New Order and its predecessor Joy Division were inextricably entwined with Factory Records. They were the “big kids” on the label, responsible for most of its sales. Therefore, they were summoned to help out with their labelmates’ music, often pitching in with ultra-expensive electronic equipment their buds likely could not afford.
During the early-to-mid ’80s, the individual members of New Order produced, mixed, and/or played on a lot of music that got released as Factory but was not New Order. When they did so, they were credited as Be Music. A compilation of Be Music productions, Cool As Ice was released in 2003. A follow-up, Twice As Nice, also included productions from New Order collaborator Arthur Baker.
New Order Presents Be Music is, frankly, mistitled. The three-disc, 36-track collection reprises nearly all of Cool As Ice. It picks a few tracks from Twice As Nice and adds some further material from the period. But it also throws in a lot of material from after Be Music ceased to be a thing — material produced or remixed by New Order members up through 2015. The upside is that New Order Presents Be Music serves as a catch-all for over three decades of obscure New Order-related tracks. Conversely, any pretense of a narrative or context is blown to bits by the halfway point of Disc One.
New Order were not involved in writing these tracks, save one. Therefore, while a jittery synthesizer line, moody synth pad, or syncopated drum beat will sound familiar, there is none of the strange, wonderful alchemy that the band created together in the studio when at their best.
The original Cool As Ice-era material on Disc One holds up pretty well. Most of it was produced by New Order’s Bernard Sumner along with Donald Johnson from Factory labelmates A Certain Ratio. Unlike most of their synthpop contemporaries, New Order had a genuine interest in club music, and it comes across here. Quango Quango’s “Love Tempo” is danceable and festive. The most poignant track on the entire collection is Marcel King’s bittersweet electro-disco tune “Reach For Love”. His crooning has a sweet soulfulness that was a meaningful juxtaposition with Factory’s cool, faceless image. Helping to cement that image were tracks like Section 25’s “Looking From a Hilltop”. It became a cult favorite, thanks in large part to Sumner and Johnson’s edgy, pulsating Megamix. Into this early ’80s milieu is Sumner’s remix of the Beat Club’s “Security”. From 1991, its digital polish and orchestra hits sound out of context because they are.
Context is also a problem on Disc Two, which focuses on Stephen Morris/Gillian Gilbert-related material. One of the bookending Be Music tracks, Life’s “Tell Me”, is a revelation that sounds like nothing so much as the Smiths were Morrissey and Marr replaced by a female singer and a synthesizer. Most of the disc, though, hails from decades later, after the turn of the millennium. This includes a pretty reworking of Tim Burgess’ “Oh Men” and a couple icy, pulsating tracks from modern-day New Order disciples Factory Floor. Fine enough, but it’s tough to figure what this material has to do with Be Music. Most of it was not even released on Factory.
Disc Three means to round up loose ends. Shifting again to the ’80s, it features several Peter Hook productions. True to type, these are heavier and more rock-oriented than his bandmates’ work. Stockholm Monsters’ “All At Once”, with its two-chord arrangement and jagged guitar lines, sounds like New Order with a ska influence. Also here is early Section 25 track “Knew Noise”, produced by New Order manager Rob Gretton and Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. Alas, it ends up being a lesser version of Curtis’ band.
There are then a couple of non-Be Music tracks which New Order members did not produce, but on which they played. There is Red Turns To’s earnest, OMD-like “Deep Sleep”, the collection’s best candidate for a “lost classic”. New Order Presents Be Music ends with an actual New Order composition, the previously rare, 21-minute version of “Video 586” from 1982. A strangely haunting, techno-predicting instrumental, it is a clear precursor to the epochal “Blue Monday”, but ultimately does not warrant its running length.
Can the same be said of New Order Presents Be Music as a whole? Possibly. For hardcore New Order collectors, it is a convenience if not an outright treasure trove. The track-by-track liner notes are valuable, too. Despite some strong moments, though, the collection ultimately proves that New Order is considerably stronger than the sum of its parts’ production work.