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

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How I saw 12 Shakespeare plays in seven days

From a Dutch mash-up at the Barbican to a promenade theatre piece at the V&A – with a thousand miles in between.

In a week that spanned the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, I experienced a dozen of his 37 plays in combinations that included a marathon Dutch mash-up of the histories, a half-hour abridged version of Twelfth Night at a museum, a comedy with a half-amateur cast and two King Lears 150 miles apart.

Shakespeare’s shade, if haunting the ­Barbican, would initially struggle to recognise Kings of War, created for the Toneelgroep theatre company of Amsterdam by Ivo van Hove – the Belgian whose radical reimagining of Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge and Broadway production of David Bowie’s brink-of-death play, Lazarus, have made him one of the most celebrated international directors. His five-hour conflation of the end of Henry IV, Henry V, all three parts of Henry VI and Richard III takes place in an underground situation room that might represent any European, North American or Middle Eastern capital where power is contested and wars waged. A screen above the stage shows scenes filmed in white corridors offstage, where the bodies of kings and politicians, dead from natural and unnatural causes, end up on gurneys.

Shakespeare brought the vital elements of drama – story and speech – to their peak, and van Hove delivers a gripping thriller narrative in which electorates around the world will recognise many reflections on the pursuit and execution of power. The loss is the language. For the London surtitles, a Dutch translation of the histories had been rendered back into an English that, confusingly, often isn’t Shakespeare. The king, before Agincourt, invokes not “gentlemen in England now abed” but “nobles who aren’t here”. At one point, Richard III speaks some of Macbeth’s best-known lines.

You don’t get such liberties from the RSC. Although its new Hamlet (running until 13 August) boldly starts with a scene that Shakespeare didn’t write – a graduation ceremony at Wittenberg University – and with a character, the presiding professor, who isn’t in the play, it is symbolic of the director Simon Godwin’s general scrupulousness that the production includes no words that did not appear in the original text, because the only dialogue spoken in this new preface is “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”.

The framing suggests that the prince’s tragic fault of overthinking may be a consequence of his education rather than a permanent trait, somewhat like those postwar working-class Britons who found themselves educated beyond the world of their birth. There is even the intriguing possibility that it is learning (“the pale cast of thought”) that has made him question revenge as a solution to dynastic disputes.

The passion that this Hamlet does feel fiercely is grief. Paapa Essiedu, the young black British actor who takes the title role in an almost entirely non-white cast, reaches doubled-over, howling levels of distress, redolent of Greek tragedy, during the appearance of his father’s ghost and the self-lacerating soliloquies. Laertes (Marcus Griffiths), learning of his sister’s death, also keens and wails, and thus derangement by grief becomes a critical theme of the play.

The most dazzling line reading comes as Hamlet confronts his mother in her closet. The words “Look here upon this picture, and on this” usually refer to engravings of Old Hamlet and Claudius. In this production Essiedu tears open his shirt to expose a tattoo of his father’s face above his heart, then grabs from Gertrude’s reading table an edition of Time magazine with the state’s new leader staring gravely from the cover. By my count, this is the 19th Hamlet I have seen, and the Essiedu-Godwin version would be near the top of the list, along with the Jonathan Pryce-Richard Eyre production in 1980 and Nicholas Hytner’s staging with Rory Kinnear in 2010.

While the most performed of the tragedies is the RSC’s death-day gift at Stratford, the company has sent the most popular comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for a tour of the UK (until 4 June), with the subtitle A Play for the Nation. The director Erica Whyman’s gimmick is that, at every stop, members of a local amateur theatre group are cast as the rude mechanicals. At the Marlowe Theatre, the guest performers were the “Canterbury Players”, with the engaging Lisa Nightingale as Bottom. This device struck me as adding more to ticket sales – audiences will include not only relatives of the mechanicals but those of the local children who provide Titania’s “fairy train” – than to understanding of the play. But, word-perfect and impeccably rehearsed, the Kent volunteers would surely have been indistinguishable, for theatregoers who didn’t know, from the young RSC professionals.

Whyman sets the play in the basement of a bombed-out house in 1940s Britain, Theseus appearing in RAF uniform. But with a play that already asks a director to unite two divergent worlds – the Athenian court and a weird wood – the imposition of such a specific third milieu risks distraction.

Schoolteachers often see A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a suitable entry point to Shakespeare, and the weekday matinée audience in Canterbury was packed with junior-school groups. Although a 90-minute-long first half filled the aisle with cross-legged crocodiles of theatregoers heading for the loo, the jokes worked on this age group much as they have done down through the ages – especially the moment when Pyramus, trying to see through the Wall, buried her nose in Bottom’s bum.

The timetable of this Shakespeare crawl was dictated by theatre schedules and my diary, but there is no play I would rather have seen on the actual death-day than King Lear. If Hamlet is the writer’s greatest narrative achievement, it is that other play from his burst of post-1600 creativity that holds the finest moments psychologically and poetically, the word “nothing” tolling through the text, in varying contexts, like a funeral bell. The King Lear premiered at the Royal theatre in Northampton, in the lead-up to a UK tour that ends in Malvern in July, is located by its director, Max Webster, in an Edwardian England of frock coats worn at court and fights conducted with knives and pistols rather than swords.

Intelligent trimming emphasises the play as a parental tragedy, encompassing not just Lear and his three daughters but Gloucester and his two sons from either side of the blanket. Webster underscores this theme by subtly underlining that other characters are mothers and fathers as well: one of the daughters is visibly pregnant and another carries a swaddled infant on her shoulder.

When Michael Pennington’s Lear – spoken with immaculate clarity and charting with psychiatric precision the coming and going of the king’s mind – visits the Manchester Opera House at the turn of June, local Shakespeareans will be able to compare it with the portrayal by Don Warrington that is now at the Manchester Royal Exchange in a co-production with Talawa Theatre Company and Birmingham Rep.

Each lead actor chooses one of the main alternative routes through Lear: Warrington a bullish tyrant who is suddenly humbled by stubbornness and dementia, Pennington a man whose physical and mental frailties are already apparent when he banishes Cordelia. It is a great tribute to actors and writer alike that, seeing these Lears within a few days of each other, I never experienced a moment of overfamiliarity. The Earl of Gloucester has always been a near-Lear for older character actors, and both Pip Donaghy in the Northampton version and Philip Whitchurch in the Manchester relish the cruelties and tendernesses of the part, though the latter’s blinding, with chunks of egglike eye-white splattering the stage, is the more horrific.

In my personal tally of actors seen on stage or screen, Lear now beats Hamlet 20-19 and what astonishes me is that, as in a great musical composition, previously unheard patterns and emphases are suddenly evident. At Stratford, I suddenly reflected that the first three big scenes in Hamlet feature extreme parental variations: son and murderous stepfather, son and dead father, father (Polonius) and departing son (Laertes). In Manchester, Miltos Yerolemou – who plays the Fool brilliantly as a sinister, white-faced riddler – made me wonder for the first time if the jester, clearly at some level a fantasy son to the monarch, might in fact be Lear’s bastard child, which would add another layer to his empathy with Gloucester.

Henry V, a play that celebrates an English victory over the French and was harnessed to the Second World War effort in the big-screen version directed by Laurence Olivier, might seem a risky choice for an Anglo-French co-production. But the Antic Disposition company has brought its version of England’s favourite history play, already toured through south-west France, to a series of English churches and cathedrals. A cast of French and English actors plays British and French soldiers, all patients at a field hospital in 1915, who decide, perhaps undiplomatically, to put on Henry V. The idea brings something new to the play – a French soldier playing an English one is suddenly stricken by shell shock – and it is rare to hear the French and English of the climactic wedding scene spoken by actors who share their home and away languages with Catherine and the King. Henry is played by Freddie Stewart, a 2013 Rada graduate with a striking voice and looks, who will surely soon be seen at the National or RSC. The effects that naturally resulted as the April dusk fell behind the stained-glass windows of Winchester Cathedral would have thrilled the greatest lighting designer, though I slightly envy, for thematic perfection of setting, those who got to see this production at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.

My twelfth Shakespeare production (if I’m allowed to count all six of the plays contained within Kings of War) was, fittingly, Twelfth Night – or at least Malvolio’s Misorder, a 30-minute promenade piece at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This live theatre in a museum reflects the almost psychotic desire of the British cultural establishment to show how much it loves Shakespeare – the same impulse that resulted in even Countryfile doing an item as part of the BBC death-day season. The show itself follows a neat conceit, a cheeky Maria taking us to exhibits (such as the Great Bed of Ware) that the censorious Malvolio would prefer us not to see, before they bump into Sir Toby Belch for a cut-down scene from the play.

The original words spark thought and pleasure, however and wherever the speeches are done, and it is the lines and the mind behind them that remain the reason for celebration. On the night of the death quatercentenary, BBC2 broadcast Shakespeare Live! – an embarrassing RSC gala that used skits from Horrible Histories and songs from West Side Story to support the contention that “there’s something in Shakespeare for everyone”. The programme was perhaps understandable, coming from a theatre company and a broadcaster that respectively receive millions and billions in public subsidy, yet this tone of happy-clappy evangelism entirely misses the point.

What matters about Shakespeare is not that there is “something for everyone”, but that nobody else has ever written anything like this. With Lears yet to come from Antony Sher and Glenda Jackson, and a production by Spymonkey that features every death in the canon, there is always something new to find.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred