“I’ve had to look into the singer’s psyche and step into the singer’s footsteps,” Hook says of his work with the Light. “In Joy Division there was a lot of expectation, and Ian Curtis’ shoes were very big ones to fill.” Photo by Mark McNulty
Some of the most interesting developments in the span of rock history have come about accidentally, through abused or malfunctioning gear. In the late 1950s, for instance, the guitarist Link Wray poked holes in his speakers, for a gnarly, distorted tone, while the earliest use of fuzz arguably came from a messed-up preamplifier on the studio session for the 1961 Marty Robbins song “Don’t Worry.”
Peter Hook, who for decades has had one of the most identifiable bass-guitar sounds in rock, owes his instrumental voice to a similar gear scenario. At the onset of his career, in the late 1970s, a crappy amplifier forced him to take a decidedly unconventional approach to the instrument.
Hook is a founding member of Joy Division, the English post-punk band that also included vocalist Ian Curtis, guitarist Bernard Sumner, and drummer Stephen Morris. The group only recorded two full-length albums—Unknown Pleasures (1979) and Closer (1980)—before Curtis was found dead from suicide in 1980. But decades later, Joy Division’s slim catalog remains hugely influential, in no small part owing to Hook’s high, singing bass lines on songs like “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Transmission.”
After Curtis’ death, Joy Division carried on as New Order. Dance and electronic sounds were in vogue in the 1980s, and in incorporating these strains, the group began to rely more extensively on synths and drum machines. But on songs like “Blue Monday” and “Bizarre Love Triangle,” Hook remained committed to his melodic role on the bass.
New Order has been known to disband on occasion, and after a particularly acrimonious split in 2007, the group came back together—without Hook. Since then Hook has gotten sweet revenge by penning a tell-all book, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division,and by performing Joy Division and New Order albums, complete and in sequence, with his own band, the Light, in concert.
Hook and his group’s performances of Joy Division’s two albums and New Order’s Movement and Power, Corruption, & Lies were recently released as CDs and downloads, as well as limited-edition colored vinyl. The albums find Hook in top form as he revisits these post-punk classics with his band, which includes his son, Jack Bates, on bass, Andy Poole on keyboards, and Paul Kehoe on drums.
Calling from a hotel in Denmark, Hook reminisced about that inferior amp, the working processes of Joy Division and New Order, and how these bands’ methods inspired maximum creativity.
You have quite the idiosyncratic voice on the instrument. Can you talk about how you developed that sound?
It was quite simple. It came out of necessity. My first amplifier I ever bought was called a Sound City 120—a terrible amplifier that at $150 was quite expensive at the time. And my speaker was a single 18"—I don’t know what make it was; it didn’t have any labels on it—that cost me $15. My first guitar was an Eko copy of a Gibson SG bass, which cost $50. And basically, the rig sounded awful.
As a bass player you’re presumed to only play low notes and follow the guitar chords and things like that, which didn’t appeal to me. It didn’t help that the sound of the low notes was absolutely awful—indiscernible. So, I started playing up the neck and developed that penchant, shall we say, for high melodies in Joy Division. Our singer—Ian Curtis, God rest his soul—loved it and encouraged me to do it more and more. And as my mother once said, it’s a debate whether it was through talent or luck that I sort of developed my own style. But whatever it was, it worked in Joy Division. And obviously, those high bass melodies, counterpoints to the vocals, also worked in the group’s next incarnation as New Order. My approach kind of became the mark of the group and I’ve been able to keep it and still utilize it now.
Live, Hook plays entire albums by Joy Division and New Order with his band the Light, and releases the shows on record. “I’m working through the whole of Joy Division and New Order’s back catalog, from start to finish, hopefully before I die,” he says.
Did you miss playing and hearing those low frequencies at first?
No. I think the most disgusting thing I ever heard in my life was when our guitarist said to me, “Can’t you just follow the guitar?’ and I said, “No I can’t, actually.” That was our first fallout. But yeah, I mean, I’ve never been very good at being told what to do. I wasn’t a musician until I was 20. I saw the Sex Pistols play in Manchester, and though I didn’t yet have a musical instrument, I became a musician right after the gig. So, I started late, and at the bottom, and I’ve never been what you would describe as a normal bass player. I prefer to strike my own ground, shall we say.
How, if at all, has your approach to the bass guitar evolved over the years?
It hasn’t really. I do feel guilty about it, time to time—especially when popping came in vogue and a very good friend of mine, Donald Johnson, tried to teach me to pop. After a couple of lessons, he said to me, “Okay, why don’t you stick to what you’re good at?” I took that advice to heart and have stuck to what I’m good at.
You know, in the ’90s people used to say to me, “As soon as a New Order record comes on, I can always tell by the sound of your bass that it’s New Order.” At the time, I didn’t take that as a compliment, but now, at the ripe old age of 61, I think it’s a great thing. And to be asked to play on peoples’ records as I am, to lend that signature sound as a nod to Joy Division and New Order, is a great honor. Especially if I get paid for it, which most of the time I don’t.