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REVIEW: Stephen Morris – Record Play Pause / Fast Forward

The drummer is the most derided band member, the butt of dozens of jokes. Which may be a little unfair – mostly, they can at least count to four (a rudimentary point made in Stephen Morris’s 2019 autobiography Record Play Pause) and the good ones can handle all manner of irregular time signatures.

Apparently, and this will come as no surprise to anyone that has ever spoken to a drummer, their brains are wired differently – and these differences disprove the stereotypical notion that stick men are stupid.

A study by the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm in 2008 found a link between intelligence, good timing and the part of the brain used for problem-solving: Delivering a steady rhythm improves cognitive function in the brain.

Drummers, research on what goes on between their ears says, harness a different internal clock that moves in waves that match an innate rhythm found in human brainwaves and sleeping heart rates. Being in a room when they drum, or drumming with them, also makes the people around them smarter, creating a natural high that also heightens happiness and increases pain tolerance.

Whether they’re conscious of it or not, it’s understandable that drummers wouldn’t want to relinquish their ongoing brain development. It’s a rare drummer that, as the technology developed, would embrace a tricky to program machine that threatened to be their replacement. Stephen Morris, the Joy Division and New Order drummer, geek that he was (and remains), was rather keen to explore their potential and work out how to combine whatever machine that required assembly had arrived in the post with his ever-growing acoustic kit (which often prompted “you’re not going to play all of those drums, are you?” comments).

Record Play Pause gets off to a slow start, as we read of Morris’s Macclesfield upbringing, troubled school days, work-shy ways, fondness for shoplifting and drugs, and eventual meeting with Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook. We learn that Morris’s journey as a musician commenced with a Beatles novelty guitar that fell apart, then a Sooty (the 1970s glove puppet)-themed toy drum kit, and a failed attempt at the clarinet, before badgering his parents for a proper drum kit because, well, how hard can it be (he was full of co-ordination confidence due to his ability to simultaneously pat his head and rub his stomach)?

Everything unfolds as a linear journey, at a surprisingly (given the speed of much of his iconic drumming) steady pace. Yet, once you get into the groove, the conversational nature of Record Play Pause becomes endearing, then captivating. The author loves a bit of foreshadowing although most readers will probably know what’s coming, so that just adds to the quirky voice at play, and there’s naturally a Factory roll-call of everyone you’d expect – Tony Wilson, manager Rob Gretton, madcap maverick producer Martin Hannett featuring heavily.

Quite how Morris didn’t ram Hannett’s head through a snare skin in the recording studio when Joy Division eventually got there is anyone’s guess. The producer loathed the spill from different drums so opted to record each drum part individually. Whatever the cognitive function and natural high benefits of having a drummer in the room belting out a tom-tom heavy pattern live might be were forgotten with this long-winded approach, although Hannett’s own love of rhythm machines, FX units, synths and gadgets accelerated Morris’s own growing interest. The band, learning how to navigate a studio and wanting to harness their live energy, always seem pissed off with whatever mix Hannett comes up with but clearly Unknown Pleasures, their first album, continues to sound like a group of like-minded spirits discovering that the future could sound as grey and moody as late 1970s industrial Manchester looked.

There is, of course, Curtis’s death. We know where the narrative is heading from the point Morris turns up at the singer’s front door, where he’s gone to pick up a cassette so, as the yet-to-audition in front of the other two but inevitable new drummer, he can learn the required parts. The necessary components quickly click. The four of them come-of-age and plan their escape from the grim reality of an otherwise humdrum life together, holding down daytime jobs while also grafting away in the rehearsal room and putting in motorway miles to play gigs. Morris does a good job of sharing with us, in a poignant manner, that the Curtis he remembers was more of a laugh than the myth might have us believe.

Then death is dealt with but there’s no dwelling on what might have been. Writing frankly four decades on, Morris seems surprised at the speed with which the three remaining members got back down to business. But, having done the slog and turned full-time musicians, they were never going to stop.

Some glimpses into the author’s personal archives aside, there’s not much surprising here aside, that is, from the way the story is told – a one-time, albeit brief freelance contributor to Record Mirror, that poor relation to the rest of the 1970s inky music media, Morris writes like he speaks; there’s a twitchy, whacky quality that is also, at times, reminiscent of a drum machine that didn’t come with any instructions. Once things start moving Record Play Pause is, in all the right places, amusing and entertaining and there’s enough for those with only a passing interest in the pioneering days of post-punk.

Fast Forward, the second volume in Morris’s confessions of a post-punk percussionist, picks up where the first volume leaves off. It’s just as quirky and funny. Taking us on New Order’s journey, Morris grapples with increasing amounts of technology, a lot of drugs and booze, the black financial hole of the Haçienda and the in-fighting and power struggle taking place within the band. Along with his wife and bandmate Gillian Gilbert, Morris buys a farmhouse and the pair of them (The Other Two) start making music for TV and film soundtracks and have two daughters. Morris also buys an armoured military vehicle with a self-propelled gun, which he points in the direction of Bernard Sumner’s Alderley Edge house. More people, including Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson, die and Gillian and the couple’s youngest daughter get ill. People are still asking about Ian Curtis. Somehow, Morris writes about all of this – much of which has been recanted by others that were part of the same story – with incredible humour, a lack of bitterness and is determined to just go with the flow as the bigger egos of Hooky and Sumner slug it out. By the end of the book the band is fucked. But, as we know, they rise again, so there’s a final suggestion of a third volume on the way. In addition to clearly being a trailblazer and early adopter of all kinds of machines designed to make his acoustic kit redundant, Morris may well be the nicest man in British music and he’s most definitely a decent memoirist, so a third instalment would be no bad thing.

You could buy Record Play Pause, along with its more New Order-focused follow-up Fast Forward, from an indie bookshop, or you can buy via my virtual bookshelf on at the the links below.

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