Reducing New Order’s 35-year discography to a single hour may seem like too big a task, but one thing lightens the load a bit: It’s easy to ignore everything from the past 22 of those 35 years because, while there are flashes of greatness in the band’s post-1993 output, nothing is particularly amazing or illustrative. (And it should be noted that there have been only two proper full-length releases since 1993’s Republic, not including the imminent Music Complete, which I haven’t heard yet.)
With that out of the way, the hard part: New Order evolved so rapidly and windingly in its first decade that no song or album feels representative, with the possible exception of the sorta-greatest hits set Substance. That collection, which pushed the band into worldwide charts and arenas, gathered the band’s A-sides (though frequently in re-recorded or edited versions), and added what would become a smash single in “True Faith.” Though it’s actually a compilation, Substance is widely considered New Order’s best album, and it’s definitely the band’s biggest seller. This installment of Power Hour couldn’t and won’t ignore Substance, but there’s another side to New Order—maybe a few sides—not represented there at all; a New Order collection that begins and ends with Substance will be woefully incomplete.
The history, which is fairly well-worn territory at this point: New Order was born from the ashes of Joy Division, whose singer, Ian Curtis, killed himself on the eve of that band’s first American tour, in 1980. The three surviving members decided to continue with the new name, and their first single—released while still a trio—featured two songs written while still Joy Division. New Order’s first album, Movement, goes largely ignored, as the band was still trying to find its sound—even trying lead vocals from both bassist Peter Hook and eventual full-time singer Bernard Sumner. Gillian Gilbert, the girlfriend of drummer Stephen Morris, would round out the core quartet, and the band would hit its creative peak from roughly 1981-1990, the year they recorded a semi-embarrassing song for England’s FIFA team.
After 1993’s Republic, the band was never the same again. An extended hiatus—which was later revealed to be a break-up—ended with a so-so album, Get Ready, after which Gillian Gilbert left the band to spend more time with her and Morris’ children. Side projects abounded, though most weren’t too successful: Gilbert and Morris had The Other Two; Hook had Revenge and Monaco; Sumner actually had a hit or two with Johnny Marr as Electronic. The current lineup again features Gilbert but does not include Hook, whose bass playing is the bedrock (and frequently lead melodic instrument) for much of the band’s catalog. The upcoming Music Complete is New Order’s first album without Hook’s bass playing. (For further information on the feuds between Hook and Sumner, check out their respective autobiographies.)
But none of that squabbling or recent history can tarnish New Order’s catalog or influence, the latter of which is nearly impossible to overstate. The band morphed quickly from dour—and incredible—post-punk into pioneers of electronic music, grafting then-new technology onto its sound and straddling musical lines that they helped draw. “Blue Monday” alone genre-jumped from disco to house to indie rock, an anthem for a band that was creating without restraint. (It’s also seven-and-a-half minutes long, which is why I’ve included one of its shorter iterations here.) That may be the biggest challenge of a New Order Power Hour: Not only are there dozens of excellent songs and sounds to choose from, but none of them are particularly short. Forgive whatever omissions you find glaring, especially “Bizarre Love Triangle.” (It’s obviously a better song than “World In Motion,” but this isn’t just about what’s best.)
So much legend has built up around “Blue Monday,” which is nearly always spoken of as the “biggest selling 12-inch single of all time” and that “loses money on every copy sold” (because of the original’s expensive die-cut sleeve). The song itself might get lost in some of that talk, and it’s a shame, because its mixture of cold synths and warm humanity—Peter Hook’s bass, which you’ll be hearing a lot about—makes it a pioneer. Though it was originally conceived as a song that the band could play instead of an encore—they’d just hit “play” and walk off—it became a touchstone. And Sumner ended up having plenty of human fun with it, frequently changing the line “If it wasn’t for your misfortune” to “If it wasn’t for your big penis.” (Only live, though—none of the many studio versions feature that nugget.) “Blue Monday 1988” a.k.a. “Blue Monday 88” is shorter and slightly busier than the original, and while it’s not the real thing (exactly), it’s close enough to merit inclusion here since it shaves more than three minutes off the original.
The best song on New Order’s best album—1983’s Power, Corruption & Lies—“Age Of Consent” is something of an unacknowledged greatest hit. It was never released as a single but the band frequently plays it live, and it was included on the U.S. version of (The Best Of) New Order. It was probably overshadowed somewhat by the massive success of “Blue Monday,” which makes sense considering it’s like that song’s more joyful, human flipside, with Sumner’s voice reaching up and out of his natural register to acknowledge the birds and the bees. Whereas “Blue Monday” felt like gorgeous autopilot, this one is clearly New Order flying by wire, and creating nearly perfect pop.
Included more for its weirdness than for its value as a song, “World In Motion” was New Order’s semi-ridiculous attempt to bring glory to England’s World Cup team—a far cry from its early days, though just a few years later. The song isn’t entirely out of line with the band’s sound from the time—1989’s Technique was New Order’s last truly great album—but it also gives way to a stilted rap verse from footballer John Barnes. If it looked like New Order actually gave a shit and not like they were just having a laugh, it might have been embarrassing. As it stands, it’s a curiosity that stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the band’s catalog.
On the better side of the ridiculous line: the lead single from Technique, which preceded the album by a few months. New Order had always embraced drug and dance cultures, and took it to a logical conclusion during the height of the Madchester movement. “Fine Time” is back to the largely electronic sound, and it features one of the band’s weirdest vocals—a processed, gruff voice (supposedly Sumner’s) praising a young person’s, umm, “love technique.”
But for every bout of silliness or flight of fancy that New Order perpetrated, there are at least a few gorgeous, somber pop songs. “Leave Me Alone” provides a bookend to the joy of “Age Of Consent” on Power, Corruption & Lies. As is the case with so many New Order songs, the lyrics ride the line between silly and brilliant, and it’s hard to tell whether Sumner is intending to be profound. But his words (“You get these words wrong”) fit snugly here, and his guitar winds around Hook’s bass with the sort of grace that makes it immediately identifiable as a New Order song before he even sings a word.
The album version of “The Perfect Kiss”—on 1985’s terrific Low-Life—is three minutes shorter than the one that ended up on Substance, and it’s also a little shaggier and more fun: The synth bits here pan hard from left to right, and the cowbell and frog noises come off as a bit more unusual. It’s also one of New Order’s most complex arrangements, with every facet of the band’s personality shown off, from frog sounds to a killer bass line. The best way to experience it—and probably New Order overall—for the first time is via the music video, which puts across both the band’s icy-cool attitude and focuses on the members’ playing. The only thing missing is Stephen Morris’ machine-like drumming, because he spends this song just casually playing a synthesizer.
It was a close race between the two nearly perfect, chugging deep cuts on 1986’s Brotherhood—this one or “As It Is When It Was.” “Way Of Life” was very nearly a single, but was clearly overshadowed by the song that immediately follows it, “Bizarre Love Triangle.” But “Way Of Life” not only features some of Sumner’s fiercest, scratchiest guitar and memorable lyrics (“You told me a pack of lies that I can’t even reason with”) but also a nod to Joy Division’s biggest song, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which is referenced in the outro’s melody.
Speaking of Joy Division, New Order covered an obscure reggae song called “Turn The Heater On” for a John Peel session in 1982, supposedly because Ian Curtis had been a fan. It’s definitely the sound of a band not quite sure what to do with itself, but it is clearly able to find a groove and play with whatever toys are in the sandbox at the time. Hook’s bass rarely sounds so simple and rumbly—he usually loves to play with the entire fretboard, not just the low end—and Sumner first flirted with melodica on this track, which was never recorded beyond the Peel Session, and never appeared on an official album.
Speaking of melodica, it’s the sound of that simple instrument, alongside a programmed drum loop and a warm synthesizer wash, that dominates “Your Silent Face,” once again from Power, Corruption & Lies. (Did I mention what a great album that one is?) The melodica looks like a small piano keyboard, but has a tube running out of it, and it’s played by blowing into the tube; though used by jazzbos for a while, it’s frequently associated with dub reggae, which is clearly the influence that’s coming through on “Your Silent Face.” It’s a perfect melding of organic and electronic sounds, it’s not at all danceable, and it features the lyric, “You caught me at a bad time / So why don’t you piss off?”
New Order’s last perfect pop song—though “Crystal” and “Krafty” are both great—“Regret” may have actually hurt the band by giving it the perfect formula. Those other two songs are reasonably similar, and Hook even seemed to follow the blueprint in his band Monaco, which had a minor hit with “What Do You Want From Me?” Still, they rarely did guitar-led songs this well, with both the bass and lead playing vital roles. It’s too bad the guys playing those instruments can’t get along well enough to continue.
“Temptation” is another huge New Order single that morphed over the years; its most popular version—surprise, surprise—is on Substance, and though the original has its scruffier charms, that 1987 version trumps the others. It saves the vocal payoff (“Oh you’ve got green eyes / Oh you’ve got blue eyes / Oh you’ve got gray eyes”) for later in the song instead of leading with it, though the most important vocal in the song is actually just “Oooh ooh ooh ooh ooh.” As is so frequently the case with New Order, it’s the little, seemingly off-the-cuff things that, when added together, make something beautiful.
Technique, in spite of its day-glo cover and druggy “Fine Time,” featured plenty of classic New Order pop songs as well, including the strum-filled, unheralded “All The Way.” As so often happens with New Order songs, the lyrics come across as half nonsense and half philosophically sound. But that doesn’t matter with such a clean, crisp guitar sound.
And then it’s back to the beginning: “Ceremony” was one of the last songs that Joy Division wrote, though the band never properly recorded it. It became the first New Order release and also, strangely, its second: A version recorded by the trio came out in March of 1981, then they decided to re-record it once Gillian Gilbert joined the band—that one came out in September of 1981. There’s no mistaking the bass line that starts the song, and it’s still on every set list, even with that bassist gone. It was as if the band started on a perfect note, stumbled a bit, then hit its stride for nearly a decade. It’s a great ending and a great beginning, the start of a second life.
Total time: 1:01:57