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Reenergizing Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures/Closer Live at Christ Church in Macclesfield by Peter Hook & The Light

Peter Hook & The Light
Unknown Pleasures/Closer Live at Christ Church in Macclesfield
Play Concert

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Joy Division’s singer and lyricist Ian Curtis was born and grew up in Macclesfield, a town about 16 miles south of Manchester. So it’s impossible not to listen to Peter Hook & The Light’s latest, excellent LP – Unknown Pleasures/Closer Live at Christ Church in Macclesfield – without thinking of Curtis and his musical partnership and friendship with Hook, Joy Division’s bassist and one of its songwriters.

As we’ve come to expect from Hooky and his bandmates – Jack Bates on bass, Nat Wason on guitar, Paul Kehoe on drums, and Andy Poole on keyboards – energy permeates the Christ Church LP’s re-imaginings of Joy Division’s classic two albums and period singles. How could it not? Whenever Hooky opens his mouth to sing or plays a note on his bass, passion and strength burst through.

Curtis had the same passion and strength – and that’s what makes Christ Church such a thrilling listen. The performance, which was recorded on June 23 of this year, captures the immediacy of a Joy Division concert while never becoming an exercise in nostalgia. Hooky accomplishes the difficult task of making new some of the most important and emotionally powerful music ever written.

Joy Division began many of their shows with the non-album single “Dead Souls” – a track that Curtis named after a Gogol novel. The song was the perfect opener because its long instrumental introduction allowed Curtis time to become a part of the music before he complemented it with his voice and lyrics.

On the Christ Church LP, the instruments come through with more clarity than on the original studio recording – and it’s a treat to hear all of the track’s mind-bending riffs intertwine (the extended drum break sounds especially amazing). And Hooky, as is well known by now, has become a great singer and frontman; his voice possesses such verve that he can’t help but pull the audience in.

“Digital” – another non-album single – follows. It’s great to hear it live. Without Martin Hannett’s production, the song soars on its original punk energy alone.

The same can be said for the Unknown Pleasures tracks. When the record first came out in 1979, Hooky and guitarist-songwriter Bernard Sumner didn’t like it because they felt that it didn’t reproduce Joy Division’s noisy punk spirit.

But now the punk spirit is back in Macclesfield, as Hooky sings on the album’s opener “Disorder” – “I’ve got the spirit!”

And the songs that follow continue in the same vein. Poole’s synthesizer line on “Day of the Lords” combines with Hooky’s powerful vocal and Wason’s noise guitar to reincarnate the track as an almost insane cry for existential solace. On “Insight” – one of Joy Division’s all-time classics – Hooky takes the beginning at a slower pace than on the original, with the result of emphasizing Curtis’ soul-probing poetry. The song then finds its immortal groove and sound effects, spellbinding the listener with some of the most innovative music ever made.

“Insight” leads into the three brilliant songs that make up the heart of Unknown Pleasures, both on Christ Church and on their incarnation on the original album. Wason plays the opening guitar riff on “New Dawn Fades” with menacing confidence, and his delicate arpeggios are just as amazing – proving that the song’s power comes from its exploration of dynamics, which work in brilliant concert with Hooky’s vocal. “She’s Lost Control” features Kehoe’s tremendous drumming, which emphasizes Joy Division’s ability to play dark dance music and reminds one that one of the band’s central innovations was to marry catchy rhythms with the poetry of existential pain – in this case, Curtis’ compassion for a girl who died after suffering an epileptic fit. Hooky and The Light sound tremendous here, as they do on “Shadowplay,” that labyrinthine song about feeling lost in a modern industrial city (Curtis’ interest in J.G. Ballard shines through here). And, of course, the guitar-keyboard breaks are untouchable, as is Wason’s solo at the end.

Hooky and The Light give the final three, lesser known Unknown Pleasures tracks – “Wilderness” (which contains one of Hooky’s favorite bass lines), “Interzone” (which Hooky sings on Unknown Pleasures and whose title comes from William S. Burroughs), and “I Remember Nothing” (which in The Light’s hands turns into an extended jam that shows Joy Division’s role in the development of goth rock) – the attention they deserve as classic tracks in their own right.

The Closer set, of course, begins with another Ballard-influenced tune, “Atrocity Exhibition.” In Hooky’s hands, the song isn’t as chaotic as it is in its original recording. Wason’s guitar provides texture and not just noise, whereas Poole plays an atmospheric keyboard riff that doesn’t show up in the original. This arrangement works to emphasize Curtis’ stunning poetry and vocal melody, which Hooky delivers with confidence.

“Isolation” picks up the punk drive – and “intense” becomes the adjective that best describes the Closer material. Kehoe and Bates lay down the unforgettable groove that is “Passover,” with Hooky and Wason adding vocals and guitar respectively to create a moving rendition of what’s probably one of the most intricate explorations of human suffering ever committed to record.

Fine performances of the Kafka-influenced “Colony” and “A Means to an End” lead to the meat of Closer – its final four songs. The performance of “Heart and Soul” is very special, with Bates and Hooky (son and father) playing two of Hooky’s most memorable bass lines – on the same song! Poole’s keyboards and Wason’s guitar contribute texture to the cool bass grooves. “Twenty Four Hours” – which could be Joy Division’s greatest song – simply leaps from the speakers, its tempo changes, desperate lyrics, and vocal melodies perfectly mirroring the uncontrollable and meditative aspects of depression. “The Eternal” – which also could be Joy Division’s greatest song – is so beautiful and heart wrenching in its Christ Church incarnation that it teaches through tender playing and singing that compassion for oneself is just as important as compassion for others. And “Decades,” which highlights Poole’s synthesizers, Wason’s guitar riffs and noise, and Bates’ bass, demonstrates that the sounds of New Order were already in Hooky’s brain before Joy Division came to its sudden end. The Light’s performance of this song is simply astounding.

Christ Church closes with four classic non-album singles – “Atmosphere,” “Ceremony,” “Transmission,” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” These songs, of course, are four of the best songs ever written. Hooky movingly dedicates “Atmosphere” to Curtis, his long-lost mate, and performs it with the kind of empathy that quite simply engulfs listeners in love, elevating them to higher realms. Curtis never got a chance to do a studio recording of “Ceremony,” which Hooky dedicates to the memory of Hannett. But the bass and guitar – even though totally different riffs pour through them – hold the song together in a combination that makes the title of New Order’s first LP, Movement, understandable as a statement of music’s ability to move people. Hooky announces, “This one’s for Rob Gretton” – Joy Division and New Order’s manager, who passed away in 1999 – before launching The Light into the rousing “Transmission.” Closing off the set, Hooky says that he misses the late Tony Wilson, who helped put Manchester on the map as the center of England’s musical scene through his work with Factory Records and the Hacienda, and then leads his band into one of the most aggressive and celebratory versions of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” ever recorded. It’s especially touching when Hooky invites the audience members to sing along by calling them “Ian.”

Unknown Pleasures/Closer Live at Christ Church in Macclesfield is many things: a tribute to Ian Curtis, recorded in his hometown; a celebration of the music of Joy Division; and a reminder of what four people can accomplish in a short time (Joy Division were together for a little over two years!), when they share the compassion and love that are necessary for creativity. But it’s also the work of a terrific band – Peter Hook & The Light – who knows how to play great rock and roll with all the energy, excitement, and emotion that it deserves.