Tuesday, 2 March 2010

New Order – the tragic birth of one of British music’s most innovative and original bands

The unfortunate life of Ian Curtis has been well documented, particularly the circumstances surrounding his tragic death. But following Curtis’ suicide in May 1980, Joy Division, the band he had created alongside Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris, had lost its driving force, its raison d’être. For Joy Division was modelled around the personality, ideas and experiences of Ian Curtis, and as such could not continue in his absence. The creation of New Order in the summer of 1980 was both an evolutionary and a revolutionary step, continuing the post-punk origins of Joy Division in conjunction with an even greater focus on synthesisers and an increasingly electronic sound. New Order’s debut, Ceremony, was very much a transitional album, attempting to honour Joy Division’s immense music legacy and break new ground at the same time. Hook later revealed the attitude of the band towards Ceremony, saying “we were confused musically…our songwriting wasn’t coming together”. Whilst few would be surprised at these words, they were potentially worrying portents for the future. Yet New Order quickly established a reputation as a band that knew no bounds, wasn’t constrained by a genre and could constantly reinvent and reinvigorate itself. Whilst undoubtedly the band’s commercial and creative peak came in the 1980s, throughout its incarnation New Order spanned twenty-seven years. If one includes the Joy Division years, then Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris can be seen as having established and maintained a musical dynasty.

For those lucky enough to be familiar with New Order’s work on any significant scale, it is impossible to deny that their contribution to music has been extraordinary. It is fair to say that few bands have given as much to the progression of dance and alternative rock music in Britain to have received such little praise and acknowledgement. The fact that ‘Blue Monday’ remains the highest-selling 12-inch single with, it’s claimed, over 1,000,000 copies sold is a testament to the appeal of New Order. For many bands, a single of the magnitude of ‘Blue Monday’ would have constituted the height of their creative and technical abilities; however in the case of New Order it is merely a further example of the band’s mercurial contribution to music. Whilst equally-talented and praiseworthy bands of a roughly-similar vintage, such as Depeche Mode, are acknowledged as being one of the greatest electronic bands in musical history, New Order are comparatively ignored. Power, Corruption and Lies, Brotherhood, Technique and Low-Life are essential to any patron of alternative rock, dance, electronica, synthpop or New Wave.

Whilst most bands would have contented themselves with moderate commercial success, New Order strove to be different, and to set themselves apart from the establishment. The inclusion of frogs croaking on ‘The Perfect Kiss’ almost certainly constitutes the most bizarre sampling ever used by a band of any particular note. Whilst New Order were borne out of a legacy of misery, suffering and tragedy, and spent their initial years attempting to balance the immense legacy of Joy Division with a desire for experimentation, it can be reasonably said that by the time of 1989’s seminal dance production Technique, the band had produced a sizeable legacy of their own. Although more than twenty years have passed, and production values and recording qualities have improved immeasurably ‘Round and Round’ and ‘Mr. Disco’ remain textbook manifestations of modern dance music. Whilst in the past few years DJs and dance groups have tended to produce thumping, repetitive tracks led by heavy beats and a catchy riff, for New Order instruments and synthesisers were the weapons of choice.

Whilst some fans may decry the fact that New Order were forced to wait until May 1990 for their first UK Number One, I see this as part of the band’s almost indescribable charm. Yes, World In Motion, released under the moniker ‘Englandneworder’ may be a football song, may feature an appalling rap by striker John Barnes, and may see the band at their most commercial, but for me it is still proof of the band’s continuing innovation and originality. Factory Records may have been and gone, and the New Order-financed Hacienda nightclub swallowed up by the property industry, but New Order’s legacy will live on for years to come. Never mind that the band continues to lack the type of public adoration currently afforded to far lesser artists, form is temporary, but class is permanent. In 1980 one era came to an end, and another began, in which musical boundaries were broken and the rules of post-punk rock were drastically re-written by a group of lads from Manchester. So for those unfamiliar with New Order, steer clear of the constant stream of greatest hits albums and ‘definitive collections’; instead immerse yourself in a back-catalogue of untamed brilliance, and familiarise yourself with one of the greatest bands in the history of popular music.

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