted "Jack" and thought it sounded good.

One of the alternatives [to the name Joy Division] was The Flames From Venus. Now, if the Flames From Venus had done Unknown Pleasures would it have been anywhere near as influential as it was?

It has always amazed me that Joy Division had such a short lifespan, yet have left a really enduring legacy. You’re still influencing bands today. Do you think being influential is the biggest compliment a band can receive?

You know what, if I had to sit and count how many people we’ve influenced it is unbelievable. Between Joy Division and New Order, we must be responsible for about half the music business. It’s funny because it’s always odd when you get sued for plagiarism. We got sued by John Denver and John Denver won, which was really weird. The thing is you should never consider suing anybody because they sound like you. I would never sue U2 because a song sounds like Isolation. I wouldn’t sue the Editors because they sound like Shadowplay, or White Lies or The Cure for In Between Days, it’s something you don’t do because it’s against the way that you’re brought up. You were brought up to use influences as inspiration. The big inspiration for us was The Sex Pistols and can you imagine Johnny Rotten coming on and saying: "well I inspired you so I want some money off you". Or maybe it’s a good idea actually; maybe I’ve hit on something there!

How different is the Manchester you describe in the book compared to the Manchester I see today?

Well, I enjoy Manchester and I like it a lot, and I think having the new club in Manchester, Factory, has given me a much nicer insight and much more of a connection with it than I’ve had for a long time. It still feels a bit dirty, a bit run down, but it has some wonderful, wonderful assets, and some truly startling features. I get the same buzz and the same feeling from it that I always did, and the odd thing is, wherever you go in the world, I’m always happy to get back to Manchester. I feel very much a part of it and I’m very happy to be perceived as an ambassador for Manchester music. It makes me laugh because when I opened the Factory, I got roundly slagged off for dwelling on the past, or using the past in some way like it was a dirty thing to do. And then two years later you’ve got 225,000 people watching The Stone Roses who we influenced completely. In some ways you do feel like you’re ahead of your time dwelling on the past [laughs].

It’s interesting you mention that because there are a lot of people who dislike what you do in terms of using the Joy Division catalogue to make money now. I seem to remember a blog called Fuc 51 which was rather disparaging towards you.

Well even the rest of the bloody band, Bernard and Stephen, say it, fucking hell! I was reading that article in the Guardian where the guy was going on about "the wreckage" of my career. Now, the thing is, surely all of us, at one time or another, have been in a job where we don’t like the boss or we don’t like the way the company's run, and even though your mum says to you you shouldn’t leave because there are people out there without jobs, you have to do something for your peace of mind, and for your justice, and for your spiritualism that makes you happy in the world. Yet, nobody looks at New Order and says "he’s obviously left because he was unhappy". It’s as if you’ve got off a gravy train and everyone thinks you’re crazy for doing it. It’s as if there’s no spiritualism or standing up for yourself. I’m lucky, I’ve worked hard over 34 years and I’ve got a very nice lifestyle and I have the luxury to at least be happy in my job because I was not happy in New Order.

Regarding that blog, I did find who that was, which was quite interesting. It was just a casual acquaintance who had an axe to grind. When I confronted them it stopped.

Where do think Ian Curtis ranks in the pantheon of all-time great writers and frontmen?

I’m a bit biased because I immersed myself in Ian’s work every night, and I must admit playing the songs again has made me realise how fantastic he was. Who is he like? I think he’s unlike anyone else. I do think his style, especially the way he uses words rhythmically and in an onomatopoeic fashion, was a real surprise to me. I listened to it all the time but it was only when I came to analyse it to sing it live that I realised just how fucking clever he was. He really was a clever, clever man with words. And it’s such an art when you see people like that because there aren’t that many people, even authors, who can impress you with their writing as soon as you read it. I wish I could have sat in and got involved in his process. One of the regrets is not knowing exactly how he worked.

Can we talk about your bass playing style? I find it divides opinion. People either absolutely love it or they think you’re playing lead guitar on a bass and not being true to the instrument. Where did that style come from?

I don’t know really, it just came about. It wasn’t something I worked on or strived for. It happened because Ian Curtis heard me doing it and used to encourage me every time he heard me play like that, and it became a way of writing, using the melody on the bass to write the song. It was actually quite simple and it just evolved. If you look at the first two Joy Division LPs, the bass riffs on them are fantastic.

Joy Division writing credits were all shared equally on every track weren’t they?

Yeah, it was absolutely correct to do it that way. When we got to New Order it changed and even though Gillian [Gilbert] got a writing credit, I think it it’s fair to say that Bernard did 95 per cent of the keyboards, and I’ve seen him say that in interviews as well. She used to play what Bernard had written but we gave her a writing credit.

Your new book, Unknown Pleasures, goes in to such detail about the band that I was wondering whether you thought it may remove some of the mystique that Joy Division purists hold so dear. Ian Curtis, in particular, has a fervent following of fans who may not want to know too much.

Yeah, I mean I was aware of that because I’m writing from a different point of view, but if anything the last year has taught me what a load of old bollocks this business is. Anything I can do to debunk it and make people aware of the horrible goings on behind their favourite groups I will do. It really is a dirty business and I suppose I was very, very lucky in a way to wait until the ripe old age of 55 before I encountered its rock bottom lack of loyalty and under handedness that even your friends and so-called business associates all suffer from. So, I was aware that I could shatter a few illusions but I think as long as you balance it with an appreciation of the guy’s artistry and his creative genius it’s fine.

People do have a vision of things. It’s like the Hacienda; I’m sure everyone thinks that we all lived upstairs in a flat, like Morecambe and Wise. I am aware of this and, you look at New Order, when we split up the first time and Bernard went off, there was none of this back biting, none of this deriding each other in the press, and then in 2006 when I split the band up it seems like the fact that someone doesn’t want to work with him has really hit him hard. It seems to all stem from that. He just will not shut up. And you look at it and he’s got New Order back, he’s toured the world, he’s made millions, what more do you want? But he still wants to have a go at me saying I don’t care about my children because I tour all the time and that I’m only doing it for the money. I mean, what’s he doing it for? He’s very careful not to mention what he’s doing it for. It’s an odd insult in music to be accused of doing it for the money. It’s an insult to you and an insult to your fans. It’s like it’s hidden - we do what we do what but no one mentions the money. It’s like a dirty thing.

If there was a General Election tomorrow who would you vote for at the ballot box?

I think I’d vote for The Green Party. I’m one of those old cynics that thinks, whoever you vote for, the government always gets in. David Cameron at least has an air of authority, whereas Ed Miliband, I don’t know if it’s my old age, but he just looks too young. He acts a little bit young and I don’t think it inspires confidence, certainly not from me. My father was always Labour and my mother was always Conservative, so I tended to sort of go in the middle. I always do try to encourage my children to vote and at least exercise their right. I think the county is just in such a mess financially, which has been brought about mainly by Labour, and everybody feels compromised by it. I don’t think it inspires confidence. And I think the way that the expenses scandal, even down to Jimmy Saville, all the foundations that have been built on for many, many years are really being rocked, and it is a very interesting situation at the moment from a historical point of view.

Do you not feel like Ed Miliband is the right man to lead Labour in 2015 then?

In my opinion, no. He doesn’t appeal to me and I think the fracas with his brother was very damaging for the party, and I think really we’ve just fell out of favour with the politicians in general because they come across as being very fallible and easily led. It’s something you suspected before but it’s been proven now with the expenses scandal. So there’s a lot of bridge building to do.

What are your thoughts on coalition government and how that works?

I think it was a noble gesture. Any coalition, especially where one party is more powerful than the other, it’s always bound to have a pecking order. The ideal in this world would be that we’d all get on because basically everyone wants the same thing. We all want to be happy, to be comfortable, for our children to be safe. Nearly all of us want the same thing so it should be quite a simple equation sitting down and sorting that out. I suppose it’s a very naive way of looking at it, and I suppose in a funny way the coalition seemed to be done, to me anyway, quite graciously at the time by David Cameron, to say ‘we don’t have complete control so why don’t you come with us and we can sort this out’. It was a lovely gesture but in the play-out it’s been a little bit unfairly weighted towards the Conservatives but that’s politics.

Do you feel properly engaged with British politics?

As I’ve got older I tend to read more about it, and worry more about what’s going to happen to us all. I must admit, up until about the age of 30-odd I really didn’t care. I just thought the most important thing in life was me, whereas I now realise there are many more important things in life than me. I do engage with it, especially being abroad a lot, I watch CNN and Al Jazeera and it scares the pants off you, it really does. Watching Iran and Israel jockeying for position in the way they are is a very frightening scenario and I keep saying to my wife how worried I am about it and that i should get my Ferrari but the world blows up.

I spoke to Kevin Cummins recently and he said Ian Curtis was a very shy person. How would you describe Ian?

Ian was very shy until he’d had a drink and then he really could just go like the rest of us and be quite normal and quite a handful. But Ian was a really nice bloke and what he wanted in life was you to be happy, and not just you anybody around him and he did go out of his way to try to make everybody happy and I think that’s what caused a lot of his problems to be honest.

Unknown Pleasure - Inside Joy Division, is available to buy now. For more information, visit Peter Hook's website. Peter Hook And The Light perform New Order's first two albums "Movement" and "Power, Corruption And Lies" at Koko London Thurs 17th Jan and Manchester Cathedral Fri 18th Jan.

Peter Hook about to go on stage at first performance of Closer with his band The Light. Photo William Ellis

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

David Brent: Life on the Road
Show Hide image

Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.