Review: ‘Unknown Pleasures — Inside Joy Division’

Presently there are two films that portray the life of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. The first of the two, Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People,” sought to debunk some of the mythology behind the late singer, whose May, 1980 suicide on the eve of the band’s first American tour skyrocketed his persona into that of a morose, tortured artist. Anton Corbijn directed “Control” five years later which did much to reinstate the dark, “romantic” side of Curtis (he even shot the thing in black and white for extra dramatic effect).

While the singer suffered from acute epilepsy and was experiencing mounting marital stress at the time of his death, the dark side Ian Curtis only emerges in the last two months of his life in “Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division,” the recently released biography of the band. Written by the band’s bassist, the indispensable Peter Hook, the book tells of both the turmoil and the lighter sides of Curtis and company through a gloriously detailed read. By far the most brash and outspoken member of Joy Division and later New Order, Hook pulls no punches in this excellent first-hand account of the quick rise and implosion of arguably one of the most important indie rock bands in history.

What’s important and unique about Hook’s telling of the band’s story is not only the humanization of Curtis, but also the reminder that Joy Division were a band that continues to be fascinating because of everyone involved — Curtis, Hook, guitarist Bernard Summer, drummer Stephen Morris, manager Rob Gretton, producer Martin Hannett, Factory Records head Tony Wilson as well as the group’s roadies and loved ones.

Aside from its heart-wrenching last few chapters which give great insight on just how avoidable Curtis’ death was (Hook at one point remorsefully jokes that he should have called the book “He Said He Was All Right So We Carried On”), the book as a whole is a lot of fun, filled with entertaining anecdotes from the road and the studio. I personally was lucky enough to catch a discussion with Hook and Pitchfork writer Brandon Stosuy in Brooklyn recently. Here Hook described in detail some of the antics the band took part in, like one prank involving dropping live mice onto the Buzzcocks’ tour bus after releasing bags of maggots on stage as they performed. This was one of numerous stunts the group pulled which many times were directed at each other—surprising when thinking it came from a band that created two of the darkest albums of the post-punk era.

Despite their camaraderie in being young and obnoxious, Hook also makes clear where he apparently has always stood with his former bandmates, particularly Bernard Summer – that they were never truly friends outside of their musical chemistry. “I loved them as bandmates…we really clicked as songwriters. But as people? As friends? Not really. We were individuals, me Steve, and Bernard. The glue that held us together, the driving force of the band, was Ian.” Apparently Curtis was also more or less the architect that made Joy Division and New Order such a unique force – Hook quotes him from an early jam, “Oh, Hooky, when you play high , it sounds really good. We should work on that. Barney, you play the bar chords. Hooky, you play high and Steve do some of them jungle drums…”

Possibly the most interesting stories to come out of the book as a whole, though, are the excursions about incidents that happened years later, like a near-fistfight with Killing Joke over a miscommunication over him calling their music “shit,” as well as a few telling side notes of New Order stories that with any luck will come into full light on a forthcoming book about the band. Hook already told an intriguing tale of Factory’s rambunctious past in “The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club,” and with this book tracking back to the beginning of the label’s flagship band, the inevitable New Order book is likely to be the most thrilling of the trilogy.

On the back sleeve of the hardback, there’s a quote from Bono where he says “With Joy Division, you felt from this singer, beauty was truth and truth was beauty, and theirs was a search for both.” While that sentiment falls into the “Control” camp of the Ian Curtis persona, its meaning is in many ways on point with the book itself. Over the three years covered in “Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division,” there is great beauty in the realness and imperfections of the subjects’ lives, all of which Hook manages to uncover after decades of speculation and aggrandizing. He describes in its forward that this is the true story “as I remember it!” and while his temperament with Joy Division’s surviving members threatens impartiality at times, it’s the closest look we as fans have seen inside the band’s wilderness.