We All Stand: New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies at 40
Looking back on the Manchester greats’ transitional second album
The mayor of Great Manchester looked to stir up trouble in the middle of Texas when he did his introduction at SXSW for one of the most highly anticipated keynote addresses this year.
First off, Andy Burnham admitted that he was actually from Liverpool, which is pretty brave (imagine the mayor of Boston comping to be a New Yorker). But then to top it off, he claimed that one current band held the title of being THE quintessential group of the city- sorry Fall, sorry Buzzcocks, sorry Smiths, sorry Oasis (not to mention the Hollies and Herman’s Hermits). Even Burnham recoiled a bit from that claim, knowing that he stirred up a bit of controversy there but he might not have been entirely wrong about New Order.
VIDEO: New Order SXSW keynote 2023
But for all the pomp and glory in the keynote intro, the band themselves during the interview admitted to their own uncertain roots. With Ian Curtis’ 1980 suicide, the great and gloomy Joy Division was over as guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris decided to soldier on, wisely understanding that Curtis was irreplaceable, instead drafting keyboardist/guitarist Gillian Gilbert to become what they hoped would be a new band. But that was easier said than done- at the keynote, Sumner admitted that the first New Order record (1981’s Movement) was the band still trying to find their way and their sound, admitting that it wasn’t easy to get out of the shadow of Joy Division. To be fair, New Order did have 3/4th’s of their former band, so some overlap shouldn’t be held too much against the Mancunian crew.
Soon afterwards though, he and Morris found a solution in the form of technology–through the digital magic of sequencers, they could organize beats and synths into something exact, precise and danceable, in the mold of Kraftwerk (one of their heroes) but something more insistent and even more modern. Not only did the band find its groove but they remade the whole idea of dance music in the process. Back then, 1983 dance hits otherwise include the entire Thriller album, Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” “Flashdance,” “The Safety Dance,” “Talking In Your Sleep,” “Let the Music Play” and Madonna’s “Holiday.” Along with Jacko or Madge, and as much or as little as you like the other singles, Power, Corruption & Lies is a milestone that stood the test of time and proved New Order to be one of the most influential bands of the era: The Cure, Depeche Mode, LCD Soundsystem, Pet Shop Boys, Interpol and The Killers should all send ‘em huge multi-media thank you notes or holograms.
The thing about Power, Corruption & Lies is that it isn’t totally a throwing off of the yoke of Joy Division so much as New Order still struggling with its identity crisis and then dramatically, finally breaking free within the space of the album.
Even before PCL came out, the band was already transitioning itself. Martin Hannett had produced all of Joy Division’s work, giving it a wonderfully dark, claustrophobic sound, which the band had mixed feelings about. He kept working with New Order on their first album and early singles but they broke off from them, partially because they wanted a say in their production. By then, the band was already morphing, using synths not just as gothic atmosphere as Joy Division did, but now also as sweeping, lush sounds (though you heard some of that on “Atmosphere”) and robotic beats. In March 1983, they unleashed “Blue Monday,” which became the UK’s best selling 12″ record. The cold, pounding drumbeats and the exquisite keyboard wash of sound framed Bernard’s dire voice intoning “how does it feel/to treat me like you do,” weaving a tale of shattered love, thrusting the UK onto a darkened, sweaty dance floor.
Two months later, PCL arrived and like their debut, it included none of their singles though “Monday” would shadow the sound there. The album cover, copied from Henri Fantin-Latour’s 1885 still-life painting “Basket of Roses” is reimagined by designer and label co-founder Peter Saville (who also worked with Joy Division), making the posies lighter and the background darker, and adding in a digital strip, in addition to a decoder on the back, which would translate to the band name and album name. The image once removed of a lovely offering with a modern touch and cryptic code was cleverly in line with the band’s outlook and style as much as the record’s bold title, which wasn’t about devious politics but instead about romantic struggles, which can be just as bloody.
Politics and romance seem to come into play at the start of the record too. “Age of Consent” might seem to mean a totalitarian future at first blush, or even something along the lines of the ‘legal age for sex’ (which would be creepy as hell, and even worse) but the entendre hopefully goes along the lines of a couple finding their way together otherwise. Bernard starts out calm and plaintive, sounding like he’s painfully going through a break-up: “And I’m not the kind that likes to tell you/Just what I want to do,” later agonizing and yelping the same lines over a fast paced rockish groove (a party speed of about 162 BPM) which could be a brighter take on Joy Division’s sound. In the middle and in the end of the song, we hear the lovely, transportive synth riff, as if recalling when the romance did bloom briefly before collapsing. It’s no wonder that the song has stayed in their set to this day.
From there, the tempo slows to a drag and we’re back in Joy Division’s murky territory again with the melancholy ballad “We All Stand,” where you could imagine Ian singing it in his booming, dramatic baritone instead of Bernie’s cracked, strained tenor, not to mention lines like “At the end of the road/There’s blood on shore” coming from the former too. Ditto for the quiet recital at the end: “Life goes on and on in this real life fantasy/Forever to be still/Breath held tight inside of me.” Bernie was clearly taking notes from Ian’s old lyric sheets, making some impressively dire imagery here.
VIDEO: New Order “Age of Consent”
But just as we fear they may be regressing, they hit us with “The Village,” full of sequencer fluttering and syndrums. Now Bernie enters ecology territory in his romantic metaphors: “our love is like the flowers” and later, it’s “like the earth” (somewhere lost to time perhaps is Bernie’s old notebook with rhymes for the sky and moon). For a while, we even get wild guitar strums competing with the clattering drums. Ol’ Ian couldn’t have sung such an upbeat song and as such, we hear New Order come into its own.
But then they give the fans… a sop to their big single (absent otherwise) or a maybe a tease or a flip-off to those hungry for “Blue Monday” otherwise? “5 8 6” starts out slow, uncertain and random, someway akin to the wonderfully bizarre Rastakraut Pasta album that Cluster’s Dieter Mobius and innovative gadfly producer Conny Plank did in 1980. But then, two minutes into the song, they fade into the “Blue Monday” rhythm but with a new set of lyrics- instead of forlorn heartbreak, we get a gothic horror/nightmare setting with hints of love lost- “I see danger, danger, danger/All on the corner sent by me” and later repeated “can you hear me calling” with no answer back. Again, is this a poke at the fans who wanted the hit song but wouldn’t get it here? Whatever it is, it’s the band’s longest tune (at 7:29) and how they decided to close off side one of the album, leaving listeners enchanted, enticed and likely confused as hell. But just as we get a decode on the back cover of the album to decipher the colors/pictures, the band will later provide us with a musical decoder for this puzzle.
Thanks to the original vinyl release’s odd minimal, spiraling design, for years, I actually thought that side two of PCL was the start of the record- as such, the first thing I would keep hearing when I’d first play the album was the stately, beautiful “Your Silent Face.” Over a slow-paced bubbling synth that recalls Ralf & Florian once again, Bernard intones solemnly about a lover who sounds like she might be a corpse- “No hearing or breathing/No movement, no colors/Just silence.” Gil’s dramatic, majestic synth line (sparely but poignantly used, just like on the other side opener) gives the song an incredible buoyancy, elevated even more by Bernard’s charming melodica toots. The band thought enough of the tune to also include this jewel in their sets right up to the present day.
From there, we arrive at “Ultraviolence,” another extreme title that’s again code for romantic warfare and a thrilling musical setting with synth/sequencer dance rhythms and a heavy syndrum march along with desperate and frantic guitar strums and Hook’s dramatic bass lines. Lyrically, we’re in cryptic/goth territory about regret and heartbreak- “everybody makes mistakes” (repeated) and ending with “time to go/time to go.” But as the song starts with “who saw those dark eyes?” we can’t help but wonder if maybe this isn’t about a love interest and maybe instead the regret is about Curtis and not seeing the signs that something was wrong with him before the end – it’s something that Bernard and Stephen have admitted to grappling with even recently, helping to bring awareness to mental health problems. By the end of the song, the drums dominate, leaving us with a bleak, hidden gem on the album.
By the next song though, we’re in strangely familiar territory and now we may have a clue where we were before at the end of the album’s other side. “Ecstasy” (how’s that for a contrast in titles?) starts out echoey with shuttered dub-like percussion and noises, taking another stab at the synth/sequencer sound heard on “Ultraviolence” and at the same pace. But… it’s also played at the same damn pace as “5 8 6,” so WTF? By now, this doesn’t seem like a joke or a tease but instead what we have here is simply an extended dance record- think of it as a B-side or version of what we’ve heard before, now with a brighter sound and good groove, with a vocoder providing the untraceable lyrics now (again, much like you’d hear on a B-side/version). It’s not only an extension of the death disco that PiL promised us but also clues us in that “5 8 6” (whose title supposedly refers to the tally of the musical bars used here) is a ‘version’ of “Blue Monday.” Nice of ’em to finally share a musical guide map with us near the end, isn’t it?
But just as we seem to figure things out, they pull the rug from under us again with their finale. With synths seemingly nowhere in sight, “Leave Me Alone” features twangy Byrds-like guitar and a slightly slower version of the start of the album, bringing us back to New Order’s early singles and debut album once again. Now Bernie weaves a dream-like story of hopeful then sad struggle, repeating the title again and again. Though it seems like a regression in some ways, you can’t imagine Curtis dredging up the glimmers of hope in this deceptively bright, mysterious song.
This 42 minute whiplash time warp through the group’s past, present and future was itself only a brief stopping point though. Only two months after the record came out, their Arthur Baker produced single “Confusion” was another step forward, showing the band shifting course quickly into a more loose-limbed, frantic disco sound and also sounding much more confident of their dancefloor prowess. Two years later, on their next album (Low-Life), they would crawl further out of their shell by not only putting their photos on the sleeve but also sticking their singles on the album.
The following decades would see seven more albums from the band, landing them even more chart success at home and overseas. By 2007, Hook and Sumner couldn’t stand each other, leading to the former exiting the band, seemingly for good. In the mid-2010’s, the band stopped releasing albums but Sumner came out with his bio right before that, Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me. And what exactly does he say about PCL there? Unless it’s something that he’s carefully hidden between the lines, it’s zilch, which is telling. Why leave all of that out? Not memorable enough or not significant enough to him perhaps?
Two days before their recent SXSW keynote, New Order did one of their few U.S. shows this year at ACL Moody, just down the street and probably the hottest tipped show of the whole festival. Along with their hit singles through enough smoke machine fog to almost make Bernie choke, they also trotted out “Age of Consent” and “Your Smiling Face” into the set list. Even if Sumner didn’t have anything to say about PCL in his book, they acknowledged that it’s still an important part of their history. And part of ours too, come to think of it.
Maybe Andy Burnham was right after all.
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