Disney's Joy Division shirt: Peter Hook 'appreciates the irony'
Many fans of Joy Division were aghast Monday over Disney’s new Mickey Mouse T-shirt that (lovingly or cluelessly) riffed on the Manchester, England, post-punk band’s iconic album art for 1979's “Unknown Pleasures.” Our own commenters called it “wrong, just wrong” and the “worst shirt ever.” But the design’s unlikely pairing of one of the most tragic acts in rock music with one of the most recognizable images of childhood has at least one begrudging fan: Peter Hook, bassist for Joy Division and New Order.
“I take it as a compliment,” Hook said, adding that to his knowledge, Disney didn’t approach representatives handling Factory Records’ catalog or the surviving members of Joy Division for permission. “If I had a pound for every time someone bootlegged Joy Division, I’d be as rich as Disney. But it’s interesting in a kitsch way. It’s this cross between something very adult and this well-known image of childhood. I’ve heard it’s sold out, so maybe it’ll become a kind of urban legend.”
It turns out that the question of licensing the album’s pulse-wave imagery doesn’t apply here. The original image, a diagram of waves from the first known pulsar recording published in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy, is in the public domain.
The “Unknown Pleasures” album art didn’t include any other identifying information on the front cover, so it’s a rare occasion of an instantly recognizable cover that anyone is, essentially, free to repurpose. The Disney shirt, while claiming to have been inspired by Joy Division, doesn’t use the band’s name on the item, so there’s not much the band could even do to contest it (even if the branding wisdom of Disney appropriating an image associated with a rock band defined by sonic bleakness and its young singer’s suicide is debatable).
Hook, who was clearly amused to field questions about this incident while in the middle of a day of writing for an upcoming Joy Division biography, is inclined to take the allusion as proof that the band’s musical legacy (and the beloved graphic design work of Factory Records’ Peter Saville) remains potent, even if the band never set out to be brand-able.
“When Joy Division began, we didn’t believe in doing promotion. We didn’t do shirts, because we thought that cheapened the music. When you’re young and idealistic, something like this would bother you," he said. “But in old age, you can appreciate the irony.”
Of course, the band’s other album art and music are thoroughly copyrighted, and Hook says he casually polices the market for the more flagrant Joy Division bootlegs, usually asking the infringer only for a donation to an epilepsy charity (the band's singer, Ian Curtis, suffered debilitating seizures).
But this, the unexpected use of Joy Division imagery by Disney, comes at a time when Hook is deeply involved in re-assessing the band’s career. Hook (who is on famously bad terms with the remaining members of Joy Division and New Order, the band formed by JD's surviving members after Curtis' suicide in 1980) recently came off a tour where he and his band the Light performed Joy Division’s two albums (the other being 1980’s “Closer”) start to finish.
For all the tragedy associated with Joy Division, Hook said his years in that band were some of the most optimisic of his musical life, and he welcomed the chance to revisit them and perform from those records.
And if that look backward includes an accidental Disney cross-promotion? Well, he’ll take it as an implicit salute from a company that knows from impactful images.
“Before New Order split up in 2006, it felt OK to ignore Joy Division, and we did,” he said. “But as soon as we split, I thought, ‘Why not celebrate it?’ They were planning a celebration of Ian’s life in his hometown of Macclesfield, and we never really played from ‘Closer’ because of Ian's death. I really enjoyed playing those songs again; Joy Division was such an enjoyable time as a young man. We were very strong musically, and only Ian’s illness brought us down. But he was really enthusiastic and we all wanted the band to succeed. And if old Walt Disney gives a few more young people a chance to discover and listen to that music, well, that’s very flattering.”
-- August Brown
Photo: Bassist Peter Hook, foreground, and Bernard Sumner of New Order at the Area:One music festival in San Bernardino in 2001. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.