I’ve previously mentioned that I have a great number of music biographies in various nooks and crannies around Villain Towers, none of which I show any inclination to give away, although I will lend things out to various friends. I’ve just again added to the existing 20 or so books related to Factory Records/Joy Division/New Order/The Hacienda, with Fast Foward, the second volume of autobiography by Stephen Morris, who I must stop describing simply as ‘the drummer.’
His first volume, Record Play Pause was a hugely enjoyable effort but it was kind of overshadowed by the fact that I read it at the same time as This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else: Joy Division – The Oral History , by Jon Savage, which very much has a place near the top of the best music bios. Knowing, however, that volume two was on its way to me, having ordered an advance signed copy from Rough Trade, I gave volume one another read and found it every bit as enjoyable and entertaining as first time around, this setting me up perfectly to pick up where Stephen had left off, which was the death of Ian Curtis.
Fast Forward, therefore, is essentially the tale of New Order from 1980 to 2020, spread over 450 pages. It is a well-known tale, one which as all music fans of a certain age knows, involves a lot of deaths, not least Martin Hannett, Rob Gretton, Anthony H Wilson and Factory Records. The author does his very best to not go over the stories and incidents that have dominated previous books, but is still something of a shock that Wilson’s passing is covered in just one sentence, although there are very understandable reasons as to why given it occurred at a time when there were very difficult and challenging events taking place in Morris’s life and circumstances. But the fact that something so significant in the wider story of Factory/New Order kind of passes by almost in the blink of an eye is the perfect illustration as to why Fast Forward is an essential read to anyone who is interested in trying to get a proper handle on why things have gone certain ways since New Order emerged blinking and bewildered on the back of what was, at the time, the suicide of a relatively little-known singer of a cult indie band on a cult indie label.
Stephen Morris, on the basis of these two volumes of autobiography, is a very self-deprecating person. He knows he’s the quiet, almost unrecognisable bloke in the band, a situation brought home to him on countless occasions when he’s stopped from gaining access to gigs and events that he is very much central to. He knows he’s regarded as the least interesting of the band, having little to say or do that makes headlines when talking to journalists, and the book plays on his perception as a geek by devoting countless paragraphs to descriptions of the equipment and technology advances New Order were investing in throughout the 80s in efforts to stay at the cutting edge of the way music was now being played and produced – spoiler alert, he ends up being less and less of a drummer and increasingly a programmer.
There’s a case to be made, however, that he was the most important member of the band. He was the one who took the brave decision to go with the suggestion from Rob Gretton that his girlfriend, Gillian Gilbert, should become the fourth member of New Order given that he knew he would be exposing her to a world of sexism and misogyny, thus putting his own personal happiness at risk. It’s no real secret that Peter Hook in particular never took to the idea of having a woman in the band, a position he never seems ever to have been at ease with, but it was surprising and disappointing to read how Bernard Sumner reacted to some suggestions about increasing Gillian’s responsibilities as time went on. But, in giving space to all of this, Stephen Morris doesn’t shy away from highlighting the occasions when he let his girlfriend down, and one particularly spectacular incident in Bangkok is revealed in all its gruesome detail, which leaves the reader in no doubt that the author could be a bit of a dick.
I have to say that for the first two-thirds of Fast Forward, I was of the view that it was an inferior read in comparison to Record Play Pause. I think this was down to the fact that it was racing through at breakneck speed, with just a few pages devoted to each album or tour, but it was satisfying to read that Morris’ views and opinions on the releases more or less chimed with my own thoughts, and to have confirmation of my long held view that cocaine played such a big part in the way that Shellshock was given the kitchen sink approach as it evolved and developed, with nobody prepared to take anything out of the near ten minutes that the 12″ version ended up being. Oh, and while I’ve somehow always thought the band spent about six months in Ibiza with the recording of Technique, it was only two months, albeit there was a lot of partying and relaxing rather than music playing – it turns out most of the sounds were put down in the Real World Studio complex, just outside of Bath in south-west England.
My mind, however, changed as the author began to switch increasingly away from the New Order story and to focus more on his own circumstances, including how The Other Two became an important part of his and Gillian’s story in the 90s. He also returns to his relationship with his father, something that had been central to much of volume one,
particularly at its beginning before Joy Division became the be-all and end-all for the author, and to see it come back so sharply into focus near the end of volume two, when New Order was becoming increasingly less important for the author was something of a surprise, albeit it becomes yet another instance when he has to deal with death and the issues it leaves him facing.
The sleeve jacket does offer a very decent summary of this book:-
Blending entertaining anecdote with profound reflection, Fast Forward strips back a lifetime of fame and fortune to tell, with raw honesty, how New Order threatened to implode time after time. And yet, despite everything, the legacy of their music continued to hold them together.
By the end of the 450 pages (which were read over the course of just two days), I wanted more, albeit the story seems to have come to its natural conclusion. Stephen Morris does acknowledge that much more could have been written, and in particular, the role that Gillian played both as a band member and as the rock to which he clung when he was in danger of being washed away. He also acknowledges that with the band still on the go, very much against expectations both internally and externally, the story is not complete, and he hints that a whole other book may well emerge at some point. It certainly won’t be in the immediate future – at the age of 63, Stephen Morris, is having to slow down and 2021 is a year in which New Order will be taking to the road and so there’ll be no time to sit down and write up another volume of memoirs. Perhaps it won’t be written until such a time as the music has finally come to a stop and he can look back at things, perhaps when he can really think and reflect more on the legacy rather than telling a series of chronological tales. On the basis of the pages of Fast Forward, it’ll be worth the wait.
The last is included as one in which there is nothing in the way of Stephen Morris playing the drums but his programming, including the musical frogs, is really what makes the tune.