It’s a striking scene. A blue faced man and an opponent are engaging in a slap fight, perfectly timed to a hypnotic mechanical drumbeat, a woman encased in a large balloon translates the song lyrics into sign language while three brightly colored figures in rubber suits manically bounce around. The surreal video for New Order’s “True Faith” was my first introduction to the band, and I admit that the sheer otherness of the song’s video impressed me just as much as the alienated beauty of the song itself. New Order did not only revolutionize pop music, showing that a band could keep its punk rock roots intact while interacting with the pop mainstream, but they also did their part in proving that music videos could indeed be art. The new double-DVD release Item, contains New Order: A Collection, which highlights their fantastic videos, as well as the documentary New Order Story, which haphazardly attempts to explain New Order’s unusual position as an underground band masquerading as a pop act (or perhaps its vice-versa).
The key to New Order’s striking videos comes from a simple policy began as soon as the band started to regularly make videos, the band (or more precisely, the band’s management) contacted established artists and directors and allowed them to do whatever they wanted, without having to “submit treatments”. With unrestricted freedom, these directors were able to interpret New Order’s music in their own unique ways, making sure that all of the videos are distinct independent entities. They are, in fact, more like small art films rather than typical music videos. Unlike traditional videos, if the band members even appear in them it’s more often than not in a cameo role. Not all of the videos work, but even the failures are more memorable than other bands’ best videos.
It is this variety of ideas that makes New Order: A Collection, watchable from beginning to end, as every video attempts to strike a different emotional chord. On one extreme, there’s Baillie Walsh’s “World”, where long tracking shots finally ends showing an aging woman with an ambiguous look on her face after paying an indifferent gigolo, a rather sad and very human scene. On the other extreme is Kathryn Bigelow’s hilarious “Touched by the Hands of God”, which dresses the demure synth-pop act as a heavy metal unit, complete with clichéd explosions (watching David Lee Roth-wigged Bernard Summer pulling Billy Idol moves as demure keyboardist Gillian Gilbert struts around like a Lita Ford-esque video vixen is the height of hilarity).
It’s also interesting to see how different musicians react against New Order’s layered and complex arrangements. Many directors go for a visual overload to match their music, particularly in Robert Longo’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” where the imagery changes seemingly note-by-note, or Richard Heslop’s frenzied “Fine Time”, an acid flashback of a video where a routine child opening his Christmas early scene devolves into a hallucinogenic nightmare. However, Jonathan Demme’s simple “Perfect Kiss” might be the best video in the whole package. Demme just films the four members of New Order playing their instruments for the entirety of the nine-minute epic, but the song features so many shifts of instrumentation, that there’s inherent drama in just seeing each band member grabbing the instrument they need and coming in at the appropriate moments. By stripping things down to basics, Demme’s video actually better highlights the complex beauty of one of New Order’s best songs than a fast-paced, visually rich video would have.
Nearly all these visuals are worth multiple viewings, which is a good thing for someone who purchases Item, because many of these videos appear, basically in their entirety, on the 1993 documentary New Order Story. Besides repeating much of the material from the music collection, New Order Story disappoints in many other areas. As a documentary, it fails to really deeply explore the transition between Joy Division and New Order, the split between New Order and Factory Records, on the inspiration of any of their songs. There’s a lot of talking, including a dinner table conversation between the band members and a bizarre faux game-show where the band members compete to see who can remember the most about New Order’s history, but nothing really much gets said. Although amusing, New Order Story frustrates the viewer in how many times it broaches a subject it doesn’t even bother to dwell on.
What the documentary does do well is highlight New Order’s precarious position as a band embraced both by the underground as well as the mainstream. Bernard Summer, at one point, mentions that his fans are half “student types” and are half “football hooligans”. It may seem odd that this band started out as the decidedly non-pop friendly Joy Division, but everyone who talks about Ian Curtis mentions that had he survived, Joy Division would have become a huge band. After all, it’s repeatedly mentioned, Curtis himself was the first one who was enthralled with electronic dance music, and the band probably would have gone that route even if he had survived. Still, it’s hard to imagine that this small label, experimental electronic band would later go on to produce England’s 1986 World Cup fight song (“World in Motion”), rework “Blue Monday” for a Sunkist ad (included on New Order Story, in all its unintentional hilarity), and perform “Regret” alongside the cast of Baywatch. New Order is a band that found a balance between art and commerce that few other bands have been privileged to experience, and this is reflected both in the haphazard documentary as well as the highly artistic videos that the band commissioned, in effect, as advertisements to sell records.