In Haunt

It was a thriving evening at The Dancehouse in Manchester as audience members from across the generations gathered for the 9 May launch of  legendary Joy Division/New Order drummer Stephen Morris’ memoir Record Play Pause: Confessions of a Post-Punk Percussionist, which was structured around an insightful on-stage in-conversation delivered by the iconic former Haçienda DJ Dave Haslam. Manchester certainly was a fitting location for the launch: the city where Joy Division extensively gigged, recorded, utilised in much of their industrial, bleak imagery– and were signed by Factory Records.

Stephen Morris BookRecord Play Pause, published by Constable, is a substantial autobiography from Stephen coming in at just over 400 pages – and notably is ‘Volume One’, with Stephen elaborating in the in-conversation that there were too many stories for one book alone. Stephen Morris, born 28 October 1957, is arguably one of the most iconic drummers of his era, delivering the intensely atmospheric – almost chilling - sound which structured Joy Division’s work and continuing this artistry into New Order, The Other Two, and more.He  has also gone on to participate in various musical projects as a multi-instrumentalist, and it is anticipated that the second volume of memoir will document his New Order days up until the present.

The man himself on stage was approachable and engaging; fully responding to Dave Haslam’s perceptive questioning, even when encountering difficult subjects – and included a number of witty asides.

What was clear from the onset, was Stephen’s fascination with eccentric and uncanny aspects of culture from a young age. He discussed how one of his first ‘drumkits’ was actually a Sooty drumkit, themed on the much-loved puppet character – whilst the book itself goes on to detail his childhood interest in superheroes and supernatural figures also. In the first chapter there is embedded a picture of a strange-looking stone in  a field in Macclesfield – the town where Stephen grew up– along with the description ‘this object in the fields mystified the young me. Was it a witch’s altar or a beacon for flying saucers?’.

This fascination with the mysterious also extended to an interest in the history of the Second World War, a topic which Dave Haslam raised early in the in-conversation; as both men had grown up at a time when the war was still in living memory for many people, including their parents. In turn, this period of history Stephen found both interesting and disturbing, describing the haunting effect of the music from The World At War series narrated by Laurence Olivier, which started to be aired in the 1970s. His book also goes on to describe the influence of the Macclesfield area, including the almost eerie presence of the nearby Parkside Mental Hospital, originally called The Cheshire County Asylum, which seemed to create ‘a self-contained world of its own’.

Growing up in ‘60s and ‘70s Macclesfield, and often travelling into Manchester, Stephen also quickly developed a passion for music – and the interest in creative experience and experimentation that went with it! Dave’s perceptive on-stage questioning about Stephen’s ‘rebelliousness’ led to further insight on his suspension from The King’s Grammar School in Macclesfield (where Ian Curtis also attended) involving an incident of ‘overindulging in cough medicine’. He also alluded to ‘being a bit of hippy, even when hippies had already died out’. Inspired especially by The Velvet Underground and going on to enjoy bands such as Van Der Graaf Generator, detailed in the book as having ‘that slightly insane melodrama’, Stephen was soon driven to start making music in his teenage years. Dave asked Stephen if he’d tried guitar, and although Stephen said that he had, he found that the drums gave him something to hide behind, plus ‘instant gratification was what I was after and the way of the drumkit seemed to promise that’, according to the book.

Rather similar to the rousing drive of a drumbeat, the fast-moving in-conversation detailed Stephen’s teenage exploits, getting a car – a source of popularity at the time – and going to gigs, which somehow included taking his parents to see Hawkwind. The book also details various Manchester venues, including at the university (then UMIST), Kings Hall in Belle Vue where larger acts often played, and the still-existing Apollo in Ardwick. Warsaw, the band which he was to join and later to become Joy Division, entered Stephen’s life on the 26 May 1977. This was because he had gone to Manchester’s infamous gig venue The Free Trade Hall to see Television and Blondie, where he bought a zine called Shy Talk, set up by local legend Steve Shy. There Stephen noticed an advert for a drummer in the band Warsaw, which led to him phoning Ian Curtis – and from then on, the journey started.  Dave Haslam sensitively but constructively questioned Stephen on his friendship with Ian Curtis and the band, including the subject of Ian’s suicide in 1980, aged 23. This developed into a moving conversation about mental health  amongst young people and changing perceptions over time, as well as raising the importance of talking about it. Stephen’s book details ‘of all the 1970s’ many taboo subjects, mental illness was possibly the most misunderstood’ and how at the time ‘the future of the band now lay with one person’s ability to cope with something we couldn’t comprehend’.

Dave Haslam’s in-conve Dave Haslam and Stephen Morrisrsations are often distinctive in their sensitivity to time and place; especially considering that Dave himself lived and worked in Manchester, often at close proximity to Joy Division and then New Order. He raised the interesting contextual point that the building of the book launch– The Dancehouse on Oxford Road – was formerly a cinema, dating from the 1930s and inspired by the Art Deco style. It was close to here that Stephen dropped off Ian on the Saturday before he died; as Ian had wanted to return some clothes in Manchester city centre before the band were due to fly to America on the Monday. Stephen openly talked about the unexpected nature of Ian’s death and the impact that it had.

However, what Stephen was also keen to emphasize, and does significantly in the book, was that Ian was largely a good-humoured and funny young man, rather than the isolated figure the media has depicted him to be. The in-conversation also elaborated on the various difficulties  Ian was having to face, including an epilepsy diagnosis, combined with a stubborn determination to try and carry on as usual. It was also a fast-moving time musically: the release of the band’s EP Ideal For Living attracted a flurry of controversy over its muddled conflation with particular imagery, the band gigged extensively and the release of their first album Unknown Pleasures met a rising wave of attention, including from the iconic John Peel on the radio, amongst other things. When it came to recording, the process also became increasingly intense: ‘I cannot listen to Love Will Tear Us Apart without re-experiencing the fury I felt pounding that poor snare drum within an inch of its life’ Stephen details in the book, describing the process of responding to the demands of their innovative producer Martin Hannett.

Other key figures discussed by Stephen as he spoke to Dave, were the band manager Rob Gretton and of course Gillian Gilbert, who Stephen started dating whilst he was in the band and she was in a  group called The Inadequates – she later would join New Order. Now married to Gillian, Stephen said that he is ‘very lucky’ and the book is indeed dedicated to his wife, his daughters and the memory of his parents. The in-conversation ended with a both touching and hilarious piece of prompting by Dave Haslam, who encouraged Stephen to read out a postcard he had sent to  Gillian whilst Joy Division were touring in Germany.  The amusing fine-details, including the mention of eating a Mars Bar and the terribly cold weather, had the audience laughing aloud – as had been a regular feature of a thought-provoking as well as highly humorous evening. Good-natured, witty and an excellent articulator of stories which shaped not just Manchester’s popular culture, but beyond, Stephen Morris was fascinating to listen to: in a format where Dave’s chronology-spanning but personable questioning meant for an excellent launch.

According to audience member and former member of Factory Records Georgina Robinson:

“It was a great night at the Stephen Morris, Record, Play, Pause book event. Stephen was charming, witty and fun... I’m really looking forward to reading the book! Dave Haslam as an interviewer was cool, calm and confident plus a great storyteller himself, putting Stephen through his paces. Stephen gave us a fascinating and personal insight into the early Joy Division and New Order days. It was a real joy to be present!”

The in-conversation was followed by a book signing, throughout which Stephen remained good-humoured – despite the queue of keen fans extending well into the upper reaches of the theatre. Evidently a sign of appreciation for a figure whose musical contribution was not only impressively distinct, but holds an influence which is still ongoing.

By Emily Oldfield 

Photograph 1: with thanks to Georgina Robinson

Photograph 2: with thanks to Patricia Dignam

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