No doubt about it: Joy Division's credentials in the Great Influential Band Sweepstakes are impeccable. Like many charter members of that particular club, Joy Division didn't stick around for long - just three short years (1977-80) - and, in purely commercial terms, didn't approach anything like a gold rush until frontman Ian Curtis hung himself in May 1980. (Indeed, it's worth recalling that the band's best-known song, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," could only be heard in live performance until April 1980 - when the band filmed a video for it - and, even then, wouldn't appear as a single until June of that year.)
Even so, it's impossible to imagine the post-punk and alternative landscape happening without Joy Division - to name two of the more obvious musical strands that bear their fingerprints. However, the band's reluctance to explain themselves, let alone take a public stance on its music, invited plenty of room for speculation. Of course, Joy Division's awkwardness became its collective calling card, as former bassist Peter Hook gleefully recounts his new memoir, UNKNOWN PLEASURES: INSIDE JOY DIVISION (It Books).
That reputation came well-earned, Hook writes: "If the audience went wild, we'd start with 'I Remember Nothing,' just to wind them up. One thing that punk taught was to be challenging. One thing that punk taught you was to be challenging - always try to break the rules, forge your own way." Of course, that ethic is lacking in much of today's pop landscape; as Hook realizes when he describes watching some best-forgotten "battle of the bands - years after his old band's demise - and waxes his disgust at the contestants' readiness to do whatever the industry guests deemed commercially acceptable.
"They've missed out that growing-up stage of being bloody-minded and fucking clueless," Hook protests. Indeed, it's tempting to imagine what pop Machiavellis like Simon Cowell might tell an up-and-coming Ian Curtis today: "God, your lyrics are utterly depressing...'She's Lost Control?' How will you get a 12-year-old girl to buy that? And where'd you get that baritone monotone, the bottom of a gravel pit? Lose that, and the funny little dance, too." (For a surreal example of how the industry has tried to catch up, see the link below.)
Thankfully, Curtis's intensity made such talk moot, although the journey was hardly a picnic; the band didn't finally shed their day jobs until October 1979, when a 24-date support slot on the Buzzcocks tour finally gave Curtis, Hook, drummer Stephen Morris and guitarist Bernard Sumner the freedom to chase the rock 'n' roll dream. Not surprisingly, the picture that Hook paints owes as much as to Spinal Tap - cue Curtis and company raining mice, maggots and feces down on the Buzzcocks - as it does to J.G. Ballard, or William S. Burroughs, to name two of the singer's oft-quoted literary inspirations.
Elsewhere, Curtis comes across as a combustive mixture of self-belief and self-destruction, and - it must be said - capable of compartmentalizing his life to an astonishing degree. However, for fans posing the Million Dollar Question - why didn't anybody listen harder to such lyrics as, "A loaded gun will set you free, so they say" - Hook responds: "You just see your teammate doing his bit; he looks and sounds up to speed, so, great, that leaves you to concentrate on your own side of things. There's no analysis going on."
The heads-down, get-on-with-it mentality of the band's Manchester roots didn't encourage such discussions, it seems, which explains the contrasting Curtis portraits we've seen in Control, and 24 Hour Party People (Sam Riley's smoldering slow burn, or Sean Harris's teeth-baring aggression? Take your pick).
In the end, however, Hook has given us a book that reads well on both levels, Casual listeners who know little beyond "Love Will Tear Us Apart" will most likely enjoy those Spinal Tap-ish, what-goes-up-must-come-down moments - such as a truly surreal encounter in McDonalds, where the person serving Hooky turns out to be Steve Brotherdale, one of the band's now-you-see-'em-now-you-don't drummers.
Joy Division trainspotters will likely head to the five "Timelines" - which take us from the band's punk-era birth, as Stiff Kittens, to Curtis's death, and the surviving members' continuation as New Order- and the track-by-track overviews of its two albums, Unknown Pleasures, and Closer, where the late Martin Hannett's mad production genius is examined at length. Whether you agree with Hook's viewpoint, or not, he's got the storyteller's gift of gab going here, which is only a good thing.
Of course, every band benefits from careful guidance, which makes 1 TOP CLASS MANAGER (Manchester District Music Archive) an appropriate companion volume - since it's drawn from the notebooks of Joy Division's late manager, Rob Gretton. Compiled by longtime partner, Lesley Gilbert, the notebooks' contents leave little doubt that Gretton was the band's true "X Factor," figuratively, and literally.
Like his proteges, Gretton kept public statements to a minimum, preferring to think out loud on paper - where we see him methodically tally up recording and touring costs, making to-do lists, or batting around ideas. (Unknown Pleasures could also have been called Aura Of Violence, House Of Correction, or Symptoms Of Collapse; New Order prevailed among a shortlist of names that also included Communion, and Year Zero.)
Trainspotters will undoubtedly enjoy perusing these particular details, and the occasions when Gretton lays out his core philosophy ("no long tours - no TV and radio unless we agree - no press interviews/photos - unless we agree - no publicity - promo - unless we agree"). Gretton's celebrated toughness is also never far away, such as his drafted rebuttal of a damage claim ("I still maintain that the small tear was present when the van was hired and I admit no responsibility whatsoever").
What's left out is equally telling, as well; in the next few months after Curtis's death, entries shrink to terse one-liners (May 19 states, "JOHN PEEL: 'NEW DAWN FADES'"). Gradually, though, the business of getting New Order up and running takes precedence, and the pages grow full again. The final page ends with a reminder to transfer the band members' bank accounts - except for Curtis's, naturally - with the addition of guitarist/keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, whose arrival changed the previous all-male equation.
Originally published in 2008, 1 TOP CLASS MANAGER is well worth your time to track down - if nothing else, it'll give you a rare glimpse of the nuts-and-bolts business of management, and what it takes to bring a band into the public arena. Through both these books, in fact, Joy Division emerges intact from its Teutonic fog of mystery as real people, with all the faults and weaknesses that status implies- which makes a far more interesting story than the "Ian Curtis Died For You" myth, anyway.
Highlights: Why Your Should Never Meet Your Heroes Dept.: Ian Curtis approaches William S. Burroughs after a gig in Amsterdam, and asks for a free book, only to hear: "Get lost, kid!" (UNKNOWN PLEASURES)
Lowlights: None, dammit!
Rating: *****/***** (Both books)
UNKNOWN PLEASURES:INSIDE JOY DIVISION: http://www.amazon.com/Unknown-Pleasures-Inside-Joy-Division/dp/0062222562
1 TOP CLASS MANAGER
JOY DIVISION'S WEEK ON "X FACTOR" (2010): http://www.newsbiscuit.com/2010/11/20/x-factor-viewers-thrilled-by-‘joy-division-week'/