Peter Hook is one of the most accomplished bassists of his generation. Everything he plays is suffused with danger, demeanour, character and contrast, refusing to stand in the background and let the guitarist steal the attention away from him.
Famously mercenary, Hook fought for his bass contributions during the mixing sessions that led to the release of New Order’s most memorable contributions. There’s scarcely a guitar to be heard on ‘Blue Monday’, but Hook’s colossal work more than compensates, creating a vast soundscape that emanates from Western films. And yet he seems prouder of the work he did with Joy Division, the steely Manchester outfit who disbanded after two albums, following the untimely death of their singer, Ian Curtis. There’s no need to go into details about his death, as it only takes a quick overview of the lyrics to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ to see how disillusioned he was with his lot in life.
Curtis was an incredible lyricist, soaking his listeners in densely created scenarios where sorrow and single-mindedness were the currency of the time. He was responsible for the lyrical content, while Hook focused on driving the band forward, in an effort to realise Curtis’ vision. Judging by an interview he gave to LouderSound in 2017, it seems Hook feels proudest of his contributions to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.
“The great thing about being young as a musician,” he reveals, “is that you’re not overdrawn at the riff bank yet. You come up with a lot of riffs [seemingly] very quickly. As you get older, they come much slower. When we started off as Joy Division, every riff we came up with felt like a gift from God. One, in particular, Love Will Tear Us Apart, Ian then took as the vocal melody line of the song and he gave me, I suppose, my best-known bass riff of all. It was really simple, it was written in three hours from start to finish. It was basically all around the bass riffs, and it was one of the easiest, simplest things. I can’t remember any song being as easy as that one.”
The bass proves to be the engine for the song. Guitarist Bernard Sumner is focused on the keyboard line, leaving Hook to play the lead melody. The bass is tight and unrelenting, pivoting into an epic solo that’s strangely lacking in vanity. Hook isn’t driving the song to expose himself but does it because the song is compelling him to be brusque, braggadocious and mindful of the exercise in front of him. For all that Hook went on to become one of the most expressive bassists in pop, he was a rocker at heart, and this pattern swings along with the might of a guitar player, aching to soak their listeners in reverb.
The bass in this instance still holds its integrity, precisely because it’s so jagged: it doesn’t cut corners but aims straight for the listener with direct order. Behind him, the drums lunge in and centre the tune, leaving Sumner the room to meander to his heart’s content. And in the middle of this mosaic stands Curtis, supremely confident to express his innermost failings in an industry that would rather he sing with clarity, colour and kaleidoscopic values.
But it was this quest for truth that made him such a powerful singer, melding blues, folk and indie to his will. The tune assimilates the influences to create a unique hybrid number that expertly defies genre classification and pigeonholing. In the decades since its release, many British indie bands have attempted to write their ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, and have fallen short of the mark. And that’s probably because they focus too heavily on the lyric, sentiment and theme, spending too little time on the backdrop. Joy Division’s strength was their rhythm section, complete with a bassist who refused to lay down and let others play louder than him.
“Bernard was playing his stuff so loud,” Hook remembered.”So, the only way I could be heard was by playing high. I learned to play high on the bass and Ian Curtis loved it. He loved the sound. He used to tell me to play that stuff. So, that became a signature for the sound.”
In the mid-2000s, Hook formed Freebass, a supergroup of sorts that featured The Smiths’ Andy Rourke, as well Primal Scream mainstay Mani. They released one album, before Hook recognised that it was time to commemorate his fallen colleague. Peter Hook & The Light have toured with the Joy Division back catalogue, putting their own idiosyncratic spin on the work that has appealed to so many at difficult points in their life.
Hook acts as the lead singer, but keenly aware of his imperfections as a vocalist, tends to let the bass do the most of the work for him. And how!