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

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

The band seems secure enough about letting a producer as willful as Baker get his hands on their sound, although, says Morris, "We're not Play-Doh." Yet producer Martin Hannett was given nearly as much credit as the band for Joy Division's records and for all but the latest New Order recordings. Hannett admits that the smashing, lively drum sound on the records was his contribution. "I made it go bang!" he says of Joy Division.

With Hannett, they worked at Strawberry Studio in Manchester, the city where the band members had held assorted jobs after finishing school – Bernard as an artist at a cartoon studio, Stephen in a textile mill and Peter Hook (whom they call Hooky) on the docks. And it was in Manchester that the three joined with Ian Curtis in 1976 for their first group, Warsaw (after a Bowie song, "Warsawa"), with little but punk inspiration. "It all started with the Sex Pistols. They could play terribly, and so could we!" says Morris delightedly. By 1977, they were calling themselves Joy Division.

They had little technical proficiency on their instruments, but a tiny independent company called Factory Records signed them anyway, on the strength of the impression they'd made on the label's founder, Tony Wilson. "In early '78, I went to this gig in Manchester where every local band played. Fifteen bands played, and I thought, 'None of these is really it,'" Wilson recalls. "Then Joy Division came onstage and played two numbers. And I thought to myself that the reason they're different is that they're onstage because they have something to say. The other bands are onstage because they want to be musicians. It's as different as chalk and cheese."

In what he calls "the look in their eyes, the tunes they played, their style of music." Wilson saw something special. So did Martin Hannett, who taught them how to use a studio. "Ideally, a group should produce itself," says Hannett, "but when I met them, they were too young – they hadn't acquired any of those skills." He has ended his association with New Order now, and they produced the latest album themselves.

Like the other records they've made, the new album does not identify the band members or credit a particular player's contribution. This is part of New Order's philosophy: they oppose the "cult of personality" that infects rock & roll. You buy a record with music on it, why should you be interested in who's playing what?, they argue. "It's the group, not my name apart from the group," says Morris. They also frequently refuse to be photographed: part of the reason is the anti-personalities thing, the other is plain self-consciousness. All in all, they prefer to concentrate on the work, the music.

While Joy Division's lyrics were penned by Ian Curtis, New Order collaborates on the words to the songs. "We work loosely," says keyboard player Gillian Gilbert, 21 (the others are all twenty-six or twenty-seven). She claims she was hired on the strength of her ability to play "Jingle Bells." "It can be a month before a song happens," she says.

"Fate writes the lyrics, we do the rest," says Morris of their rehearsals, which take place in a room next to a cemetery. They say it's a creepy place, their neighboring graveyard, that would make a great location for a gothic-horror video. In fact, they've just bought their rehearsal hall from the gas company, and they'd like to turn it into a recording studio someday. The building cost a lot, they say, but that's what they do with their money – put it back into the band, buying state-of-the-art equipment and paying for the constant instrument repairs. They pay themselves only seventy pounds – roughly $110 – per week.

It may seem a pittance for a rock star to live on, but the members of New Order have rather modest hobbies, and solitary ones at that. Bernard likes to go for drives in his car and has a home computer; Peter goes scrambling on his motor bike; Gillian tends to a pet hamster; and Stephen fusses with graphics on his small computer. Bernard and Peter also go to concerts, socializing a bit, on Saturday nights; but Gillian and Stephen are "occupied with knocking down a wall and building it back up."

They also like to read, says Stephen: "Bernard's a slow, book-a-year reader, Hooky likes Scott Fitzgerald, Gillian really likes a book called The Serpent's Song, and I like Dostoevski, he's really funny." They are not a group that is taken with politics. Nobody voted in the last election, Morris believes.

Most of their time seems to go to New Order, at the cemetery-rehearsal hall. A perfectly gloomy setting for a band that continues to market in glum stuff, some would say. "People are welcome to see us as whatever they want," says Morris. "If we're gloomy to them, we are. I'm not going to say, 'No, you've got it wrong, we're something else.' People associate death, gloom, suicide with us, but it's an albatross.

"We are not deliberately trying to get across the mood of the times," he adds. "We're not talking the unemployment blues."

Their rehearsal hall is just a short trip to the southern reaches of Manchester proper, where they all live, having grown up in nearby Salford and Macclesfield. Asked if the members of the group have been friends for long, Morris sighs. This is a band that carries a heavy history around with it. "We weren't friends a long time," he says, "but we're old friends now."

This story is from the September 15th, 1983 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 404: September 15, 1983
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