Music History

New Order's Substance turns 25 today

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"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.

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Josiah M. Hesse
Contact: Josiah M. Hesse