New Order emerged from tragedy to re-define how British pop operates.
The facts are almost so well known that they are scarcely worth repeating, but here goes: New Order's 'Blue Monday' remains the biggest-selling 12 inch single of all time; they virtually bankrolled the Hacienda and changed youth culture forever; 'World In Motion' altered the way the English public perceived football; they took underground dance styles into the charts, exploding definitions of how a pop song could be constructed.
Amongst these familiar landmarks, however, lie all manner of oddball gems, lesser known rarities and slept on classics. With New Order set to play two sold out shows at Brixton Academy, Clash writer Mat Smith traces an alternate history of this vital, seminal group.
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‘Dreams Never End’ ('Movement', 1981)
The suicide of Ian Curtis and the decision by the surviving members of Joy Division to reform under the name New Order saw the band unsure as to who should sing. The short-lived solution? Vocal duties would be shared by Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris. Their 1981 debut ‘Movement’ found them once again working with Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, who by now was a semi-functioning addict and extremely volatile, leading to strained recording sessions.
‘Dreams Never End’, sung by Hook, opened ‘Movement’ and found the band pinioned between the dour negativity of their earlier incarnation and a much more upbeat and melodic response. The title was purportedly inspired by the line in Joy Division’s ‘Insight’ – “Guess your dreams always end.” ‘Dreams Never End’ was the sound of a band in transition, beholden to their Curtis-fronted past and facing head-on toward a more optimistic future.
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‘Love Vigilantes’ ('Low-Life', 1985)
If ‘Power, Corruption And Lies’ was the point where New Order dispensed with rock in favour of a slick electronic momentum, 1985’s ‘Low-Life’ was the point where they accepted that the two could co-exist perfectly well, setting the tone for each successive album. ‘Love Vigilantes’, with a title that typically bore no resemblance to the lyrics of this song at all, was the obligatory enthralling opening move.
Here was a curious stew of Wire-esque guitar thrashing, effortless bass melodies, clattering drums and wonky melodica, all joyously underpinning Sumner’s adroitly out-of-tune lyrics of a soldier returning home from some distant conflict only to find that he'd been officially classified as deceased. It is a classic New Order mind-melting contradiction: outwardly upbeat but throughly grim if you listen closely.
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‘Every Little Counts’ ('Brotherhood', 1986)
Unless you count the collaboration with Keith Allen on the superbly daft ‘World In Motion’, humour in New Order tracks has been decidedly absent. ‘Every Little Counts’, from their fourth album, is one of few examples where dear Barney is to be found laughing throughout what should be a tender love song.
Then again, he is delivering the line ‘Every second counts when I am with you / I think you are a pig / You should be in a zoo’ or to be found ‘do-do-do’-ing like he's preposterously attempting a classic Phil Spector ballad. His couldn't-care-less vocal makes the musical backdrop to this track all the more breathtaking, particularly when it opens out into an unheralded synth-symphonic conclusion of truly grandiose proportions.
Hooky’s bass has never sounded so plaintive, and the ending evokes The Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’ with expert discordancy. ‘Every Little Counts’ is nothing short of emotionally devastating.
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‘586’ ('Power, Corruption & Lies', 1983)
‘586’ is the first cousin of ‘Blue Monday’, rightly successful as a 12” single with all the mythology about its prohibitive sleeve costs known to most people. If ‘Blue Monday’ suffers from over-exposure and from being just too obvious as a ‘pop’ track, subversive though it might be, ‘586’ feels positively unloved in comparison.
Starting as a slow, sketchy piece and moving into the same upbeat territory as its better-known relative, before slowing right back down again, this track nevertheless sees Bernard offering some of his most anguished vocals and the detached, robotic delivery that suited the mechanistic feel and otherworldly bounce of the music.
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'Ruined In A Day' ('Republic', 1993)
‘Republic’ was an album loaded with finality, and the weariness with which New Order approached this difficult period is best felt on ‘Ruined In A Day’. Purportedly about the collapse of Factory Records and loaded with notions of disappointment and distrust, the song was New Order slowed to a funereal pace, evoking comparisons with the abject misery of Joy Division’s ‘Procession’, itself a sort of concluding statement of sorts.
Beneath funky beats, Italo-house piano and a typically melodic interplay between Hooky’s bass and Barney’s guitar, lurks an abject misery that makes everything else New Order / Joy Division did seem positively upbeat.
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Catch New Order live:
16 London Brixton Academy SOLD OUT
17 London Brixton Academy
19 Glasgow Academy SOLD OUT
21 Liverpool Olympia SOLD OUT
24 Wolverhampton Civic Hall SOLD OUT