Mar. 20th, 2013

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We know this story like the stations of the cross.

The Sex Pistols play Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall. Inspired, four local lads start a band. The band changes name. The band are accused of being Nazis. The singer has epileptic fits. The band sign to Factory Records. Martin Hannett produces their album. Peter Saville designs their sleeves. The singer's fits get worse. A tour of America is planned. The day before the tour, the singer hangs himself in his kitchen.

We know this story because Ian Curtis has been beatified since his death, another Tortured Geniuses Who Died Too Soon. His icon is nailed  to the church wall between Jim Morrison and Sid Vicious*.

Unknown Pleasures is Peter Hook's autobiography of his days as bass player for Joy Division. And in many ways, it's an attempt to deflate the myth of Ian Curtis and replace it with a portrait of the man he actually knew. He repeatedly stresses that to his band mates, Curtis wasn't some fey and brilliant poet. He was one of the lads, who liked to drink and start fights, chase girls, and indulge in the occasional scatalogical prank.

According to Hook, the band didn't even read Curtis's lyrics until after his death. I never paid too much attention to the lyrics at the time, Hook writes. I kind of knew they were good, and that there was something special about them, but mainly I just appreciated that they sounded good, and that Ian singing them sounded great and looked great.

There's an easy, conversational tone to this book. It feels very much like sitting down with a beer while Hooky spins some yarns from old days.** There are lots of anecdotes about the pranks the band played: showering the Buzzcocks in maggots, trashing hostel rooms while Ian Curtis peed in the ashtray. And there's a lot of muso talk about gear used and effects applied.

The conversational tone works best when Hook talks about the Sex Pistols, and how inspired he was by seeing them play. And there are plenty of anecdotes about how Joy Division developed their distinctive sound, from Ian Curtis rummaging through a plastic bag full of lyrics, to Hook's high, riffing bass style evolving because his cheap speaker sounded terrible if he played low notes.

Hook may not be the most reliable of narrators. His feud with the other members of Joy Division/New Order is legendary, and he drops more than few sly digs at Bernard Sumner. But he also gives credit where it's due, acknowledging the genius of Sumner's playing.

There may be a bit of public relations going on here, an attempt to paint Hook in positive light.

Or the ulterior motive here may be much simpler, to simply confess mea culpa. Hook still clearly feels guilty about how hard the band pushed Curtis, even as his marriage deteriorated and his fits grew worse. We should have let him rest, Hook says over and over, but we didn't. I should have called the book that, he writes. He Said He Was All Right So We Carried On.

Hook's anecdotes are balanced out by potted biographies of the people involved, a comprehensive timeline of every gig played (many with setlists), and a track-by-track walkthrough of the two albums.

If you're a Joy Division fan, it's well worth a read. At the end of the day, I have a very simple metric for any book about music: how much does it make me want to play my guitars?

A lot, is the answer here. Unknown Pleasures made me want to play my guitar a lot.

* I know, I know: Vicious died before Curtis. I'm making a metaphorical point here, Curtis halfway between poet and punk.

** Except, of course, Hook doesn't drink these days.


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