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

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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