New Order’s debut album, Movement (1981), celebrates its 30th birthday on November 13th, 2011. In its initial 13-year run, the quartet, hailing from Salford, England, and the nearby Manchester-based Factory Records scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, accomplished something typically English and quaint: it changed the face of rock music. Guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris decided to keep making music together after the dissolution of their previous group, post-punk heroes Joy Division, following the 1980 suicide of frontman Ian Curtis. The trio picked up keyboardist Gillian Gilbert and moved Sumner to an uneasy position as lead vocalist, but initially found it difficult to impress the same critics and fans that so adored Joy Division. Movement displays a band still indebted to its former selves, exploring Joy Division’s dark, seething sound without pushing it much forward.
However, the album has aged remarkably well, and critics and fans alike have come to regard it as a classic. By the time New Order released its second record, Power, Corruption & Lies (1983), the band had found its own footing: a largely synth-driven, kick-drum-fueled affair, Power (and the non-album cut that preceded it, “Blue Monday”, which became the best-selling single in 12” format in the UK’s history) gave the group its first real commercial and critical breakthrough. Looking back now, New Order’s sound defines the landscape of 1980s’ popular rock for many ears, its danceable rhythms and quick, clean melodies inspiring a slew of paler imitators then and a new onslaught of dance-punk bands in this past decade.
Recently, the band announced a string of reunion shows—albeit without founding member Peter Hook. If you can’t catch New Order on the road, we have the next best thing. To celebrate the group and its legacy, we’re counting down the top 15 New Order tracks of all time. Regrets? Post your list in the comments section!
Bernard Sumner has claimed he never quite grew comfortable in the role of frontman, and nowhere is that uneasiness more gloriously apparent than “Face Up”. No, Sumner’s voice is nowhere near as distinctive or intuitively strong as Ian Curtis’, but he learned how to own his vocal performances. The chorus here shows Sumner belting out his silly, transparent lyrics—“Oh, how I cannot bear / The thought of you!”—with joyful abandon, placing a greater premium on the charismatic earnestness of his delivery than on, you know, hitting the notes properly. The results display one of New Order’s greatest strengths: even if Sumner isn’t a fantastic vocalist (or lyricist, as has been more routinely noted), his flaws bring a disarmingly human quality to New Order’s forceful, emotive, and often brittle music. “Face Up” could be a guilty pleasure, but the emphasis will always be on the latter.
7” Single (1987)
One of New Order’s most popular songs, “True Faith” never appeared on a proper album. The band recorded it, along with “1963”, for the singles compilation Substance (1987). Substance is often viewed as New Order’s de facto greatest hits record, and “True Faith” holds its own among the impressive catalog of material there. The song offers a solid example of New Order’s blend of club music and pop-rock. The backing beat remains virtually unchanged throughout the song’s runtime, providing an insistent, hypnotic rhythm. Meanwhile, Sumner and the group craft a catchy pop song over the dry percussion, relying on interlocking synths to carry the singer’s understated vocals. In this way, “True Faith” works as a feet-first dance number and a melody-laden earworm for a listener more interested in pop songcraft.
“Round and Round” likely sounded a bit out of step with the times upon its release in 1989; at the tail-end of the ‘80s, many listeners were—understandably—exhausted with this brand of radio-ready synth-pop. Of course, New Order were the progenitors of the sound that eventually dominated the airwaves, and “Round and Round” offers proof that the band still did it better than almost everyone else. The song’s opening synths are positively aggressive, melting away into Sumner’s airy vocals and fluid melody. The groove is irresistible; it and the sunny melodies belie the track’s underlying darkness. Who said dance music has to be cheerful?
12” single (1983)
The follow-up single to New Order’s breakthrough hit, “Blue Monday”, “Confusion” displays the same driving momentum as its more famous predecessor but with a more upbeat, celebratory atmosphere. The lyrics are still dour: “You just can’t believe me / When I tell you what you mean to me / (Confusion!).” But Sumner’s speak-sing delivery and the shouted back-up vocals bring a swagger to “Confusion” absent from the clinical, chilly “Blue Monday”. Think the Clash meets an 808 and Arthur Baker. Baker, the song’s producer, also worked with hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, and his fingerprints on the track are unmistakable.
7” single (1987)
Try to ignore the lyrics. Bernard Sumner’s revisionist history—JFK hires a hit on wife Jackie, so he can be with Marilyn Monroe instead—is beguilingly strange at best and cringe-worthy at worst. Luckily, “1963” features a gliding synth foundation that breezily supports Sumner’s restrained, quite pretty vocal. The track’s producer, Stephen Hague, supposedly quipped that “1963” is “the only song about domestic violence you can dance to”. That about nails it.
// Notes from the Road
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