Stephen Morris delivered a fascinating talk at Liverpool’s British Music Experience and Getintothis’ Banjo was there to take it all in.
Both bands have built up a large and loyal following, enjoyed critical acclaim like almost no others and their records define the era in which they were created.
Since the sad and untimely death of singer Ian Curtis, Joy Division have effectively been frozen in amber at the peak of their powers. The few records that they left behind are as close to perfect as it is possible to get and their legend remains unspoiled by any trailing off of quality, any acrimonious split or any prospect of growing old in public.
Such is their fame these days that a mini-industry has built around their story. Books, films, documentaries and magazines about them are in plentiful supply, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner have written their autobiographies (with Hooky up to three books so far). And now, we are presented with another take on the bands’ histories, that of drummer Stephen Morris.
Titled Record Play Pause, his book takes in the feelings and spirit of the times.
Morris has a reputation as something of a witty, natural storyteller and this comes across in his writing. It provides a calm counterpoint to other band members’ autobiographies and a different take on how things unfolded.
Morris’ tale will be spread over two books, the first focusing on Joy Division, the second on New Order. In his recent interview with Getintothis, Morris said “Originally I didn’t want to just write about Joy Division, which is what I’ve ended up doing for the first book. Originally I wanted to cover everything up until when I started writing it I guess, but it ended up being so long you’d need a whole bookshelf for it.
It was over a thousand pages, and I thought somebody would just go at it with a pair of scissors and make it in to a nice short book, but no, two books.”
As part of the promotional campaign to promote Record Play Pause, Stephen Morris tonight comes to the British Music Experience in Liverpool’s Cunard Building to be interviewed by fellow legend of the Manchester music scene, Dave Haslam.
The night is sold out and there is a buzz in the air. We are not used to seeing New Order members in so intimate a setting.
Dave Haslam takes to the stage to introduce the evening and, in a very generous gesture, thanks Getintothis for the Stephen Morris interview and in promoting tonight’s event. That’s us, happy to help.
The format for tonight’s talk alternates between Haslam asking questions from Record Play Pause and further questions generated by a series of images projected onto a screen showing images of Joy Division and their era.
Morris takes his seat to a huge amount of applause given the small number of seats available and the first slide is a shot of Joy Division playing Eric’s. They played here quite a few times, including their first gig as Warsaw. Morris commented that that first Warsaw gig was the first time he “saw Ian being Ian” on stage and that he “turned into a wildman” when he started his unique dancing.
When Haslam commented that Joy Division were always an underground prospect in their brief lifetime, Morris tells us the shocking fact that they only ever played one tour, which was as support to Buzzcocks, with all of their other gigs being effectively one offs. With Joy Division now having achieved their current level of fame, I can think of no better illustration of how cruelly short their life span actually was.
As Record Play Pause is primarily concerned with Joy Division, the majority of tonight’s talk also focuses on this period. There are some genuinely touching moments when Morris talks about Ian Curtis and the difference between the person that he knew and the myth that has built up around him since.
He describes Curtis as “a normal guy” who he hit it off with straight away, bonding over their love of the works of JG Ballard and William Burroughs.
In Mental Health Awareness week, Morris’ recollection of Curtis’ fragile mental state strike even more of a sad note. We hear that both Curtis and the rest of the band lacked the life experience to be aware of the seriousness of what was happening and had no idea that there was anything really wrong. Curtis himself propagated this by insisting that he was fine and Morris describes him as “the sort of person who would tell you the answer he thought you wanted to hear.”
It is only age and experience of life that has allowed us to see that Curtis’ epilepsy and the side effects of the drugs he was prescribed brought about a situation where the life of a grafting rock band was not conducive to his long term health. Morris describes it all as a situation that was “never going to end well.”
When it came, Morris found Curtis’ suicide both shocking and yet still not surprising. Not surprising because Curtis had attempted suicide before and shocking because this time he had succeeded. The day of his suicide, Morris was with Curtis and tells us that everything seemed normal, with no signs of what was to happen later that night.
Ian Curtis’ last words to his friend were “see you at the airport”, as if things would progress as planned and the band would go on their second ever tour, this time to America.
Morris’ reaction to the news of Curtis‘ death was to go into denial about it, thinking that people had got it wrong and it was just another unsuccessful attempt. He told us that he would wake up each morning thinking that he would hear that the reports were wrong and they would still get back together and tour America as Joy Division.
When reality hit, it was “a sledgehammer of emotions”.
Taking a slightly less emotional route, we then move back in time with An image of Martin Hannett, when Joy Division were recording Closer. Famously, the band never liked Hannet’s production on their two albums, as the records he made sounded unlike the noise they made on stage. Morris told us saying “we didn’t like what he’d done, it took a long time to appreciate it. It was a bit weird, we’d never heard anything like it before. The drums didn’t really sound like me, the bass didn’t sound like Hooky and the guitars didn’t sound like Bernard.”
The next image is an audience shot of a Joy Division gig where Morris’ future wife and New Order member Gillian Gilbert was clearly visible at the front of the stage. In one of the evenings funniest and most touching parts of the evening, Morris reads aloud a postcard he had sent back from when Joy Division were playing in Eindhoven.
It is a peek behind the curtains at their blossoming relationship that tugs at the heartstrings and makes us smile, despite some of the mundane details such as the weather and eating a Mars bar.
There follows a Q&A session, where audience members ask Morris a question, each one demonstrating the affection and admiration they hold for him and the bands he has been in. Despite Morris’ easy manner and down to earth attitude, we are all aware that we are listening to a legend, an essential part of not one, but two of the most highly regarded bands in musical history.
He does his best to set us at ease, even running into the crowd with a microphone when he is unable to hear a question. And this is his charm, to be both a legend and a normal bloke, to make us laugh and to bring tears to our eyes.
We hope we can repeat this experience when book two is published. What we have been given tonight is direct access to one of music’s greatest tragedies and greatest success stories.
Joy Division may have been brought to an end too soon, but we still have Stephen Morris’ take on the New Order story to look forward to.