Sunday, 10 July 2011

Talking with Peter Hook

The important thing about Joy Division and New Order is that they weren't really Manchester bands. They were Macclesfield bands. Young blokes with a fury to escape the suffocating embrace of small town life. To get out from under the monochrome drizzle of declining market towns. Towns that that were becoming increasingly uniform as they began to wither and die

And I think it is this that was the essence of their appeal for us growing up in Bedford. If you were white and growing up in the ugly new housing estates that had doubled the size of this nondescript town in the 1970s, then you were living in a particularly arid cultural desert. (I say white because the many other cultural groups in Bedford prob did have more going on. But the honest truth is we didn't really mix.)

For us, nothing ever happened. Bands didn't play. There wasn't a real football team, there wasn't a theatre and the only youth club in Brickhill - the estate I lived on - was in the local baptist church.

We had the TV and we had music. Only my dad heavily censored television (no american shows, no violence, no ITV). And I didn't really get the music people around me seemed to like. Most people I knew liked heavy metal (another small town phenomenon. An attempt to create an artificial grandeur where none could ever exist) but it wasn't for me. It seemed nonsensical. pantomimic with its embarrassing lyrics and faerie worldes, and it also seemed intimidatingly musicianly. All those guitar pyrotechnics seemed as distant from me as the classical concertos Mr Stanley played us in our primary school music lessons.

I liked sixties pop. The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Who, The Small Faces, The Monkees (I was lucky in that I had a discerning cousin to turn me on to this stuff). I liked the satin and tat of Bolan and Bowie. And I liked Abba (I always liked a tune basically, though you had to be secretive about a love of ABBA then. Not like now, everyone from Morrissey to Eminem claims to like Abba these days.)

If you've been watching the re-runs of the 1976 TOTP episodes you'll know how badly the nation needed punk. But it took a little while to get a hold in Bedford, and, when it did, it didn't last long. There was a small group in my school for whom punk changed everything. It gave us an attitude, a side to be on. and the music was - let's not forget this - compelling too. As urgent and as basic as early rock and roll. But our two big favourites in Bedford - as in ten thousand other middling towns - were The Clash and The Jam. They had a richer musical palette than their contemporaries, without actually seeming anything like musos. And they were articulate. Strummer and Weller were the only poets and journalists I needed. Most of what I feel about politics comes from Clash and Jam records (single records too. Bought for 79p from Woolies. I didn't really have the attention span for albums. Still don't. You can imagine how I suffered during the age of the 75minute CD album). My political sense certainly didn't emerge from the sterile university debates I had later with members of SWSS. And everything I know about philosophy comes from the NME, from Paul Morley and Ian Penman.

And suddenly there were bands like Joy Division (and then New Order), Comsat Angels, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes and it felt here was a movement that made perfect sense of all the things that had been going on in my imagination up to then. These were bands who could marry the pop sensibility of the sixties with lyrical images that strove for a realisation of the darker places in the psyche. And I was 15 by then and in the special kind of mess that 15 year olds are often in.

And these bands also suddenly began to play Bedford. Necessarily in strange venues.

New Order played one of their first British gigs under that name in the Bradgate Boys Club (a boxing club), Teardrop Explodes played Kempston Rovers football club, The Comsat Angels played the Corn Exchange. And there was a place to go. Every other Monday we could go to the Essential Dance Music night at Winkles Club in Lurke Street and hear this new music. Music that had the iconoclastic energy of punk, but with an experimental imagination and a desire to articulate inner turmoil in the same the way that Weller and Strummer could articulate class alienation.

We also got a free burger at midnight. Something to do with the license. If you wanted to listen to Bauhaus or the Cocteau Twins after midnight in Bedford then you were compelled to eat irradiated frozen burgers.

And the fact that Bedford had this space where we could gather and argue and pontificate was down to Dec Hickey. And it was Dec who put the bands on too. An evangelist for Joy Division from the earliest days Dec was a prophet for new music in our drab town (a drab town that I love fiercely by the way. England is its smallish towns far more than it is its cities. the essence of England is not found in London, Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds. Neither is it found in cricket games on village greens in Hampshire. The real England is in Peterborough, Northampton, Milton Keynes, Luton, Stevenage. Towns like that. Bedford IS a drab town, but it is MY drab town and always will be.)

Seen from this distance 30 years on, a lot of this music seems melodramatic, absurdly grandiose, or just pointlessly abstract. Or - still the big crime for me - tune-free. But a lot stands up. And of all the post-punk bands the most important for us were New Order. They were the band Dec was closest too, the were the band that first bothered to come and play for us and they had this terrible grief to carry around with them and to exorcise on stage. And the music was great. they always seemed to challenge themselves. And us. A capacity to change and to surprise while retaining that special thread with their own past, their own mythology.

We saw them all over the place crammed into unreliable cars listening to bootlegs of previous gigs all the way there - and a new bootleg of the gig we'd just seen on the way back.

All of which is a too lengthy attempt to put into context the special nervousness I felt last night when I found myself interviewing Peter Hook live on stage in front of 200 odd people at Hebden Picturehouse. I had high ambitions for this event. Firstly - and most importantly - I wanted Hooky not too think I was a tosser, but I also wanted to find out nerdy, geeky things about how songs were written and recorded.

And I wanted to find out emotional things about how you feel when your friend, colleague, singer, almost-brother kills himself the very night you'd given him a lift home. I wanted to know about the other kind of pain involved in the long drifting apart from the friend you'd had since you were 11. And I wanted him to have the space to tell some funny stories. I wanted a complex kind of entertainment I guess. Part confession/part stand-up/part lecture.

And we got all that. Mostly. I think.

Peter Hook is a warm man. Lively, engaging, easy to talk to. Very open. The first surprise for me was that he remembered the Bedford Boys Club gig. Remembered it well. He also spoke warmly of Dec Hickey, a man he's still in contact with and has collaborated with on a coffee table book about the many New Order gigs the 'Bedford Crew' went to.

On stage we covered things more or less chronologically and my role as a (frankly amateur, and full of cold) interviewer was just to press the buttons to move things forward because Peter could quite clearly have spent entertaining hours on each part of the band's story. We heard about the impact the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester Free Trade hall had. That Peter Hook hadn't thought of joining a band until that point. How he bought a crappy bass speaker off his old art teacher, Mr Hubbard, and that he began to play the bass high up the neck as the only way to be heard over the racket Barney made on his slightly more expensive amp. (Incidentally, Barney was referred to as 'twatface' throughout the evening. somehow I don't think that the New Order reunion is happening any time soon. Mr Hubbard meanwhile is a member of the band the Salford Jets).

We heard about how a Joy Division song would come together. Ian always had tons of words and the band would jam until something emerged. How the band were writing songs so fast they could barely keep up with themselves. How the first time they played Transmission live was the moment everyone knew that the alchemy of the group was taking them somewhere special.

We learned that Martin Hannett fought with Barney and Hooky who wanted Unknown Pleasures to sound like never mind the bollocks and were initially gutted about the production of it, But they're very glad now that it's an argument that they lost. (and so are we all surely)

We learned how Ian Curtis was always irrepressibly positive. How he would always say things were fine, when they manifestly weren't. How they went to his funeral on the Thursday and were rehearsing as New Order on the Friday. Only actually, they were rehearsing but not as New Order - they spent a few weeks as the Witch-doctors of Zimbabwe.

What else? We learned that Gillian Gilbert's prime qualification for invitation into the group was that she couldn't play and would do what she was told. That Barney quickly tired of playing live and so Peter's relationship with him was undermined by years of forcing him to do what he didn't want to do. That Barney sees the best version of a song as the one that is recorded and Peter sees songs as being most alive while they're being played. It's a fundamental philosophical difference and, in the end, an impossible circle to square.

We learned that Peter was 'devastated' when Barney formed Electronic. That during New Order's last gig Peter Hook wrote The End on his bass cabs but Barney was still surprised that the group was over (this last gig was in front of 135,000 people in Buenos Aires).

The evening all went past in a bit of a blur (my amateurishness as a host was underlined by the fact that I didn't wear a watch during the gig and so had to try and time things with furtive looks at Peter's. Not ideal). I've done these things quite a lot, but generally at sedate literary events attend by 30 or so nice women. This was a whole different thing. But I wasn't heckled and the questions from the audience were respectful, funny and to the point.

It was an audience question that elicited the response that 24 hour party people is 'Carry On up the factory.' Pretty fictional - though not as fictional as Tony Wilson's autobiography - but that Control is spookily close to the truth of how things were.

And at the end of things we sold dozens of copies Peter's book How Not To Run Club (far more books than we normally sell at a literary event), he signed them and then I walked him round to the Trades Club where he was doing a DJ set.

They say you shouldn't meet your heroes. But then again, sometimes, just some times, you should. We had a nice time and I learned a lot. This doesn't mean I think his idea of touring and playing - and singing lead vocals on - Joy Division albums with his new band The Light (which includes his son) is a good idea. It clearly isn't (but his legacy to trash if he wants) nor do I have any opinions on who is to blame the well documented fall out with his old schoolfriend and bandmate Barney. From the outside, it just seems like a shame. Bands break about though. If they are any good at all, it's what happens.