all words: William Alberque
all photos: Shauna Alexander
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The first time American audiences were to see Joy Division was May 21, 1980, at the Hurrah in New York. One can only marvel at the possibilities – a band growing with each live performance, in stature and confidence. You can hear it in their final live performance, on May 2, 1980, released on the album Still in 1981, especially during the masterful, thunderous performance of “New Dawn Fades,” the mesmerizing power of “Shadowplay,” and the tantalizingly beautiful first live run-out of “Ceremony.” Instead, lead singer Ian Curtis killed himself on May 18, 1980, ending a chapter in the rise of a fascinating band – to be completed as New Order.
Twenty-one years and four months to the day later, we have Peter Hook and the Light at the 930 Club, playing the album Closer in order, along with selected other tracks. Conceptually, it’s not an empty idea. In the terrible gap opened up by lead singer Ian Curtis’ death, the remaining band members tried different singers, including Hooky (as he’s known).
You can even hear him on New Order’s first album, singing the wonderful and underrated “Dreams Never End.” But this is something else entirely – performing an album that has reached a legendary status afforded to few other albums in the history of rock – in terms of its power and its terrible beauty.
But how would Hooky, along with a band of hired hands, Jack Bates (bass), Nat Wason (guitar), Andy Poole (keyboards), and Paul Kehoe (drums), perform this beautiful, slow, intimate, and rather enormously intimidating album live? The short answer – technically competently, but with none of the emotional core of the album that can overwhelm even the casual listener.
Closer has been unfairly discounted as a 45 minute suicide note, but regardless of the incredible meta-story surrounding it; it stands on its own, even in a vacuum, as one of the most extraordinary recordings of all time. I didn’t know the legend when I first found a copy at my college radio station and was entranced by the beautiful, funereal sleeve. I just listened and was awed.
And there’s something to be said to walking into the 930 Club on a Wednesday night to hear the audacious genius of “Atrocity Exhibition,” played against the backdrop of a giant poster of the brilliant cover art (designed by Martyn Atkins and Peter Saville, with an extraordinary photograph of the Appiani family tomb in Genoa, Italy, photographed by from Bernard Pierre Wolff, and lettering taken from a book about the development of writing by Hans Eduard Meier).
But there’s something…off. Hooky clearly has studied the album version of the songs (the live recordings we have diverge pretty strongly from the recordings), and, at times, with the right effects, sounds almost like Curtis. Even the drummer looks a bit like Stephen Morris. But it’s all a bit…not quite right.
Joy Division recorded their second album, Closer, in March 1980, along with three songs that the perversely-minded Factory Records would release on a free flexi – “Komakino,” “Incubation,” and “As You Said.” Immediately, Curtis and the band set about working on new songs, and through April and May, they finished the songs that New Order would record properly as “Ceremony” and “In a Lonely Place.” One of the most extraordinary parts of their development at that point was Curtis’ voice, which had advanced leaps and bounds over their early performances. All the harder, then to listen to Hooky try to imitate Curtis here.
“Isolation” is the first song that brightly illuminates the shortcomings of Kehoe on drums. Stephen Morris is a human drum machine – but so human – all action, all movement, mesmerizing to watch. Kehoe is a traditional drummer, trying to keep up. But the worst bit is Hooky’s posing during the songs. I don’t know why I didn’t notice it earlier – it’s kind of appalling.
He plays bass – a four string, which he used in the Joy Division days before switching to a six-string – only for certain bits of the songs. He plays the memorable bits, the iconographic ones, and leaves the rest to Jack Bates. But his move – for he only has one – entails him putting his arm out to one side, straight, and then moving it forward, like an ecstasy fan’s version of a Nazi salute. What the hell? It’s all making me a bit sad. Really, at this point in his life, Hooky can’t play bass and sing at the same time? Or is it that he just can’t be arsed? And that’s his move???
Song after song proves the same point over and over. They’re note perfect, but the part that’s missing – the heart – is so massive, I can barely stand it. The hardest part is the lyrics of the songs themselves starkly illustrate the failure of what’s happening on stage. When Hooky yells, “I put my trust in you,” during “A Means to an End,” it’s hard not to reflect on what those words mean, as Shauna reminds me.
“Heart and Soul” is a mess, with a terrible bass sound, missing the chorus pedal effect so essential to the dark, mysterious majesty of that song. “Twenty Four Hours” is a mess, with Wason playing an improved guitar line that robs the concert of the very point of playing an album in pure nostalgia mode. I mean, they could have played it in the style of the live shows of the 1980 gigs, or they could have riffed on the original versions, but to sell it as a nostalgia tour and then noodle with one of the most beautiful, sad, and painful songs of all time? Now I’m angry.
It’s a sad time to be angry as well, because the final two songs from Closer are a one-two punch of introverted depression made music. It’s unremitting, it’s sad, and it’s powerful. And the album’s perfection lies in the impeccable emotional integrity of Curtis’ delivery. So, here comes Hooky. I’m standing with Shauna, and we’re trying to ignore the painful emotional debacle that’s about to happen, criticizing Hooky for wearing his tour shirt (it’d be funny if he wore a Killers shirt, I posit. Shauna retorts that a black button down with braces and a gun holster would be far funnier.) It’s terrible, by the way. The instrumentation is right, until during “Decades,” Wason improvises again, smashing the emotion of the song.
Now, I’m angry. Fortunately, Hooky reminds us what he’s good at, trotting out the faster, more frenetic entries in the Joy Division canon. “Digital,” “Disorder,” and “Transmission” are blazingly fast and bouncingly fun. It’s a fucking relief compared to the oppressive atmosphere given off by the botched side two of Closer. Still, during “Disorder” I start to think of the lyrics, and the gap between the emotion of the original and the paucity of the live performance I’m watching makes me really, really emotional. I’m ready to go. They fuck up the sound on “Transmission,” with Hooky and Bates’ simultaneous but out of phase basslines cracking the veneer of an otherwise intriguing rendition of the song.
Competent renditions of “She’s Lost Control” (why would anyone play that song post-Control without someone playing a spray can as percussion?!?!), “Shadowplay,” and, inevitably, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” follow, marred by Hooky’s misguided attempts at a throaty delivery of key lyrics (as when he shouts “….controlllllll” like he’s trying to swallow a handful of skipping stones).
In sum, I would rather the band from Control had toured on this album. I’d even have been happy with Hooky adding addition bass to that band (but please no vocals). Instead, I just feel sad. Sad I saw it. Sad it is happening. Sad that I was one among many silver-haired old men standing there in the audience watching this debacle. And even sadder that they all seemed over the moon about what they were watching, while I felt like something dear to me was being horrifically violated, repeatedly, to the encouragement and lust cheers of the crowd.
I need a drink.
I started tonight thinking Hooky deserved to do this. He was there. He lived through it. Why not make profit from this extraordinary work of art, and bring it to the hungering crowd. I ended thinking that Hooky owes me a fucking drink.