Anyone writing about New Order is obliged to begin by writing about Joy Division. That is especially true in this case.
As a teenager growing up in Rochester, I thought of Joy Division as the band with the beautifully austere album covers that cooler kids listened to. I was not that cool, and I still have a hard time making it through an entire album. But as an adult, it isn’t because the music is over my head—it’s because the gloom and sadness is so thick. And it is beautiful, this gloom and sadness, even when it’s coupled with a manic adrenaline. A good example of that coupling can be found in this live clip of “She’s Lost Control.”
The guitar is playing a rhythm part, while the bass playing is unusually melodic. The beat is both robotic and frenzied; the drummer is playing acoustic drums, but all most of us hear is that beautiful Synare 3 handclap. And the singer’s voice is so low, both tonally and emotionally, that it walks the line between sublime and embarrassing like a tightrope. And his dancing seems all too appropriate for a song about losing control.
This was one of many fascinating musical directions that the British took when punk fizzled out in the late 1970’s.—much more musically ambitious but just as bleak as anything from the Sex Pistols, with a serious debt to the work of German electronic music pioneers like Kraftwerk. You could slam to some of it, you could do a kind of Goth vogueing to the rest of it, or you could do what singer Ian Curtis did and dance in a way inspired by the epileptic seizures that plagued him in real life.
His other chemical imbalance was depression. Curtis killed himself in May of 1980, just one day before the band was to leave for their first tour of America. Their second LP, Closer, was just about to come out. The first single was released in June. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is the one Joy Division song that has consistently stopped me in my tracks ever since I first saw the video when I was fifteen. It’s a beautiful, achingly elegant piece of music.
Early on, the members of Joy Division had agreed that they would change the name of the band if one member were to leave. They kept that promise by carrying on as New Order. The disc in question is the first version of their first single. “Ceremony” is familiar to anyone who has a copy of New Order’s singles collection Substance. Here is the version most of us know, originally released in September of 1981.
Clearly a transitional record, particularly because of the lack of keyboards and more pop-friendly beats that would soon become associated with New Order. The song was actually a Joy Division number that had been recorded as a demo but never released. Guitarist Bernard Sumner (this song was his first attempt at singing lead) had to run the track through a graphic equalizer to discern the original lyrics.
Now here is the version I found in the archive. It was released in March of 1981.
The production is a little more raw, the drums a little more loose, and the vocals a little less confident. The whole thing just sounds a little more human than the later version, and is all the more enjoyable for it.
The second version’s sleeve (both designed by Peter Saville, who was responsible for much of Factory Records’ distinctive look) featured a different color and design, but they had extra copies of this first sleeve lying around when the second version was being pressed, so some version-two discs ended up in version-one sleeves. So how can we tell which is which just by looking? Simple: look for the run-off notation.
That’s fancy talk for the words one occasionally finds inscribed in a disc’s run-off groove. The words are usually meant to be a fun thing for collectors to get excited about and are often of the “Hi Mom!” variety. Not in this case. Key lyrics were chosen to honor Ian Curtis as the band made this first step forward. Side A features ‘WATCHING FOREVER” while Side B has “HOW I WISH YOU WERE HERE WITH ME NOW”. The A side of the later version had “WATCHING LOVE GROW FOREVER” inscribed, while the B side’s inscription remained the same.
The B side is called “In a Lonely Place” and features drummer Stephen Morris on vocals. The task would eventually fall to Sumner, but at first each member tried their hand at being the singer. It’s interesting to hear how two different people are both struggling between finding their own voices and singing the way that their former vocalist used to do it.
Morris’ girlfriend Gillian Gilbert officially joined the group in 1981, just after she contributed guitar work to the second version of “Ceremony.” A trip to New York City introduced the band to the more upbeat genres of freestyle and electro, and inspired Morris to teach himself how to program a drum machine. A new direction was presenting itself, and it wasn’t long until songs like “Perfect Kiss” (video directed by Jonathan Demme) came to represent the New Order sound.
Sumner had found his voice, using his imperfect singing ability to act as an organic foil to the programmed beats. Bassist Peter Hook is still playing “lead bass” at times throughout the song, and drum pads provide hectic fills on top of the programming. The video captures the feel of music being created “live” much better than clips from the band’s rock contemporaries.
“Bizarre Love Triangle” makes the most of music video’s potential for absurdist non sequiturs. Dig the Robert Longo-esque falling businessmen throughout the clip, and the delightfully random confrontation at the 2:40 mark.
“Regret” showed the band doing well in the 1990’s. Hook’s lead bass is back, as is the melancholy tempered by melodic sweetness. More wistful than bleak, but no weaker for it.
New Order’s last album of new material came out in 2005. Waiting For the Siren’s Call gave us a romantic little number called “Krafty.” Good stuff.
New Order is reportedly working on new material, though without the input of Peter Hook, who has left the group. The band has been around for 34 years, and has created some incredible music. No one would have blamed them for having given up the whole thing after the death of Ian Curtis. It’s a good thing for all of us that they were able to regroup and carry on.