Joy Division began the 80s as an obscure footnote in the rock encyclopedia. Critically acclaimed, mainstream success eluded them. New Order, the band they became after the suicide of lead vocalist Ian Curtis, found fame that was always denied to Joy Division, fusing New York dance beats with post-punk guitars.
New Order are now 33 years into a career that boasts seven top ten albums, twenty five top forty hits and, in Blue Monday, the best selling 12” single of all time.
But in 2013, it’s Joy Division who people still love.
Peter Hook is a canny man. The erstwhile New Order bass player and Joy Division founder member, has spent the last few years cashing in on the past. Leaving New Order behind in 2007, he published a pair of chatty memoirs that mined his time in Joy Division and as manager of the Hacienda nightclub. Then in 2010, he opened a new nightclub, FAC 251, in Factory Record’s old offices.
Now, Hook and his band The Light are touring the Joy Division studio albums Unknown Pleasures and Closer. This week, they’re in Eastern Europe, but on the 15th of April, 2013, The Light played Holmfirth’s Picturedrome, on the edge of the Peak District, in the heart of Summer Wine country.
Unknown Pleasures producer Martin Hannett laboured hard to create a pristine and meticulous sound on Joy Division’s seminal debut. It was metal machine music for a city in a post-industrial nose dive.
But – thanks to his memoirs – we now know that’s not how Hooky wanted the album to sound. He and Joy Division guitarist Bernard Sumner were in agreement. They wanted Unknown Pleasures to sound dirty and loud, like The Stooges.
Now that Hook has seized control of the legacy, it does.
The Picturedrome performance turned the amphetamine and barbiturate sophistication of Unknown Pleasures – the 1970’s last great album – into a metallic KO.
It’s curious, hearing these iconic songs played with the compression and aggression Hook clearly felt they always deserved. Make no mistake, Joy Division were an angry band. But it was an angular and wiry aggression. Joy Division were a scalpel, each phrase and riff a precise dissection – and, always, Ian Curtis with his Macclesfield Jim Morrison impersonation front and centre.
The Light’s interpretation is a blunter instrument. A muscular, faster and fatter bastard – all distorted pads and bass at the top and bottom. There’s more fuzz and thickness to the lead guitar, more thump to the drums. There’s twice as much bass. Literally. Hooky plays lines when he feels like it, but the donkey work is shouldered by Jack Bates, Peter’s son.
The Macclesfield Jim Morrison impersonation is still there though, impeccably delivered by Hook, uncannily channeling his late friend, buried under a buzzsaw of tube static.
On some tunes it really works. The obvious Joy Division favourites – She’s Lost Control, Shadowplay and Disorder – benefit from being delivered through this wall of sound. This fuzzbox seance.
These are the times Hook seems almost happy to be there. The Light pours out of him. The audience go mental.
This must be what Joy Division sounds like in Peter Hook’s head.
But the most affecting highlight of the first half is nothing to do with Hook. Over the bleats of teenage emos trying to begin a conversation with post-punk’s ace of bass, Peter introduces Alan Hempsall of forgotten Manchester also-rans, Crispy Ambulance.
The moment flies over the heads of the kids up front. Hempsall famously replaced Ian Curtis for a gig in 1980. Curtis was in the wings, recovering from a fit. Hempsall was bottled off stage. This time, the Holmfirth crowd are more than accommodating and the singer – now a local charity director – does a fine job of standing in for Hook. Or is that Curtis?
Naturally, there are troughs. The band’s translation of Unknown Pleasures gives way to an interpretation of Closer, Joy Division’s more difficult second album. It’s a more contemplative set of songs that need space and air, neither of which are in plentiful supply this evening.
And, though the crowd receive her warmly, X-Factor diva and Happy Mondays backing singer Rowetta’s guest spot wakes the dreamer. It’s a moment of boiling dissonance that briefly blanches us in disbelief.
Let us not forget, this is still the closest we’ll get to the experience of seeing Joy Division played authentically, up close. Hook’s former bandmates in New Order may occasionally slip Love Will Tear Us Apart into an encore, but they transcended venues as small and sweaty as the Picturedrome a long time ago. Here you can see every grimace and gurn. Every single-stringed bass run, high up the neck. Every roll of the eyes that says “am I really still doing this?”
And when Hook tricks the crowd into voting for an encore of New Order’s Temptation, the venue lights up, the Picturedrome pogos as one and we’re all singing:
Oh you’ve got green eyes,
Oh you’ve got blue eyes,
Oh you’ve got grey eyes.
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