He took a bath on ‘Blue Monday’, lost a pile in the Hacienda and was part of a scene that has become music myth. Bernard Sumner of New Order on living in the present
Back in the early 1980s New Order lost money on every copy of Blue Monday that they sold. “Only for the first 250,000 copies,” Bernard Sumner says. He laughs. “That’s not much mitigation, really, is it?”
Sumner is recalling when New Order and Factory Records were creatively thriving but simultaneously losing money on too expensive record artwork – the reason for the Blue Monday losses – and the financially leaky Hacienda nightclub, in Manchester. He also recalls Tony Wilson, the Factory boss, spending a fortune erecting a huge poster of Joy Division’s Closer overlooking Sunset Strip, “just because he loved the look of it”, and their manager Rob Gretton regularly saying, “Money’s not important.”
“But he was your manager,” I exclaim. “Your business manager.”
“He was, yeah,” Sumner says, chuckling. “Why did we put up with it? We didn’t really care about anything. That’s the only answer I can give. We didn’t really care about anything except our music and having a good time.”
He decides that this isn’t a good enough explanation, so he tries a few others. “People thought differently in those days,” he says, laughing. “The human brain was physiologically different in the 80s than it is now.”
He tries again. “There was the lead in the drinking water. We didn’t have mineral water in those days; we just had tap water.”
This sparks an improbable memory. “In Salford we had fish in our tap water. I remember one hot summer day, running to the toilet at playtime and dunking our heads in a sink full of water. I remember putting my head in and seeing all these little fish in it. When we were drinking tea we were drinking tea with fish in it . . . A friend said [his family] complained. A man from the council came around and said, ‘They won’t poison you. Don’t worry about it.’”
Sumner has been thinking a lot about the past. He’s just written a very entertaining memoir, Chapter and Verse, and as he talks about it he veers from a quiet, precise, almost flat tone to something approaching jocularity.
The most moving chapters recount a deprived childhood in Salford (one of the cities that make up Greater Manchester) living with his angry, disabled mother and her parents. “If I wasn’t writing it chronologically, I wouldn’t have tackled my childhood first,” he says. “It was the most difficult for me to revisit. My father ‘did one’, as they say in Manchester, before I was born. And my mother also suffered from cerebral palsy. Being a single mother in the late 1950s was a very shocking thing, and dreadful thing, for people.”
Sumner writes about his grandfather’s brain tumour, his grandmother’s blindness and the destruction of a working-class community. He wanted to write, he says, about the things journalists don’t ask about and a time and place that have gone.
‘Decimated the community’
“The council did a bit of ethnic cleansing,” he says. “They thought of the city in terms of bricks and mortar, not human beings. They decimated the community. They pulled Salford down . . . It was a bit like having your memories partially erased, because there was nothing I could go back and touch. The street’s not there. The school I went to isn’t there. Nothing’s there except the tarmac of the road.”
The only well-known people to have come out of his area, he says, were the actors Tom Conti and Albert Finney. One of his teachers said, “Creativity won’t do you any good where you come from. You’ll just end up in a factory.” “Well he was wrong,” Sumner says. “By the time I was leaving school there were no factories. There was no industry. We did not make anything any more. We still don’t.”
Did he feel as if he’d found kindred spirits when he met the other members of Joy Division? “We didn’t talk about those things,” he says, “which I guess is a bit odd. We all loved music. Every one of us was drawn to music . . . But we never talked about the underlying reasons. We felt like four individuals rather than a group, because we kind of all stood on our imaginary pedestals, doing our own thing. We were kind of like four solo artists.”
The music they created, he says, is a product of the Manchester of the time. “Landscape affects you. I say in the book that LA gave us the Beach Boys, Düsseldorf gave us Kraftwerk and Manchester gave us Joy Division. I’m not saying we were as good as those bands, but those bands were formed by the cities they lived in, and so were we . . . For years I was puzzled by why people loved Unknown Pleasures, because I find it quite a suffocating album.” He laughs. “I’m not selling it very well, am I? I remember being worried that people wouldn’t like it because it’s so heavy.”
Then he read John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, “and the atmosphere in the book was so austere and suffocating, I suddenly understood . . . It was a place you didn’t really want to be, but you wanted to peer through the curtains at it from the safety of a book. I think that’s what people got out of Unknown Pleasures.”
Joy Division were also intrinsically bound up in the personality of their singer and lyricist, the brilliant, troubled Ian Curtis. He took his own life in May 1980.
“He had very bad epilepsy, which he controlled through very heavy barbiturates, which were very crude drugs in those days. And his psyche was in a state because of the barbiturates. There was a noticeable change in his personality after they started loading him up with drugs. He was quite volatile emotionally. One day he’d be crying and the next he’d be laughing. Even in one day he might go through strange mood shifts.”
Everyone, says Sumner, tried to help Curtis. The appendix of Chapter and Verse includes a transcript of a time Sumner hypnotised him. “We tried everything to help him,” he says, “because we didn’t want him to die or do something silly. We wanted to help him sort his problems out, and instead of sorting his problems out he just killed himself, and I must say it angered us. It wasn’t the way. He should have just retreated from the band, taken six months off or something, and just be left to work his life out.”
After Curtis’s death Joy Division morphed into New Order, Sumner became the singer and they started to dabble in electronica. By the mid 1980s they co-owned the Hacienda and sat at the heart of dance culture and the burgeoning Madchester scene. “There was no great big plan,” he says. “All the people involved in the organisation – Tony and Rob and Alan Erasmus [the label’s co-owner] and Peter Saville [their graphic designer] and New Order – was having a great time.”
But Sumner was reaching burnout. “We were touring to keep the Hacienda afloat. It was sucking in thousands of pounds, and that was spoiling the fun. Rob and Tony wanted us to stay on the road to keep funding the club, and Hooky” – Peter Hook, New Order’s bass player – probably wanted to stay on the road too . . . And it burned me out.” He laughs again. “When I say it burned me out, my behaviour burned me out. I take full responsibility. I was caning it. But at the time I blamed the world, as you tend to do in those situations.”
He collaborated with Johnny Marr on Electronic. New Order broke up and reconvened (twice). Rob Gretton died in 1999 and Tony Wilson in 2007. Sumner talks with fondness about both men.
The scene they presided over has fallen into rock’n’roll myth. Films have been made about Joy Division (Control) and Tony Wilson (24 Hour Party People). New Order persist, albeit without the disgruntled Hook. “He’d always had resentment and competitiveness with me, and I didn’t understand that, because I’m not that way inclined,” Sumner says. “It just became worse and worse until it got too much.” He gives the party line: “He wasn’t happy in the band. We didn’t sack him. He went his own way. I hope he’s happy in his chosen career.” He sighs. “I’m trying to be diplomatic.”
Throughout Chapter and Verse Sumner writes about dark subjects with clarity and wit but rarely states how he feels. He laughs when I point this out. “The reason it’s so matter-of-fact,” he says, “is that I wanted to state clearly what happened. So I needed to take a step back from everything mentally, as if I was an observer in my own life . . . Some of the emotions are obvious anyway. I shouldn’t have to state that I was in bits when Ian died. It should be obvious.”
He also thinks that many of the harder memories don’t bear thinking about. “I’m not reflective at all,” he says. “I do cherish past memories, but I don’t dwell. I definitely, definitely live in the present. I always did . . . When you’re a young man you never think about being this age, because it’s such a horrible thought you turn away from it. But I think I’m more comfortable in my own skin now. I’m happier in myself. I’m better behaved. I’m less of a f***ing idiot.”
© Patrick Freyne