Let’s begin with a confession. Of all the audience members packed into The Mainroom last night, I probably brought less background and context to Peter Hook’s music with Joy Division and New Order than anybody else. It wasn’t that I did not like the music. Every time I’d hear a song on the radio or movie soundtrack, like Trainspotting, I’d find myself bopping along. Particularly as I’ve aged.
Those two bands were undoubtedly more of a phenomenon in Europe than on this side of the Atlantic. But there is little doubt they meant a lot to a whole bunch of 50 something post punk rockers in that room. There is zero doubt that the styles each band pioneered cast a very long shadow that touched more modern bands like LCD Soundsystem, The Cure and Arcade Fire. When First Avenue announced a show which would present New Order’s later efforts Technique and Republic in their entirety, with an opening set of Joy Division classics, nearly a year ago. I decided it was time to fill in some blank spots in my personal discography.
Talking to other audience members, I found a bit of a debate to be had. Was The Light a cover band? After all, only Hook was a part of that history. The decision to take those albums front to back smacks a bit at a tribute routine. A walk down memory lane. Would the current presentation measure up to what the original bands would have, or could have, done? Was The Light akin to Creedence Clearwater Revisted or Lynyrd Skynyrd? A claim to the songs without a grasp of the spirit?
I guess I was lucky in that regard. Without the context, I wasn’t prepared to judge. Either I was going to like what I witnessed or I wasn’t. That’s the really easy part of this recap. I really enjoyed it.
For any dyed-in-the- wool JD or NO fan, there’s nothing I can say about the show which can shed further insight into what you already know. So I won’t bother going there. Instead, I’ll share a couple observations and musings about what I experienced.
The show was a marathon. The Light pounded its way through an opening set which almost reached the status of full show before walking from the stage and turning up the dance music. A fellow approached me back in my corner by the bar; asked my impression so far. I stumbled around a bit, admitted I was wandering around in the jungle without a map. But the band was top notch and the music moved me. He nodded. Seemed mildly disappointed in me and then hit me with something that defined how I viewed things from that point on.
He was a bit frustrated with some people down on the floor who were surrounding him. “I wish they’d just be quiet! They talked through the whole set and it was a terrible distraction. Why do they buy tickets if they don’t want to listen? Do you know what it’s like to come to hear the most important music of your life, the stuff you and your buddies listened to over and over again as you drove around in your parents’ car? This show is amazing but I’m going to find another place to watch it.”
Two things happened. The first is that I immediately flashed on a concept discussed at length in local writer’s Steve Hyden’s highly recommended book Twilight Of The Gods, A Journey To The End of Classic Rock. The second? I spent the rest of the time observing people trying to talk over the music. One of my pet peeves. But at this show, it seemed more prevalent than usual.
Hyden talks about anchoring in a style and time of music. How those of us who will get the bug, hear something during some formative teenage period that literally gob-smacks us. It becomes the linchpin of what will become our true musical identity. Sure, we’ll continue to find things that move us. We’ll go through phases. But those late night debates about who or what was the greatest music of all time is going to be defined more by this period, where our brains were developing, than by any kind of critical analysis.
As the guy headed back to the floor, drink in hand, I realized I now knew his age. I could see him in a time, place and fashion cranking up the Joy Division as loud as it would go. It was that generation coming up behind me which first decided a car stereo was incomplete without a sub woofer. Bands like Joy Division or New Order with their techno Peter Hook bass lead lines just about demanded it.
When the band returned, I found myself trying to define the sound and how it fit into the arc of rock evolution. The music is dark and shiny. It pulses away, slick and tight. It’s a snake, comfortably coiled in the den of a specific era. Punk had effectively smashed the glass house of classic rock. At the same time, punk was as much fashion as music. It couldn’t last in its earliest conception. Deconstruction and anger can only take you so far. So the scene went looking for its next rendition. Post punk, goth, emo, New Wave. Some brilliant new avenues were discovered. Mostly by keeping those dark punk sensibilities and mixing in longer living influences. Things like melody and beat and expressions of place.
The place that was influencing people like Peter Hook was the dance hall. Imagine rolling in for a long night of dancing. Not that bright shiny disco stuff. The dark stuff; lyrics filled with the angst of youth. To go the distance, you need to pace yourself. For some reason, I flashed back on a night in early 1981, dragged by business friends to a Florida dance club. It wasn’t really my scene. I liked my music live and I sure as hell despised disco. I heard Bowie’s Scary Monsters for the first time and watched these beautiful, scowling women dance in place. They weren’t interested in dancing with me (big surprise that). They danced alone. I was floored and immediately ran out to buy the album. But I never made the connection. This wasn’t Bowie introducing a new genre. This was Bowie reflecting a sound and scene already being mined by the likes of Peter Hook and Joy Division.
The crowd that filled First Avenue would have been about 15 or 16 at the time I was 25 and in that Florida club. Not too many fell outside that well defined age slot. So how and why did my generation, one that came of age in the halcyon days of the early 70s (anybody want to have a long debate about when the greatest music in rock was created?) completely missed the music of Joy Division and then New Order? Especially for somebody who has made a point of being well rounded musically? My conclusion caused me to chuckle.
Did you ever have a younger sibling? Ever get the sense that they basically hated everything you loved just because they weren’t going to willingly take a back seat about anything? I think as young adults we’re pretty good at relating to young kids. They’re cute and they’re the future, right? We get to act like grown ups. And to that older generation because suddenly we’re sitting at the grown up table being asked if we’d like another beer. But those gawky, pimple faced kids coming up behind us? No way! We’re trying desperately to move on from our own gawky, pimple faced phase. We’re grown up! We’re sophisticated! No teenager is going to tell us what’s cool.
At least that was me. Punk music was a systematic dismantling of the classic and Prog sounds I loved. Disco was a blight that replaced live musicians with DJ’s all around the world. How on earth could I respect either? How on earth could someone imagine that these two scenes would join forces to create a sound and style to which the next generation would anchor? Truth be told, this was another wildly creative period in music. But I now understand how I missed it.
And as for that talking stuff? During that second set, I became an observer. There were many who seemed in their own world. They tranced and danced in their own space just like those Florida beauties. They weren’t wearing polo shirts or Mom jeans. And there were those in groups who did their best to keep their conversations going over the pounding double basses of The Light. That strange confluence suddenly became clear. Left overs from the punk scene. And those who went to the disco to be social. First Avenue and Peter Hook held them both.
It would be easy to say that Hook & The Light played two sets, different stylistically, followed by an encore. But that wouldn’t be quite right. The second set didn’t end like a main set normally ends. The band finished a song and then simply walked again. No waves. No acknowledgments. First Avenue immediately went into danceteria mode. There was no rousing call for return. Nobody left. People waited patiently. And then waited some more.
Initially, I found myself getting a bit frustrated because it seemed to me all a bit too narcissistic. Make ’em beg! We’re big stars! But as time stretched on I realized this was simply part of the show. It’s a dance hall. The music is of the same ilk. The lights still pulsed. Just keep bopping.
It was worth the wait. It wasn’t as much an encore as it was a third set. And this time around the band cranked it a couple notches. The crowd roared for the first time. And the dancing became wild. Hands reached for the rafters. No more deep cuts. No more following an album. These were the songs of a generation. The songs that kids had on repeat as they drove around with their newly minted licenses or in their college dorm rooms. It grew until the logical ending Love Will Tear Us Apart. The smash hit that arrived on the heels of Joy Division’s demise. The music has aged very well.
I’d go again. Peter Hook is a real live post punk heavyweight. The band was top notch. The short punchy songs flowed. If this was some kind of cover or tribute show in the minds of purists, so be it. It wasn’t for me. It was a night of dark, infectious grooves that would not leave my body still.
It was a night of revelations. For me, sometimes those are the shows that keep me thinking about them longer. The question of where I was. Or why I missed something. When those answers are found, I often see people in the audience a bit differently. I appreciate more what it was like for them growing up. It helps me relate. Music explains people and it helps to break down boundaries. Guys like Peter Hook burst onto the scene at a time when those battle lines were stark. The music didn’t fit into a temporary, popular milieu only to disappear. It took on a life of its own and means as much to fans today as it did 30 and 40 years ago. Powerful music. Powerful band.