The Perfect Kiss: New Order’s Substance at 35
Looking back on the anthology that chronicled the group’s ascent from despair to dancefloor greatness
Ian Curtis was 23 when he died by suicide in the early hours of May 18th, 1980.
Pop’s a trade you dive into early, running on a die-young-stay-pretty ethic that’s only grown more complex and dangerous for its denizens. But no matter how much life has scarred you by that age – however darkened your brow and jaded your soul and wizened your mind have become – you’re still a kid. You shouldn’t be expected to have much of anything figured out. And you really mustn’t decide it’s too late to fix what’s broken.
Curtis was beset by considerable burdens – a victim of performance-threatening epileptic seizures, divorce proceedings fueled by a volatile extramarital entanglement, and the pressures of an obsessive public, who viewed him as an avatar for deep dark emotions he could scarcely manage himself. It’s said he saw the end of his rope clearer and closer than anyone around him – certainly Tony Wilson, Factory Records head and one of Curtis’ truest faithful, or the three boys who backed him up as Joy Division.
Maybe Curtis saw his art as his out, saw logic if not peace in ending a life recently spent declaiming bleak aphorisms over some of the most ingeniously spooky music ever made. His tragic choice was hinted at, if not fully explained, by the fervent, yet oddly vacant way he sang. It was the sound of a man who’d seen doom coming on quick, and was already over it, already grooving to the rhythms of the afterworld. His awful exit can be, and has been, perversely regarded as part of the act. A deliberately poetic resolution.
But, as stated, it was also a surprise – not just the swift tabloid shock fans might’ve predicted if they felt morbidly honest. Guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris were not only stuck with unimaginable grief – their livelihoods were suddenly threatened, and they couldn’t be blamed for feeling uncomfortable. The necessity for respectful mourning was, in a black instant, clanging dissonantly up against the sudden concern over sustaining their newfound royalties and reputations.
There’d been a pact – one defector would retire the name. But Sumner, Hook and Morris couldn’t have expected to be confronted with this choice in the cream of their early momentum. Curtis had been the apex of their sound, the portal through which all that subtly carpentered dread spilled out. But among the things this unlikely yet captivating frontman took with him was the others’ appetite for darkness.
So the trio effected the kind of total overhaul being dazed out of everything you thought you knew compels. The death of a loved one or close friend leaves you so barren and shattered, you look for reassurance wherever it naturally creeps in. It had come time to reify the joy which had beamed so ironically off marquees at their shows, to strip it of its cynical application and the brutality of the Nazi crimes the name referenced (look it up if you don’t know). To weave it into new messages. To mean it.
And though the new name they settled on also had Nazi roots – British Baby Boomers worked out their war trauma in strange ways – it wasn’t a sick joke, but a plainly worded state of the union: New Order.
The naturally metronomic Morris was the only functionally unchanged element. But he lowered his temperature to meet the new music halfway, and also began to make peace with the drum machines undergoing a hostile takeover of Britain’s so-called “new pop”. Though Sumner’s voice was similar to Curtis’, his stage presence was as muted as the former’s was galvanic. Being the only member who could stop playing for key moments and focus on a microphone, he fashioned himself into a world-class non-singer. The musical spaces he left behind were eagerly filled by the inventive, irreverent Hook, a shift in which the guitarist, rather than the bassist, became the anchor. Hook’s liquid, chordal, unwaveringly melodic bass playing is perhaps New Order’s premier instrumental signature. Its closest rival would come from Curtis’ replacement – a synthesizer player, and not of epic solos or high-tech sonics but simple figures, pure textural furnishing in utterly strategic spots. So modest a presence she’d almost disappear on stage, Gillian Gilbert still became one of the ‘80’s most covertly influential performers.
Seven years later, they’d developed their sound with such care and intelligence, a compendium of their singles was a lock to be one of the greatest albums of all time on arrival. It was, and it is. Punk and disco made for many intriguing marriages from the late ‘70s on, but no band better welded the roughness and iconoclasm of punk with the beatific surrender of just-dance disco. And seamless though the fusion was, they still sound like no punk or disco band before or after. The dozen tracks they collected as Substance, rapturous ciphers all, are the band’s best work, though commercial and artistic highs were still to follow.
Non-LP editions supplemented these hallowed works with their B-sides. But here, I’ll just bid a fond bon anniversaire to the twelve 12”s, under the glimmering million spotlights of a mirrorball in a dark room.
CEREMONY (FAC 33, 1981)
Though their life’s mission would be mining prefab fields for human beauty, the first step is all real. The rhythms are familiar, but the opening guitar figure has a new feel: in the wake of the ill-lit all-night party Joy Division descended into, waking up new, and loving the sun coming in through the shades. It comes on like a rallying cry, the title appropriately hopeful: a positive way to mark a milestone. “Heaven knows it’s got to be this time,” Sumner bellows under layers of filter (mechanical) and detachment (his own), and one wonders if he was thinking of a certain new angel while he was singing – one final glance back.
There are two versions, and the second one, included here, is lighter, more expedient. The guitars sing with the same humble conviction as the vocalist, and Hook hangs on a luminous two-note figure in his upper register. The versions are self-portraits pre- and post-epiphany. The confusion and fear of their need to move forward alone has been washed clean on this later version. With a sterling focus, against which the sunshine they conjure glints gorgeously, they tell us nothing about what they’ll accomplish in the future, except for how much will and hard-edged intention they’ll throw themselves into it with.
EVERYTHING’S GONE GREEN (FBN 8, 1981)
We’re already on another planet. Certain elements still survive – the dank, after-hours aura, the pitter of the drums like hail against a shack window, the insistent repetitions of a minor-key theme. But front and center is Gilbert’s signature 16th-note pulse, simplistic and hypnotic and buzzily robotic: the future is now. With its rhythm and weight it enlarges Morris’ beat, which draws more heavily from late-‘70s dancefloor pop than ever. Hook drops in echoed phrases which hang over and psychedelicize the music, while Sumner devotes himself to a chicken-scratch pattern that would’ve gotten him laughed out of the Famous Flames or the Meters, but here roughens and lightens up the combination simultaneously.
The lyrics evade clear answers, as usual. But perhaps the title acknowledges the verdant crop of new ideas the band has found. It’s the last single that feels genuinely transitional, and when it closes out in an abrupt burst of aquatic noise, your primary thought is all wonder: “what the hell just happened?”
TEMPTATION (FAC 63, 1982)
The masterpiece – they finally surrender wholeheartedly to beauty, to the waves of pure loveliness which result from their coalescent textures. The core is actually quite dingy – Morris’ insistent snare coated in a metallic gunk, with Sumner’s choppy riffing beefing up the beat. Sumner and Hook soar around and over this, phosphorescent melodies like slow-shooting stars, chords banging in and slowly fading like firework bursts. They function just like light dancing on water. The lyric perfectly evokes a punch-drunk yet determined 4AM walk home after a first encounter with a new lover: “up, down, turn around/please don’t let me hit the ground/tonight I think I’ll walk alone/and find myself as I go home.” Or that imagistic climax: “oh you’ve got green eyes, oh you’ve got blue eyes, oh you’ve got grey eyes…”
Though the rerecording for Substance lacks the original’s indie indifference to polish (though it’s hardly spit-shined), it benefits from Sumner’s more confident vocal. When the two tracks of his doubled vocals fall out of sync with each other in the original, it belies the sweet, quiet urgency of the message. In its stead is perfectly understated, single-tracked voice – as astute a change as on the second “Ceremony”.
BLUE MONDAY (FAC 73, 1983)
The smash, with its floppy disk cover and the top-ten chart placement. It’s a whole-soul capitulation to the sound of the machine the band could so convincingly simulate. Commencing with that immortal programmed kick drum, and Gilbert’s canny synth riffs floating over a horizon. Then the rest of Morris’ programming rushes in, and a deeper synth line throbs addictively. Then a simple break, the silent bits as vital as the beats, and we’re back in simpler form, just fake drums and Gilbert’s pulsing buzz. (It’s significant that Morris and Gilbert were a couple since the band started.) The difference from the old Joy Division dread to the ominous vibe here is the absence of echo – it’s right in your face and dry as a bone.
Love forever to Sumner’s vocal, sung as if pressing keys on a sampler with each syllable: “How. Does it. Feel. To treat. Me. Like. You. Do.” A dose of vocoder drifts in later, like the foam off a low tide, and once or twice Sumner breaks the façade by indicating (as he drops uncomfortably into his lower range) how silly this all may sound. But this isn’t the B-52’s – if any of this is a joke, it’s uncomfortably unclear. You can dance to it, but you certainly can’t swing to it; whatever the message, it’s as cold as the instruments delivering it. Yet there’s fun here, in calculated and minimalistic moments – don’t forget the wiggy joy of those rubbery little synth breaks, quick doses of hi-NRG before the song slips back into its stone face, or the strange wash of fake men’s choir, as absurd a slice of the uncanny valley as Asimov could dream of.
This is pop – perfect little musical constructs, designed for unthinking repetition, weaving in and out.
VIDEO: New Order performs “Blue Monday” on Top of the Pops 1983
CONFUSION (FAC 93, 1983)
But this is actually pop. Though Morris’ drum pattern still has a certain junkyard clang to it, the rhythm is a genuinely funky counterpoint for the first time. This was designed for real radios, not just theoretical ones. The guiding hand is the great NYC DJ Arthur Baker; the amelodic chants which rush out around the chorus call to mind great hip-hop singles of the era. This is truly a beat you could trip over and ensnare yourself in if you aren’t ready to dance like you know how, and the breaks exhibit the kitchen-sink chaos of so much technology-drunk middle-‘80s pop. Hook and Sumner both play coppery-sounding bass, interlocking confidently with the hard groove, with Sumner’s scratchy guitar strokes mixed down low.
Once again, Sumner decided to take advantage of his subtle increase in confidence and re-record the vocal, and while the improvement is not as dramatic, it does allow for a tiny bit of extra consistency through a collection of singles which at this point already demonstrate a breathless stylistic breadth.
THIEVES LIKE US (FAC 103, 1984)
Here we’re back to pop that sounds a little homemade – the clandestinely organic core band sound is more front-and-center than it has been since “Temptation”. Morris holds down an unobtrusive pattern, Hook and Sumner strum and pluck lustrously, filling the center, and Gilbert hovers angelically above it all. She’s the real star of this track – so much brilliance in just a few simple strokes and fillips – until Sumner starts singing, sweeter and more vulnerable than he’d ever been on record before. One should be grateful that he didn’t deem this vocal worthy of a re-do – the more he leans into those bighearted high notes, the more you remember that he really doesn’t sing very well, and the juxtaposition of his deep feeling and technical failure makes a typically elusive lyric more poignant. All you need to know is the chorus, which he leans into as if he’s reeling backward from a (see next song) perfect kiss: “it’s called love, and it belongs to us.” Perhaps no single of theirs more adeptly weds their indie and pop senses.
THE PERFECT KISS (FAC 123, 1985)
This one really feels like a sequel. The sound is similar to “Thieves”, picking neither rough indie nor slick pop as a point of emphasis. Gilbert and Morris do lay a lot more ideas on this one, including that classic chorus of sampled ribbits in the middle (get it?), with Gilbert’s held chords simulating white moonlight on a blue swamp lake. It’s a lot faster and busier, the beat similarly insistent, but the vibe more of an up.
The strange lyrics are a reminder that the deadpan is fundamental in New Order: you never know if they really mean the prettiest or most straightforward things they play or say. Still, when Sumner growls one note in “let’s go out and have some fun”, it instantly proves that that’s exactly what the band is doing.
SUB-CULTURE (FAC 133, 1985)
Gilbert’s opening synths sound like a broadcast from high mass at a cathedral in space, and in the first thirty seconds you already hear evidence of how the band has expanded its own budget – a surge of (fake) strings, a gospel-tinged chorus boosting Sumner’s vocal. Listen to the glistening industry of the subway-track rhythm, once again Morris and Gilbert hustling in metronomic tandem, and reflect on how this is the inescapable sound of mid-‘80s radio. And how you just heard seven singles proving that New Order were not just making that sound, but workshopping it, well before it was worth a million bucks.
SHELLSHOCK (FAC 143, 1986)
John Hughes was not an outside-of-the-box thinker. His movies are beloved more for how they organize cliches and tap into a widespread identification with teen-life tropes than for their original ideas. But listen to the soundtracks, and it’s clear the director had a voracious appetite for against-the-grain pop, British particularly. It’s how he saw fit to coopt Simple Minds into their simplest-minded hit, “Don’t You Forget About Me” (for The Breakfast Club), and how Pete Shelley and the Apartments ended up on a hit American soundtrack (for Some Kind of Wonderful). He had an ear for the finest from Britain’s left field.
In the year between those two movies, New Order got a slot on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack. As with “Confusion”, the group enlisted a luminary from the American club scene for production help – John Robie, whose “One More Shot” (as C-Bank) unabashedly boasted a “Blue Monday” influence. To their credit, New Order contracted a more expansive affair here. Listen to how the beat unfolds piecemeal against the time-bomb tick of an introductory drum machine part. Like “The Perfect Kiss” and “Thieves Like Us”, this is a cousin to the previous single, the overall vibe darker and more dramatic. But like “Sub-Culture”, it’s also cleaner, slicker, the synths more muscular and chromium-funky. The killer chorus hits at a camp-intensity pitch, and is irresistibly catchy: “It’s never enough until your HEART stops beating…”
STATE OF THE NATION (FAC 153, 1986)
Though danceable and unrelenting as ever, this is maybe the most perfunctory single in the set – the minor-key changes have lost some luster, and the arrangement is so busy you can barely peer through the cracks. It has one key distinction, though: for once, the title is deployed in both chorus and verse lyrics. They were, after all, dwellers in Thatcher’s UK, so a little protest was in order – though Britain’s unique pop taste meant that by this point in their career, New Order no longer needed to work again.
AUDIO: New Order “Bizarre Love Triangle”
BIZARRE LOVE TRIANGLE (FAC 163, 1986)
This is rivaled only by “Temptation” as Substance’s crown jewel. Their hooks had dulled some over the last stretch of singles, and you can hear how hard they went for a win here. The sparely-curated synth intro is their most radiant yet – all snowdrop plinks and frigid shimmers, like warm light shining through an icicle, giving way to that heartrending swell of faux-string arpeggios. The progression is stalwart – IV-V-I-vi – but few hits have ever milked it for more, much less by repeating it without deviation for seven minutes. Making savvy use of rhythmic breaks and thinning out the mix like they used to, each time one of the themes returns, it breaks your heart. And what a perfect use of their most consistently effective conceptual coup: the relationship between an indecipherable, bizarre title and a hook that says what the music suggests as plainly as can be. “Every time I see you falling/I get down on my knees and pray…”
TRUE FAITH (FAC 183, 1987)
A giant hit, almost indifferently catchy, as if no one could be less surprised than they were that they’d become the juggernaut they were. It feels a bit unassuming, until you find the chorus living rent-free in your head for years after first hearing it. All the delightfully familiar elements are hidden in the typically dense, atypically lush mix – the jangly, slightly out-of-tune strumming patterns, the undaunted clamor of the snare drum, the incessant electric burble of the single-note synthesizer pattern, and the definitive simplicity of the lines Gilbert hangs in the firmament above the track. As usual, the love or fidelity the title implies is undermined by an aura of foreboding. But true faith? It’s what they had in themselves when confronted with unimaginable tragedy back in 1980. By 1987, they’d instilled it – en masse.
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