Music History

New Order's Substance turns 25 today

See also: - New Order's Movement turns thirty - Guns N' Roses Appetite for Destruction turns 25 - The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street turns 40 - The Beatles' Sgt Pepper turns 45 - Prince's Sign of the Times turns 25 - Velvet Underground & Nico turns 45 today - Today In History Archives

When New Order was interviewed by Keith Allen in 1993, Allen asked the band "who is the laziest member of the group?" Before anyone else could answer, bassist Peter Hook quipped, "Ian Curtis. I haven't seen him do anything in years." This was over a decade after the group's former lead singer had hanged himself in his kitchen. By then, the band had obviously come a long way toward processing its grief and moving on toward casual humor. Beyond public interviews, this emotional journey can be traced through the band's musical evolution, as seen in their career defining singles collection, Substance, which celebrates its 25th anniversary today.

"Hark my words," journalist Paul Morley recalls Factory Records owner Tony Wilson saying to him in the early '80s, shortly after Joy Division made the necessary name-change to New Order in the wake of Curtis's death. "This is going to be like when Syd Barret left the Floyd. New Order are going to be just like Pink Floyd. In three albums time, they'll be selling millions in America." Beyond the obvious correlation of troubled lead singers departing their bands in distressing ways, the story of Pink Floyd and New Order's transition followed the same rocky path: Both bands floundered in creative uncertainty for years, critics and fans temporarily giving up hope, until persistence gives way to epiphany, and the sadness of loss becomes the inspiration for transcendence, making them both wildly famous and ambiguously wealthy.

Substance opens with New Order's debut single, "Ceremony," a song written with Ian Curtis and recorded after his death. Guitar heavy with trotting tempo, "Ceremony" leans much closer to a Joy Division song than New Order, with lyrics reading like Curtis's own commentary on his band dealing with the suicide: "Oh, I'll break them down/No mercy shown/Heaven knows, it's got to be this time."

With drummer Stephen Morris's girlfriend, Gillian Gilbert, joining the band on keyboards, New Order began experimenting with more synthetic sounds, taking gradual steps away from the rock-oriented formula of Joy Division and into more dancey, four-on-the-floor style rhythms, as seen in early New Order singles like "Everything's Gone Green," and "Temptation."

Replacing one of the most compelling frontmen in the history of rock, New Order songwriter and vocalist Bernard Sumner (Joy Division co-founder and guitarist) was perhaps the least charismatic human ever to grace a stage, employing none of the flash and urgency of his former band-mate. "I'm quite a private person, the kind of person who likes to stand in a corner and watch everyone else," Sumner said in the documentary New Order Story. "I'm not the kind of person who wakes up in the morning saying 'hey, I've got a message for the world!'"

But what Sumner lacked in Curtis-esque stage dynamics he certainly made up for in lyrical imagery. Singles like "Shellshock" ("It's never enough until your heart stops beating/The deeper you get, the sweeter the pain/Don't give up the game until your heart stops beating") or "Bizarre Love Triangle" ("Every time I think of you/I feel shot right through with a bolt of blue") or the Substance debuted single, "True Faith," ("My morning sun is the drug that brings me near/To the childhood I lost, replaced by fear") all display an emotional contrariness in their lyrics that match perfectly with the band's sad-disco sounds.

Undeniably, the peak of New Order's fame and the track that came to define its career, "Blue Monday," was a visionary manifestation of everything both Joy Division and New Order had been working toward: It was dark, synthetic, existentially spooky ("how does it feel when your heart goes cold?"), filled with inhuman technology that suggested an android empire was imminent ("I see a ship in the harbor/I can and shall obey"), yet still resonated with anthropomorphic empathy. While the appeal of tech-drenched bands like Kraftwerk and Suicide was their lack of human resonance, the music of New Order always felt as humane and recognizable as any pop song. They could be breakup songs, celebration songs, mourning songs and self empowerment songs -- all at once.

Though the creative juices were flooding the band's instruments, attempts at innovation on the business end of the band were yielding disastrous results. While "Blue Monday" would go on to be the biggest selling 12-inch single in UK history (as well as the cultural link between '70s disco and late-'80s house, arguably inspiring the rave movement), no one had done the math on just how much it would cost to produce the Peter Saville designed cover.

Tony Wilson's Factory Records -- as documented in the brilliant film 24 Hour Party People -- was notorious for taking risks based not in capitalistic judiciousness, but in a punk-fueled haze of rebellion and inspiration. This lead to some pretty interesting decisions -- and one hell of a story -- yet also lead to Wilson signing off on an album cover that cost more to produce than the wholesale price of the product.

"We lose 5 pence on every one of these records we sell," Alan Erasmus, says to Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People.

"Well, they're gonna sell fuck-all anyway, so it doesn't matter," Wilson responds.

That was the attitude of Wilson and the band at the time. This was why they never left Manchester for London, why they stuck with Factory Records (their original contract with Wilson was reportedly written in his blood, and was never legally binding), whose lack of membership in the British Phonograph Industry prevented them from receiving a gold record. Though while these decisions may have kept them from making the kind of money that Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones had made, it did keep them at the heart of what would become the second biggest British music revolution in history.

Before New Order, Manchester was an economically depressed, working class Northern city whose greatest contributions to society were the Buzzcocks and the bouncing bomb. In the wake of New Order and Factory Records, Manchester became as hip as Paris or London, becoming a musical nexus spawning bands like the Smiths, Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses and, eventually, Oasis and the Ting Tings.

While New Order would never repeat the success of "Blue Monday," the act ultimately proved that it could not only survive the death of Ian Curtis, not only transcend an established musical identity and reinvent itself and the genre of dance music, but that it could exist, calmly and richly, at the center of a cultural revolution that would change rock music forever.

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Josiah M. Hesse
Contact: Josiah M. Hesse