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New Order: life after death

May 19th, 1980, was no ordinary Monday for the members of Joy Division.
Bags were packed and goodbyes had been said. They were ready to leave
for America, on their first rock & roll tour abroad. They had finished
a new single, its title etched across a gravestone on the sleeve: LOVE
But Joy Division - such a weird name for a group known for gloomy
music and the forlorn voice of its singer - never left England that
blue Monday. There was something about the promise of the trip that
made lead singer Ian Curtis put a noose around his neck and hang
himself the evening before. More goodbyes.
"On Sunday morning, I was turning my trousers up. Monday, I was
screaming," remembers the band's drummer, Stephen Morris.
But Joy Division would soon become well known in America anyway -
both for "Love Will Tear Us Apart", one of the most influential songs
of the past years, and for Curtis' suicide, which put a lasting chill
into the band's legacy.
With Curtis' death, Joy Division, which is what the prostitutes' area
of Nazi concentration camps was called, officially came to an end. "I
must admit Ian was the charismatic individual in the band," says Martin
Hannett, the producer of the band's records. Because Curtis had been
the focus of the first group, the three remaining members reorganized
as New Order.
"There's life and there's death. We were still alive, so we thought
we'd carry on doing it," says Morris. With a keyboardist added and
guitarist Bernard Sumner taking over as lead singer, New Order is still
very much an extension of Joy Division: like uncluttered landscapes in
dark colors, New Order's music remains more mood than melody.
In Britain, partly by unwittingly riding the coattails of the synth-
based pop bands, New Order has become one of the first-rank rock groups
- the thinking man's Human League. In America, clubs are playing the
band's twelve-inch dance single "Blue Monday" (which sold over a
quarter of a million copies in England) and are beginning to break what
may be the group's biggest stateside hit, "Confusion". That last and
much ballyhooed dance track is the result of a collaboration with
producer Arthur Baker, master of the New York street sound and the man
responsible for the recent hits "Planet Rock," "Candy Girl" and
Record buyers are also sniffing at a well-reviewed new album of
uncharacteristically frisky music, Power, Corruption & Lies, New
Order's second and best LP. To promote it, the band just made its
second tour of America - only a small block of dates, by necessity.
"We don't have a major record company that gives us cocaine at the
end of the tour," explains a downright cheery Stephen Morris, relaxing
on a rainy night in June after a sold-out show at First Avenue, a huge
Minneapolis club. The band's keyboard player, Gillian Gilbert, who
lives with Morris in Manchester, was back in the room after a bit of
"puddling" through the soaked parking lot at the Ambassador Motel.
The Minneapolis show had been, well, a bit somber. When few in the
audience seemed moved by the new song "Thieves Like Us," Bernard Sumner
- he's using that surname after having tired of Dicken (his family
name) and Albrecht (his former stage name) - fairly spat out, "If you
didn't like that, you must be Americans." Many seemed disappointed that
the band wasn't a sad-faced Duran Duran, a party animal; more seemed
upset that they didn't play the Joy Division songs.
"We did 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' once, on the anniversary of Ian's
death," says the tall, thin Morris, whose drumming - a human sound that
plays against the keyboard electronics - is really the band's
signature. "But Joy Division doesn't exist anymore, and it would be
foolish to kid people into believing it does."
Although a dark cloud still seems to hover over their music, their
newest material is pointedly dance-oriented. "I'm not saying we play
disco music," says Morris, "but there are some interesting time
signatures knocking about in our songs." New Order wanted - and got - a
true dance mix for "Confusion", the single they made with Arthur Baker,
whose "Planet Rock" they'd admired.
"The fact that they make depressing-sounding records isn't what
attracted me to them," says Baker. "But once we got in the studio, I
used that the way I would use it in one of my own songs. I really do
not write happy music myself. My songs are based in reality, on human
situations. And that's what I liked about their stuff."
The band seems secure enough about letting a producer as willful as
Baker get his hands on their sound, although, says Morris, "We're not
Play-Doh." Yet producer Martin Hannett was given nearly as much credit
as the band for Joy Division's records and for all but the latest New
Order recordings. Hannett admits that the smashing, lively drum sound
on the records was his contribution. "I made it go bang!" he says of
Joy Division.
With Hannett, they worked at Strawberry Studios in Manchester, the
city where the band members had held assorted jobs after finishing
school - Bernard as an artist at a cartoon studio, Stephen in a textile
mill and Peter Hook (whom they call Hooky) on the docks. And it was in
Manchester that the three joined with Ian Curtis in 1976 for their
first group, Warsaw (after a Bowie song, "Warsawa"), with little but
punk inspiration. "It all started with the Sex Pistols. They could play
terribly, and so could we!" says Morris delightedly. By 1977, they were
calling themselves Joy Division.
They had little technical proficiency on their instruments, but a
tiny independent company called Factory Records signed them anyway, on
the strength of the impression they'd made on the label's founder, Tony
Wilson. "In early '78, I went to this gig in Manchester where every
local band played. Fifteen bands played, and I thought, 'None of these
is really it,'" Wilson recalls. "Then Joy Division came onstage and
played two numbers. And I thought to myself that the reason they're
different is that they're onstage because they have something to say.
The other bands are onstage because they want to be musicians. It's as
different as chalk and cheese."
In what he calls "the look in their eyes, the tunes they played,
their style of music," Wilson saw something special. So did Martin
Hannett, who taught them how to use a studio. "Ideally a group should
produce itself," says Hannett, "but when I met them, they were too
young - they hadn't acquired any of those skills." He has ended his
association with New Order now, and they produced the latest album
Like the other records they've made, the new album does not identify
the band members or credit a particular player's contribution. This is
part of New Order's philosophy: they oppose the "cult of personality"
that infects rock & roll. You buy a record with music on it, why should
you be interested in who's playing what?, they argue. "It's the group,
not my name apart from the group," says Morris. They also frequently
refuse to be photographed: part of the reason is the anti-personalities
thing, the other is plain self-consciousness. All in all, they prefer
to concentrate on the work, the music.
While Joy Division's lyrics were penned by Ian Curtis, New Order
collaborates on the words to the songs. "We work loosely," says
keyboard player Gillian Gilbert, 21 (the others are all twenty-six or
twenty-seven). She claims she was hired on the strength of her ability
to play "Jingle Bells". "It can be a month before a song happens," she
"Fate writes the lyrics, we do the rest," says Morris of their
rehearsals, which take place in a room next to a cemetery. They say
it's a creepy place, their neighboring graveyard, that would make a
great location for a gothic-horror video. In fact, they've just bought
their rehearsal hall from the gas company, and they'd like to turn it
into a recording studio someday. The building cost a lot, they say, but
that's what they do with their money - put it back into the band,
buying state-of-the-art equipment and paying for the constant
instrument repairs. They pay themselves only seventy pounds - roughly
$110 - per week.
It may seem a pittance for a rock star to live on, but the members of
New Order have rather modest hobbies, and solitary ones at that.
Bernard likes to go for drives in his car and has a home computer;
Peter goes scrambling on his motor bike; Gillian tends to a pet
hamster; and Stephen fusses with graphics on his small computer.
Bernard and Peter also go to concerts, socializing a bit, on Saturday
nights; but Gillian and Stephen are "occupied with knocking down a wall
and building it back up."
They also like to read, says Stephen: "Bernard's a slow, book-a-year
reader, Hooky likes Scott Fitzgerald, Gillian really likes a book
called The Serpent's Song, and I like Dostoevsky, he's really
funny." They are not a group that is taken with politics. Nobody voted
in the last election, Morris believes.
Most of their time seems to go to New Order, at the cemetery-
rehearsal hall. A perfectly gloomy setting for a band that continues to
market in glum stuff, some would say. "People are welcome to see us as
whatever they want," says Morris. "If we're gloomy to them, we are. I'm
not going to say, 'No, you've got it wrong, we're something else.'
People associate death, gloom, suicide with us, but it's an albatross.
"We are not deliberately trying to get across the mood of the times,"
he adds. "We're not talking the unemployment blues."
Their rehearsal hall is just a short trip to the southerm reaches of
Manchester proper, where they all live, having grown up in nearby
Salford and Macclesfield. Asked if the members of the group have been
friends for long, Morris sighs. This is a band that carries a heavy
history around with it. "We weren't friends a long time," he says, "but
we're old friends now."

Last updated on 2005-03-07 9:33:00 PM - 9:33:00 PM
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