New Order: 10 of the best

From the tragedy of Ian Curtis’s suicide emerged one of the defining groups of the 80s, combining pop smarts with experimental leanings. Here are 10 crackers

1 Ceremony

The first New Order single operates as the perfect bridge between their previous incarnation as Joy Division and the future they had to carve out for themselves following the suicide of singer Ian Curtis. In fact, Ceremony is technically a Joy Division song, and an embryonic live version performed at that group’s last-ever gig (in Birmingham) appears on the posthumous double album Still. By the time New Order recorded it in March 1981, the song was polished and glistening, Sumner’s voice, guitars and drums meshing together in a way that suggested the Joy Division chemistry had survived but also changed. You can hear the group rediscovering their confidence after Curtis’s suicide. The key lyric – “Heaven knows, it’s got to be this time” – is the sound of optimism born through crisis: the band’s delicate crawl from the wreckage into an uncertain new future produces a New Order classic.

2 Doubts Even Here

New Order’s 1981 debut album, Movement, is much maligned – not least by Sumner, who felt Martin Hannett’s production smothered the songs and that the group hadn’t quite found their feet as a new band. There’s some truth in both those criticisms, and yet it contains some unadulterated gems. I could have picked the more well-known Dreams Never End, but the magnificently slow-building Doubts Even Here (initially titled Tiny Tim) has been unjustly forgotten since the band banished it from their live performances some 33 years ago. It begins with a trademark Hannett sonic trick – an unusual sound followed by a second’s silence – before Steve Morris’s drum machine and a rolling Pink Floydesque tom-tom motif sets the scene for the banks of keyboard. As with Dreams Never End, Peter Hook takes the lead vocal. The climax, with Hook’s pensive bassline accompanying Gillian Gilbert’s spoken word narrative, is New Order at their most beautifully striking and elemental.

3 Everything’s Gone Green

Factory boss Tony Wilson once called Everything’s Gone Green “the most important song in the modern world, the first time anywhere that people used computers – primitive Apple computers with soldering irons and wires coming out of them – linked to 1970s synthesisers”. Wilson was never one to undersell things, but New Order’s first venture into electronics (as opposed to synthesiser washes) is a seminal record. Sumner had found an old synth with an oscillator and experimented with synching it up to drums. The result was a song that reflects the influence of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, coasts on a juddering sequence of electronic notes that provide melody and rhythm at the same time and acts as the blueprint for the combination of electronics, bass and guitars that would eventually produce Blue Monday. This was New Order’s first venture into self-production and Sumner’s lyrics – “Won’t you show me, please show me the way” – perhaps hint at lingering insecurities, but the shimmering electronica takes existential angst on to the dancefloor. If you listen closely from 3’16” there’s an early example of Sumner’s now trademark whooping.

4 Temptation (7in version)

Sumner once said his conversion to electronic dance music came in New York, when someone spiked his drink with acid and he suddenly found himself blown away by the sounds blasting out across the dancefloor. Here, audibly fired up by what he had heard and the revolutionary new directions suggested by Everything’s Gone Green, New Order produced arguably their most sublime 45. The distinctive electronic melody/rhythm combination comes from combining Moog Source and ARP Quadra synthesisers to play a rhythmic sequence of notes, but this spring-1982 fusion of electronics with guitars, bass and drums is a benchmark marriage of human and machine. The song – supposedly about lost love – also signposts Sumner’s emergence as a vocalist, reputedly starting to enjoy singing after a mild dose of acid and a snowball down his shirt (the latter courtesy of Hook). In the US in the early 80s, a favourite New Order jape was to perform the song, then leave the stage with the electronics continuing, allowing the instruments to “play themselves” while furious Americans complained of being cheated and rained boos and bottles on the stage.

5 Video 586

I’ve listened to New Order more than any other band in my life (including the Fall; I even listen to tapes of soundchecks), so some of these tracks picked themselves, even though several of my favourites (notably Turn the Heater On and Too Late from the sublime 1982 John Peel session) aren’t on Spotify so couldn’t be picked at all. However, the New Order catalogue is labyrinthine enough to throw up lesser-known – even unknown – pleasures in the most unlikely places. This has been a favourite of mine since first hearing it on the mail-order-only Touch cassette in 1982. When Wilson asked New Order to come up with some incidental music to mark that year’s opening of the Hacienda club, the result was Video 586 (also known as Prime 586). This motorik electronic odyssey marks New Order’s early experiments with the gadgetry (specifically Sumner’s kit-built Powertran sequencer) and forms a blueprint for the vastly different 586 that emerged on Power, Corruption & Lies and even Blue Monday. Eventually released as a CD single in 1997, this combination of endlessly repetitive groove and electro bassline is as hypnotic as anything they recorded.

6 Blue Monday (original 12in)

Whether or not to choose a song as ubiquitous as Blue Monday presented the most difficult dilemma with this list. In the end, I decided I just couldn’t ignore New Order’s most famous track. Blue Monday is New Order’s ultimate gadget odyssey, using a Sumner’s Powertran sequencer, an Oberheim DMX drum machine and an Emulator 1, one of the first samplers (which they tested by recording farts). Even the sleeve by Peter Saville is groundbreaking, based on a computer floppy disk. Although Blue Monday was hardly without precursors – having been inspired by Kraftwerk, Ennio Morricone and Summer, among others – the original 12in single was and still is incredibly influential, beloved of everyone from Detroit techno kingpins to American grunge rockers. Even Kylie Minogue found herself dancing to Blue Monday’s unmistakable, Pied Piper-like repetitive rhythm, confessing Can’t Get Blue Monday Out Oo My Head.

7 Age of Consent

If the story of New Order is that of the trajectory from Joy Division’s emotionally powerful rock to euphoric pop informed by melancholy, it is perfectly illustrated by the dazzling opener to Power, Corruption & Lies. When Age of Consent was debuted live in Blackpool in August 1982, it marked the Mancunians’ first foray into pop music and soon became the fans’ firm favourite. Opening with one of Hook’s most infectious twangy riffs, and powering forth on Morris’s kinetic drumming, this is the sound of New Order throwing back the curtains and letting the sun come in. When John Peel first played it, he singled out Sumner’s two-note guitar motif at 4’14” as the song’s most sublime moment – playing the five-second burst over and over – but the entire song is New Order playing pop music at its most headrushing, joyful and flawless.

8 Your Silent Face

Back in the days when groups released “long-playing records” on vinyl, the first thing you’d hear when flipping Power, Corruption & Lies over to play the second side was this statuesque stunner. Like ace early B-sides In a Lonely Place and Hurt, Your Silent Face heavily features Sumner’s melodica. The rest of the song combines a sequenced rhythm, glacial synthesiser melodies and an unforgettable Hook bassline and is so audibly influenced by Kraftwerk it was given the working title KW1. However, that beautiful grandeur packed an unexpected lyrical twist. In 1983, the interview-shunning New Order were still shrouded in mystery and regarded with reverence. So Sumner’s eyebrow-raising, straight outta Salford kiss-off – “You’ve caught me at a bad time, now why don’t you piss off?” – was astonishing to fans. Morris later explained: “It was a very majestic piece, and we thought, ‘Ah, it’s getting too serious.’”

9 Love Vigilantes

From 1985’s Low-Life album, Love Vigilantes saw New Order shun the expensive electronics now at their disposal for a melody produced by a cheap wind instrument you can find in any music shop. Sumner’s trusty melodica produces the distinctive intro riff at the beginning as the singer begins one of his occasional forays into pop storytelling (see also 1963 and Ultraviolence). Here, the song’s protagonist is a soldier longing to return from war to see his wife and child. The tragic punchline is that he arrives home as a ghost, witnessing his spouse’s tears as she opens the telegram telling her he’s dead. It’s another oddly touching slice of otherwise skyscraping, uplifting pop, with a guitar middle-eight so perfectly constructed that longtime New Order fan and Lightning Seed Ian Broudie would pay homage to it on his own sublime 1989 hit, Pure.

10 Vanishing Point

Vanishing Point is my favourite track on my favourite New Order album, 1989’s Technique. The album contains all the group’s trademarks – electronica and acoustics, melancholy and euphoria, Hooky basslines and danceable beats – in one sharp package; the album’s epic closer packs all of the above into a single song. Technique was recorded in Ibiza amid the band’s well-documented foray into acid house and ecstasy, but a band with a history as unique as New Order’s were never going to produce identikit Ibiza bangers. The key line in an unusually sombre Sumner lyric is “My life ain’t no holiday/ I’ve been through the point of no return.” Perhaps, amid the euphoria of ecstasy and the subsequent comedown, the singer was pondering how far they had come from their roots as punk band Warsaw, and what (and more importantly whom) they had gained and lost along the way. The title is another culled from that faded film poster in their old rehearsal room, which provided In a Lonely Place and Thieves Like Us. It’s hard to think of any other New Order track that sounds simultaneously so sunny yet sad and otherwordly: a band at the almost supernaturally brilliant top of their game.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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