(click above to view full size)
The very idea of Peter Hook's new band The Light playing Unknown Pleasures
and early Joy Division attracted an elephant's herd of derisive snorts. Yet Mick
Middles cautions against your cynicism.
It's all sparkle, bricks and a soft blue glow, down at The Factory. The club, once the modernistic headquarters of the famously ailing record label, now seems indicative of the second phase of Manchester regeneration. A coldly alluring building, tucked behind the BBC; ropes and aluminium, red carpets and, neatly hinted by the lighting, Savillian touches.
It would take all the power of a Tardis to journey from this densely packed, modernistic club, to the blackness of Hulme on October 20, 1978. Back then, lost in the moody Factory Club of that era (PSV Club, Russell Club...), itself lost in the shadows of the gargantuan Hulme Crescents (a broken dream of 60s architecture), a lesser, more ragged crowd gathered, swilling Newcastle Browns and the air thick with the blue swirl of tobacco smoke.
The Joy Division who played that night was of pre-Factory vintage. Nevertheless, a local reputation for VOLUME if not content, had already been nourished by a succession of gigs in and around the city. Small and looming, Joy Division were a harsh and clunky clammer, a dense sound fronted by the most curiously beguiling of all vocalists. At that moment in Hulme, riding on the 12-inch re-release of their debut EP, 'An Ideal for Living', they seemed full of possibilities. Their manager, Rob Gretton, had recently taken over the reigns from the band's long-term friend and ex-member, Terry Mason. That night, Mason seemed troubled... sulking in some corner.
Back to the present and Mason is still here, having traversed 32 years of a frenetic life, many of them endured as New Order sound technician. Today he is rather more elegantly garbed - indeed, he's now an IT consultant out in Warrington - although his expression matches that of 1978. One of mild incredulity. Adrift from the hot throng of the crowd, we had separately adjourned to the upstairs 'chill out' zone, where the live gig is screened to a meagre gathering of familiar, if slightly silvered, revellers. Downstairs the noise booms... and Peter Hook, somewhat irritated by the detractors, is commemorating the 30th anniversary of the death of Ian Curtis with two shows from his band, The Light. A spirited set which begins very much at the beginning - with those same distanced and pre-Factory songs from 'An Ideal for Living' through to a complete 'Unknown Pleasures', bolstered by guest appearances from Rowetta and ex-A Certain Ratio front man Simon Topping.
In truth, this 30th 'anniversary' has been a largely uncomfortable affair, with events and potential events simmering to unsettling effect for several months. Over in Macclesfield, a stop-start-stop-start projected Ian Curtis exhibition has now finally achieved some kind of go-ahead, although the July date seems rather pointlessly adrift from any sense of timing. More manageable and coherent, perhaps, is the upstairs exhibition at The Factory Club, largely curated by Hooky and long-term archivist, label owner Chris Hewitt, featuring a lavish spread of amps, photographs, sundry equipment, guitars, set-lists, tapes, cassettes and abundant paraphernalia. Plans are afoot to take this small but absorbing distraction to foreign parts (could it even be accompanied by further sets from The Light?) Of course, this themic balance brings with it an admission of nostalgia and that alone will certainly court further controversy... a great deal, one suggests, as feelings always run high when Joy Division are mentioned.
Hooky is no stranger to controversy. Both Joy Division and New Order, by the very nature of their names, courted much anguished banter. Tonight's evening is, therefore, a shrug from the bassist. "Fuck it... why not? ” he recently stated, although his bravery has not been championed by Bernard Sumner or Steve Morris, one notices.
The Light's set brims with curiosity value, its linear path through Joy Division's early days - 'Ideal', 'A Factory Sample', 'Unknown Pleasures' - adding to the gig-as-museum-piece spectacle. Each and every song thunders with a newfound bravado, too, with Hook and son Jack hammering Joy Division's focused intensity into a rock format more reminiscent of their early days. One can only imagine Martin Hannett, who so ingeniously dismantled that thunderous cacophony, voraciously displaying his displeasure.
As does Mason. "It's a bit like Morecambe and Wise... all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order, ” he states. The risk here is one of demystification. Now these songs - 'Warsaw', 'No Love Lost', 'Leaders of Men', 'Failures', 'Digital', 'Glass', 'Disorder', 'Day of the Lords', 'Candidate', 'Insight', 'New Dawn Fades', 'She's Lost Control', 'Shadowplay', 'Wilderness', 'Interzone', 'I Remember Nothing', 'Transmission' and 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' - are bulbous rack artefacts, passionately executed if lacking that brittle heart, that light, that once touched so many.
Nevertheless, one has to admire Hooky's admission that it is here, with these songs and with this band that his future may lie. (By contrast, the Freebass experiment seems unfocused if well-intended). Tonight can only be seen as a success... crowd surges... feverish excitement and it is not difficult to see this entire affair casting its shadows over the festival circuit and elsewhere.
As stated, the shared vocal duties helped to expand the format, with Rowetta's feminine touches more than welcome and, perhaps the evening's true highlight, Simon Topping's gloriously detached 'Transmission', deliberately the antithesis of Curtis' intensity. Irony indeed, as Topping once struggled so hard to remove himself from ludicrous comparisons with the Joy Division frontman. (In part, my fault, I admit).
After the gig he seemed relieved, energized even and far removed from the ever-so-tense Topping I recall from three decades ago. Earlier in the evening he had performed as part of Sum Ratios, an intriguing warping ACR's personnel, also featuring Jez Kerr and Pete Terrell. As with all Ratio splinter bands - Kerr's filmic '24 Hours' being one example - the balance lies in the art of retaining an edge despite deft latter-day musicality. This situation was eased, at The Factory, with a sweetly mis-timed intro that seemed to add to the whole, rather than detract. How intriguing though, to see Topping back in the ACR mix and future gigs, I hope, will see the experiment moving forward. That's for another time... another review. Of the two bands, Sum Ratio's hold the greater relevance and are the one clutching artistic possibilities.
But this evening belongs to Hooky and cohorts. No darkness, no bad intentions... no commercial instinct blackens his decision. Hard, too, to separate it from the parallel Bad Lieutenant, who perform the same encore around the world. As the club settles to post-gig lull, the air is light, the tension eased and a sense of resolution prevails. It's a different world now. A far cry from The Russell Club... a far cry.
May 20th, 2010