The members of Joy Division
agreed that, should one of them leave, the remainder would pick a new name. So, when Ian Curtis
took his life, the survivors became New Order
, a name which aroused controversy for its quasi-Nazi
associations. Factory Records
agreed to continue the band's contract, notwithstanding that many in the music press saw Joy Division as Ian Curtis plus Martin Hannett
, the producer who had done so much for 'Unknown Pleasures
' and 'Closer
', plus some musicians. The band also retained the services of Peter Saville
as graphic designer.
With the death of Ian Curtis the group was a three-piece consisting of Bernard Sumner on the guitar, Peter Hook on the bass, and Stephen Morris on the drums. They swiftly recruited Gillian Gilbert, a friend of the band, although she was not a musician; she gravitated to keyboards, drawing numbers on the keys to indicate which ones should be played and in which order. The group quickly released a single, 'Ceremony', based on material left over from Joy Division, with Sumner on vocals. Legend has it that, as Curtis had not written down the lyrics, the group had to spend hours listening to his scratchy demo tape to work out what he was singing. On their first album, 'Movement', Hook, Morris and Sumner took turns on vocals, with Gilbert reading poetry on one track; it was decided that Morris was the better singer, but he couldn't play the drums and sing at the same time, so Bernard got the job.
'Movement' was released in 1981 and was produced by Martin Hannett. There was more of an emphasis on synthesisers and sequenced drums than before, but the record sounded uncomfortably like a Joy Division record without Ian Curtis. For a group which was not expected to amount to much, this was dangerous territory; something new and different was required if they were not to become irrelevant. The album was not a critical or commercial success. Nonetheless, it helped cement New Order's unique musical mix - the drums were robotic, sometimes sequenced, Peter Hook played Duane Eddy-style lead riffs with the bass guitar, and the album's first track, 'Dreams Never End', introduced the 'New Order rhythm' (an indie 'dah-dah-dah-dadadada-dah-dada' which resurfaced all over their subsequent albums). Listened to today, 'Movement' is still an impressive sonic achievement, but its songs drag on and on with little variation, exactly as if Joy Division's drummer, bassist and guitarist had continued to be Joy Division without Ian Curtis. Curtis could not be replaced or supplanted, and there was no point pretending otherwise.
Having missed the chance to tour the US as Joy Division, New Order spent the next few months exploring New York's evolving club scene. They released a single, 'Everything’s Gone Green', which was astonishingly close to being a disco single. The band thenceforth recorded 'Power, Corruption and Lies', a sublime mixture of gloomy guitars and up-beat electronic rhythms. Nowadays, it sounds primitive and charming, but in 1983 it was a revolutionary bridge between two distinct musical worlds. It established another bunch of New Order trademarks - an air of cool futurism common with The Pet Shop Boys, but less distanced, whilst the song titles were picked at random and the packaging was enigmatic, without any photos of the band or even their name, unless you could decipher a strange colour-based code that graced the inside gatefold. At the same time they released 'Blue Monday', which went on to become the biggest-selling 12" of all time ever. In a year and a bit New Order had become new, vital.
('Blue Monday' was packaged in a die-cut sleeve designed to look like an old 5" floppy disc. A combination of excessive production costs and a record deal that favoured the artists meant that the record actually made a financial loss - the more copies that were sold, the more money Factory Records lost. Perhaps to compensate for this the record label persuaded New Order to invest heavily in a Manchester nightclub, The Hacienda, with disastrous financial consequences for all concerned.)
As with The Pet Shop Boys - Neil Tennant was envious of the success of 'Blue Monday', a style of record which he had envisaged in his head and striven to create - the group also gained a reputation for crossing the divide between 'mainstream' music and the remix-led, DJ-led club culture emerging in New York and Detroit, a culture which was seen by the outside world as a curious novelty. Much of the band's second album had been recorded after the group discovered the joys of dancing a lot to loud beats, and it was this continued fascination with dance music culture that helped the group remain abreast of fashion in a way that Simple Minds, for example, did not.
Their next album, and a critical favour, came out in 1985. 'Low-Life' was much rockier than 'Lies', particularly on the stand-out tracks 'This Time of Night' and 'Sunrise' - almost a medley, as the two songs used the same chords and were back-to-back on the album. Nowadays it still sounds modern and up-to-date, although the single tracks 'The Perfect Kiss' and 'Sub-Culture' were surprisingly monotonous. 'Brotherhood', from 1986, was in comparison dull and low-key, despite containing the excellent 'Bizarre Love Triangle', a single which was not bizarre and had nothing to do with love triangles. Nowadays 'Brotherhood' sounds very old-fashioned and muffled, the production suffering from an over-reliance on primitive drum samplers.
Label boss Tony Wilson was a fan of the band and wanted a way to listen to all their singles in his car, and thus 1987 saw 'Substance', a compilation of their singles and b-sides to date (the same year saw a similar Joy Division retrospective, also called 'Substance'). The album was one of the few released on DAT, and contained 'True Faith', their biggest chart hit and one of their three finest songs. 'True Faith' is a good example of the group's ability to create songs which sound happy and sad at the same time, another of the things which set New Order apart from a growing band of dancey synth acts. The song was also about drugs, something which New Order were dabbling with at the time; the result of this was their next album, probably their most consistently successful.
1989 saw 'Technique' which, along with 'Power, Corruption and Lies', is their best shot at immortality. Coinciding with acid house, Balearic beat, slightly predating madchester, and combining elements from all of them, 'Technique' remains enormously entertaining today, and is the best thing to buy if you don't know anything about the band. Both rock and house, it enlivened what was generally a bleak period for pop, and made New Order one of a handful of post-punk bands to still be utterly relevant and credible at the end of the 80s, the only other obvious example being the aforementioned Cure, with whom New Order were often compared. No other bands formed in the punk era could stand comparison with The Stone Roses or Factory Records' own The Happy Mondays.
After that the group took a break. Under the name 'Englandneworder' they had a freak number one hit single in 1990, a football song called 'World in Motion', recorded with England's world cup squad and co-written Keith Allen. It became one of a handful of decent football singles, and forever separated the group from its die-hard, Joy Division-era fans. Despite this success the group seemed to be on the verge of splitting, beset by financial problems which had led to them re-recording 'Blue Monday' for a US TV advert for Sunkist (as legend had it - and the group accumulated more legends than any other during the 1980s - Sumner was motivated during the recording session by a large painted sign in the studio which read '$200,000'). The members went off to solo projects, all of which sounded a bit like New Order - Revenge, Electronic, The Other Two, and eventually Monaco. The group went into the studio in 1992 to record a further album, 'Republic', but the release was held up when Factory Records went bust. Apart from throwing a spoke in New Order's wheels this had the unfortunate effect of sabotaging the career of The Other Two - Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris. Of the other side projects, Electronic (Bernard Sumner and The Smiths' Johnny Marr, with initial assistance from Neil Tennant) produced one classic album before gradually fading away, Revenge (Peter Hook and friends playing unashamed rock) went nowhere, whilst Peter Hook's next project, Monaco, had a hit with 'What do you want from me?' before similarly disappearing.
The band were bought by London Records, who released 'Republic' in 1993. It was an odd album - the first two songs (the excellent 'Regret' and 'World (the price of love)') and the last two songs ('Special', their great lost single, and 'Avalanche', an instrumental) were amongst the best things that New Order had done, whilst the songs in the middle sounded as if producer Stephen Hague had accidentally replaced the original tapes with dull, programmed filler; much of the group's instrumental work was ditched in favour of programmed rhythm tracks and anonymous backing vocalists. By 1993 the album sounded old-fashioned, derivative of tacky chart pop. The packaging was however fantastic, the CD sleeve opening into a montage of cross-faded stock photographs which complimented the music's air of jaded disappointment.
The band seemed to fold after that. A couple of greatest hits compilations and videos came out so that London Records could recoup their investment, but the individual members went back to their solo projects. Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris had some success with television soundtracks, became man and wife, and produced a child. As individuals the group's members seemed to be happier and richer than ever before, as the financial and business woes of Factory Records had gone.
Whether through boredom or a rekindled creative urge, the band got together in the late 1990s to record a new song for the soundtrack to 'The Beach', and as of writing this they have a new album out ('Get Ready') in a fortnight.
'Get Ready' has now been out for some time. It's a bit like 'Low Life', but rockier and more guitary. 'Crystal', the lead single, is superb, although the rest of the album follows the New Order formula perhaps too closely. Unfortunately, Gillian Gilbert appears to have left the band, at least temporarily, in order to look after her and Morris' child. Time will tell as to whether the group remains together.
New Order's appeal is hard to define. During the 1980s they married proto-goth rock, synth-pop and dance music, at a time when 'serious' bands would not touch dance music with a bargepole - furthermore, they did so in a low-key, unselfconscious way, without making a fuss about it. For all their use of modern technology, at the same time their style was shambolic and amateurish. Bernard Sumner's voice was weak, and his lyrics scan badly ('It's called love, it's like honey / you can't buy it with money'), but when all the aforementioned were combined they produced greatness. They seemed unconcerned with publicity and popularity, and people liked them for it.