Last Wednesday Peter Hook and his nearly anonymous but capable backing band performed a complete set of Joy Division songs (including the full album “Unknown Pleasures”) at the 9:30 Club. This was one of the more unusual concerts of 2010; the music performed is over 30 years old and its original singer Ian Curtis has been dead nearly as long. Peter Hook was a co-founder and the bass player of Joy Division; so he has as much right to perform these songs as the other surviving members do; which they have been doing to a lesser extent in encores with their band Bad Lieutenant. But Hook was proposing an entire set performing basically as Joy Division. Who exactly would be singing these songs? And how the heck would they come close to matching Ian Curtis’ singular voice? Leading up to it, the whole prospect of this Peter Hook show felt audacious and just plain weird.
The evening began with the club about a third full as a screen descended from the ceiling over the stage. A shoddily produced documentary about Manchester, Joy Division, New Order, and the Hacienda club ran on the screen for about twenty-five minutes. I am hesitant to even call this video a documentary because of its rough-shod nature; it felt like a sloppy amalgamation of old television interview footage quickly tossed together for the tour. The film offered no new information and was of such a basic nature it made me wonder who the intended audience was? The crowd were all middle-aged Joy Division fanatics who surely new all of this basic music history already. The gist of the piece was to glorify Warsaw/Joy Division/New Order as the most important band of the late century or something. It came across as self-important and did not bode well for the set ahead.
Luckily, the cheap video really had very little to do with the set of music that Peter Hook and his band delivered to the now 3/4-full club. There was nothing self-important about the music or Hook’s stage presence. The band was there to rock the house in an admittedly unconventional, post-punk perfect way. Billed as an “Unknown Pleasures” full album set, I was surprised to hear the band open with ‘No Love Lost’ and ‘Leaders of Men’ from the “An Ideal For Living” EP. They followed this with ‘Glass’ and ‘Digital’ before launching into the album proper portion of the set. It was a great warm-up for the audience and the band. For one the four opening songs put the crowd at ease by answering all of the lingering questions about the show. Hook sang every song and the band was tight as hell. For the band the first four songs served as a pre-game warm-up; the songs exploded with energy and worked out their kinks before settling into “Unknown Pleasures” more physically demanding and sonically complicated songs.
The “Unknown Pleasures” full album portion of the set was really quite stunning. I imagine a lot of Joy Division fans probably skipped this show out of allegiance to the band’s purity and/or the memory of Ian Curtis. I nearly did and I am glad that I resisted the urge to. Peter Hook and his band faithfully represented the material in a way that captured the music’s essence without attempting to mimic Joy Division note for note, beat for beat. Peter Hook is not Ian Curtis and is not nearly as good of a singer; it was obvious he recognizes that. So rather than try to ape the dead singer, Hook passionately sang the lyrics in his own growling vocal style.* His singing really got a chance to shine and bring something new to the music on ‘Wilderness’, ‘New Dawn Fades’, and my favorite ‘Candidate’.**
In a sense, Hook’s vocal approach matched the band’s playing. This was a group of musicians ripping through a set of revered songs and doing their best to honor them by revisiting them. It almost seemed like Peter Hook and his band had the most reverence for the material out of everyone in the club. Their haunting and/or rocking versions of each song sounded great; if the set accomplished just one thing it was to shake off the Goth appropriation of Joy Division by reminding the world that Joy Division, although certainly gloomy, were also a ferocious live band.
* Hook’s vocal style reminded me of Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers.
** ‘Candidate’ has been one of my favorite Joy Division songs for as long as I can remember. If there is a testament I can give to settle the Joy Division purity arguments surrounding these shows it is that even though I hold the original version of this song in such high regard, I feel the live 2010 Peter Hook version was just as impressive. I am glad I had the chance to hear it played live.