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Seeing the Light

Marcus James hates (but not really) Peter Hook.

Peter Hook played at the Metro recently and the truth is he can’t sing. The former Joy Division and New Order bassist barked out tunes from the old days, including New Order’s third and fourth albums—Low-Life and Brotherhood—in their entirety. Sweaty and gruff, he was like a drunk old man wailing about his heyday.

Hook’s Australian tour performing Joy Division and New Order covers as front man is essentially a big ‘fuck you’ to former bandmates Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris, with whom Hook is involved in ongoing court battles after he was allegedly dumped from New Order behind his back in 2011. Yet beneath a definite vitriol in some of Hook’s performance was a deeper sense of reminiscence. Hook was obviously enjoying himself, as were the audience who were just happy to be in the presence of a living relic from the Madchester scene.

The atmosphere as such was neither here nor there, but rather floating around between the two currents of past and present. That is, Hook’s legacy as a musician and his failure as a front man.

Hook’s arrival revved up the audience like football hooligans. The respect and love for him was clear. Middle-aged men whooped and cried with beer bellies stretching the Union Jacks on their Joy Division shirts, raising their Heineken cans to the man whose music has kept them going. Here was a guy who was good friends and colleagues with Joy Division’s Ian Curtis—a completely enchanting figure whose brooding energy was cut short by his suicide in 1980.

However as the gig opened with Joy Division’s Atmosphere, it became apparent Hook lacked the dark but delicate power of Curtis’ voice and had substituted it with a shallow anger. Where Curtis’ words linger and shift cloud-like in Atmosphere, Hook stood aggressively in wide stance with a growl and harsh crescendo into the song’s climax— “people like you find it easy” —as if to point a vengeful finger at his former bandmates.

To Peter Hook and The Light’s credit, the scores were classics and well executed. A point of pride and solidarity for Hook is the fact he plays the old songs because they’re the ones he loves to play and the audience loves to hear.

But the division between performing beloved tunes and simply cashing in on past successes is uncomfortably close and gut wrenching for a fan. While Hook is an original member, The Light is nothing but a (very good) cover band. Hook certainly has the legal right to do covers but the question of moral right is trickier.

In all honesty, I felt almost guilty succumbing to what one could describe as Hook’s extortion; a feeling which grew with the disparity between my image of Hook and the one standing before me. “Ian’s long dead and Sumner’s run off. Well there’s still some money to be made,” said the new Hook in my head.

He is merely one member of Joy Division and New Order, and it is uncommon for split bands to play former songs. Today’s New Order rarely plays pre-2000s New Order tracks let alone Joy Division. Yet on the other hand, Hook was a crucial member who wrote many songs and provided a unique bass sound for bands built around bass riffs. At the end of the day, Hook says he wants to play and sing and it makes him happy so he does it.

This happiness emerged in upbeat New Order covers, displaying Hook’s musicality and house influences. New Order searched for the ultimate pop sound and several times they found it. But did Peter Hook and The Light find it? Well, yes and no.

The Metro lit up with iconic anthems Thieves Like Us, Bizarre Love Triangle and The Perfect Kiss. The crowd was sweaty and singing, intoxicated by the memory of hearing these songs a thousand times over and finally seeing them live: it is relatively rare that the Madchester sound reaches our shores. But this again relied on the audience’s collective memory, and perhaps exploitation of this doting image, for the performance itself was not exceptional. Sumner’s almost camp singing gave New Order the pop edge grounding its often mish-mashed influences, but Hook was more like a stern general leading the Metro crowd in karaoke.

Yes, it was kind of fun, but it wasn’t right.

It will probably never be right. The notion that Hook may be exploiting our memory of Joy Division and New Order niggles away at me. Star power and the memory of an audience is a funny thing. But unlike other bands that have split and achieved continued success (notably Morrissey post-Smiths), Hook lacks charisma. He does not charm the audience like a front man should.

The Metro loved him, but it was Hook the bassist, Hook the friend of Ian Curtis, Hook the Hacienda DJ, Hook the musician that we loved him for. I loved the gig because it was Peter Hook, but I also hated it because I knew it was different.