Rating 4 stars
Record Play Pause is the first volume in Stephen Morris’s two-part autobiography. Although Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook have both written memoirs, I haven’t read them. I’ve read plenty else about Factory Records over the years, though, including Jon Savage’s recent oral history of Joy Division, which whetted my appetite to read more about the band’s members, in both its incarnations.
Record Play Pause is very Stephen. As the blurb on the New Order website says, he’s a wry, witty man. His memoir is a chatty affair, in which his affability shines through. For a good portion of the book, Morris documents his childhood in Macclesfield and the vagaries of his family. Although Morris is 13 years older than me and his parents a generation older than mine, there were similarities in his 1960s childhood to mine in the 1970s. The things that passed for entertainment. The family holidays that incorporated a niche interest of the Dad’s (his dad would divert to public toilets to inspect the brass and sanitary ware, my dad would divert to tool shops – Macclesfield, coincidentally, was one of my dad’s favoured destinations for a post-work evening drive out, where Mum and my brother and I, my sister being too old and sophisticated for this malarky, would wait in the car while Dad gazed through the window of a closed speciality tool shop). The phrases used by adults that made no sense to children. The personal family folklore. It all felt normal to me.
Morris also talks candidly about his childhood and teenage experiences of mental health care. Given the focus over the past 40 years on bandmate Ian Curtis’s mental health, it must have been a complex decision for Morris to make. He broaches the subject but also seems to hold back, perhaps unwilling to invite comparison between his experience and Curtis’s more tragic one. Everyone’s mental health is different, though, and it’s important to recognise that. The fact that Morris survived his encounters with the less than progressive treatment of mental illness that dominated the 1970s and 80s doesn’t make it any less important to talk about it.
Teenage tearaway Stephen is still affable, despite scuppering his future rat race chances with a cocktail of bunking off school, consuming too many drugs, and skiving off the jobs he manages to land. He doesn’t once come across as a wrong’un, more a bored teen hoping to find some meaning and satisfaction in life. He lacks direction until he settles on the goal of becoming the drummer in a band. It doesn’t matter which band, but it ends up being Joy Division.
The book is a window of sorts into Joy Division through the prism of Stephen’s experience. He positions himself as curious about the world, but only to an extent. He might see himself as honest about having limitations, but at times he comes across as overly self-deprecating.
The detail of how Joy Division came to be is well worn. There’s nothing especially new to be learned here, no great reveal. Stephen makes everyone seem reassuringly normal, his own lack of egotism washing away that of his bandmates somehow. Of course, this is Stephen’s own angle on a story that has been told by outsiders on numerous occasions. It’s not his job to deliver an insight into the minds or feelings of the others in the band. What he does, though, is offer a personal response to his bandmates that is level as well as frank. Specifically, Morris knew the real Ian Curtis, not the mythologised man who emerged in popular culture terms following his tragic death by suicide. He loved his friend, it’s clear, but he is unsentimental about who he was and how this impacted on the band and his family.
He’s the same about other larger than life characters in the Factory pantheon. Morris comes across as someone grounded, at ease with who he is, and his response to Tony Wilson, Rob Gretton and Martin Hannett is an interesting one. It’s more objective than much of what I’ve read previously.
Mixed in with the memories of being part of Joy Division is Morris’s interest in and knowledge about the new music technologies that revolutionised performance and sound recording in the late 70s and early 80s. Morris writes engagingly about the electronic instruments and digital equipment Joy Division used to create their sound. It’s a useful reminder that the digital world we inhabit now is at most only 30 years old.
Technology also became a way for Morris to move forward from Joy Division after Curtis’s death. For him, technology catalysed the change from Joy Division to New Order.
The story pauses at the point where New Order are rehearsing what kind of band they will become on a near disastrous tour of East Coast America. Morris presents it as an extended rehearsal in front of audiences expecting Joy Division. He’s writing his second volume that will chronicle what happened next.
I enjoyed reading Morris’s memories of childhood and bandhood. The view from the drumstool is an interesting one.