The short rise of Joy Division and tragic early death of Ian Curtis is a story that has been told a great many times. Unknown Pleasures, the autobiography by Peter Hook (Joy Division and New Order bassist) doesn’t exactly shatter these legends, but it does ground them in the grubby and often unpleasant world of the late ‘70s post-punk movement.
A word of warning – if you don’t know a fair bit about Joy Division et al before going in, Unknown Pleasures can be a little impenetrable. Hook seems to assume fairly detailed awareness of the ins and outs of the scene as entry-level knowledge, and sometimes this can come across as a little alienating. On the other hand, the level of detail that has gone into this is often extremely rewarding. The focus in Unknown Pleasures is largely placed on the actual process of putting a band together and making music. The track-by-track analyses of Joy Division albums offer a depth that many other rock ’n’ roll-type memoirs don’t.
Similarly, the timelines of events that are placed after Hook’s narration present a nice offset to his personal experience, grounding his observations through newspaper clippings, reviews and old interview segments. The organisation of these different titbits does serve to break up the pace a little, but this offers some relief from the slightly bleak narration that is often on offer.
Yes, Unknown Pleasures is often a grim read: it’s safe to say that this is not an aspirational book, making the ‘band’ lifestyle seem about as much fun as a colonoscopy in the rain. Chapter after chapter describes grim hotels and terrible gigs. But there’s an admirable honesty in this that’s oddly appealing.
Similarly, most of Peter Hook’s memories of Ian Curtis are those of Curtis as “one of the lads” who would play pranks and get pissed with his mates. Not to say the more artistic parts of Ian Curtis did not exist – Hook is emphatic about this. Unknown Pleasures is an account of refreshing honesty – and one that any fan would be foolish to ignore. But it is unlikely to appeal to anyone less specifically interested.