Bernard Sumner’s Modest Tales of Joy Division and New Order

Guitarist Bernard Sumner shares his recollections of Joy Division and New Order, both seminal post-punk outfits whose influence cannot be overstated.

Early in Bernard Sumner’s new memoir he presents a “mental photograph” from a long ago winter’s night in grey depressing Manchester: “There was a thick fog draped over Salford that night, the kind of freezing, cloying fog whose chill penetrates right to the bone. Our breath came in clouds… the orange sodium streetlights had all been given dirty halos…a string of murky globules running the length of the street.” The silence is broken by a car screeching around a nearby corner, and from it emits an unseen woman’s shrieks: “there was just this raw, terrified screaming as it shot off up the road and disappeared into the fog. Silence descended again and I just thought to myself, There’s got to be more than this.”

Cue Joy Division, one might think, or rather the dark foggy sound Joy Division would exemplify. This Manchester memory evokes an atmosphere that hints at an explanation of where that gorgeous music came from, but it’s a suggestion wrapped in the Salford fog, and so the mystery of that wonderful sound achieved by Joy Division, and in turn New Order, remains.

Without a doubt, Joy Division and New Order have charted iconoclastic and impressive careers. Inspired by the famous first Sex Pistols’ appearance in Manchester in 1976, largely self-taught, forging a unique original sound, and marked by a crucial management team that honed a distinct aesthetic presentation, they charted their own path.

Both bands also endured cataclysmic events, such as the suicide of vocalist Ian Curtis on the eve of Joy Division’s first US tour in 1980. The passage of time has proved manager Rob Gretton correct in his prediction days after Curtis’ demise that Joy Division would attain future legendary status. That is a story in itself, but the determination of the surviving three members in picking up after such a demoralizing blow, and creating another band which would in turn create an equally unique sound and achieve an esteemed status is rather remarkable.

One of the hallmarks of the two bands has been a certain anonymity, keyed by a strong graphic approach to album and CD covers, and later music videos, which downplayed photographic representation of the band members themselves. Attendant publicity efforts foregrounded the music rather than the personalities. Sumner recognizes this early in his book: “I’ve realized that I owe people a look behind the scenes of my own story, because I don’t think anyone can have a true understanding of the music without an insight into where it came from.” There are indeed insights, such as Sumner’s unusual family background and his detached response to the grim reality of the working life he dropped into in his late teens. However, it’s hard not to recognize another subtext to this volume’s purpose.

It’s well known that there has been a huge, probably final falling out between bassist Peter Hook and the rest of the New Order team. In recent years, Hook has produced two volumes; a memoir of Joy Division’s career (Unknown Pleasures ), and an amusing dissertation on the glorious disaster that was New Order’s grand money-sucking investment ( The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club ). If Hook had not jumped out and committed his point-of-view to print, would Sumner’s volume been written (or needed to be written)? Still, for fans of both bands, this is a collected wealth of information whereby the total body of the work can be re-appreciated via a sort of dialectical memory presented by the two authors.

One set of volumes read like recollections told over numerous pints at a favoured watering-hole, while the other is more literary and detached. Where “Hooky” revels in tales of drunken hijinks engaged by “japing tossers”, “Barney” prefers the more cautionary point of view of an older man who doesn’t regret the parties but wonders why they had to happen every night. Hook has a knack for informative details animated by distinct personalities, while Sumner presents more of a big picture which checks the highlights but in comparison lacks the immediacy. For example, Sumner’s introduction of manager Rob Gretton — a crucial figure for both Joy Division and New Order — is something of an afterthought (along the lines of “he had been our manager for a few weeks by then”), whereas Hook tells of Gretton’s appearance at a few early gigs followed by an amusingly rude introduction at a street-side phone booth, a story which features prominently Bernard Sumner.

That said, the book in total is an expression of distinct personality, and preference is largely a subjective experience. As well, Sumner is embodying a particular modesty, which has been a hallmark of certainly New Order. Still, Chapter and Verse features many anecdotal moments which resonate, such as the account of the “relentless vacuous positivity” displayed by a Los Angeles recording engineer, and a drunken all-night search for the next party engaged by Sumner and Johnny Marr across Manhattan, forgetting the scheduled press and radio appearances that same morning.

The dissolution with Peter Hook receives its own chapter, which reads in part like the sort of essay assigned by a professional to clear the air ahead of relationship therapy. Inexplicable behaviours that cannot be explained are recounted. As a fan, it just seems sad, the way things disintegrated. Hook’s presence seemed vital to New Order’s sound and appearance, and was part of the continuum stretching back to Joy Division and back even further to the magical alchemy struck at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976 as the Sex Pistols took the stage. Sumner recognizes the loss, but sums it up with a salient point: “Everyone else in the band is still here. Everyone involved with the management side, the entire crew and backroom staff, they’re still here too.”

Sumner closes by asserting that a positive refreshed spirit animates New Order these days. They are a band aware of their accomplishments, grateful for their fans, and comfortable on the stage. Best of all, their music — that wonderful transcendent sound — retains its mystery, and will always be there.

RATING 6 / 10