New Order: Life After Death

The suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis left Joy Division with a legacy of gloom. Despite their heavy history, the survivors – in the form of New Order – have become one of the first-rank rock groups in Britain

September 15, 1983
new order bernard sumnet 1981
Bernard Sumner of New Order performs in the United Kingdom.
Kerstin Rodgers/Redferns

May 19th, 1980, was no ordinary Monday for the members of Joy Division. Bags were packed and goodbyes had been said. They were ready to leave for America, on their first rock & roll tour abroad. They had finished a new single, its title etched across a gravestone on the sleeve: LOVE WILL TEAR US APART.

But Joy Division – such a weird name for a group known for gloomy music and the forlorn voice of its singer – never left England that blue Monday. There was something about the promise of the trip that made lead singer Ian Curtis put a noose around his neck and hang himself the evening before. More goodbyes.

"On Sunday morning, I was turning my trousers up. Monday, I was screaming," remembers the band's drummer, Stephen Morris.

But Joy Division would soon become well known in America anyway – both for "Love Will Tear Us Apart," one of the most influential songs of the past years, and for Curtis' suicide, which put a lasting chill into the band's legacy.

With Curtis' death, Joy Division, which is what the prostitutes' area of Nazi concentration camps was called, officially came to an end. "I must admit Ian was the charismatic individual in the band," says Martin Hannett, the producer of the band's records. Because Curtis had been the focus of the first group, the three remaining members reorganized as New Order.

"There's life and there's death. We were still alive, so we thought we'd carry on doing it," says Morris. With a keyboardist added and guitarist Bernard Sumner taking over as lead singer, New Order is still very much an extension of Joy Division: like uncluttered landscapes in dark colors, New Order's music remains more mood than melody.

In Britain, partly by unwittingly riding the coattails of the synth-based pop bands, New Order has become one of the first-rank rock groups – the thinking man's Human League. In America, clubs are playing the band's twelve-inch dance single "Blue Monday" (which sold over a quarter of a million copies in England) and are beginning to break what may be the group's biggest stateside hit, "Confusion." That last and much ballyhooed dance track is the result of a collaboration with producer Arthur Baker, master of the New York street sound and the man responsible for the recent hits "PlanetRock," "Candy Girl" and "I.O.U."

Record buyers are also sniffing at a well-reviewed new album of uncharacteristically frisky music, Power, Corruption & Lies, New Order's second and best L.P. To promote it, the band just made its second tour of America – only a small block of dates, by necessity.

100 Best Albums of the Eighties: New Order, Power, Corruption & Lies

"We don't have a major record company that gives us cocaine at the end of the tour," explains a downright cheery Stephen Morris, relaxing on a rainy night in June after a sold-out show at First Avenue, a huge Minneapolis club. The band's keyboard player, Gillian Gilbert, who lives with Morris in Manchester, was back in the room after a bit of "puddling" through the soaked parking lot at the Ambassador Motel.

The Minneapolis show had been, well, a bit somber. When few in the audience seemed moved by the new song "Thieves Like Us," Bernard Sumner – he's using that surname after having tired of Dickens (his family name) and Albrecht (his former stage name) – fairly spat out, "If you didn't like that, you must be Americans." Many seemed disappointed that the band wasn't a sad-faced Duran Duran, a party animal; more seemed upset that they didn't play the Joy Division songs.

"We did 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' once, on the anniversary of Ian's death," says the tall, thin Morris, whose drumming – a human sound that plays against the keyboard electronics – is really the band's signature. "But Joy Division doesn't exist anymore, and it would be foolish to kid people into believing it does."

Although a dark cloud still seems to hover over their music, their newest material is pointedly dance-oriented. "I'm not saying we play disco music," says Morris, "but there are some interesting time signatures knocking about in our songs." New Order wanted – and got – a true dance mix for "Confusion," the single they made with Arthur Baker, whose "Planet Rock" they'd admired.

"The fact that they make depressing-sounding records isn't what attracted me to them," says Baker. "But once we got in the studio, I used that the way I would use it in one of my own songs. I really do not write happy music myself. My songs are based in reality, on human situations. And that's what I liked about their stuff."

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