Former Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook and the problem of bands that lose their leaders | Music Essay | Indy Week
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Former Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook and the problem of bands that lose their leaders 

Rocking with a ghost: Peter Hook

Photo by Steven Baker

Rocking with a ghost: Peter Hook

When O-Town comes to North Carolina this week, they will move without their Angel.

A few years ago, the marginal boy-band from the early '00s became yet another reunited grown-man band. But they did so without Ashley Parker Angel, the group's most popular, visible and hunky member and the only one to achieve even modest chart success as a solo artist. Fitting O-Town's roots as the by-product of a reality show competition, Angel had subsequent success as an actor, too, scoring both B-movie and Broadway roles.

His amicable decline of a spot on the reunion circuit proved he is the one who doesn't need this gimmick, and yet another act is left to revive itself without its public face.

Bands sometimes handle the loss of a lead singer well. For a group like Van Halen, defined by and named for a guitarist, hiring a new singer split their career into distinct eras without completely violating the core concept. Genesis may have lost some cred when drummer Phil Collins replaced Peter Gabriel as singer, but at least Collins' more commercial sound generated stacks of cash. And there are Black Sabbath partisans who prefer Ronnie James Dio to Ozzy Osbourne.

But more often than not, these substitutions are profoundly bad. Without the definitive leader, surviving or otherwise willing members deliver adulterated versions of once-beloved acts, like Creedence Clearwater Revisited. There's a supermarket-brand feeling to such replacements, the disappointment of going to the store for Dr. Pepper only to come home with "Professor Soda."

Not even death's final curtain can entirely rule out an encore. Deeply doofy nü-ska band Sublime carries on under the contractually arbitrated "Sublime with Rome," its "Santeria" now belted out by a bro even less likable than the late Bradley Nowell. The Doors soldiered on through various incarnations without their legendary Lizard King, but with no Jim Morrison, they never made a note of music that added anything to their legacy. Compared to a generation-defining sex shaman, signing up the dude from The Cult just didn't work.

For an institution as perennially lame as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it's shocking how well they interpreted such lessons for last year's Nirvana induction. Assuming no man could live up to Kurt Cobain's myth, they recruited four formidable women—Kim Gordon, Lorde, Joan Jett, St. Vincent's Annie Clark—to honor the leader without inviting direct comparison. The high star wattage prevented disappointment, and the special-event feeling precluded desperation. The absence of a subsequent tour with that set-up let it serve as a loving, limited homage, not a continuing payday. By being rare and exceptional, the night delivered what all post-death band revivals should desire: not the feeling of simulacrum, but of spectacle.

New Order was once another fine example of artists successfully moving on from tragedy. Losing a frontman like Joy Division's Ian Curtis would obliterate most acts, and Curtis' suicide was a trauma the band couldn't withstand. But New Order's Movement, the 1981 album by the band's renamed survivors, continued proudly in Joy Division's stylistic spotlight despite understandably dimmed results. The subsequently brighter, bouncier synth-pop of hits like "Blue Monday" allowed New Order to build its own sound. Instead of dwelling in the past, they forged a new future.

But the last decade of New Order's existence has resembled a continual victory lap in which the vehicle has started to fall apart. The squabbles of the group's founding members have produced two different touring units, each staking claim to the same legacy. Guitarist Bernard Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris continue on as "New Order," while bassist Peter Hook tours the same old material with The Light. He'll lead that unit through Joy Division's two classic studio albums Unknown Pleasures and Closer at Cat's Cradle this week.

Sumner and Morris have criticized Hook for the move, but they still trot out the old Joy Division classics as concert encores, too. Just how many elements can you remove from a project before it becomes comically threadbare, not just a shabby version of the original entity but something else entirely? The medium-sized theaters The Light sell out suggest Hook has yet to reach the market's terminal point.

Perhaps the most appropriate option for any partial band hoping to soldier on is also the most ghoulish. Ever since Coachella produced a posthumous holographic version of Tupac Shakur to join Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Eminem in 2012, the idea of conjuring a three-dimensional facsimile of a long-dead performer has become a running joke. No band has used the expensive technique as an ongoing feature of a tour. Acts like The Light or New Order, performing Joy Division songs while huge screens flash pictures of Ian Curtis, come perilously close.

But going all the way seems an unusually honest and perfect solution for incomplete but still active bands looking to proceed. If these bands are forever cursed with the ghosts of their own past, why not portray them as literal ghosts that demand space—shimmering there, unreal and timeless and sad? Seeing aged band members share the stage with an apparition of the youth and beauty they themselves once held would be horribly poignant.

Nostalgia will likely continue to be a leading engine of the music industry. Grappling explicitly with the whiff of grave robbery given off by the desire to live out cherished memories seems a fair service fee.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Death meddle."

  • The lead singer is dead, but there’s money to make.

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