Against all the odds this is sounding really good.
There is only a quarter of one the most loved bands ever up on stage playing the most difficult album he could have chosen. The singer died almost exactly 31 years ago and the back catalogue has become hallowed ground that few dare to tread on. Somehow, though, Peter Hook is doing a pretty good job of it and if you strip away the debate, the acrimony and the controversy this stands up as a musical experience and there are moments when it really lifts off.
This week The Light released their debt single, available from Hacienda Records. The single is the unreleased Joy Division track ”ËPictures In My Mind’ and the Rowetta sung ”ËAtmosphere’ plus Rowetta’s versions of ”ËNew Dawn Fades’ and ”ËInsight’. The EP comes shrouded in the endless sadness that seems to surround this operation, being dedicated to the late Ronan “Rex”Â Sargeant, who worked with Hooky and your author many times as a very able sound engineer. Rex was great to work with and is missed in the tightly knit musical community.
For the full EP of all four tracks and cover art Click HERE
There’s a lot of baggage here..
Peter Hook’s decision to play the Joy Division back catalogue has ruffled many feathers. Especially feathers of people who never saw Joy Division and hold them up as demi-gods of their era. For many these songs are untouchable.
Some people see him as some sort of anti Christ figure stalking the graveyard of Manchester music past. An evil robber baron relieving them of the memories they probably never had in the first place. For them it was bad enough when he opened his Fac251 club which led to a website dedicated to him.
When the word got round that he was playing the old Joy Division songs, some eyes rolled and tastemakers frowned in the that frowny way that they do. Hooky himself wouldn’t give a fuck. He was always the ”Ëbelligerent one’ in Joy Division, the one who clonked his bass on my mate’s head for shouting for ”ËTransmission’ at that Blackpool Joy Division gig in 1979. These days he just plays a really good version of it.
It’s a tough call this dusting down of your past, some of his fiercest critics have been local pundits who have made a career out of playing other people’s old records when Djing and getting paid handsomely for it, at least Hooky co-wrote many of these classics and, to be honest , if he wants to drag them out of the cupboard it’s his prerogative, afterall plenty of other people do this- next week Adam Ant is in town with a set of obscure Ants material and by all reports it’s brilliant. Even New Order had a Joy Division section of their set in the later days and Interpol and the Editors were also doing it (ahem).
So for the nay sayers this was the ultimate nightmare – Peter Hook playing Joy Division in Fac251 – a move, in some ways, so post modern that you get the feeling that even Tony Wilson would have smirked at its sheer bloody nerve. You also get the feeling that Ian Curtis, far from turning in his grave, would have probably been doing the same if he was still alive – everyone becomes a tribute act in rock n roll – that’s the way it goes. The trick is to be a good tribute act and at least inject the songs with some sort of feeling and that is the real question tonight.
The band take the stage to little fanfare, at first the sound is mushy and indistinct for the first few songs. It’s at this point that the person they really miss is not the charismatic Ian Curtis by producer and sonic genius Martin Hannett. The younger members of the audience (and there are a few) must be wondering if the band are going to recreate the still futuristic sound of the Closer album that they are playing without realising that Joy Division never actually sounded like that. Live they were far rougher and more slapdash. The albums were a lot of Hannett’s vison and creation, what Hooky is doing here is far closer (!) to the band’s real, core sound, that moment when punk accelerated into post punk, that moment of genius that Hooky was very much part of with his songwriting, dive bombing bass and attitude.
And that’s the second conundrum of the night. Here we have one of the great bass players and he hardly plays the damn thing all night, just using it as a prop before occasionally cutting loose on it just to show us what a damn fine bass player he is. This is because he is singing the songs and playing bass and singing is just too tricky.
Conversely this is a good move. I remember when the band was first mooted and I mentioned to him that he should sing. He was not convinced but has made the right decision. For me this project could only work if someone who was there actually sang. It doesn’t have to be a Curtis impression just someone who had an idea of the turmoil that was going on at the time. Hooky’s voice is not note perfect- which makes it better- all the great Mancunian vocalists are about attitude not opera- but it’s emotional and it has a surprising sensitivity to it. His voice may not have the sonorous presence of Ian Curtis but it’s honest and heartfelt and is the only way that these songs could get played.
He does have some help, though, because every now and then Rowetta comes on to sing and the contrast really works. Her voice does the weirdest thing to the songs, because it’s higher it makes the dark songs sound like the Black Sabbath tunes they were initially influenced by.
I know its unintentional but she almost sounds like Ozzy Osbourne and a whole new layer of where Joy Division came from is revealed. Wonderful Rowetta who grew up learning to sing along to Crass records and who could have cleaned up on the X Factor circuit, decided to do this instead- earning fuck all but doing something she believed in. I love the curveball nature of it, Joy Division sung by a woman! Genius! Her version of Atmosphere is really heartfelt, you don’t have to dig deep in Manchester to find the necessary pain to sing these songs- it’s not exclusive and Rowetta takes it somewhere else, to a different place.
The pain and sadness in Joy Division hit a raw nerve all those years ago and the people in the city may be proud but they have been hurt in so many different ways – that’s why everyone loved Ian Curtis – he dropped the stoic, northern mask and sang from his heart of the pain and vulnerability and stupidity of being very human. For once everyone stopped fucking about and listened and it hit home and that’s why the band were so loved. And that’s why everyone in the packed club is chasing shadows tonight hoping that Hooky can pull something out of the bag and when the sound finally settles it starts to become really hypnotic and when it finally lifts off- like on a magical ”ËTwenty Four Hours’, a hypnotic ”ËDecades’ or a sprightly ”ËIsolation’, a twitching ”ËA means To An End’ a ghostly ”ËHeart And Soul’ and the endless encores of Joy Division rarities and the climactic Rowetta sung ”ËAtmopshere’ it sounds really, really good. These are moments were it sounds quite magical and goes beyond cool or hip or trendy and all those things that Joy Division were never meant to be in the first place- they were accidental genius, the Salford yobs who dug deep when confronted with the Macclesfield Grammar school boys.
What people have never understood here is that Hooky doesn’t actually need the moment, he certainly doesn’t need all the bullshit and he can’t need the money. He may actually be doing this because these songs really do mean something to him as well and he was very much part of their creation and by playing them he is not ”Ëruining the legacy’ he is celebrating it in his own way.
The bottom line is that they sounded good.