We hope you enjoy this fascinating book review of Chapter and Verse about the life of New Order front-man Bernard Sumner by our guest writer Grant Halliday!
This is a book I’ve been looking forward to since it was announced earlier this year: a first-hand account from a founding member of two fine Manchester bands in Joy Division and New Order, and a co-owner of the legendary Hacienda nightclub.
The story to which Bernard Sumner is attributed a key role has been retold countless times in books, television documentaries, and most famously in two feature films 24 Hour Party People (2002) and Control (2007), but this is only the second time we get the story as told by someone who was there and witnessed it all – former Joy Division/New Order band mate Peter Hook has so far released two books covering the Hacienda and Joy Division respectively, and intends to release a third covering New Order in the near future.
Joy Division speak for themselves, songs like ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart‘ and ‘Transmission’ should at least be familiar to anyone with even the slightest interest in alternative music in my opinion, but it is his work as part of New Order, an altogether more mainstream and radio friendly affair combining a rock band with the latest electronic instruments, that I prefer. You may be familiar with ‘Blue Monday‘ and even their England 1990 World Cup song ‘World in Motion’, but I recommend you check out ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, ‘The Perfect Kiss’ and ‘Temptation 87′ if you’re looking for their very best work.
Considering his career has been both eventful and lengthy, spanning over three decades since the inception of Joy Division in the late seventies, the book is a relatively concise 342 pages (in comparison bandmate Peter Hook has written over 700 pages on the Hacienda and Joy Division alone). As with most of the music autobiographies I’ve read, the writing style is straightforward and succinct; I get the impression that, unlike Morrissey (who released his own autobiography last year) Sumner isn’t aiming for literary greatness with his own life story. Sumner concentrates on his own story and the events that he considers significant to that, rather than aiming to tell the wider story of the bands that he’s been a member of, which means that albums considered to be some of the most significant or successful albums he’s ever been involved in, such as New Order’s Power Corruption & Lies (1983), Low-Life (1985), and Brotherhood (1986) aren’t even mentioned in passing. Similarly, side-projects such as Electronic, alongside Johnny Marr with whom he achieved three Top 10 albums and eight Top 40 singles during the nineties, are only spoken about briefly. Even more surprising for a tell-all autobiography is his decision to avoid writing about his personal life almost completely: he avoids talking about either of his marriages at all, while partners and his four children are only mentioned in passing when they were present at the time in whatever anecdote Sumner is recounting.
Sumner comes across as someone who isn’t prone to much in the way of self-analysis, particularly when it comes to his own writing be it lyrics or his guitar playing. In an interview author David Todd conducted with former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante for his book Feeding Back: Conversations with Alternative Guitarists from Proto-Punk to Post-Rock, Frusciante pinpoints Sumner as a guitar player whose style isn’t flashy but “sounds complex, because each note pulls you in a different direction… I like all kinds of guitar players, but it’s people like… [Sumner] whose playing really amazes me, and it’s because of their ideas, it’s because of what they thought. It’s because they approached the instrument differently than anybody else”.
Anyone coming to Chapter and Verse looking for any insight into how he developed his own style of guitar playing will be disappointed, although he does reveal how he believes his bleak Salford upbringing and his difficult relationship with his disabled mother influenced his own contribution to the dark, monolithic tones of Joy Division. Ultimately it is his song-writing that attracted me to this book and I was disappointed with the lack of insight into his own writing processes, his style or his inspirations: his only reflection of his own writing is to deride his early lyrics as “nonsense”. It feels like Sumner’s matter-of-fact style is his attempt to deflate the romanticism and myths that have arisen over the years (particularly when it comes to the Joy Division years) which is an admirable aim, but it also means he has very little to say about the wider significance of the band or their influence on future generations of bands from Britain and wider afield.
Despite these disappointments, I still found the book a worthwhile read, and particularly enjoyed his own reflections on his upbringing and family life. Major incidents such as the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, the gestation of Blue Monday, the experience of writing a World Cup song, and more recently his falling out with Peter Hook are recounted faithfully and with no lack of dry humour, and there’s some nice anecdotes about his experiences at the Hacienda (although he is coy with regards to drug use).
If anything Sumner’s concise story and straightforward prose means this is a book that is of more interest to a casual fan, as it’s hard to believe there is anything in Chapter and Verse’s 342 pages that will be hugely surprising to any hardcore fan of Joy Division or New Order. An interesting appendix that certainly hasn’t been a feature of any other autobiography I’ve read is a transcript of a hypnotic regression, as Sumner hypnotises Ian Curtis and Curtis regresses to what appears to be past lives. A load of cobblers perhaps, but still an interesting read.