Saturday, October 13, 2007

I Remember Nothing

Seeing as everyone is writing about Joy Division at the moment – and, in some cases, doing it with the greatest of aplomb – I have, perversely, decided to write about New Order, partly because I’m all JD-ed out (reading Touching From A Distance, hopefully eventually going to see Control), partly because other people are doing/have done it better than I could ever hope to, and partly because I bought a copy of Substance today. I had possibly plumped for a copy of Singles, but that possessed everything bad they ever did (e.g. everything after ‘True Faith’, minus the famed ‘acid house’ mixes bootleg), and had no ‘In A Lonely Place’, whereas it turns out Substance is a collection of the extended 12” versions of their first twelve singles.

What’s most interesting about New Order on first hearing them is their position in lineage of disco and electronica: listening to the 7 minutes (!) of the 12” version of ‘Blue Monday’ is bizarre, primarily because you wonder what the hell to make of it – driven by a skull-cracking drum machine beat, absolutely filled with synths arpeggiating like mad, with Peter Hook’s bass adding strange figures, not attempting to lay down a beat as such, then the drum machine rearing up and whinnying before the vocals come in; the entire thing seems not to know where it’s going, but damned if you’re going to stop it getting there – a mad, tank-like motorik ride cruising down a highway from Tron towards nowhere. Bernard Sumner sounds utterly numb, buried under effects, intoning a litany of will-less apathy (“Tell me now, how should I feel”), and really, the lyrics are something you can barely notice, partially because Bernard doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to say beyond telling us he feels betrayed (“Tell me now, how does it feel/When your heart grows cold”) and can’t really speak (“You know I find it so hard/To say what I need to say”), and partially because the insane background is so engrossing. It seems to upset the usual priorities of pop music: even in electro-pop, such as the concoctions of The Human League (on Dare) and Heaven 17, the ‘pop’ element was decidedly to the forefront, conservative and classical song structures, orientated around the voices, simply played on synthetic equipment. By contrast, New Order seem to tap into the sensibilities of synthetic disco, reducing the voice to little more than an avatar of the beat, one more element in the instrumental, scrambling the composition of pop in exactly the way electronic music should.

You can already see that process in some late ‘70s American disco, where lyrics become little more than party chants between extended instrumental sections (e.g. Chic’s ‘Le Freak’), and, where verses existed at all, they were generally short and contained yet more party sentiments. Italo-disco took the process even further, having even less regard for lyrical content, and much more for ass-shaking. As is well known, synths were used by the likes of Giorgio Moroder precisely because they were much more cost-effective than musicians (he says sneeringly), but also because they can produce rhythms that have the most profound effect: the arpeggios that power ‘I Feel Love’ (which ‘Temptation’ seems to quote) an oblique, machinic take on the organicism of funk that delivers the goods, in a decidedly, ahem, non-orthodox manner. As K-Punk has pointed out, the change is from the frustrated libidinal pulse of rock and funk – the push to achieve the aim of will and desire NOW NOW NOW – to the “thousand plateaus” of music beyond the pleasure principle – which rhythmic blueprint essentially laid the foundation for techno (it isn’t that far a leap from ‘Blue Monday’ to, say, the work of Ellen Allien), and a new way of enjoying music. I personally love the work of Villalobos, Michael Mayer, et. al. precisely because of the lack of obvious emotional signification: listening to something like ‘Easy Lee’ you feel somewhere between happiness and melancholy, a sort of wistful almost-pleasure, not the release from tension that pleasure is, but rather an interest, and focus, on the moment. (That’s what I think so-called ‘space disco’ is seeking: the serenity of cosmic suspension, rather than the ecstasy of the outward-bound journey.)

I’ve no idea to what extent New Order directly knew about, or were influenced by American and Italo-disco, but that doesn’t really matter: the fact that a trio of Heterosexual Gruff White Northern Lads (and Gillian Gilbert) should either be influenced by disco, or have arrived at the same conclusions, is interesting in itself. That the black pioneers of Detroit techno – the beginning of the lineage that ended in Villalobos and ‘minimal’ – should have then picked up a similar approach (in rhythm, synthetics, melancholy) adds further interest. That certain moments on Substance (the synths and increasing vocal/pop emphasis on ‘True Faith’ makes it sound proto-Balearic) seem to blueprint Chicago and Acid House – an ostensibly ‘black’ sound, with the soul vocals and piano hammering – is fascinating. If you wish to be even more complex about this, you can trace the motorik of New Order and Italo-disco back to the ‘Autobahn’ travels of Kraftwerk (a bunch of ultra-academic, white Europeans). So, question: what does this all add up to? Well, firstly, I would venture that New Order were far more interesting and important than they’re generally given credit for; that they were, by the whims of fortune, absolutely central to the evolution of electronic music, a continuum stretching from Krautrock to today, a group who took in both the past and future, both pop and the unheimlich virus of the electronic; secondly, that, as Simon Reynolds and many others have pointed out, the interaction of black and white cultures in the evolution of electronic music is more complex than most people would own today – the idea that people could pursue the same ideas without necessarily being ‘influenced’ by them is one which would seem ridiculous; if a black DJ like Afrika Bambataa played Kraftwerk these days, it would be something willed, an ironicism on his part (cf. Erol Alkan’s notorious eclecticism), and the freakish hybridisation of someone like Arthur Russell would be the self-conscious channelling of ‘influences’ (or sources of plunder), rather than just his doing what he liked.

New Order, by contrast, meander, seemingly without a care in the world, between black and white musical elements (the electronic elements being very ambiguous as to ‘race’ (God, this is getting horrible) anyway.) (Incidentally, is it me, or is the intro to ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ a distant precursor to glitch-hop? And what does the beat flurry and gunshot in the middle of ‘Blue Monday’ evoke but jungle?) Bernard always has a very ‘white’ voice, and guitars are often present (cf. ‘Temptation’, ‘Confusion’, ‘Thieves Like Us’), but the funk bassline on ‘Thieves Like Us’ says otherwise. This is primarily because they seem to inhabit a kind of emotional and libidinal universe beyond the categorisations of ‘black’ and ‘white’, as if they haven’t really got much interest in them because they have other things on their minds.

The angst and introversion of many New Order songs – and even ‘True Faith’ is pretty bleak: “I used to think that the day would never come/When I’d steal a life in the shade of the morning sun/The morning sun is a drug that brings me near/To the child I lost replaced by fear” – belongs to the late ‘70s just as much as it does to the paranoiac casualties of the rave generation (whose musical highs were descended from New Order, in any case). Whilst Factory Records did prosper, against the odds, in the Thatcherite Eighties, giving the band plenty to be cheerful about, they seemed to have a perpetual shadow cast over them. Needless to say, it’s all there in ‘Ceremony’ b/w ‘In A Lonely Place’, the first N.O. release (FAC 33, January 1981 – that is to say, just over six months after Ian Curtis’ suicide.) Both compositions were written by Curtis’, and, according to my meagre sleevenotes, ‘Ceremony’ at least was given a backing whilst Joy Division were still active. Neither were recorded by JD (except for one, unfinished version of ‘Ceremony’ on a rehearsal tape, and that’s hardly a JD recording – the studio, and the attentions of Martin Hannett, would have been necessary to make it a JD recording); they are, therefore, the last splutterings of Ian Curtis, theoretically lost to history, but filled in, rescued, by New Order, an act of the most extraordinary beyond-the-grave ventriloquism (recorded, as K-Punk notes, in a “post-traumatic zombie trance”), Bernard Sumner mumbling the words Curtis no doubt would also have hardly had the heart to sing, masked behind effects (judging by the evidence of Closer). It’s for that reason ‘Ceremony’ doesn’t feel like a Joy Division song, but neither is it a New Order song, which may explain why it’s so oft-covered (Xiu Xiu and Galaxie 500 having both delivered superlative versions.)

The primal trauma that gave birth to New Order – and severed post-punk from New Pop – was, in a sense, the consummation of personal trauma and the trauma of a nation (how much of a future was there in the UK circa 1980? Less than none); it cast such a shadow on the participants that it took them years – at least up until the release of 'True Faith', the only sunshiney record they would release before getting hyper on E – to get over it. The depressive coldness of Joy Division, made (im)material in the synthesised dub/disco/European electronic structures of the musical backing, provided both the philosophical and musical foundation for the non-pleasure aspect of their work, the catatonic intonations of Curtis the foundation for 'Blue Monday'; their inheritance, and what they would bequeath to the rest of the world, was a poisoned one; and if 'Ceremony' is meant as an exorcism, an attempt at closure, a forgetting, it is just as much a continuance, a haunting, the very act incarnating the forgotten objects, to linger in traces. The horrors of late '70s England - incarnated in the grey static bleakness of JD, The Normal, The Human League (circa Reproduction and Travelogue), and those bands' uses of the narratives of sci-fi (in this case, the white proto-post-punks Ballard and Dick), just as much as Kraftwerk (in the midst of Baader-Meinhof terror) used the myth of the machine, and Detroit techno and jungle utilised the outward-escape narratives of black science-fiction, from existential necessity - and the personal terrors of the members of New Order remain, like ghosts in the machine of the
music, the jerking death-drive tremors of 'She's Lost Control' still present as the oxymoronic "shade of the morning sun" in 'True Faith'.

Enjoy listening.


Blogger owen hatherley said...

Good stuff. New Order are always much stranger than they're given credit for. I know Mark K-P abhors everything after Power, Corruption & Lies as clunky and bombastic, but for me they're still fascinating up to and including Technique - and even a few of the singles after that...

A few little things: Jon Savage's JD essay concludes with Bernard talking about being sent Moroder and italo disco tapes by a friend in Berlin, 'and there was the new direction'. It's there in JD too, in 'Isolation' and the great lost instrumental 'As You Said', if in rather less ecstatic form.

The rehearsal tape of 'Ceremony' (which is on the JD box set, prob easily found on soulseek) is odd, it doesn't quite work - it's quite an optimistic, wistful song, rather uncharacteristic. But the version on the same tape of 'in a lonely place' is practically identical to the Hannett version on the single, only much more chilling with Curtis singing, maybe one of the best and most coldly horrifying things they ever recorded.

For extra weirdness, the hesitant, nervy TOTP performance of Blue Monday is worth a look...

October 22, 2007 at 5:42 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Cheers Owen - re. the whole italo-disco thing, I was rather interested in the idea that NO had some sort of 'viral influence', like they came to the same conclusions as Moroder et. al., w/o actually coming into contact, which would have been spooky (and would help explain the weird evolution of electronica); it's still kind of weird that guys from JD's background - esp. with the legacy of tragedy they had - should have been influenced by italo at all, and that seems to be what's interesting, this cross-breeding of darkness and danciness, giving that kind of nervy strangeness to their songs.

And that TOTP performance is odd: Bernard looks scared out of wits, everyone else is stiff as boards, and then they've got all these carefree teeny-boppers in front of the stage.

October 22, 2007 at 12:14 PM  

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