A Higher Order

5 minute read
Bruce Crumley and Hugh Porter

Bernard Sumner could easily be mistaken for a software programmer or bookshop owner. In an untucked polo shirt and faded jeans, he looks relaxed — comfortable, even. This is hardly the demeanor devotees expect of a man celebrated not only as a hugely influential force in post-punk music, but also as the co-creator of some of the most deliciously gloomy tracks ever to chart. Yet, after 25 years as guitarist and front man for the band New Order, Sumner is entitled to kick back. Emerging in 1980 from Manchester’s new-wave legends Joy Division, New Order pillaged and adapted rock and pop to revolutionize electronic dance music. Today, their synth-driven sound is aped by every group of serious-looking boys in eyeliner.

Now New Order are at it themselves. Not the makeup; glamour was never their selling point. But Waiting for the Sirens’ Call, their latest album, out in Europe this week, is heavily indebted to, well, New Order. They have evolved their trademark mix of bass, synthesizer and pop hooks by embracing and perfecting their own legacy. The result is as relaxed and upbeat as Sumner’s current incarnation. “I’m just a happier person, and that contentment shows in the music,” he explains, sipping tea in a Paris studio dressing room before taping a performance for French TV channel Canal Plus last week. But despite the unapologetic joy that propelled the album’s first single, Krafty, into the U.K. Top 10, Sumner warns that New Order haven’t completely abandoned their early edgy electronics and somber lyrics. “It gets boring writing about how happy you are,” he acknowledges. “We are working really hard to make sure we don’t become boring.”

Perpetual motion may help to save Sumner and his colleagues from that fate. This spring and summer, New Order top festival bills across Europe and the U.S., playing alongside young American bands like Interpol and the Killers, and British newcomers Bloc Party — all of whom are clearly influenced by Joy Division and New Order. The Scissor Sisters’ Ana Matronic can be heard lending vocals to the New Order track Jetstream on Sirens’ Call, while British music mag NME, a champion of young bands, this year honored the New Order veterans with a Godlike Genius Award for their career achievements.

But one dark memory will occlude the band’s sunnier disposition — May 18 marks 25 years since Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis hanged himself. His suicide ended the short but revolutionary run of New Order’s precursor. Formed in 1977 by working-class Mancunians Curtis, Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris, Joy Division embraced the social anger and energy of punk and took it in a different direction — improvising with electronic sound and synthesizers. The band was on the cusp of commercial success, but Curtis, an epileptic who was tortured by his failing marriage, took a sad shortcut to musical immortality. The band’s most famous single, Love Will Tear Us Apart, became the singer’s memorial-stone epitaph. The story has so far spawned two films — Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 24 Hour Party People and a new movie based on a book by Curtis’ widow, which begins filming later this year.

The soundtracks continue to win new adherents, too. “There’s a sense of discovery for young bands, because Joy Division isn’t that well-known commercially,” says Sumner. Adds guitarist Phil Cunningham, a recent addition to the New Order lineup: “Everyone’s got to have a starting point, and if you’re looking for something that’s emotionally driven, why not look back to Joy Division and New Order?”

Reformed as New Order in the weeks after Curtis’ death, with guitarist Sumner at the mic, the band refused fans’ calls to rerecord or play Joy Division tunes. “It would have been too painful; it reminded you of Ian too much,” explains Sumner. He adds that the group needed to prove it could make it on its own living merits: “I didn’t fancy being an Ian Curtis impersonator, really.” That was never a danger. The 1983 song Blue Monday proved a smash hit with clubgoers — becoming the biggest-selling 12-in. single ever — and New Order further anchored themselves in the club scene as shareholders of Manchester’s famous Hacienda club. Radio-friendly dance hits sent the band’s appeal global.

“It’s all right having a really great interesting past, but you have to think about the future and the present,” Sumner says. “You must make sure you’re still saying something.” The musical vibrancy of Sirens’ Call offers proof that New Order have a lot left to express. The upbeat Krafty, the more melancholic Who’s Joe? and Hey Now What You Doing, the guitar-driven neo-punk Working Overtime and the pop masterpiece title track show New Order at the top of their game, using bright instrumentation and probing lyrics to make music that is emotionally and physically moving.

Meanwhile, since ending a five-year hiatus in 1998 — which feuding band members at the time suspected would be permanent — New Order finally discovered the courage to confront its painful origins. “We were so glad to be back together, it just felt the time was right to start playing Joy Division songs again,” says Sumner. “Also, it was the best way we could think of remembering Ian. It was almost like bringing him back to life — or as much as we could.” Yet another reason for fans to be cheerful.

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