Joy Division played their first gig in May 1977. Within three years, having just released their second album, the band was no more. The day before leaving for a tour of America in May 1980, lead singer 23-year-old Ian Curtis hung himself.
Bassist Peter Hook’s memoir of their days, named after debut album, Unknown Pleasures, is a revelatory if slightly choppy re-telling of a story that most fans would have thought they knew already.
Hook, who published a riotous account of his days as a bedeviled club owner in How Not to Run a Club: The Hacienda, admits his Joy Division story is as much about Curtis as himself. It couldn’t be any other way, although he shares plenty of interesting autobiographical details. His father and step-father, for example, used to beat up his mother. “It was standard Salford practice for men to get pissed and knock their wives about in those days,” he writes.
Originally called Warsaw, the band toyed with names like Slaves of Venus and Boys in Bondage, before settling on Joy Division, a reference to the Jewish women forced to service Nazi soldiers during the Second World War. Hook and Bernard Sumner, who became mates in Salford Grammar School, formed the band and later created New Order despite, says Hook, the fact they “were always arguing, worse than a married couple”.
The book has lots of yarns about life on the road, including a gig they played to one person in Huddersfield in 1978. Well-attended gigs were wild affairs. Ominously their first gig ended in a fight, as did their second last gig in Bury. Audience members often spat at them, which Hook tried to stave off by bashing offenders with the top of his bass guitar.
The level of the band’s penury was incredible. They travelled around the UK in a Cortina and Hook’s “knackered” van. As late as 1980, they were sleeping on the floors of promoters’ apartments. While recording second album Closer in London, they got by on £1.50 per diem a day, enough for pints or dinner, but not both.
It was little wonder that Curtis caved into exhaustion. Hook suggests the rest of the band was willfully ignorant of his deteriorating situation. Curtis was diagnosed with epilepsy in January 1979, and used to get three or four fits a week, many of them brought on by strobe lighting at shows. Other factors “crowded” in on top of him — the relentless gigging which he soldiered through despite debilitating side effects from his medication and the collapse of his marriage as a result of a long affair with Belgian Annik Honoré.
Curtis, it seems, was a chameleonic character. Along with being an arty, melancholic song-writing genius and hypnotic performer, he was a quintessential lad. “One of my lasting impressions of Ian,” writes Hook about a night careering around Rue St Denis in Paris looking for hookers, “is of Ian, who liked to read Burroughs and Kafka and discuss art with Annik, asking this French guy where all the girls were. ‘Girls,’ he was saying. ‘Where are all the girls?’ Holding his arms to his chest and waving them up and down like a pair of jiggly boobs. ‘Where are all the girls?’”