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

OLI SCARFF/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era