Chapter And Verse: New Order, Joy Division, And Me
Thomas Dunne Books
In 2015, New Order frontman Bernard Sumner published Chapter And Verse: New Order, Joy Division, and Me. At the time, I was nonplussed by it; in fact, I found it a bit boring, the writing flat, and his story not particularly revelatory, and I opted not to review it, simply because it didn’t have enough, erm, substance worth commenting on. Having just read Peter Hook’s compelling New Order biography, Substance, I felt compelled to give Chapter And Verse another shot.
Compared to the three volumes and thousand-plus Peter Hook has spent chronicling the same territory, it’s unsurprising that Sumner’s autobiography pales in comparison. It doesn’t help matters that Sumner—who admits at the beginning that he’s an inherently private person—is carefully guarded about the stories he does tell. Thus, Chapter And Verse gives just the barest insight into Sumner’s long, wild career, which is a shame. When he does let his guard down and open up, there are some great stories to be had. For instance, hearing about the day on the lake the same day Ian Curtis took his life—an outing he’d invited Curtis along for, which he turned down at the last minute—offered a poignant look as to how a perfectly beautiful day can be a heaven to one person and a hell to another, and one wonders what would have happened had Curtis agreed to join the fun.
But after reading Substance, Chapter And Verse’s terseness makes a lot more sense. If the book is anything, it is Sumner proactively being defensive about what he sensed must surely be forthcoming from Hook’s then-unreleased book. Defenses against allegations don’t make for compelling reading, especially when one doesn’t know what the allegations are in the first place. It doesn’t help, either, that when admissions that he might have been in the wrong are made, they’re done so in a way that finds him rationalizing himself, making excuses. At one point he addresses the accusation that he was forcing the direction of New Order on the band, and he states “To them I say I’m sorry if I came across as a twat back then, but I was only a twat because I was feeling so much pressure.” In other words—it’s your fault I was behaving that way. He may be sincere, but it certainly doesn’t read that way! (The dedication to “The Band” and “Loyal Friends” sets the expectation that there’s a line drawn in the sand, one that sadly proves to be the case)
If anything, Sumner’s insistence on defending himself and telling his side of the story comes at the price of self-reflection and honesty. One of the more damning stories from Sumner’s history—one documented both by Hook and by Factory Records biographer James Nice’s Shadowplayers—involves Sumner’s harsh treatment of a teen magazine journalist, and of the shocking—and somewhat justifiable—revenge said journalist exacted on the band. The incident was a massive embarrassment to the band, and it effectively ended his marriage. It’s a story that is unflattering, shameful, and yet well-known—yet it (or his first marriage) gets no mention whatsoever. It is, of course, Sumner’s prerogative to omit anything he wants to out of his autobiography, but so doing comes at the price of reflection. Then again, Sumner seems more interested in defending himself and less interested in penitence.
Chapter And Verse is a dull book from someone who can, should, and hopefully will write a much more introspective, inflective, and engaging autobiography. When he does open the doors of his past—especially when dealing with the underrated band Electronic—his tales are funny, compelling, and leave one wanting more. Perhaps it’s too soon for him to do so with New Order—if he ever feels compelled at all to examine that era, it would surely be as compelling and interesting read. It certainly would be much better than Chapter And Verse’s historical glossing-over and seeming denial of his own responsibility in his band’s problems.