New Order was never known as much of a live band. This is likely due to the fact that the four-piece embarked on relatively few tours and when they did, the shows were often hit-or-miss. “Most people’s concept of a tour is something that goes on for months, years sometimes—with a tax year off—and that’s a tour. But we don’t do that,” drummer Stephen Morris admits on the band’s new DVD, New Order: Live in Glasgow. “We did two six week tours of America once, in the ‘80s and, um, it wasn’t a very pleasant experience”.
This being the case, Live in Glasgow may be the closest that many fans get to seeing the seminal post-punk/dance act live, especially considering recent comments from bassist Peter Hook, which suggest that the band may have all but officially disbanded. So it’s a good thing, then, that the band managed to commit to tape nearly two hours’ worth of dazzling performances before breaking up, creating a document that attests to the live power of one of the ‘80s’ most accomplished bands.
Filmed over the course of two nights at Glasgow’s Carling Academy in October 2006, disc one presents us with a fairly straightforward concert film. There are brief interview bits interspersed throughout the live footage, though there’s an option to watch the film straight through without any of the interviews (you may not, however, watch the interview segments separately). The setlist, which spans the band’s 23-year career plus a few Joy Division songs, leaves little to be desired and the camerawork and sound are both top-notch. The only question that remains: is the performance itself up to snuff? While the original members have all visibly aged since their heyday, there are few hints to be found on Live in Glasgow that we’re watching a band just two years away from retirement.
From the moment they hit the stage, through the first two songs (“Crystal” and “Turn”), New Order sounds, unmistakably, like a rock and roll band. Guitars buzz, snares pop crisply and Peter Hook’s bass emits a low rumble. However, just as we’re settling in for a rock show, the band carts out early gem “True Faith”, alongside an arsenal of synths and drum machines. In an instant, it feels like we’re inside a discotheque; sure the images on the screen may suggest otherwise but the sound coming out of the speakers is unmistakably dance music. And not just any old dance music but fantastic dance music. The pulsating beat is infectious, the shimmering synths push skyward and Bernard Sumner’s voice is as rich as it ever was—even though he looks more like a dad than a rock star. Blame ‘80s revivalism if you must but “True Faith”, as performed here, does not sound like a song that’s more than 20 years old.
New Order - Ceremony
If Sumner’s voice has the power to breathe new life into old singles, it also has the power to revise those singles in surprising ways. “Ceremony”, New Order’s first song and Joy Division’s last, strikes a very different chord when performed in 2006. When originally recorded in 1981, Sumner had yet to develop a vocal style of his own; as a result, he ended up imitating Ian Curtis’ austere monotone on the track. While “Ceremony” 1981 is cold, foreboding and unmistakably Joy Division, “Ceremony” 2006 sounds bright, warm and triumphant. Sumner belts out the lyrics over ragged bar chords, his voice projecting optimism rather than hopelessness. It’s as if he’s finally managed to make the song his own, despite the long shadow cast by Curtis.
For the record, “Blue Monday” isn’t just New Order’s highest-charting single, it’s also the best selling 12” single of all time. So it’s not surprising that this is the track that sees the most hands and mobile phones being thrown into the air (the latter of which the director will simply not let us ignore). The excitement in the room is palpable and the song manages to deliver, for the most part, despite some truly embarrassing dancing on the part of Sumner. For the encore, the band digs deep into the Joy Division catalog, turning in renditions of “Transmission”, “Shadowplay” and “Love Will Tear us Apart”. While the first two readings are quite faithful, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is reinterpreted, to stunning effect, as an actual love song. As presented here, it almost sounds like a close cousin of “True Faith” or “Bizarre Love Triangle”, albeit, without the dance beat.
New Order - Blue Monday
While disc one provides us with definitive readings of many of New Order’s biggest hits, disc two shows us just how far they’ve come. A collection of live clips culled from performances during the 1980s (save for two clips from the 2006 Hyde Park Wireless festival), the second disc gives us some sense of how the band evolved as a live unit during their first decade. In a shambling, amateurish 1981 performance of “Ceremony”, Sumner is visibly nervous, staring at his feet while mumbling his way through his best Ian Curtis impersonation. He’s 25 years old in the clip but looks all of 17 and his boyish looks and shaky voice seem at odds with the song’s dark overtones. Later performances find the band looking a bit more confident; in the footage from their Glastonbury performance later in the year, the band—especially Sumner—seem far more self-assured and the music sounds tighter. Less than a year later, the band was experimenting heavily with electronics, though the results—as seen in footage from a 1982 show in Rome—sound more like Joy Division with (more) synths rather than proper dance music. If you want to see New Order’s electro-pop incarnation in an embryonic stage, you’ll have to fast forward to a 1985 performance of “Temptation” in Toronto. The keyboard arpeggio here sounds more like a declaration of purpose than an invitation to dance; the real show is Sumner’s buzz cut and hilariously short soccer shorts (admittedly, the man was never much of a sharp dresser—that was always more Hook’s department).
Taken as a whole, the two discs of New Order: Live in Glasgow offer a compelling portrait of a group of musicians who are simultaneously past their prime as songwriters and at the height of their ability as performers. While this might sound odd on paper, it makes perfect sense in practice, as New Order were always a band wracked by contradictions and internal tension. As the interview segments reveal, Hook loves rock and roll while Sumner favors dance music; Hook longs to tour but Sumner prefers the studio; and Hook feels that the definitive version of a song is its live version while Sumner thinks the studio cut can never be surpassed. Ultimately, it was these long-simmering tensions that tore the band apart, first in 1993 and again (and perhaps finally) earlier this year. However, it was these same tensions that drove New Order to write some of the best singles of the 1980s, songs that straddled the line between dance and rock, ecstasy and despondency, past (Joy Division) and future (New Order). It was a tightrope walk to be sure and as can be clearly seen on Live in Glasgow it took the band a good few years to strike the right balance. Still, late-bloomers though they may have been, New Order the performers did quite well in the long run. “I think they could go as long as they want, ‘cause they’re a great band,” one fan opines during the film. “It’s like a good wine. Never ages. Gets better with time”.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.