By Ben Rose
WHEN: 1980- 2007
CULPRITS: Bernard “Barney” Sumner (vocals, guitar, synths, programming, melodica; 1980-2007), Peter “Hooky” Hook (bass, drum pads, occasional mullet; 1980-2007), Stephen Morris (drums, synths; 1980-2007), Gillian Gilbert (synths, guitar; 1980-2004), Phil Cunningham (guitar; 2004-2007)
ALBUMS: Movement (1980); Power, Corruption & Lies (1983); Low-Life (1985); Brotherhood (1986); Technique (1989); Republic (1993); Get Ready (2001); Waiting for the Sirens’ Call (2005)
HOW: I first learned about New Order from a girl I fancied in high school. I had heard “Blue Monday” in movies and what not before and always loved it, but I admittedly didn’t know who had recorded it. The aforementioned lass introduced me to New Order while I was discovering a lot of other disco-influenced records, by the likes of Front 242, Pet Shop Boys and such. I bought the US CD reissue of Power, Corruption & Lies largely because it had “Blue Monday” on it, and instantly fell in love with “5 8 6.” From there, I purchased the US CD version of (The Best of) New Order, where I flipped out over “True Faith” and “Dreams Never End,” although I still didn’t love the band as a whole. After a few years of this not quite “getting” them — let’s face it, they’re a weird, weird group — I became a huge Joy Division fan. After a bit, I finally realized that they were all I’d ever wanted, and I bought as much of their catalogue as I could, and began collecting shows. I’ll be honest — I virtually never listen to studio New Order. The live stuff is just too incredible, too raw, too macaw. There’s nothing I’ve ever heard that touched live New Order, ca. 1982-1989. Seeing them in New York City and Manchester in 2005 just cemented it for me. Admittedly, I can only offer a limited perspective on them, being an American born shortly after their inception who didn’t really become an obsessive fan until near the end of their career, but my love for them is, I think, extremely genuine.
WHY: “[T]he truth of Zen is absolute in which there is no dualism, no conditionality. To speak of ignorance and enlightenment … as if they were two separate objects which cannot be merged in one, is not … expressing the ultimate truth. Everything is a manifestation of the Buddha-Nature, which is not defiled in passions, nor purified in enlightenment. It is above all categories. If you want to see what is the nature of your being, free your mind from thought of relativity.”
-Hui-neng, The Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism
“I’d like to dedicate this set to Caroline and Peter, who should’ve been here tonight, but Caroline’s not here because she’s dead. It’s not a joke and it’s not funny. Then again, we never are.”
-Barney, at the beginning of their Finsbury Park gig, June 6, 1987
Think about being, matter. What is it without non-being, or apparent nothingness? If there was no nothingness, there would truly be nothing; 1=0. All that is, is defined by being and non-being, equally. Being is both itself and not-itself, just as light appears to consist of both particles and waves, matter and non-matter.
So what is sincerity? How would we define it without insincerity, or even without the possibility of cheekiness? The genius behind New Order is that they reveal and render sincerity to be both itself and not-itself, for at nearly every moment, they are both completely sincere and completely taking the piss at your expense, and the difference is indistinguishable. Their mode of expression asserts and denies paradox, resulting in the use of paradox to refute the possibility of itself. If Johannes Scotus Erigena was even selectively correct when he asserted, “All that is, is light,” then that explains why the music of New Order feels more genuinely essential to me than that of any other artist; they are both, neither, and one or the other, all at once. And if ol’ Hui-neng is onto something, and Zen is in fact expressive of some sort of ultimate truth, then that is why I love New Order. Their music, their message, is not one thing or another, it merely is what it is. It is pure and categorical in its eschewing of category.
There seems to be a prevalent conception that for a piece of music, a book, or a work of art to be profound and truly significant, it has to be dire; a portrait of suffering, angst and unhappiness. This strikes me as a huge part of why Ian Curtis is revered as such a genius, the music of Joy Division the most essential portrait of fractured modern life from the late 70s/early 80s. And while I’m not trying to pit New Order against its prior incarnation — both are excellent — I would argue that the Ian-less group is actually even more significant, more powerful, and more fully human than the band driven largely by the personal aesthetic of their producer, Martin Hannett. I think that, for both groups, the live performances of their frontmen largely define what was going on with them. Ian, with his frantic “dead fly” (shouldn’t it be “dying fly”?) dance and inhumanly cold blue eyes, revealed this heroically repressed energy that had been fatally sublimated into something resembling a machine (I think this is evident throughout their music, too), struggling to either break free and embrace itself — or die (which is what actually happened, in Ian’s case). Barney represents the exact opposite: personal freedom of expression, which also shines through on nearly every record they made (I’m thinking particularly of Temptation here). Listen to virtually any recording of them live, and you’ll hear a man overcome with childlike joy — or at least bursting with humor — whooping and grunting and transforming his own lyrics into spontaneous infantile rhymes about his favorite body parts (and no, we’re not talking about ear lobes or dimples here). What most deride as childish buffoonery and the result of the supposedly copious quantities of drugs Barney ingested throughout the 80s, I champion as the unfettered expression of self, a spontaneous reaction to one’s own reality with courage, honesty and humor.
To me, what you get when Barney acts like a drunken child is pure spontaneity, pure being, in which emotion and sensation transcend the song’s lyrics, written long ago in an entirely different context, transformed by the purity of the moment. Late in New Order’s career, Barney notoriously used a teleprompter when playing live, and he would still screw up lyrics. A brain destroyed by drug abuse? Sure. But beyond that, I think it reveals that the words he used to express himself meant very little to him, or at least, their meaning changed over time, losing relevance. And when you listen to the whole band playing live, you really get the sense of one organism, working together, sending out waves of pure, unfiltered consciousness — they make mistakes, they change the song’s melody at will, they make jokes and Barney hoots and hollers while he dances like, in the words of one reviewer, “someone’s embarrassing dad.” But isn’t that the way people really are, and isn’t that what music makes you do? Instead of being these statuesque, carefully rehearsed harbingers of God-tinged music as many performers try to be, New Order treated their music almost as if it wasn’t their own, as if the fact that they had written it and originally recorded it meant nothing, getting swept up in the moment by what they were making in that same instant, acting and reacting with no discernible difference between the two. And in those infinite instants, what they expressed was a kind of honesty that transcended any artificial duality of sincerity and cheekiness and truly became what it was — nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else: a fluid expression of an essence beyond language through language, where what is said means nothing and everything, is material and immaterial, revealing light, laughter, and a group of adults who still view the world with a sense of pure fun that, in some bizarre and unexpected way, just might channel exactly what Hui-neng was talking about, all those years ago.
SONGS: Attempting to create an introductory compilation of New Order is particularly challenging, since very little of their work is necessarily synecdochic. Virtually every New Order single stands alone, drastically different from the last, as are many of their finest album tracks. With this list, I attempted to provide a look at the essence of the band’s output, with emphasis on accessibility for a New Order newcomer. I imagine that I didn’t bring that many particularly unique things to the table here, but I think this list provides a good look at who New Order was (almost wrote “is” there — still can’t believe it) and why they were so unique. Certain tracks are, in my opinion, a bit more dispensable here; “Bizarre Love Triangle,” in particular. I know that everyone loves a good “BLT,” but I just don’t think it’s one of their better or even more representative studio tracks (although it’s a total banger live, what with Barney’s dancing and lyric changes). Certain other inclusions are fairly obvious — who wouldn’t include “Blue Monday,” “Regret,” and “Ceremony”?
Some of the less obvious inclusions — most notably “5 8 6,” “Love Vigilantes,” and “Every Little Counts” — reflect fundamental aspects of the band’s music. Perhaps the most important of the trio, with respect to my reading of New Order’s music, is “Every Little Counts.” The closing track on Brotherhood, “ELC” reflects perfectly the strange and seamless union of cheekiness and sincerity essential to their musical program. The song seems to express a genuine tenderness and affection through what can only be called an extremely insensitive joke (Barney even laughs at the beginning). But is it sincere? Is he taking the piss? The two are completely inseparable; he is doing both and neither. Even the music itself supports both — it is sincere and pretty for the majority of the song, until the end, when it all falls apart, leaving you confused. In live performances — particularly of the monstrously awesome “Face Up” — from the mid-80s (around the time of Brotherhood), Barney was quite fond of lyrics like these, in which a woman for whom he seemed to care was the object of ridicule (“I’ve known you for such a long time now / You have always been such a dirty cow”). If you can find any of these, they are well worth a listen, if not only for how emotionally confusing they are in their patent purity.
The tracklisting is fairly simple: I opted to kick things off with what many consider to be the ultimate New Order track, “The Perfect Kiss,” partially because I think it worked well as a setlist opener. It also features what may be, in my estimation, the greatest line in pop music history: “Tonight I should have stayed at home, playing with my pleasure zone.” What a beast, right? The playlist’s ending is crucial too, with the final trio of songs some of the band’s most powerful and uplifting. I chose to end with what I think is their biggest bang: “Regret.” Pop perfection and their greatest song, I say. I hope you agree.
LINK: Click the list below to hear New Order for free on Lala.com!