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Manchester Heroes

New books chronicle two of the city's most iconic bands: Joy Division and the Smiths.
Manchester Heroes

If there was one moment that was central in the formation of the Manchester music scene, it was a sparsely attended Sex Pistols show in 1976. Among the few dozen people in attendance at the Free Trade Hall that night were youths who would become some of the most important people in British music history. Mick Hucknall from Simply Red was there, as were the Buzzcocks, and Peter Hook and Barney Sumner from what would become Joy Division, also Steven Morrissey, who would eventually form the Smiths. Morrissey would go on to a prolific solo career, while Joy Division, after the suicide of its singer, would regroup as New Order.

For Peter Hook, Joy Division/New Order bassist and the author of Unknown Pleasures, the memoir about the band’s earlier incarnation, the experience was transformative. Thinking that the Pistols were, like him, “working-class tossers,” Hook had a revelation watching them perform. “Sounds awful but f—ing a, I could do that.” At the next Sex Pistols gig, which was much more widely attended, Hook asked Ian Curtis to be lead singer of what was to become Joy Division. (Morrissey’s ascent to pop stardom was still years down the road).

So what was Joy Division all about? The question still resonates because the band’s music—despite being rooted in riffs and keyboards of the late 1970s—still matters. Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys claimed that Joy Division’s most successful single, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” is the perfect pop song, and Bono has talked at great length about what an influence the brooding, mercurial, ultimately doomed Curtis was on his development as a musician. They mattered just as much to people who couldn’t play a note if their lives depended on it.

Joy Division didn’t begin fully formed, of course, and Hook’s wry and deft documentation of the band trying to find its way highlights his book. The band played its share of gigs to empty or near-empty rooms, as well as to crowds that would sooner attack the band than appreciate its sonic subtleties. Long before Bernard Sumner—the Joy Division guitarist who would go on to become the voice of New Order after Ian Curtis’s suicide—became a pop superstar in his own right, Hook remembers him being compared to Barney Rubble. Throughout this book, Hook demystifies the idea that the band, or Curtis, was somehow exempt from typical rock-band behavior, playing “japes” on each other and chasing women.

Before Joy Division was Joy Division, the band was called Warsaw, a name chosen right before a gig to replace an even more forgettable name, Stiff Kittens. And like all bands in formation, they had trouble filling out their personnel spots—specifically, the drum kit. Hook tells of a former drummer, Steve Brotherdale, who spurned the band to join another outfit that seemed more promising. Years later, Hook would encounter Brotherdale again—behind the counter, taking Hook’s order at McDonald’s.

Even as Joy Division coalesced musically, the musicians were not the best of friends. Sumner failed, for example, to invite Hook to his 1978 wedding—though Unknown Pleasures is conveniently short on insight as to why this snub happened and what it might have said about the character of the author. Despite this internal acrimony, Curtis held the band together with his presence and his lyrics, which Hook likens to a “conversation with a genius.” Hook throughout the book comes back to the idea that without “captain of the ship” Ian, the band’s music as New Order was not nearly as meaningful.

As Joy Division matured, Hook took issue with producer Martin Hannett for creating sonic environments that were too “spacy” and buried the bass in the mix. The bassist wanted a more traditional hard-rock sound. A recurrent theme in these pages involves Hook biting the hand that feeds him: he goes on to make repeated references to Curtis’ impotence due to his epilepsy medication, a side effect that extended to the singer’s affair with Belgian temptress Annik Honore, which Hook seems to relish saying was “never consummated.” (The author and Sumner both reportedly “had a go” at her.)

The band found critical success as they synthesized influences ranging from Kraftwerk to the Velvet Underground, but Curtis’s medical condition got worse, with intense stage shows leaving him exhausted and in a delicate state which extended beyond gigs: he even fainted when his daughter was born, around the time the band’s first album, also called “Unknown Pleasures,” was released. Hook puts Curtis’s eventual suicide into context of his doomed love triangle and his wife’s unwillingness to accept his affair with Annik Honore. Curtis attempted suicide with phenobarbital on Easter Sunday 1980 and finished the job a few weeks later, before what would have been Joy Division’s inaugural American tour.

For fans of the band, the darkness of the book is alleviated with great narrative details, everything from William Burroughs telling a broke Curtis to “f— off” when the singer tried to wangle a free book from him to stories of how Hook did cocaine for the first time (spoiler: at the “Pretty In Pink” premiere, as guests of OMD). For all its flaws, Hook’s volume tells the story of how Ian Curtis and Joy Division were just working-class kids on the make.

The Hook book has the singular luxury of first-person, self-interested narration. In contrast, The Light That Never Goes Out, by veteran music biographer Tony Fletcher, adopts an academic tone and reads as if its author were getting paid by the word. There is, to be fair, a lot of information here about the Smiths, but not much of it will be new to anyone who followed the band through the British press as they became a phenomenon.

The first third of the book rehashes familiar trivia. Did you know Morrissey was a fan of Shelagh Delaney and Oscar Wilde? Or that Morrissey and Marr bonded over a B-side by the Marvelettes? And that a song by the Smiths was central to pseudo-indie treacle-fest “500 Days of Summer”? If that stuff is new to you, this book may be of some value. Smiths fans of long standing will have seen this material before.

Much of the material on the band’s early history is used to establish the culturally reactionary posture of the band’s songwriting duo, Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr. It is no surprise to any serious fan that the Smiths’ single “Panic” owes a debt to “Metal Guru” by T Rex or that “The Headmaster Ritual” was inspired by Moz’s secondary school experience. A third of the book is over before the Smiths start gigging—200 pages of sludgy summary of the formative years of Morrissey and Marr. While it is interesting enough that Morrissey found his school years full of casual abuse, how much really needs to be said about it that is not already delineated in the Smiths’ lyrics?

One might hope for some insights about how a band like Joy Division, and a front man like Curtis in particular, influenced the Smiths. Fletcher has only about 500 words on the local legend’s suicide and pop music’s loss; we hear that Morrissey saw it as a cautionary tale. We also get very little about Morrissey’s obsession with James Dean, which led to the early career pamphlet-sized “book”, James Dean Is Not Dead. But we get dozens of pages about such utterly prosaic subjects as the Smiths’ dodgy management situation. Why? Probably because the author could get these guys to go on the record. If only Fletcher could have gotten the roadies to opine, he might have been able to stretch this material into two volumes!

Fletcher does make clear why the Smiths had such a brief if acclaimed existence, spanning only 1982–1987. Johnny Marr couldn’t leave the coke, speed, or weed alone, and the rhythm section—drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke—were basically adjuncts in terms of creative control, and they were all too eager to party it up. The band couldn’t figure out when it would have been to their advantage to make a music video, and they couldn’t agree on their management situation, or their record label, or their producers.

July/August 2013One point that Fletcher makes well bears mentioning. There is a school of thought that says that the Smiths’ breakup might have been avoided if the band had permitted Marr to take a break instead of forcing him into the studio to record B-sides for a single off the final album, “Strangeways, Here We Come.” The strongest part of this book documents that last session, in which Morrissey forces the band through a workmanlike cover of Cilla Black’s “Work Is a Four Letter Word.” The end is near, and it is vivid. If only there were more genuine revelations like that in this text. But they are sparse.

A Light That Never Goes Out is simply weak on sources, which consist mostly of interviews with peripheral figures and a few quotes from Johnny Marr in which he seems utterly uninterested in rehashing his group from 30 years ago. The lack of Morrissey’s involvement in this project is crippling.

What we get about Morrissey—the central figure—reads like robot summarizing his Wikipedia entry. There is no resolution of the competing claims about Morrissey’s sexuality—gay, straight, celibate, asexual, or a combination thereof—in part because the author couldn’t get anyone to talk and perhaps also because he feared to speculate and risk legal action. The book reads as if Fletcher is still hoping till the end that the singer will give him an interview at last. As a biographer, this guy is like Willy Loman.

Perhaps there is nothing new for an outsider to say about the Smiths. Over a quarter-century after their breakup, their music still holds up, but that doesn’t mean Fletcher’s book needed to be written, certainly not at its doorstop length.

A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Florida. 



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