Touched by the Hand of God: Paying Tribute to the Birth of New Order

If the singer in your band suddenly died, would you call it quits? New Order did the opposite, proving in an endless stream of brilliant music that Joy Division was merely a warm-up on the path to pop greatness.

There's one important fact that should not be neglected when commemorating the 30-year anniversary of Joy Division’s premature demise. Pretty much within a day of the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, his remaining bandmates decided to carry on under a new name. Thus was born New Order, an ensemble that gradually shed Joy Division’s rock essence to become one of the most influential groups in modern dance and electronic music. And, dare I say it, New Order was the better band.

While incorporating elements of electronic dance music wasn’t unusual amongst post-punk bands in the early 1980s (the synthesizer-based works of disco producers such as Giorgio Moroder were a strong influence for many of those groups), what set New Order apart from its rock contemporaries was how wholly the group embraced the music and its attending culture, to the point where a huge swath of listeners are unaware of the band’s rockier origins and inclination. In my own case, I was exposed to New Order’s music long before I had any inkling that there had been a predecessor group (much less one that played rock), due to R&B radio’s embrace of the band’s dancefloor-filling output during my 1980s childhood. In contrast to Joy Division’s grim Aryan-tinged image, New Order’s stellar run of singles during the 1980s acted as multicultural nexus points, linking white European post-disco, Latino electro from New York, and black house music from Detroit and Chicago, both drawing from and providing inspiration to these musical strains. The members of New Order would admit without hesitation that they were a bunch of white Britons who hated to dance, but their embrace and advancement of the technological innovations of electronic dance music -- essentially forsaking agonized guitars and doomy basslines for drum programming and loads of synths -- were never less than sincere. Witness the single “Confusion”, a kaleidoscopic blend of electro and early hip hop that remains a go-to cut for showing off one’s mad breakdancing skills:

In addition to the band’s hearty embrace of dance culture, New Order was greatly defined by the absence of Ian Curtis. With the group deprived of Curtis' doomy baritone and lyrical gravitas, guitarist Bernard Sumner ultimately had to step up to the mic. Once New Order stopped trying to be Joy Division Mark II after its lackluster full-length debut Movement (1981), Sumner's voice finally found its place. Boyish and frequently off-key, the unassuming slightness of Sumner’s voice was an unlikely asset for the group. If Ian Curtis had intoned the bitter, wounded lyrics of New Order’s signature hit “Blue Monday”, it would have sounded like a solemn portent of Armageddon. Sumner, in contrast, sounds so ordinary his voice could be any average bloke’s, marking him a point of identification that the listener can easily slide his or herself into. That coupled with the song’s then-revolutionary sound, it’s no wonder that for a time “Blue Monday” was the best-selling 12” single in history.

As important as it was to developments in electronic music throughout the 1980s, New Order never really shed its rock side. After the group’s second single “Everything’s Gone Green”, the tentative template for the group’s true post-Curtis incarnation, that aspect of the band just happened to be largely regulated to album cuts, or heavily submerged beneath the electronics. One of the major exceptions was the 1993 single “Regret”, a soaring gust of guitar-driven pop perfection that stands as New Order’s last truly great song. New Order’s reclamation of Joy Division’s legacy in the late 1990s (symbolically demonstrated by its incorporation of several Joy Division songs in concert setlists for the first time since Curtis’ death) preceded a wholesale reassertion of the band’s rockier aspects at dawn of the 21st century, lasting until the band’s undignified collapse in 2007 amid intra-band squabbling. Bernard Sumner’s post-New Order band Bad Lieutenant is in a way the logical end point of that development, shedding any hints of dance music for anthemic guitar rock. More power to him for doing what he wants, and certainly Sumner’s former Joy Division/New Order bandmate Peter Hook has earned the right to bolster the memory of Joy Division at any given opportunity, but both men these days could desperately use some of the futurist impulse that New Order brought to the unwitting pop charts frequently throughout its existence.

A question I sometimes ask myself is which group do I like better: New Order or Joy Division. Both groups produced their share of great music that really aim to accomplish divergent goals, yet to be perfectly honest, if I put their Substance compilations side-by-side, New Order’s record is the one that continually takes my breath away with its dazzling mastery of dance grooves, song arrangements, and pop smarts. Listening to New Order’s best material not only reminds me of warm childhood memories of a golden age in electronic dance music, it reminds me that no other band bar AC/DC has been able to recover from such a crippling blow as the death of its key member in such a spectacular fashion. New Order was the band Joy Division never was: a group that succeeded in bringing brilliant, well-crafted pop music to the masses.

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