Originally published July 1998, City Life magazine
Waiting in New Order’s management office above the Haçienda, surrounded by old posters for gigs, framed record covers and gold discs – including one for ‘Blue Monday’, covered in dust and propped in a corner – it’s tempting to draw an analogy between the former club and the group that, through its manager Rob Gretton, created it. So, in 1998, more than 20 years after the seeds of New Order were sown with the Macclesfield-meets-Salford axis of Joy Division, is New Order merely an empty vessel, a confused bundle of memories, so much pop nostalgia with no contemporary relevance?
I’m clocking all this New Order history while I wait for bassist Peter ‘Hooky’ Hook to arrive. The plan is to interview all four members of the band but, as befits a group that hasn’t worked together for five years, it’s proving difficult to get them all in one place at the same time. So, today it’s Hook’s turn, tomorrow it’s Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris. And singer Bernard Sumner? For the moment he doesn’t want to talk. (Eventually, he makes the time and we talk at length on the telephone.)
So, after five years of no New Order, Manchester’s most important pop group of the ‘80s and, maybe, the early ‘90s – remember the official 1990 England World Cup song, ‘World in Motion’? Remember the bruised pop beauty of ’93’s ‘Regret’? – are back together again. Did they ever split up? Well, no, not really. At least when they stepped off the stage after their triumphant Reading Festival gig in August ’93, that wasn’t the intention. Or was it? It’s a question to which all four members give anything but clear-cut answers.
Hooky: “I don’t think even we knew.”
Gillian: “There was always talk of another album.”
Stephen: “The longer it went on the more you felt, ‘Oh well, we must have split up then.”
Bernard: “I didn’t think it was the end of New Order, but I wanted to get away from the situation, the business pressures were so great. It was like, ‘This hurts and I don’t want it to hurt.’”
Pop music’s grip on our lives is a strange and wonderful thing, but few bands have such a strange and wonderful life story as New Order. A product of the infamous Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976 which effectively brought punk to Manchester, ex-Salford Grammar boys Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner were inspired enough by the spirit of the Pistols to start a band, Hooky plumping for bass because Bernard already had a guitar. They recruited a drummer from Macclesfield (Morris) and Ian Curtis as singer, from the same town. Joy Division was born and, after ex-insurance clerk turned DJ Rob Gretton became their manager and Tony Wilson’s Factory records their label, they were on the way to cult status.
The suicide of Curtis in 1980, on the eve of Joy Division’s first American tour, changed all that. Yet in turn it set the wheels of New Order’s success in motion. Gillian (Stephen’s girlfriend) was brought it at the suggestion of Gretton (she’d played guitar for Joy Division before) and, after a tricky start, the band began to evolve into a thoroughly intriguing pop phenomenon: a dance band with a rock dynamic, a rock band with a love of pop melodies, a chart act with cult appeal, a successful live act with an aversion to touring, an album band that sold millions of singles.
Which brings us to a certain advert for a certain credit card and a song that did more than any other to take New Order out of the shadow of Joy Division. The song is ‘Blue Monday’, currently in heavy rotation on the country’s commercial TV channels, advertising the American Express Blue card. Fifteen years after the record was released, Sumner finds the scenario amusing. “I guess we are getting paid rather a lot of money for them using it, so it does kind of colour my judgement.” He laughs mischievously. “It’s a great credit card, you know. It’s got a great APR!”
It’s oddly fortuitous that ‘Blue Monday’ is currently enjoying a new lease of life – no doubt New Order’s record label London, who they moved to after the collapse of Factory in November ’92, will be re-releasing it (again) soon. Along with the World Cup’s revival of ‘World in Motion’ and the frequency with which ‘Regret’ crops up as a TV soundtrack, New Order are once again snuggling up to the fickle bosom of pop culture. And, nearly five years after their last gig, they are about to play live again. So, why now?
“Well, I suppose the answer would have to be, ‘Why not?’” responds Hooky, munching crisps and a ham salad and supping a pint of lager in the beer garden of the Britons Protection pub, round the corner from the Haçienda. “With Factory breaking up and Republic being so difficult, it’s just one of those things: you needed a change. And once you’ve had your change, it makes sense to reconsider it.”
Hooky is by far the most approachable, the most chatty, the most ‘bloke next door’ member of New Order. Newly married after a high-profile divorce from comedian Caroline Aherne, he says he’s the the happiest he’s ever been.
“I found it difficult to listen to New Order for a long time,” he continues. “It was too close. I think you get to a point where you spend so much time with people that you don’t really talk. It’s like a stale relationship and there’s loads of problems which just fester and you never sort them out. But it isn’t like we’re putting ourselves through all that again, because the air has been cleared. It’s nice. It doesn’t feel difficult, it doesn’t feel hard, and I think that’s because everyone feels better in themselves. They wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t feel good about it.”
“Erm, I guess because the time was right to get back together,” is Bernard Sumner’s faltering response to the ‘Why now?’ question. Bernard, who a few years ago broke that legendary New Order veneer of secrecy by appearing in a TV programme about the treatment of depression with Prozac, claims to be “very stressed at the moment”. He’s working three days a week mixing the third Electronic album in London, and two days rehearsing old New Order songs in Manchester. There’s a quiver of fatigue in his voice and a nasty cough due to a recent bout of bronchitis, but otherwise he’s in high, if not healthy, spirits.
“Obviously we got a very lucrative gig offer,” he laughs, “but we’ve had them before… I don’t know. We’d spent all this time writing these songs, and we’d been through so much together, you know we’d been through a death – two deaths if you count Martin Hannett – a nervous breakdown, the end of Factory. It just seems that to go through all that and then just split up at the end of it… If Ian’s death didn’t crack us up then we shouldn’t let inter-band politics or the fact that we weren’t getting on because we were squeezed together on a tour for so long.”
Bernard and Hooky have known each other for over 30 years (“Bernard’s the same guy that I used to meet off the bus to school and we’d go kicking satchels and slapping the swots’ heads as we walked into Salford Grammar,” says Hooky). Yet while Hooky is prone to dismiss anything that smacks of analysis and is keen to project an ‘up’ persona, Bernard has a tendency to suddenly go deep on you – then cover his tracks with a flippant aside. A little like his lyrics, he can be both poignant and throwaway at the same time.
“I’m a great believer in content over style,” he says when quizzed on his approach to being a singer. “I believe that what I do has a content to it. It’s idiosyncratic and not quite professional, which I really like. I’ve always liked that. I hate stuff that’s dead professional. Why? Because I like people for their imperfections, I think that’s what makes people attractive. Anybody who tries to tell you they’re perfect or tries to be perfect is hiding something.”
The character collision between Hooky and Bernard may be clear, yet it’s nothing when compared with New Order’s self-proclaimed ‘Other Two’ (also the name of their band outside New Order). Now married with a two-year-old baby girl, they are the most unlikely of pop stars. Stephen collects military vehicles and likes making models. They live on a farm in the rugged countryside on the outskirts of Macclesfield. They rarely venture into Manchester. They have been known to drive a Volvo estate. And they are without doubt an integral and vital part of what makes New Order so different to either Hooky’s band Monaco, Electronic, or for that matter The Other Two.
“We hadn’t spoke to Barney or Hooky for about four years before last February,” says Gillian inbetween seemingly uncontrollable giggles. “I was quite excited when we decided that we were going to do something again. I was looking forward to seeing everyone and actually doing something together. Because as times goes by you start thinking, ‘Was I really in New Order? What happened?’ I missed it really.”
Interviewed separately – my suggestion, not theirs – in contrast to Gillian’s homely, pleasant and generally at ease nature, Stephen is edgy, a deeply pessimistic chain smoker. Somehow, the scars of life in New Order, of the tensions that reached boiling point prior to the band going their separate ways after Republic, are more pronounced. His wife’s excitement following the phone call suggesting they get back together to play Phoenix Festival was tempered by his own feelings – and it was Stephen who picked up the phone. “I’m naturally pessimistic, so I was a little bit reluctant. It’s a pretty ridiculous thing really… We just needed some reason to get back together and getting offered a gig – which then got cancelled – seemed to be it.”
Only a few months prior to that out of the blue call, Stephen says he’d been thinking about New Order and had decided that “we’d never get back together again. I felt sad,” he says, “we’d been through so much together and to just leave a vacuum… Maybe if there’d been an end, but we never really technically split up. I had that feeling of ‘What am I going to do with my life now?’”
It is, however, a very different New Order that is now back up and running. Although the band have been with London Records for nearly six years, they have never actually made a record for them (Republic was all recorded as Factory collapsed around the band). The old Factory way of doing things, which in turn seemed so much a part of the whole New Order mystique, is long gone. And whereas the band previously owned the copyright on their recorded songs, that now rests with London.
“I think with hindsight I prefer the way it was with Factory,” says Stephen. “It was doing something different and it was genuinely independent and had an image of its own, independent of the records it put out. Which I think was unique.”
The challenge for New Order now is whether they can retain their stubborn independence, their warped integrity, their knack for riding the pop zeitgeist, whilst in the midst of an industry that has once again swept aside the independent ethic, confining it to quaint and unimportant NME bands that few people will ever really care about. Because, unless they all fall out again, New Order are back together again – not just for a couple of gigs but to begin writing and recording new songs, with a seventh album the long-term aim.
Hooky: “The talk is to carry on writing together one day a week after the gigs and see what happens. I hope it happens because I think it will have an optimism and enjoyment which Republic didn’t have.”
Gillian: “I’d rather write new songs than just do a load of gigs playing old material. Getting back together just to do old stuff doesn’t really appeal.”
Stephen: “You’ve got to see it as us getting back together and writing new stuff, otherwise it’s just a couple of gigs and for what? You’ve got to start working together properly again or it’s just some kind of hobby.”
Bernard: “The priorities are to get our other bands out of the way first – Steve and Gillian have just finished the second Other Two album, Hooky’s just finishing a Monoco album, I’m mixing an Electronic album – but I think we’re definitely going to write something in the future.”
But before the writing there’s the gigs. Talking to the band a couple of weeks before their Manchester date – initially intended as warm up to Phoenix and now a month and a half before their Reading Festival show – it becomes clear that at this point they’ve only rehearsed seven songs, less than half the set. Not that anyone seems particularly concerned. “The best way to deal with tricky situations is not to think about them,” says Bernard, flying in the face of all accepted wisdom on such matters. It seems that, while the new New Order is an older, wiser, mellower proposition, that rare essence that set them apart from the rest of the pop milieu is as sweet and vital as ever.