New Order: eschewing heritage rock for a conceptual synth orchestra

Not for New Order the safe haven of a classic album tour. Instead, the band are artfully reconfiguring their back catalogue. ‘Creative people like to do something new,’ says Bernard Sumner

It’s not easy being the vanguard of technology. When Joy Division metamorphosed into New Order after the death of singer Ian Curtis in 1980, the band found a new direction by exploring the possibilities of synthesizers and decided, with misplaced confidence, to take the machines on tour.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is a new sound I’ve never heard before. If we took this on the road we’d be streets ahead of everyone else,’” says frontman Bernard Sumner. “I soon found out why no one else was doing it. It wasn’t because the concept hadn’t struck them before; it was because it was absolute madness.”

New Order, 1986.
New Order, 1986. Photograph: Steve Speller / Alamy/Alamy

The equipment would constantly malfunction or break down completely, leaving drummer Stephen Morris and bass player Peter Hook to keep the show moving while Sumner and keyboardist Gillian Gilbert tinkered with the tech. “We did get into improvising, though not in a jazz sense,” Morris remembers. “We’ve always had this ‘oh fuck it, let’s do it’ spirit.”

In 2017, technology is firmly on New Order’s side, enabling them to play five special shows at the Old Granada Studios with a 12-piece synth ensemble conducted by Joe Duddell and stage design by conceptual artist Liam Gillick.

The venue has historical associations – Joy Division recorded their TV debut in an adjacent Granada studio – and the title of the performances, So it goes.., nods to Tony Wilson’s Granada TV music show of the same name. But this is about reinvention rather than nostalgia. Or, as the band’s old friend and designer (and MIF Artistic Advisor) Peter Saville puts it, ‘original modern’.

New Order’s long-awaited MIF debut comes at a fruitful time. The departure of Peter Hook in 2007, far from the end, was the prelude to a rebirth. Their 2015 album Music Complete was their best and (not coincidentally) their most electronic since 1989’s Technique. With musical director Stuart Price, the band remixed and renewed some of their best-loved songs on the subsequent tour. Last year, they shook their kaleidoscope again, performing at the Sydney Opera House with new orchestral arrangements by Duddell. For So it goes.., New Order listened to their entire back catalogue to assemble a setlist that’s “90 per cent” different from their last tour. “There are songs that we haven’t played since the 80s,” says Morris, “and when we play them you may well discover why!”

New Order at Old Granada Studios, 2017
New Order at Old Granada Studios, 2017 Photograph: Donald Christie

“We make a lot of effort to freshen up the songs and visuals,” says Sumner. “Everyone’s heard the old version a million times. Creative people like to do something new.” On which note, he adds, “We will not be playing Blue Monday. Requests will fall on deaf ears. And these days, these ears are pretty deaf to be honest.”

Gillick, meanwhile, has designed a radical new stage structure for the band to play on – and in. “Their music has always had that feeling of building and developing and that’s the way we’ve done this,” he explains. “I designed a structure where you could place the other keyboard players, and sometimes you can see them and sometimes you can’t. They’re a component in the same way a bassline or drumbeat can be a component. We’re basically building a machine that can be programmed. We can make the whole structure operate in sync with the music.”

Gillick calls New Order’s music “the soundtrack to my life” and he hasn’t been disappointed by the experience of working together. “There’s no gatekeeper saying stop. There’s an actual exchange of ideas. They haven’t always made life easy for themselves but it’s amazing they still have that mentality.”

It’s a challenge for New Order to rearrange songs that were often written on the hoof, in the studio, rather than carefully composed. “I could a play a song to you but I couldn’t explain it to you,” says Morris. Unable to afford state-of-the-art Fairlights and Synclaviers in the early 80s, Sumner bought synthesizers from “the arse end of the market” and painstakingly built his own modules with help from scientist Martin Usher. Still struggling to find his footing as a singer – “I felt frustrated, a bit like a kid who can’t speak properly” – he found it easier to express himself through machines. This intrepid DIY approach made New Order sound unique. “The fact you were experimenting with quite primitive technology meant that you squeezed every drop out of it,” says Morris. “You knew it inside out. You used its limitations.”

Listening to some of New Order’s 80s material, you get the thrilling sense of hearing an experiment in progress, with all its serendipities and imperfections. “A lot of the early stuff sounds unfinished,” says Sumner. “It was the sound of us learning how to write songs, let alone produce them. Everything’s Gone Green, for example, sounds like the first time someone’s got a drum machine, a sequencer and a synthesizer all talking together, and it was! It’s not really a song, it’s a collection of machinery.”

Bernard Sumner with New Order, Glastonbury, 2016
Bernard Sumner with New Order, Glastonbury, 2016 Photograph: Harry Durrant/Getty Images

New Order have always been interested in reconfiguring their material. Amid the album, single, 12-inch and live versions, songs like Temptation and Bizarre Love Triangle have no definitive incarnation. Even remixes by other producers sometimes have equal weight. “In the early days we were our own worst enemy because we didn’t have a producer,” says Sumner. “New Order were a very closed shop so we reached a learning plateau. It was nice to ask someone else to give their take on a song because you could learn from them.” Working with Duddell and Gillick is yet another learning experience.

So it goes.. will coincide with True Faith, an exhibition of New Order-inspired visual art at Manchester Art Gallery, with work by Julian Schnabel, Jeremy Deller and Gillick alongside Saville’s original sleeve designs. New Order emerged in an audacious era when it wasn’t considered strange for a band to combine dancefloor rhythms with avant-garde art, Situationism and critical theory. With their inner circle of Factory Records founder Tony Wilson, manager Rob Gretton, video producer Michael H Shamberg and Peter Saville, plus directors such as Kathryn Bigelow and Jonathan Demme, New Order forged a postmodern visual aesthetic that was as striking and original as their music.

New Order’s True Faith video, directed and choreographed by Philippe Decouflé, produced by Michael H Shamberg
Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures, 1979
Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures, 1979 Photograph: Record Company Handout

In fact, Sumner’s first love had been graphic design. It was while looking for images in Manchester Central Library that he found the astronomical diagram that ended up as the unforgettable cover of Joy Division’s 1979 debut album, Unknown Pleasures. “In the days of vinyl you bought the music but you also bought a 12-inch square piece of artwork and that was very important,” he says.

Morris is full of praise for New Order’s visually minded allies. Shamberg, he says, “put a lot of people together who wouldn’t normally make a music video and nine times out of ten he got something unique out of it.” Saville, meanwhile, never fails to surprise. “Early on, he’d take the ideas of the four of us, put them in the bin, and then reinterpret them in the light of what he thought. Which was actually the best way to do it. The ideas he has are totally different from what we would have, and it always works.”

Saville has since moved on to fashion and other forms of graphic design but he always makes an exception for New Order sleeves – eventually. “He’s a bit like a retired detective who gets asked to solve a murder case and says, ‘No, I’m out of the business,’ but eventually they talk him into it because no one else can solve the case,” Sumner says drily. “We love him very much.”

New Order also plan to be off the case for a while. They’ve been recording and touring since 2011 and it’s time for a long break. “The thing about New Order,” says Morris, “is that to keep it interesting you don’t go too far. If you just carry on, the fun diminishes and the reasons why you’re doing it get cloudy in your mind. You have to step back, go out of the room and look at New Order from the outside. That’s when you appreciate what it is.”

For the audience, So it goes.. will be a unique opportunity to appreciate what New Order are, have been and, with luck, will continue to be: original and modern.

Sleeves like us

Four classic Peter Saville designs

Joy Division, Closer (1980)

Joy Division, Closer, 1980
Joy Division, Closer, 1980 Photograph: Publicity image

Bernard Sumner: “I just think it’s perfection. It’s a photograph of a real tomb in Italy. When it came out Tony [Wilson] hired a huge billboard on Sunset Strip in LA and put the cover on it. It must have cost an absolute fortune but it was a brilliant move. You’d drive down Sunset and see a shot of a dead body promoting a record that no one had heard of.”

New Order, Temptation 7”(1982)

New Order, Temptation (7”), 1982
New Order, Temptation (7”), 1982 Photograph: Publicity image

Liam Gillick: “Is it an image of glitter or stars or paint? A seven-inch record that plays at 33 1/3 rpm. It is the combination of minimal sleeve and maximal record that makes this modest cover important.”

New Order, Power, Corruption & Lies (1983)

New Order, Power, Corruption & Lies, 1983
New Order, Power, Corruption & Lies, 1983 Photograph: Publicity image

Stephen Morris: “We were all in the studio and Peter came down and said, ‘We’re going to put some fl owers on the cover.’ I said, ‘Don’t you think it’s in danger of looking like a box of chocolates?’ He said, ‘No, trust me,’ and he was right.”

New Order, True Faith (1987)

New Order, True Faith (1987)
New Order, True Faith (1987) Photograph: Publicity image

Stephen Morris: “It’s very simple. He was actually inspired by a leaf falling on his car so we were very grateful for that leaf. A leaf falling through space seemed to fit in with the song. It was the end of something and the start of something else.”


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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