Peter Hook, Joy Division And New Order Legend, On Keeping Control Of Your Career And Creative Freedom
Are you fed up of working in an unfulfilling job, being told what to do by a boss who doesn’t appreciate you? Do you want to pursue a creative career and work with people who share your vision?
That’s exactly how Peter Hook felt when he decided to form a band called Joy Division. Hooky also realized that you can keep control and publish your creative work without signing away your rights…
Peter Hook made his success as a prominent member of legendary band Joy Division, who developed a sound and style that defined the post-punk movement of the late 1970s. Joy Division has influenced scores of musicians including Moby, U2, The Killers, The Charlatans and Mogwai. Hooky had no formal musical training. But his success stemmed from hard work, determination and a burning ambition to succeed on his terms.
Peter, your journey has been epic to say the least! So let’s start at the beginning. How did you get together to form Joy Division?
Peter: In the summer of 1977 I had a really shit job. I was working hard all week and going out at the weekends. At the time music wasn’t a very big part of my life, but I used to read the music papers and I just started reading about Punk. It really interested and excited me. Then The Sex Pistols played in Manchester at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. My mates and I all went along and that was it. That very evening, we decided we were going to be Punks and form a band.
Peter: It seems naive to me now because I didn’t particularly think about music. We didn’t consider that we would have to buy instruments, learn how to play, form a group and start performing. It just came from seeing the Sex Pistols perform and going “Come on, right we’re in a group now! Yeah!”.
At the start none of you could play any instruments, so how did you go about learning and developing your skill?
Peter: Bernard had a guitar, so I had to play the bass. It was that easy. It was a complete process of elimination. I bought a book called “Palmer-Hughes Book of Rock & Roll Bass Guitar”. However, it was pretty shit. So we just started playing. The thing about performing in a group is that one rehearsal is generally worth 10 of you playing on your own. The quicker you learned the better. Because you wanted to take advantage of the things that were being offered to you, like all the gig opportunities.
So you learned from necessity. But you went beyond this and actually mastered the bass guitar. How did that feel?
Peter: I always think of incredible musicians as people like Johnny Marr, who started playing the guitar when he was seven. It’s quite unusual to find someone who doesn’t start playing until they’re twenty one, but who ends up playing in two hugely important groups in the history of music.
You’re famous for playing the bass in a very unusual manner. How did you develop your style?
Peter: I didn’t set out to be different, a lot of it wasn’t planned, the style just evolved the more I played. Personally, I think if you write and perform great music it’s impossible to fuck it up. Because great music will always live on, whether you publicise it in a national newspaper or not.
So going back to the early days, how did you feel when you performed for the first time?
Peter: I can recall getting ready for it, but I don’t remember the rest of it at all. I was extremely frightened. I can’t even remember coming off stage! However, it’s a great thing that first performance. The rest of your career you find yourself chasing after that excitement. It’s like your first drink or your first sexual experience. But you’re never going to capture that feeling you had at the very first one.
It’s also a confidence thing. I did a ‘Question & Answer’ session in Canada for the documentary film about Joy Division called “Control”. This kid was asking questions and he said to me “Can you tell me why for 30 years of your career, the first 15 years you never said anything and then for the last 15 you wouldn’t shut up!?” I went over and punched the fucker. But he does have a valid point. I think the thing is, everything changes. So for the first 15 years I’d say I wasn’t very confident, and for the last 15 I was.
How did you come to work with the legendary entrepreneur and record producer Tony Wilson?
Peter: I’d seen him around before, we all went to the same concerts. He looked like he was from another planet, he dressed differently to anybody I’ve ever met. Tony had started putting on concerts in the Russell Club and he asked us to perform there for a while. He then decided to make a four-group compilation record and he invited us to record two tracks.
Peter: After that, we were looking for a proper record deal, one where somebody would actually give us money. But Rob Gretton, our manager, decided it would be better to keep control. He wanted to keep it based in Manchester and for us to sign with Factory records, which was Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus’ label. Rob was impressed with Tony’s ideas, we were just kids so we didn’t know any better.
I don’t think we had the vision to think about the business side of being in a band. But as a manager, Rob had the foresight to realise: “Right I can really do something different with this band and we can still keep control”. Because the thing that appealed to me about Punk was that it was all about doing things your own way and not compromising. Getting what you believe in and pushing it as far as you could. Not adhering to any strict rules and no one telling you what to do.
This was quite a new way of thinking, especially for the music industry. What was the benefit of working for an independent label that operated in such an unconventional manner?
Peter: The great thing about signing to Factory Records was that no one told us what to do, there was no planning at all. If we finished the track, Tony would listen to it and go “Nice, we’ll record that and put it out next week”. It wasn’t like “Here’s a calendar for next year, we can’t clash with “Girls Aloud” or any major bands, and we’ve got to go on tour after”. Most record companies would never release a single if the band haven’t got an album ready and they haven’t got a tour planned.
Tell us about your first time in a recording studio?
Peter: We were very overawed, excited, and out of our comfort zone, so we were scared. I was very lucky as a musician to have a producer like Martin Hannett. He taught us to look beyond a song, to give things depth and time that lasted and things like that. Even though the guy was extremely difficult to work with, he did give us a gift that I’ve used personally for years and years.
So given the creative freedom you got from Factory Records, how long did it take for Joy Division to gain popularity?
Peter: That’s an interesting question. As Joy Division we were playing the same songs to no one, and then six months later we were playing the same songs to thousands of people, so it’s difficult to judge where it actually happened. It just grew through us playing and establishing ourselves as a live group. I remember the first time we played London, we had to chip in for petrol, and we didn’t even get any money off the door because no one came. There were only seven people in the whole place! I don’t think that you can really bypass that. But as long as you put on a great performance for those that did turn up, then it’s great.
Did you enjoy going on tour in the early days?
Peter: We didn’t tour for a while, not like bands today who tour straightaway. We were still working and just playing odd dates whenever we could get them. It’s a different industry now. We grew at a much slower rate than a lot of groups today. They just go from nothing to hundreds of gigs. We had to work it around our day jobs and that’s what paid for us to tour.
Did you feel that you benefitted more from doing it that way?
Peter: I think it kept us more grounded and a bit more realistic. But there were a lot of things that kept us down to earth. We didn’t really start making money until we’d been in the group nine or ten years. Everybody thought just because we co-owned the Hacienda (nightclub) that we were loaded. In fact it was the opposite. Because we had the Hacienda, that’s the reason we didn’t have any money! But I do think that it did pay off, we had a level head and weren’t spoiled.
I think things like X-Factor and Pop Idol make the music business look exciting and glamorous. But when you look at it realistically, you’re up at 7.00 am and you’ll do an interview with a major TV station, then there’s a PR event, and then a signing and several personal appearances. It’s completely different to what it seems like on the outside.
But what we did was very different because we rebelled against all of that. I joined a group because I wanted to tell everyone to fuck off and do things my way. To me that was the great thing about being in a group where you’re not being told what to do.
How did you cope when success really hit, how did you handle the attention?
Peter: We’ve never really had that huge overnight success. It was a very gradual curve, it wasn’t like the Beatles, all screaming girls and hysteria. We were a very workman-like band and people realized we were pretty much the same as them.
Of course, just as Joy Division were gaining world wide recognition Ian tragically died, and you decided to re-form as New Order. How did the band handle that tragic situation?
Peter: We didn’t really think about it. We were still very young, we were only 23 and we were desperate to carry on, so we didn’t really change anything. We just wanted to get on with it. This was our way of dealing with the grief of losing Ian, throwing ourselves back into it. The new sound evolved because we didn’t have Ian, plus the technology and line-up had changed. Bernard was a completely different vocalist to Ian. So we had to adapt to the situation.
Can you remember your first review?
Peter: My first review was “Joy Division are grim, I grinned” that was the first line of it, which was a real slag off.
How do you handle negative criticism?
Peter: Well, you get used to it. The thing is that 30 years on, people can write what they like. That’s the wonderful part of our society and it doesn’t have to be true. It’s only their opinion. So as long as they don’t really insult you personally or your family, they can get away with it. It always hurts, but you know, it’s water off a duck’s back. You just have to get on with it. It’s like your report at the end of school, you don’t pay too much attention, because it’s not going to affect the rest of your life.
Tell us about the highlights of your musical career, is there anything in particular that stands out?
Peter: The fact that I could live off music for 30 years is pretty much a highlight for me. Also I still get an incredible kick from watching a TV program and one of our songs comes on.
New Order were a huge group. We were doing concerts in America for 25,000 to 30,000 people when we decided to stop. That’s bigger than Oasis and the Spice Girls ever were. Nobody in England thinks about New Order as being that successful in America, Canada and South America. But we were huge everywhere.
You mentioned earlier the Hacienda. Whose idea was it to buy a nightclub? Why did you get involved in such a big project?
Peter: It was our manager’s idea along with Tony Wilson to open it. It was out of necessity really. We could go to gigs dressed as punks, but you couldn’t go to a nightclub. Manchester was very old fashioned at the time and clubs were strictly suit and ties. The Hacienda broke the mould because you could go dressed however you liked, there was no dress code. It was opened for people like us so we had somewhere to go.
What was the biggest challenge of running it?
Peter: The interesting thing about the Hacienda is that it wasn’t opened to make a profit. The idea was that the profits would be ploughed back into the business. It was like a hippy culture thing and it wasn’t intended to make loads of money.
But it was a huge enterprise and if we’d looked at it from a realistic point of view, we would have said “It’s too big, it’s too overstaffed and it’s too risky”. However, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, so we did it anyway. Luckily we had a lot of money, or Factory Records had a lot of money from our records and they very kindly invested it for us.
The Hacienda and the music it showcased had a huge impact on club life and culture, but it also had a reputation of drugs and violence, tell us what was really like?
Peter: DJ’s at The Hacienda played dance music and acid house, which has had a big influence in clubs all over the world. It’s sort of portrayed, quite wrongly, that the only way to enjoy yourself is to get off your head on drugs. It was funny because when they did a survey in the Hacienda, they worked out that barely 10% of people were actually on drugs. Most of them were just high on life, that was absolutely true. But the thing is, drugs were sold there and gangsters do make a living out of selling drugs. It had a fantastic reputation, but equally terrifying and intoxicating at the same time.
You mentioned how the music industry has changed over time. One big change has been the impact of the Internet. Do you see online music promotion as a positive move?
Peter: I do! It’s quite funny though because I think the Internet business can be over-hyped. I remember some time ago, I was doing a tour of America and I was reading about the Arctic Monkeys being big on the Internet. My son had played me some Arctic Monkeys songs and I thought it was brilliant. I thought I’d take some of their music with me, because they’re big online. I got to America and everyone was like “What the fuck is this?”. I realized at the time the Arctic Monkeys were big on the Internet in Sheffield in England. Not the rest of the world.
Just because a band has the ability to upload their music online, doesn’t mean that anybody is going to download it. You still have to do things the normal way, like getting publicity, playing gigs, having bottles thrown at you, being told to get off stage, doing your friend’s wedding… the music business is still primarily about selling music.
You’re right, you still need to do the ground work, but bands have the facility to distribute records themselves, and they can gain popularity even without the backing of a record company. This gives them a lot of creative freedom. So this must be having a negative impact on record companies?
Peter: Absolutely, record companies have made a lot of money over the years so personally I don’t feel very sorry for them. They’ve made millions at the expense of artists for a very long time and they’ve got plenty of money.
It’s just changed. In particular, record companies don’t nurture bands like they used to. When a band signed to a label they would sign for five albums or eight albums. The record label would stick with them for the whole eight albums, even if the first one wasn’t a huge success, but nowadays they don’t.
Some people would say that’s realistic, but the thing is you lose a lot of bands with potential. They only do one record and because it doesn’t sell they get dropped. But their greatest record may have been the second or third album. Pop Idol or X-Factor contestants get dropped, never to be heard of again. That’s because they sign a £1million contract, but that’s £100,000 for your first album and £100,000 for your next nine.
But there are some great new independent acts coming up who know how to use the web effectively, and freedom on the Internet has to be a positive thing.
Thanks for your time Peter, and for telling it like is it.
[Credits: Interview by Angel Greenham. Edit by Paul Montreal]
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