Somewhere on the southern outskirts of Manchester there is a graveyard. Next to the graveyard is a rehearsal room where the four members of New Order come to practise their spells. The joke is not lost on them.
“Maybe that’s why we sound so gloomy … if we do. People say we do.”
Peter Hook prowls warily around any definitions of the group or their music. His defensive skin is easily riled. He sits idly strumming an unplugged bass guitar. Propped on his knee is a US visa application for New Order’s forthcoming tour.
“Listen to this!” he shouts. “It looks like they’re on to us: ‘Have you ever aided in the persecution of peoples for reasons of race, colour or creed, including any involvement with the Nazi state … ’”
Are New Order Nazis? The charge, which has surfaced before in the music press and was hurled at them again in a recent issue of Private Eye, appears to be dogging them. Well, are they?
The answer is a bemused negative. “I don’t know,” shrugs Hook, “why does everyone think we’re Nazis?”
They chose the name New Order – among other things, the Führer’s term for what he wanted to impose on the world – because it seemed neutral. “They used it in Tron, but no one calls Walt Disney a Nazi!”
Guitarist Bernard Sumner – whose real surname is not Albrecht, as appears on their early sleeves – doesn’t take the accusation seriously.
“You should have seen the other names we had on the list,” he laughs. “Temple Of Venus, that was a good one … It was implying a change, that’s all.”
But they are being disingenuous. Because it clearly wasn’t all. They knew the connotations of the phrase. The change was from their former name of Joy Division, warranted by the death of singer Ian Curtis. The name Joy Division – wartime slang for the prostitute wing of a concentration camp – was heavily ironic, a mordant jest on their position vis à vis the entertainment industry and perhaps the world at large.
Calling themselves New Order was more likely an act of sullen antagonism, part of a wider action to preserve themselves from the morbid fixations of the London media on the group, their late singer, their music and what it certainly represented in the dark, looming depression of 1979/80. Since then, they have withdrawn into an enigmatic shell, shunning the limelight and its hothouse power, shrouding themselves in a reclusive silence.
Their infrequent sell-out appearances in London have been confined to obscure Irish ballrooms. Their record sleeves – rich, flat, plain expanses of colour with bold typography and opaque logos – bear the minimum of information: New Order, title,producer, label, date. Their new member, Gillian Gilbert, the 22-year-old girlfriend of drummer Stephen Morris, joined two years ago, but has yet to be credited on any sleeve.
As a result of all this, they have a reputation for being awkward, insolent and, at the very least, difficult to interview. One music paper that recently tried was invited to go with them on tour in Texas. Good background for a story, but there was a catch. The paper would have to pay their own way – a fair request from a group with no major label backing, but not one the music press is used to hearing.
Their refusal to climb aboard the carousel of the music business and music fashion stems partly from principle and partly from an instinct for self-preservation. Already an insular quartet, their inner strength must have been tested and toughened for them to survive the death of their compelling singer. Virtually alone amongst their contemporaries, they retain their independence. Proud, stubborn, unique, they court resentment and – perhaps for the same reasons – inspire devotion.
With no advertising, no promotional videos, no new clothes, no pictures on its sleeve, their recent 12” single sold 250,000 copies in Britain alone. Blue Monday, a thin melody nailed to a hard motor beat (with no apparent connection to Fats Domino’s lament of the same title) did however receive a truncated but absolutely live airing on Top Of The Pops – which, significantly, altered its chart position hardly at all.
Yet throughout Europe, Japan and North America, the chic discos throb to Blue Monday – its extended mix jammed into the latest New York variant of Planet Rock. Not such a fluke, really, for their music transcends parochial tastes. It has the virtue of a universal simplicity; it’s often little more than an atmosphere, distinct but not specific. The moody one-word song titles – Ceremony, Isolation, Transmission, Temptation etc – are vague and interchangeable at first glance, like the sleeves that bear them. There is a strong flavour of mystery which, having contrived, they are in no hurry to dispel.
But they would quibble with the word contrived. “What we want to do is present music without any of the peripheral rubbish around it,” argues Bernard Sumner. “It doesn’t matter who played what solo or what instruments we used or even who we are. If people like the music, that’s what’s important; that’s what they’re buying.”
Their self-imposed anonymity has reached the stage with their new album where only those who know the music will know what they are buying. Wherever they keep it, their heart is not on their sleeves. Designed by Peter Saville, the sternly titled Power, Corruption & Lies has no information at all apart from the catalogue number and a legally required credit for the French impressionist painting of roses on the front, a chocolate-box image lilted by a fake colour print key in one corner.
“Peter wanted to have a classical painting on the cover,” says Sumner. “We liked the idea, so he showed us a selection he had and we chose the one we wanted.”
So much for surfaces. In its first two months of release, the album has already sold 75,000 copies in Britain, and more abroad, particularly Holland, Belgium and Germany. New Order are still approached to do deals with foreign record companies, but no longer get many overtures in Britain. In any case, they are content to remain with the independent Factory Products label started in 1978 by Granada TV broadcaster Tony Wilson.
“There’s no real reason why we should go to a major,” says Sumner. “The advantage would be that they would hype you, give you money for videos and advertising, but what’s the point?”
Peter Hook puts it in perspective. “On a major label we would probably make the same money we do now if we sold all the records Culture Club sell.”
How much do they make? They pay themselves a wage of £72 a week each. But they all drive late-model cars: Bernard Sumner has a W-reg Mercedes 200; Stephen Morris owns a Volvo Estate; Peter Hook has an Audi Coupe, but not the four-wheel-drive Quattro – “Oh no. I wish I had. They’re really expensive.” The rest of their earnings – in fact the bulk – is spent on equipment.
But they say their personal circumstances have changed little. They still live in the same places: Bernard in Macclesfield, Peter in Moston, Stephen and Gillian in Peel Green. They dress soberly, as they always have. Apart from Peter Hook’s ponytail, they could all pass for young, suburban bank clerks. For the want of a few O-levels, and without whatever it is that sets people in motion – be it only seeing the Sex Pistols and the Clash at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976 – their futures might have been most ordinary.
Bernard, Peter and Ian Curtis first met at Salford Grammar School. Seizing the moment in 1976 with their friend Terry – now their soundman – and later Stephen Morris, who had just been expelled from King’s School in Macclesfield, they formed a group called Warsaw. Reputedly named after Warsawa on Bowie’s Low, Warsaw made the appropriate threatening noises as they cut their teeth on the primary power-chord thrash of punk rock. It was energy quickly spent.
By the end of ’77 it was nearly all gone. Warsaw went into Pennine Sound Studio in December and emerged a few days later as Joy Division with an EP called An Ideal Living that fell back on sensibilities shaped by the progressive and avant-garde rock of the early seventies but buried in the year of punk’s cultural purge. Sensing a kind of desperate drive in these recordings, Tony Wilson signed Joy Division to his new label, and the group began working with Strawberry Studio engineer Martin Hannett.
But not before a curious interlude. They fell in with Northern Soul DJ Richard Searling, who wanted them to record a cover of NF Porter’s Northern Soul classic Keep On Keeping On – which he planned to sell to the TK label, at the time part of RCA. “We tried to do it but we’re fucking hopeless at cover versions,” recalls Sumner. “We did do it in a way,” says Hook. “We learned the riff – that’s as far as we could get – and we used it on Interzone.”
They spent five days in the studio with Searling recording their own material instead. The tapes, which they later bought back for £1,000, were virtually a demo of their first album. They highlight Martin Hannett’s contribution to their music; the distinctive structures and mood are already there, and the songs are complete. But the group are fighting against their natural introversion. They lack the restraint that would later allow them to simmer so insidiously in listeners’ minds.
Hannett, who used to be a lab chemist, brought (not least) his fascination with electronics to the mixing desk. Boxes of the latest studio toys would arrive from the States. While the group rehearsed, Hannett would rig them up. He streamlined them, playing against recent fashion by dropping voice and guitar behind the bass and drums, and giving electronically enhanced definition to their ragged edges. Their first recordings with him appeared on a Factory sampler EP in 1978. An album, Unknown Pleasures, followed soon after. Sparse, statuesque, monolithic, like a vast desolate landscape, it was musically original and emotionally harrowing.
Since their single Temptation last year, New Order have parted with Hannett and begun producing themselves. It was an amicable decision, they say, complicated by the fact that Hannett was suing Factory Products over the running of the company of which he was a director (he has since reportedly settled out of court). But the group don’t deny that they learned from him.
“He taught us what to do very early on,” says Hook. “We learnt the actual physics of recording from him, although we could have learnt it from anybody. But in the end there was too much compromise from both sides.”
“Producing ourselves we get more satisfaction,” adds Sumner. “We know what we want and we can do it. With Martin the songs often turned out different, sometimes better, sometimes not.
“We always know how we want them to sound. The way we write a song is usually to start off by improvising in the rehearsal room. Then we take it out live. Sometimes you haven’t got any lyrics so you just make up some garbage. Then you listen to the live tapes, write some more words, and go back and rehearse some more. By the time we record it we pretty well know how it should be.”
“We spend an awful lot of time together in here,” muses Hook. “But we’re lazy. We sit around here until we’re so bored that we have an idea.”
Typically, they see no need for any outside views on their career or their music. “You don’t really get people who are in a position to give you advice,” says Hook.
“A career is forward planning,” asserts Stephen Morris. “There isn’t any forward planning. We don’t do what we think will be successful. We do what we want to do.”
They have, however, entrusted the final mixing and overdubs on a song called Confusion to Arthur Baker, producer of Afrika Bambaataa and Rocker’s Revenge. Confusion was composed and recorded at Baker’s New York studio in three weeks last February, after introductions made by Factory US.
“It’s an experiment,” says Hook. “We’re in a position to do that now.”
An experiment about which there seems to be some apprehension.
“That’s because we haven’t heard it yet.”
In 1979, a strange thing happened in Manchester. All over the city, the old sewerage system had chosen that moment to suddenly collapse. The streets were filled with a foul stench as, within the space of a week, pipes laid the century before had finally rotted away. There, right in the heart of the industrial northwest, was a metaphor of the decay and despair that marked the final collapse of a two-hundred-year industrial boom.
At the same time, in a studio in the centre of town, Joy Division were remixingTransmission for a new single. It was the record that would bring their music to national light, music that struck a deep, sombre chord of that same decay and despair.
To hear Joy Division then was to feel something of the agony of the times. It was uncanny and probably unconscious, but they summed up – not in words so much, since Curtis’s lyrics were intensely personal – more in mood, the cancer of Britain’s still-unchecked decline. No other music since has so profoundly touched this country’s circumstances.
And then, on 18 May 1980, on the crest of success and the eve of their first US tour, it all ended. Ian Curtis committed suicide. The group had just finished their second album, Closer, and a single, Love Will Tear Us Apart. On the single sleeve, the title is inscribed as though on a tombstone, which is what it was.
Curtis, without seeming to realise it, was a puzzle that drew people to the group. A vulnerable figure on stage, with watery eyes and a haircut that always looked as if it had been imposed on him, he would burst into a frenzied spastic dance that soon became fairly notorious and then stand still and concentrate hard to sing. His voice was firm and clear, but always forlorn. He had a history of epilepsy, and his performance (not to mention the song She’s Lost Control) was an exorcism of this.
On the wall in the rehearsal room, amongst the posters and notes, there is a yellowed page torn from NME, a poignant photo of Curtis taken shortly before his death. Since then New Order have laid only one wreath, a recording of his song In a Lonely Place.
“We’ve never put our feelings about him into any one song,” says Peter Hook. “But they’ve emerged … in phrases and lines here and there. You can see them when you look back.”
Movement, their first album as New Order, was written soon after Curtis died. In more ways than one, it bears the scars. “That and Closer were very depressing albums.” Bernard Sumner doesn’t elaborate.
“There was a lot of pressure for him at the time doing Closer,” explains Hook. “Being the singer he was the focus of all the attention. He’d walk out of the room and we’d look at each other and go – ‘Fucking hell!’ It had been happening to him for a while … ”
Curtis’s death wrapped an already mysterious group in legend. From the press eulogies, you would think Curtis had gone to join Chatterton, Rimbaud and Morrison in the hallowed hall of premature harvests. To a group with several strong gothic characteristics was added a further piece of romance. The rock press had lost its great white hope, but they had lost a friend. It must have made bitter reading.
Peter Hook says no. “At the time you weren’t really interested in reading about it. It was happening to you.”
One odd result of Joy Division’s early demise and subsequent near-mythic status has been the bootleg industry bonanza in rare live and studio recordings. Peter Hook even has a few himself.
“I’m amazed! I’ve never seen so much shit. Some of it is good and some of it’s bad, but on the whole the recordings are horrible. I’m fascinated, though. It’s so repetitive, so monotonous. The same songs over and over again.”
But bootlegs, the true fan’s greatest homage, do not accrue to vastly more popular groups. How many Duran Duran bootlegs, say, could the world stand?
“The people who buy ours seem to take our music more seriously. Maybe that’s becausewe take it more seriously.”
Evidence of this large, devout underground allegiance was easy to find in 1980. Love Will Tear Us Apart became the most requested record of the year on John Peel’s radio show – for its example of an independent, non-commercial ethic as much as for its musical virtue. The joke at the time was that the song would be the Stairway to Heaven of the 80s. The comparison with Led Zeppelin had a grain of truth, but it was the wrong group.
“From now on,” manager Rob Gretton is said to have remarked, “it’s going to be like the Pink Floyd.”
The analogy between their respective histories is strong: losing a crucial member early on; persevering in an obstinate, idiosyncratic direction. Whether New Order will share the same fate, either commercially or aesthetically, remains to be seen. Certainly they have something in common with the so-called progressive groups of 10 years ago. Via the John Peel show, their music has reached deep into the sensitive isolation of 19-year-old male bedrooms; playing a kind of refined, high-tech heavy metal, stripped of all the stucco frills but not lacking in melodrama, they have missed a huge audience by a hair’s length.
It was to be a year before the group performed again in public, for the first time as New Order, with Gillian Gilbert playing keyboards. They had auditioned for a new vocalist but found no one. Instead Bernard Sumner found himself in front of the microphone. In the two years since, his voice has lost its weak, buried pallor and acquired some authority.
“For ages it just felt like a square peg in a round hole,” he admits, shaking his head at the memory.
Gillian Gilbert, whose only previous brush with the stage was in a short-lived punk escapade called the Inadequates, was at Stockport Tech doing graphic design at the time.
“But I didn’t want to be a graphic artist. It was just something to do. I didn’t really have any ambitions. I didn’t want to be in a group – it was just a dream. They approached me.”
Did she have to audition?
“We won’t tell you what she had to do!”
“She had to play Stairway to Heaven … backwards!”
“I think I’m still auditioning, really…”
At any rate she has the best possible facilities to practise on. Ever since, and perhaps before, they met Martin Hannett, the group have had a marked penchant for state-of-the-art musical technology.
It transpires that both Stephen and Bernard have computers at home. Stephen has an Apple II, which has given him some knowledge of, and also some impatience with, the working limits of the DMX drum synth they use so heavily. Bernard has an ITT 20/20, on which he’s trying to learn a program language called Forth.
“I want to learn it first – then I’ll find a use for it. There isn’t a sequencer on the market that can do what we want. I’m going to try and learn it so we can build our own.
“With guitar, bass and drums you’ve got limited horizons. We’d like to increase our range of sounds and rhythms. If you come up with an idea for a song, you know exactly what you want the machine to do. You want a machine that can do everything! But that hasn’t been built yet. We thought the Emulator was going to be it – but you get one and you soon find it has its limits.”
“People think all these rack effects and these sequencers are really high tech.” Peter Hook gives a dismissive glance around the room. “They’re all really useless – they’re allshit. You wouldn’t believe the trouble we have with them! They keep going wrong! It’s as if they use you as guinea pigs.”
Despite all this, their music remains as sparse and simple as ever; the rhythms have evolved with fashion, the sound with technology, the themes hardly at all – though someone has opened a window and let some light in of late. Their ideals are constant. They maintain that an instrument like the ARP Quadra, which demands no musical training, is more punk than a guitar.
“What was punk all about?” Hook asks. “To me it was: if you really want to do something, go ahead and do it.”
“See that … ” Bernard Sumner points to a box of battered tricks housed in an old flight case. “We built that ourselves. £100 for the sequencer and £80 for the drum machine. We were still using it up to eight months ago. People used to laugh at us!”
He confides their secret: “There’s not one of our songs that uses a black note on the keyboard. That’s true!”
© Paul Rambali