New Order, a band that came out of the tragedy that ended Joy Division, is one of those rare acts that have somewhat inexplicably achieved critical acclaim and dance floor popularity. Much ink has been spilled by music journalists to trace the ups and downs of the band over the years. (Former) band members have weighed in – most notably the bassist Peter Hook who has left the band in 2007 and in 2013 released a memoir called “Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division,” documenting the band’s fraught existence and his fallout with Bernard Sumner, New Order’s singer.
And now comes Sumner’s own memoir “Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division, and Me,” which tells the story through Sumner’s eyes. To be sure, it contains a retort to Hook’s version of events, but that’s not what the bulk of the book is about. It’s an autobiography of sorts. Of sorts, because Sumner puts New Order and Joy Division first (the “me” on the book jacket is not capitalized as if to emphasize that point).
Unlike Hook’s unreadable book, written in a mind numbing “bloke-in-a-pub-telling-stories” voice (I put it down after fifty pages and listened to “Unknown Pleasures” instead), Sumner’s memoir is better written. Which is not to say it is well-written (are pop stars not entitled to editors?), but it moves along at a good clip without a larger-than-life authorial tone getting in the way of the narrative.
Now about that – the story begins at the beginning, with Sumner’s tough-as-nails Manchester childhood. He grew up without a father, with an authoritative mother who suffered from cerebral palsy, with grandparents he loved but whose health had quickly deteriorated (his grandmother went blind after a failed routine cataract surgery), with neighborhood toughs beating people up just because, and with teachers straight out of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, one of whom upon witnessing Sumner reading a book of poetry ordered him to put it back on the shelf, adding, “Where you come from, you’re just going to end up working in a factory, so there’s no point in reading anything like that.”
The teacher was wrong, as the future has shown, and Sumner did no such thing. Instead, inspired by the music he listened to as a teenager, and by his absolute ineptitude in math, he decided to form a band with his classmate Peter Hook. They put an ad in a local record store for a singer, and a young man named Ian Curtis answered. The rest is history.
The story of Joy Division (and of New Order for that matter) as told by Sumner is a story of trial-and-error, of chance, of blundering until you blunder into something. They were all autodidacts, propelled by the notion of not knowing what they wanted, but knowing what they did not want. And what they did not want was the gray industrial Manchester existence. Could they be good enough? They did not know, until one day they saw Sex Pistols in concert. And if the who-needs-musicial-skills Sex Pistols could it, perhaps they could to.
Plus they had Curtis, a natural born poet who vacuumed in literature and philosophy and dished out brilliant lyrics like he breathed air. His story is well-known. What Sumner adds, with due humility, are his contributions. Along with writing guitar parts of Joy Divison’s songs, he also came up with the band’s name, as well as with early album artwork. That infamous “Unknown Pleasures” cover art was actually Sumner’s idea. He brought the pulsar wave image to Peter Saville, who inverted its colors – and presto, the most iconic album cover in the history of music.
The story of Joy Division takes up only a few chapters in the book, which is understandable, given its short history. Then came New Order. Sumner, who played guitar in Joy Division, reluctantly accepted the singer’s role. He writes that basically no band member really wanted the job, especially with the ghost of Ian Curtis by their side, and that Rob Gretton, the band’s manager decided that Sumner’s voice sounded best. New Order made a pact of not performing Joy Division songs live in order to respect Curtis’s legacy (that pact had an expiration date, which is fine, as those songs deserve to be heard).
Sumner’s own passion lay not only in playing guitar but also in synthesizers, which he built in his spare time from mailing catalog kits. With New Order, he felt he had a new license to flex his electronic muscle. He loved clubbing (way too much, as the memoir shows), and his attraction to dance music began quickly to seep into New Order’s work. This was met not without contention, especially from Hook, who loved his bass guitar (according to Sumner, Stephen Morris was more sanguine about the role of his drum kit), but as New Order began to put out a hit after hit, the band clearly saw that Sumner’s direction was a viable one.
As with Joy Division, a lot of it was trial-and-error, but what resulted was a new hybrid of a band, who combined electronic and rock music in a pleasing way. Success came quickly and so did money and fame.
And more clubbing. And more drinking. And more drugs. And the inevitable fraying that every long marriage goes through. Ibiza, New York, London, Los Angeles, and the native Manchester clubs and everything that came with that, including Sumner’s deteriorating health from too much alcohol consumption and too many sleepless nights.
Of the many clubs Sumner’s partied and vomited in, their owned legendary Hacienda was no slouch, both in its reputation and in the amount of New Order’s money it has hemorrhaged (all band members were co-owners, along with the Factory Records management, including Tony Wilson and Peter Saville). If you believe Sumner (which I find hard to, on this account) most of the money New Order has made at the height of their fame was wasted on the utterly mismanaged Hacienda and Factory Records.
And then came the inevitable bust. The Hacienda went under, and so did Factory Records. Sumner took a break from New Order in order to make music with Johnny Marr of the Smiths as “Electronic.” Then came the Peter Hook debacle, which Sumner tries to deal with as much grace as possible.
That’s pretty much it. There is a beautiful chapter at the end of the memoir where Sumner discusses the two films about his milieu – “24 Hour Party People” and “Control” – both of which allowed him to reminiscence. Above all, you get the sense of how privileged and lucky Sumner feels in his life, where blundering, trying hard, failing and repeating, being lucky – in other words, being human – can sometimes get you places.
Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division, and Me by Bernard Sumner | Thomas Dunne Books, $27.99
Cover Image by Anton Corbijn, courtesy of the publisher