NewOrderOnline.com is supported by its members. Donations are always welcomed and appreciated.

Send a donation...

A new kind of blue

When New Order split, no one thought they'd ever be back. But, says Caroline Sullivan, here they are on stage again

Friday August 21, 1998

Manchester's main rock venue, the Apollo, was so full it should have handed out towels and called itself a sauna one night last month. Outside, touts were getting £40 a ticket; inside, the air was congealing into a viscous cloud. At the back of the stalls, a lanky red-haired character was shouting over the music to his friends. "I never thought I'd see them again. This is the best gig of the decade." He was close to tears.

This wasn't a 17-year-old fan, but a mid-thirties estate-agent type who'd evidently come straight from the office. "When they did Isolation I thought I'd die." Now he really was in tears. Such is the effect New Order have on people.

Six months before, the idea of the group turning up for a reunion show in their home town seemed less likely than Elvis turning up in a Memphis bar. In fact, in the five years since their last album, there had been more sightings of Elvis than New Order. The four of them can't even agree about how many times they spoke to each other during their long lay-off, which began shortly after the release of 1993's Republic album.

Peter Hook, the craggy, lupine bass player, reckons he was in touch with pretty-boy singer/guitarist Bernard Sumner twice. Sumner thinks it might have been four times. Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert, the husband-and-wife drummer and keyboardist, vaguely remember meeting up with the others once, three years ago.

Just prising these estimates from them is laborious, because, despite being officially operative again - at least, they're playing Reading next week, with further gigs "a possibility" - it's still impossible to get all four of them in one room. One interview eventually became three: Sumner and Hook were only available by phone, on different days, while the Morrises agreed to talk face-to-face at their farm near Macclesfield. Which is all very New Order. In 18 years together, they've rarely seen each other except when recording and touring.

They're pleasantly witty to a fault as individuals, but in the eighties, their reputation for truculence helped make them every indie kid's favourite band, along with fellow Mancunians the Smiths. It could be argued that, as one of the first English bands to successfully exploit electronic music (Blue Monday, the second electro song they ever wrote, was the biggest-selling 12-inch single of the eighties) they're also one of the most important in the last 15 years. If they hadn't grasped the potential of augmenting guitar rock with drum machines and sequencers long before acid house came along, rock history might have been quite different.

The fact that New Order and their former incarnation, Joy Division, still matter was proved by three events earlier this year. The first was the release of a Joy Division box set, which sold out. Second was the palpable excitement at the news that they'd be playing the Phoenix Festival. Although the four-day festival was cancelled due to poor ticket sales, one-day tickets for New Order reportedly sold better than any other day (the show's been moved to Phoenix's sister festival, Reading, on Sunday August 30). Thirdly, a low-key warm-up date at the Manchester Apollo on July 16 sold out immediately.

The weeping estate agent could have spoken for every fan at that show. The group briskly whirled through their numerous hits: Blue Monday, True Faith, Regret - virtually everything except their only number one, the 1990 World Cup anthem World In Motion. The songs have aged well - their bittersweet buoyancy still as fresh as the day they were born. (And a style note: Hook is over his leather-panted rock-animal phase, while Sumner is still absurdly fresh-faced for someone who's been in the music business since 1977.) And, as they played the first of a handful of Joy Division songs that had lain dormant since the death of Ian Curtis in 1980, the estate agent was transported and overwhelmed.

Whether the audience consists mainly of old-timers or Britpop babies to whom Manchester means Oasis isn't clear. But the band - all but Gilbert now in their early forties - aren't bothered either way. Where most outfits who'd indulged in a long hiatus would be spouting off about the new young fanbase they intend to recruit, New Order are sanguine. This reunion isn't for the fans, it's for them.

As Sumner puts it: "We're not very good at anything else. The other options are to work in a supermarket or become a tramp." Both pretty remote possibilities, considering the money they've made from their eight albums, from 1981's Movement to the chart-topping Republic. If Sumner's and Hook's pads are anything like Stephen and Gillian's hillside farmhouse, we can assume New Order aren't hurting financially.

"There was bitterness and animosity when we broke up, but during our time apart we started to value the good things about each other," says Sumner. "We never did properly split up, as in, 'You take the guitar strings and I'll take the amps', but we'd been through so much, including two deaths," Curtis's and their producer Martin Hannett's, from a drug-related heart attack. "But in the end it would have been a waste of all the songs we wrote if we never played them again. It would be like losing your heritage."

So you feel this time you'll be able to get along with each other? "For about another minute," Hook guffaws a week later. "As I said to Bernard, this time if I'm unhappy, I'm off. But I'm happy with things so far. The reception at the Apollo was brilliant. It's the first time I've seen Bernard enjoy himself in 20 years. I think he could almost be persuaded to tour." "Going onstage was a very emotional moment," Sumner agrees.

"I got nervous on the bus 10 minutes from the venue, and I'm like, 'Oh my God, I haven't been on a stage in five years and I'm going on stone-cold sober, get me out of here' - but as soon as I got onstage and picked up my guitar it was fine." "The problem before," opines Gilbert, "was that we didn't fight. If you do, you get it out of your system, but we were the kind of band that sulked. We were like four people stuck in an arranged marriage."

What was it like doing Joy Division songs for the first time in nearly 20 years? Hook: "It wasn't quite the first time. We used to do Love Will Tear Us Apart on the anniversary of Ian's death." Sumner: "At the Apollo we played them without even rehearsing them and it felt good. If Ian's up there, and I think he is, because I believe in an afterlife, I'm sure he's happy to know his work is remembered."

During the break, all four busied themselves with what is euphemistically known as 'other projects'. For Sumner this was an album with Johnny Marr, his occasional partner in the band Electronic. So much time has elapsed that he's now working on the next Electronic LP, which will surface in January under the title Twisted Tenderness. He also took part in a TV documentary about Prozac.

"I took it for seven months to see if it would affect my creativity. And it did - I found it easier to write lyrics and dig deep in myself when I wasn't on it." The Morrises had a baby and did an album under the wry pseudonym The Other Two. And Hook? Well, Hook's been busy. In five years, he met, married and divorced Caroline 'Mrs Merton' Aherne, whom he won't discuss, and married again.

"I met Rebecca [his new wife] on a blind date - when you get to a certain age you'll do anything. I was on Prozac because I went through a brief bad patch, and, see, Prozac makes you sweat. So if you go somewhere hot, like a club, you start to sweat, but when you leave the hot place you keep sweating for about 45 minutes. We went to the Hacienda [the now-defunct club owned by the band] and I kept sweating!" he laughs. "She went back to her boyfriend after that till I convinced her to come meet me in Miami."

Less absorbingly, Hook has also been the only member to enjoy musical success outside the band. His side project, Monaco, had a hit single last year with What Do You Want From Me? and they play Reading on the same day as New Order. "I'm not looking forward to doing two sets in one day because I won't be able to drink in between." About their future as New Order, all four agree that if Reading goes well they'll consider more gigs, and perhaps an album.

"I think we have something to offer," asserts Morris. "Or I hope. So much has happened since we've been away - drum'n'bass, the Britpop thing..." Are they friendly with their local Britpoppers, Oasis? "We haven't met them," says Gillian. She glances at their wild acreage outside, at the public footpath running across their land. "Now, if they were hikers..."

Last updated on 2005-03-07 9:11:00 PM - 9:11:00 PM
All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.