New Order interview, 1998

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.

Peter Hook’s Haçienda book

Originally published November 2009

Peter Hook’s How Not To Run A Nightclub is a great knockabout history of the Haçienda. He tells it like he saw it (mostly through a haze of booze and drugs), charting the highs and the dark and dangerous lows of the infamous Manchester club’s 15 years of fame. It’s a roll call of Mancunian rogues, misfits and mavericks, by turns funny, sad, inspiring and downright scary.

Michael Winterbottom’s film about Tony Wilson and Factory records, 24 Hour Party People, may have played fast and loose with the facts, but there’s plenty in Hooky’s book that really is stranger than fiction: the New Order bassist pissing in a Hellmann’s mayonnaise bucket kept in the Haç’s kitchen rather than using the toilets (long queues and, when the gangs moved in, too much violence); a bin bag full of £40K in cash delivered to New Order manager and Hacienda co-owner Rob Gretton by a Salford gangster (who was also running the door at the club); the member of staff who gave the tax man the wrong books (the ones with all the cash-in-hand payments rather than the ‘official’ version).

How did such a bunch of incompetent dreamers keep the club going for so long? It’s a question that’s never fully answered in the book, and that’s hardly surprising. Because much like Factory records and New Order – who of course bankrolled the club as it haemorrhaged money – the Haçienda was a beautiful mistake; not so much a club as an art manifesto that went wrong.

Anyone who was going to clubs in Manchester from 1982 to 1997 will have stories about the Haçienda. You only had to go there once for it to leave its mark; it was that kind of place. And although fashioned out of New Order and most importantly Rob Gretton’s experience of early Eighties New York nightclubs, it was never a copy of anything.

The combination of Ben Kelly’s design and the eccentric way in which it was run (both good and bad) made sure that it was always out on its own, even when it became hugely fashionable as acid house swept Britain’s clubs in 1988.

I was a student in Manchester when the Haçienda became the most talked about club in the world. I moved to the city in 1986, a Factory records fan in love with the Peter Saville aesthetic and the eclectic, contradictory and often awkward music of the label. The Haçienda was like a Factory release in 3D. Kelly’s playful and uncompromising industrial design meant that it always felt like you were walking into a special place; to borrow from Le Corbusier, it was like a machine for dancing in. The black and white portrait of Tony Wilson smiling down on you as you paid added to the sense of occasion. The fact that it was at most half-full for the first few years that I went was a good thing; it made you appreciate the space even more.

I can vividly recall when everything changed and the influence of ecstasy and Ibiza took hold. It was the summer of ’88 and I was a regular at Wednesday’s Zumbar night, a ridiculously camp combination of catwalk-style fashion/dance routines and live PAs (I remember cheesy Eighties pop duo Dollar in particular. I seem to recall people throwing Sapporo cans at them. Which was quite something, as the Haçienda was the only place you could get this designer Japanese lager at the time). It was all presided over by a master of ceremonies with a dodgy moustache. It was great fun and there was always plenty of room at the bar.

Then Zumbar became Hot. I turned up with friends expecting Zumbar’s camp theatrics and was profoundly shocked. It was wall-to-wall acid house and I didn’t get it. I made my excuses and was on the bus home by midnight. Of course the following week I was back and it started to make more sense. Within a few weeks I was dancing on the podiums. And no, I wasn’t on ecstasy, just a few cans of strong lager.

Hooky’s book does a great job of capturing how quickly the euphoria of acid house went sour, and how success turned to disaster as the Haçienda began to creak under the weight of its popularity. By then I was a music journalist and still loved going to the club; it helped that I could now get on the guest list.

Of course things lurched from bad to worse from the early to mid-‘90s. By the time the Haçienda closed in 1997 the sadness at its demise was tempered by a huge sigh of relief. It was time to admit defeat and let Manchester clubland move on. Which of course it did.

Now that Hooky has told his side of this great, crazy story, let’s hope he can do the same.


Manchester on my mind

Originally published in issue 3 of Belle Vue magazine, 2010

It’s April 1995 and Shaun Ryder, previously of Happy Mondays and now of Black Grape, is holding court in a London recording studio. Recently relocated to the capital and – am I imagining this? – living with Donovan’s daughter, he has a can of Guinness in one hand, a spliff in the other and, despite the odds, is talking a lot of sense. I ask him about Manchester: “Manchester? It’s like I’ve got a big fucking elastic band around my neck that keeps pulling me back to the place.”

Fifteen years on, I think I finally understand what he meant. Let me explain. I lived in Manchester for 16 years. It’s a familiar story: moved to the city as a student, decided to stay. It was 1989 when I graduated and I wanted to write about music. There wasn’t a better place to be.

So I wrote about music and doors started to open. I got on the Haçienda guest list and met my heroes (New Order, Rob Gretton, Tony Wilson, Les Dawson); became editor of City Life magazine and four years later was marched out of the MEN building after accepting a job on a rival paper; had a blast in a ‘mine’s bigger than your’s’ newspaper war. Manchester was good to me and I like to think I returned the love.

I live in Glasgow now, another great city (I grew up near Wolverhampton; next stop Reykjavik). I left Manchester in 2003, and although friends and work continued to take me back frequently, the city started to feel like a memory, my past rather than present. When Tony Wilson died in 2007 it was as if a door had been closed.

But I didn’t figure on that elastic band.

Recently it’s been pulling me back. I’m self-employed now and working with some great Manchester characters again. I’m in the city most weeks and when I am I keep bumping into people that I haven’t seen for years, reacquainting myself with old friends and colleagues. What was it that Tony said about Manchester being a village?

So much has changed in Manchester since I left yet so much has stayed the same; that’s what cities do, isn’t it? It’s as if I’m getting to know the place I used to call home all over again, and it’s a good feeling.

I get a knot of excitement in my stomach every time the train from Glasgow reaches Salford Crescent and I glimpse Ian Simpson’s ridiculously audacious skyscraper and think about the who, what and why of living in one of those apartments above the Hilton; when I pass Castlefield basin and take in the historical mash-up of old and new and spot the back windows of the flat I used to live in; when I step out of Oxford Road Station and turn round to view the 1960s splendour of a building that always makes me think of a particularly chic ski chalet in the Swiss Alps, even though I’ve never been to such a place.

I don’t feel like a tourist, but I do find myself acting like one; I’m taking in the sites. Britons Protection; the Deaf Institute; John Rylands Library; Rochdale Canal; the CIS Building; the mess that is Piccadilly Gardens (how I groan at every bit of rotten wood, muddy grass and badly weathered concrete); that lovely curved passageway between the Town Hall extension and Central Library; the top end of King Street; the Civil Justice Centre at Spinningfield; Piccadilly Hotel, which like the new courts, still looks to me as if it’s descended from the set of Battlestar Galactica (an entirely good thing, I think).

This rekindling of my Manchester gene has made me think about my new home too. These tough, history-drenched cities have a lot in common, from the banal (yes, it rains even more in Glasgow) to the more edifying (a rich seam of creative talent and an eye on the future).

But it’s what’s different about each city that most excites; there’s not much joy to be had in sameness. I love the sheer muscular physicality of Glasgow city centre’s grid system of main streets and service alleys – Manchester feels rather laissez-faire in comparison; I get a kick out of the undulating landscape, the way buildings cling to the sides of steep hills and the feeling of openness this gives – Glasgow is a city with a view, whereas Manchester can feel closed off, hemmed in.

And then there’s the bridges. The Clyde’s added a couple since I’ve been in Glasgow (and why not? You can never have too many in my view). Pedestrian, rail, road, they go from the thoughtfully ornate to the brutally functional. They do more than just span the Clyde; they’re a constant reminder of the river’s role in shaping the city.

Of course it’s people that make cities not bricks and steel and glass (or rivers, for that matter). But buildings record and recount people’s stories in both their presence and absence. They’re like those time capsules that get buried every so often for future generations to find, except of course they’re not at all because, above ground, nothing gets preserved, time doesn’t stop.

So, here I am with Manchester on my mind again, attempting to decipher its many signposts to the past and future. That’s what I get from the city every time I’m pulled back here. The elastic band may get stretched over time, but I don’t believe it will ever be broken.