Wednesday, March 05, 2008

New Order

The consensus among discerning music fans is that New Order stands with the Smiths as one of the two most significant British indie groups of the 80s. New Order's impact is undoubtedly immeasurable; its revolutionary and unique blend of post-punk guitar-pop and underground dance-music aesthetics was directly responsible for trends like the Madchester scene, the Ibiza culture, shoegazer pop, and perhaps most significantly, a huge chunk of the global dance culture of the 90s and early 21st century.

It is not an overstatement to say that New Order was the first band to realise that guitars had a place in dance music, thus setting the stage for the mainstream acceptance of hitherto underground club culture. They were also the first band to utilise dance-music elements to embellish their fundamentally guitar-rock songs, and the first to place emphasis on the rhythm section.

For such a consequential act, New Order certainly had an inauspicious beginning. Starting off as the monolithic post-punk group Joy Division, the band later lost singer Ian Curtis when he hanged himself.

Brushing off the sudden tragedy, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris got together again to form New Order with keyboardist Gillian Gilbert. New Order first emerged with their 1981 debut single Ceremony, a leftover gem from the Joy Division days with skilful, brilliant fret-work but flat, colourless vocals from Sumner.

Debut album Movement was released later that year, a rather underdeveloped work that perhaps reflected Joy Division's work too strongly. Sumner tried a limp impersonation of Curtis and fell flat on his face, Gilbert's synth work was in sore need of evolution and improvement, and nothing on Movement came close to matching the gorgeous desolation of prime Joy Division.

Perhaps the only saving grace was the audible birth pangs of Peter Hook's rumbling-bass style, which would later become one of New Order's distinctive trademarks.

New Order started ditching their Joy Division albatross with their second single, the echoing, sequencer-laden Everything's Gone Green, and their seamless third single, Temptation, was a certified dance-floor classic (it would resurface almost 15 years later on the soundtrack for the cult film Trainspotting), with a typically cryptic New Order lyric to boot.

The Joy Division exorcism was complete by the time they released the mighty Blue Monday, which would later become the best-selling 12-inch single of all time. Birthed from a drum-machine experiment, it was a perfect distillation of new-wave dance textures and a coolly detached post-punk attitude, and would later be endlessly remixed in countless incarnations.

Power, Corruption and Lies, New Order's sophomore album, was released in 1983, and instantly became their first classic LP. It was an effortless second effort, whereby Hook's high-register bass came into its own and Gilbert developed her familiar synth-string style.

It contained superb cuts like the tense opener Age of Consent, the propulsive, bouncy The Village, the lush and synth-string-dominated Your Silent Face (a clever parody of the robotic pop German synth pioneers Kraftwerk were famous for, with a biting ending line: "You've caught me at a bad time, so why don't you piss off") and the vocodered instrumental Ecstasy (a direct musical ancestor of the prevalent rave culture of the late 90s).

New Order next went to New York to record with legendary house producer Arthur Baker, the results of which were the chattering-synth-suffused Confusion and the absolutely magnificent slacker anthem Thieves Like Us with its immortal line "I've lived my life in the valleys, I've lived my life on the hills, I've lived my life on alcohol, I've lived my life on pills".

The band went back to Britain after that and started recording what would become their best album yet. Preceded by its lead single, the eight-minute tour-de-force masterpiece The Perfect Kiss (complete with requisite New Order oddness; this time it was a frog chorus during the instrumental breakdown), Low Life was arguably the pinnacle of their achievements.

Low Life had no duds amongst all its eight tracks, which included the mutant country-and-dance opener Love Vigilantes (an anti-war rant of sorts), the Cure-gone-electronica atmospherics of This Time of Night, the cutting, rugged guitar-rock of Sunrise, the paranoia-inducing tale of inner-city Manchester Sub Culture, and the closing, insouciant rave-up Face Up (complete with inane shouts and whoops by Sumner).

This album was also where the key elements of New Order all clicked together in perfect synchrony; Sumner's oblique, droll vocals, Hook's rolling bass melodies, Morris's precision-cut drumming and Gilbert's inventive keyboard accents were all the components that add up to New Order's fundamental musical framework.

1986's Brotherhood saw the band in a holding pattern. Seemingly containing more of the same formula that made Low Life such a landmark album, it was really New Order-by-numbers, being brilliant in places, but somewhat self-indulgent elsewhere.

Bizarre Love Triangle was the big hit from Brotherhood, a quintessential New Order single along the lines of The Perfect Kiss, and Paradise was a promising start to the album, a crisp, melodic dance-pop jewel with an insistent, throbbing bass line from Hook.

However, fillers abounded elsewhere, as in the silly in-joke Every Second Counts, the surprisingly acoustic but listless As It Is When It Was, and the overlong indictment of Thatcherian Britain, State of the Nation.

It was also an open secret around this time that Hook wanted to pursue a rockier path, while Sumner wanted to expand on New Order's basic synth-pop foundation. This opened up a protracted rift between the once-bosom buddies, which was worsened by other lesser factors; the mutual enmity did not thaw till more than a decade later.

New Order took a breather of sorts the next year, while putting out the excellent Substance singles double-album compilation. Substance contained all the classic New Order singles and their respective B-sides, including the powerful new single True Faith (apparently about hallucinatory substances), recorded with Pet Shop Boys producer Stephen Hague. True Faith became their first US Top 40 hit, and remained a perennial and deathless favourite.

The B-sides disc was no less potent. The opening In a Lonely Place was a chilling, bleak funeral march that sounded like an extension of Joy Division's cinematic Atmosphere (complete with Sumner's best impersonation of a moaning Ian Curtis), while Lonesome Tonight was a desolate story of unrequited love with an unexpectedly rude twist (Sumner all too audibly hawked and spat at the song's end).

Other high points were the manic-but-intriguing Murder (a showcase for the limitless possibilities when Hook's bass goes absolutely barmy, complete with peculiar film-dialogue samples from Caligula and 2001: A Space Odyssey), and the brittle, quietly shocking 1963, a murder-mystery tale that raises more questions at the song's end.

A standalone single came out in 1987, the intentionally over-the-top Touched by the Hand of God, a send-up of their own legacy of classic synth-pop singles like Blue Monday and The Perfect Kiss.

Touched by the Hand of God was punctuated with mockingly dramatic synth blasts and a hilariously urgent vocal, and accompanied by a funny Kathryn Bigelow-directed video clip that savagely parodied hair-metal bands like Bon Jovi and Whitesnake, with New Order decked out in leather, chains and other cliched paraphernalia of the heavy-metal scene. A pointless Quincy Jones remix of Blue Monday emerged the following year, and in 1989, another New Order masterpiece, Technique, was released.

Technique was important in a number of ways. It effectively heralded the outset of the Madchester era, and it was also the one album where the band relied heavily on house textures.

It was also the perfect soundtrack to a Friday-night warehouse rave-up, and a "fun" album, with the band taking the piss more than once. The opening Fine Time was a manic stomp through a dingy Ibiza club, complete with Sumner’s rather ineffectual impersonation of Barry White’s growlings, with the addition of curious lamb bleats.

Elsewhere, the crystalline Round and Round continued the grand tradition of epic, classic New Order singles (kicked off spectacularly by The Perfect Kiss, and possibly even Blue Monday), Run nicked a bit of John Denver's Leaving on a Jet Plane to paint a caustic tale of love gone wrong, while Mr. Disco encapsulated unrequited love in an intentionally campy house number (complete with cheesily appropriate laser effects).

Dream Attack ended the album with a by-now-common New Order trademark, downbeat lyrics married to a bright, poppish melodic structure. Technique went straight to No 1 on the British charts, while unjustly ignored by the wilfully ignorant American market.

New Order fragmented after the success of Technique. Sumner formed the synth-pop supergroup Electronic with Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr (with occasional Pet Shop Boy guest Neil Tennant), releasing an eponymous debut album which sounded like a more accessible New Order.

Hook founded Revenge, while Morris and Gilbert became the Other Two. It would seem that New Order had disbanded permanently, and the situation was compounded by the collapse of Factory Records, their longtime label (which had also housed Joy Division).

Surprisingly, the band managed to grin and bear it, putting aside long-standing differences and moving to London Records. The reformed New Order went back into the studio with producer Stephen Hague in 1992.

The outcome was the solemn, harsher-sounding Republic, released in 1993, which was the complete antithesis of Technique. The fun atmosphere prevalent on Technique was gone, replaced by an austere, almost metallic sheen.

Regret begins the proceedings majestically, an incredible slice of prime New Order, replete with an irresistibly catchy Sumner guitar riff, Gilbert’s almost weary-sounding synth strings, Hook's pummelling bass, and Morris's kinetic-but-precise drumming.

Other cuts were by turns vengeful, eerie, regretful and bitter, including the taut and angry World, the doomy shuffle of Ruined in a Day (a disconsolate acknowledgement of the inevitable disappointments of life), the no holds barred techno-as-done-by-New-Order Spooky, the minor pop gem Liar (a not-so-subtle dig at their former record label head Tony Wilson), the relentless Young Offender, the growling, house-influenced Chemical, and the bleakly forsaken instrumental Avalanche, with its final chilling notes stretching on like tombstones in a vast military graveyard.

Republic was dismissed by some longtime fans as having too much of a polished gloss, but in retrospect, it stands as one of the most significant British albums of the 90s.

Republic seemingly signalled the permanent end of New Order. Hook went on to form a new group, Monaco, releasing two lacklustre albums in 1997 and 2000. Electronic released two more albums in 1996 and 1999, while the Other Two also put out an album in 1999.

A hastily compiled new greatest hits set was put out in 1994, unimaginatively entitled The Best of New Order (which basically contained the radio edits of their singles, hardly as definitive a career overview as the monumental Substance was), followed by The Rest of New Order, a collection of at-times brilliant, mostly cringe-worthy remixes of classic New Order tracks done by flavour-of-the-month deejays like Perfecto, Armand van Helden, Fluke and Hardfloor (all of them incidentally owing the genesis of their successful careers to the overpowering influence of New Order).

Then, without warning in early 2000, a brand-new New Order track, Brutal, quietly surfaced on the soundtrack of The Beach.

Brutal was a, well, brutal guitar-rocker that sounded more like latter-day Electronic than halcyon-day New Order, but at least it was a prelude to something bigger.

Miracles do happen. In early 2001, a much older and hopefully wiser New Order finally kissed and made up, in a manner of speaking. Sumner and Hook said goodbye to their long-running mutual antagonism, and the band were coaxed back into the studio with producer Steve Osborne, although Gilbert opted out of the proceedings, choosing to concentrate on family life. New guitarist and keyboardist Phil Cunningham was drafted in to fill her spot.

The outcome of this highly unlikely reunion was Get Ready, a classic New Order album in every sense of the word, but updated with modern-day sonics.

Crystal was the debut single and the opening track, and it was a reminder of why New Order was such a great band in the first place; it was sheer aural pleasure to hear Hook's familiar high-register bass duelling fiercely with Sumner's rockier-sounding guitar, underpinned by Morris' solid drumming. Surprise guest Billy Corgan turned up on backing vocals on the pleasantly mid-tempo Turn My Way.

Vicious Streak was more laidback but no less effective, but Close Range was a genuine stormer, almost Chemical Brothers-ish in its invocation of big-beat rhythms and dance-noise mayhem.

Run Wild provided an appropriate closer to the album, a slow, plaintive acoustic number that is aglow with just enough quirkiness to make it archetypal New Order. Get Ready was a potent signal that New Order are back with a vengeance to reclaim the cutting edge of music that was once theirs.

New Order's comeback continued with the release of 2005's Waiting for the Sirens' Call, which slightly modified the guitar-based blueprint of Get Ready for a more "classic"-sounding New Order record. First single Krafty sounded like a lost gem from the Technique era, while the title track is perhaps one of the most elegant-sounding songs in the band's oeuvre.

The sleek Jetstream featured a surprise guest appearance from Scissor Sisters' Ana Matronic, while the dancey Guilt Is a Useless Emotion recalled some of Sumner's Electronic synth-pop aesthetics. Turn constituted the most hummable tune on the entire album, with its Smiths-informed dynamics, while closer Working Overtime is a fun, glam-rock influenced stormer that finally displayed New Order's lighter side. It would seem that these veteran Mancunians had come a long way since their bleakly austere Joy Division days.


Blogger Eeleen Lee said...

Paul Morley said it best when he described New Order as 'sub Pet Shop Boys...hiding behind their cryptic record sleeves and reluctance to do interviews'. With the interest in recent years in Joy Division, New Order have been slightly less reluctant.

6:23 PM  

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