INTERVIEW: Peter Hook
, October 19th, 2012 05:51
The former New Order bassist talks Mick Middles, author of From Joy Division To New Order, through Unknown Pleasures, his new account of Joy Division
Memories still crowd Manchester's most famous building. Ghosts and echoes linger in every corner of what was once the Free Trade Hall, the only major building in England named after a proposition as AJP Taylor perceptively noted. Many have claimed the site to be a fracture zone, a place where a social upheaval that fizzed to tragedy during the Peterloo Massacre, resonates down the ages (inspiring Percy Shelley's vitriolic poem 'The Mask of Anarchy'). All a touch romantic, perhaps, although Tony Wilson was fond of the connection. In truth, it cannot be denied that 'things' do seem to happen here. Bob Dylan's 'Judas' moment. The end-of-gig riot during Lou Reed's Sally Can't Dance tour. Dr. Feelgood's ferocious 1975 performance and, of course, the two infamous Sex Pistols gigs in the heat of 1976.
Incredibly, it seems, its current owners prefer not to openly acknowledge such a legacy. For it now sits in the undignified guise of a Radisson Edwardian hotel. A plush/bland shell of polished marble and chrome where upper level executives peer silently into laptops and knots of sales people plan their battles and all, seemingly unaware of the myriad haunting.
I am basking in memories of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, ELP and Eddie and the Hot Rods when a dapper man in his mid fifties confidently strides across the foyer. At first I fail to recognise him, for he seems trimmer, neater, more openly jovial than recent memory suggests.
It also dawns on me that it is thirty five years since Peter Hook and his then-chum, Bernard Dickin/Sumner, staggered nervously into the very same building, before dodging downstairs to The Free Trade Hall's 'lesser' room, a featureless rectangular haven containing those notorious Sex Pistols types and an outrageous splattering of Manchester musical luminaries of the future. What happened on those two occasions has long since been warped into myth. Inaccurately, within the license of Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People film (of course, nobody pogoed) and more factually within the pages of David Nolan's I Swear I Was There (bad title, good book).
Hooky is here to promote his sweet and lively new tome, Unknown Pleasures. This being the retelling of a familiar story from, as he forcibly puts it, "inside the van". It is an often hilarious jumble of anecdote and reflection that genuinely does recast the tragic tale through a tirade of bumbling innocence. One cannot help but love it even if, as I tell Hooky, "this is a good book although, generally, musicians from 'inside the van' should never be allowed anywhere near a publisher."
"Ha... You may be right. I just wanted to put it in the perspective of someone who was at the centre of it all. Lots of people, like yourself, have written books and made films. They have often been fine but I just thought it was time. I will be following it with a New Order book and, believe me, there are a million stories. It will be beyond Motley Crue.
"Strange to be here, isn't it? In this building. Where it happened just... down there," he says, pointing to the corner of the room.
"Do you think the importance of those two Sex Pistols gigs has been somewhat overplayed?" I ask.
"Well, that is something we will never know," he replies. "Maybe it would have happened anyway. I do know that I was happy before I walked into that room where The Sex Pistols played. I had a job, I had enough money to buy an album each week and I had no musical aspirations whatsoever. Nothing. Never even crossed my mind. And yet something must have happened because, when I walked out after seeing the Pistols, there was only one thing I wanted to be. Same with Barney. Our lives changed in an instant."
The evening is recalled sweetly within the pages of Unknown Pleasures as an epiphany delivered not by the band – who Hooky remembers being "a pretty standard rock band" - but by the commanding presence of Johnny Rotten; the immense power and possibility of attitude, regardless of any lack of studied musicality. "It was like the first time we realised that we could do that," he says. "We were clueless, of course, but so was everybody else."
What is seemingly endlessly fascinating here is just how these – apparently - bumbling incompetents transformed themselves into the most vital and celebrated band of the post punk era. Even though I was fortunate enough to witness this unprecedented unfolding from close by, I still find myself staggered by the level of achievement.
Hooky: "Yeah, there is no doubt that it is the story of a bunch of daft cunts who somehow became the best band in the land. I don't know how we did it, either, except that we were completely self-taught. I think that is important. We didn't know the rules at all and therefore found our sound. But it was me, Barney, Steve, Ian, Rob, Terry (Mason) and Twinny. Poor Terry, who is still my mate... he tried singing but was shit at it. Not shit in a good way, either. You could be shit in a good way like the singer out of The Worst. But Terry was just shit. He was shit on the drums and on guitar too. And a shit manager. Great bloke though."
Terry - actually intelligent and charming - the one-time heavily hassled road manager for New Order, now working in IT in Warrington, perhaps lost his grip on management strategy by recording demo cassettes by placing two cassette players side by side. The problem was that promoters would be somewhat put-off by the sound of Terry's mum asking him what he wanted for tea - just one of the myriad tales of astonishing ineptitude that cluster the early sections of the book.
"I think that northerners always tend to focus on their mistakes," Hooky claims. "And by god did we make so very many mistakes."
One aspect of the book and, indeed, one thing I didn't notice at the time, however, was the force of shallow competitiveness and bitchy ferocity of the other bands in that small Manchester scene. Hooky pulls no punches either, as his text spits and crackles with reflective backbites, at one point openly referring to The Drones and Slaughter and the Dogs as "the bastards". It is not a portrait of a unified scene.
"We were very much outsiders to all of that," Hooky admits. "They were bastards to us. Fucking horrible. But it probably made us stronger. Nobody knew who we were for a very long time. In the end, we did become very, very angry. Especially when we started to realise that we were much, much better than anybody else."
One person who certainly noticed that was Rob Gretton, who famously wrenched the managerial duties out of Terry Mason's hands after witnessing the band performing at the infamous Stiff Test/Chiswick Challenge at Rafters. While I knew Gretton well, it wasn't until reading Unknown Pleasures that I realised just how hugely important his input was.
"Yes, Rob changed everything. It wasn't that he had any real managerial experience, but he certainly managed to whip us into shape. He was the final link really and, to be honest, we probably allowed him to have too much control over the reigns. I mean, we never made any money but, beyond living the life and having a supply of beer, we didn't want to think about the business side. Even in New Order we didn't. It's boring. Business is boring and we started a band to get away from all that. Little did we know... Nevertheless, there were times, in both bands, when Rob's tactics were a little strange. I remember one guy selling T-shirts outside the gig. He felt so guilty that he came into the dressing room to offer us some of his money. Rob just said: 'get the fuck out... I hate fucking T-shirts.' We just thought: 'Rob, couldn't we have had the money?'"
"Despite that, Rob was the perfect manager for us because he didn't give a shit. I mean, he was just one of the gang and, really, he was flying by the seat of his pants... though you wouldn't have thought so to look at him. It was particularly funny in America where US music executives would look at Rob, all but doped out of his brain, and say, 'is THAT your manager?'"
I can vouch for this, having witnessed Gretton fending off vulturous advances from gangster-style venue owners in New York and Washington.
"Look, they are not going on stage yet, fuck off, I am 'avin a spliff," he informed the somewhat menacing ensemble in New York. Unable to comprehend his indifference, they filtered edgily back into the shadows. I, meanwhile, remained convinced that they would soon return bringing an array of weaponry. If it was an act, it certainly worked and complemented the frozen distance and, at times, open hostility displayed by New Order front man Barney [Bernard Sumner].
"We are sorry about the delay... We are not sorry really. We don't give a shit. I don't, anyway," Barney informed the patient and eager audience at Paradise Garage, NYC in 1983. While this might seem amusing to the casual observer, it would later cause a split within the band's dynamic that would, one day, result in Hooky's departure. Rather pathetically, it is a split that continues to dominate interviews on both sides, even to the extent of defining the current version of New Order.
This New Order, comprised of Sumner, Stephen Morris, Gillian Gilbert, Phil Cunningham and Tom Chapman, will record as New Order next year. Hooky's quest to perform every song he has ever written or co-written meanwhile will continue with his band, The Light, performing full live versions of – initially – the first two New Order albums, Movement and Power, Corruption And Lies.
"I am looking forward to playing our way through the bloody lot of them. I am so fortunate in having a group of musicians who can pick up great songs and take them... erm... somewhere. The main thing I have discovered by doing this and, to some extent, by doing the book, is just how amazing many of the songs actually are. I had forgotten that. Unknown Pleasures was easy for us. Just a rock out, really. Closer was a much more complex and difficult album, but I think we did it justice. In fact, that is my favourite moment to date. Playing 'The Eternal'. I couldn't believe how amazing that song is and to be able to play it in the knowledge that I played a part in creating it. Very special that, mate. Very special."