New Order: New Wave

Suicide, rebirth, break-ups and comebacks: few bands have seen as much triumph and tragedy as New Order. But what has really shaken them is becoming fashionable after all these years. Interview by Ben Thompson
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The Independent Culture

In 1974, teenage Salford scooter-boys Peter Hook and Bernard Dicken - who would later change his surname first to Albrecht, and finally to Sumner - went to see Deep Purple play at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. There's something rather unlikely about the idea of a pair of suedeheads ("We weren't thugs or anything; we didn't go around beating people up," Sumner insists, before embarking on a lengthy anecdote about a fellow Lambretta enthusiast called Lance, who was later sent to prison for stealing a double-decker bus) going to a heavy rock concert. Though they didn't know it then, it would be just such apparent contradictions that would sustain them through a career which incorporates as fine a balance of tragedy and fun as any other in the rock'n'roll pantheon.

In 1974, teenage Salford scooter-boys Peter Hook and Bernard Dicken - who would later change his surname first to Albrecht, and finally to Sumner - went to see Deep Purple play at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. There's something rather unlikely about the idea of a pair of suedeheads ("We weren't thugs or anything; we didn't go around beating people up," Sumner insists, before embarking on a lengthy anecdote about a fellow Lambretta enthusiast called Lance, who was later sent to prison for stealing a double-decker bus) going to a heavy rock concert. Though they didn't know it then, it would be just such apparent contradictions that would sustain them through a career which incorporates as fine a balance of tragedy and fun as any other in the rock'n'roll pantheon.

Unfortunately, that particular evening was ruined when Bernard had to go home early because he had a headache. Three decades later, not much has changed. Sumner, who only the week before was laughing at his flu-ridden fellow bandmembers as they stood around in a muddy field having their photo taken for the NME, is now complaining of being "really ill" himself. It's not that they doubt his word or anything, but some of his colleagues suspect the proximity of a three-day German promo trip might have had something to do with his sudden turn for the worse.

There's a song on New Order's forthcoming album, Waiting For The Sirens' Call, which is called "I Told You So". It starts with a loping reggae backbeat picked up from a pirate radio station Sumner was listening to on his yacht in the Caribbean. The lyric contains the lines "It's an occupation I don't like/But it pays the rent and turns on the lights". The corrosive cynicism of this couplet did not raise as many eyebrows with the rest of the band as it might have been expected to.

"Bernard's always saying things like that," grimaces the more naturally enthusiastic Hook between sips of tea in the studio next to drummer Stephen Morris's farmhouse in the hills above Macclesfield . "He will never admit - God bless him - that he has a good time doing this. I remember sitting with him at the Montreux Jazz Festival while he had a conversation with Quincy Jones about how all he really wanted was 'a nice nine-to-five job in a bank'."

Hook - the 2004 Celebrity Big Brother producers' original choice for the place eventually taken by ultimate winner Bez - rolls his eyes at the thought of Sumner's perennial dissatisfaction. "He has a fantastic life. He gets everything he wants in the world - hops into f his sports car and heads off for four weeks sailing in St Lucia, then writes a song about how put-upon he is ... I think," the former leader of Mrs Merton's house band concludes, "it's just his way of being down to earth."

The quality of New Order's bickering is not strained: it droppeth like the acid rain from heaven. And Sumner can dish it out as well as take it. In a recent answer to a magazine questionnaire about Hook's trademark bass-playing technique - with the instrument held down low around his ankles - his lifelong friend suggested that this had developed "because he's got an extremely small penis and it covers the gap up so people don't notice".

There have been few bands with such an enduring (and endearing) commitment to undermining their own legend, but then again there have been few bands with more myths to debunk. If you're going to pluck your names from the grimmest abyss of human history - Joy Division, the group's earlier incarnation, comes from a book about prostitutes in a Nazi concentration camp, and New Order itself exudes similarly heinous connotations - cloak your records in the lustrously enigmatic imagery of designer Peter Saville, and hitch your fiscal destiny to the careening three-wheeled wagon of Tony Wilson's Factory Records, a dry sense of humour would seem to be a minimum requirement.

Surviving the suicide of their original (and unique) lead singer Ian Curtis was only the start of it. In leaving behind Joy Division's icy sonic wastes and frenzied desolation to have a number-one single with the world's first (and, arguably, last) socially acceptable football record, and later do Top of the Pops live from the set of Baywatch, New Order have given new meaning to the phrase "lightening up".

And now, just when they might be expecting to go gentle into that good night, they suddenly find themselves at the epicentre of a new musical upsurge. In fact, if you had to namecheck the two most current bands in the world at the moment, there would be a strong temptation to overlook the fresh-faced indie hopefuls and street-smart grime MCs, and plump for Joy Division and New Order.

The late Seventies and early Eighties are currently supplying the musical basis for a transatlantic uprising of jittery young guitar bands, in much the same way the mid-Sixties did for Britpop. Consequently, Sumner and Hook now find themselves almost as revered by the likes of Interpol, Bloc Party and The Killers (who take their name from the fictional group in the video for "Crystal" - the song which marked New Order's last reappearance in 2001) as The Beatles and The Kinks were by Oasis and Blur.

The idea that they should suddenly find themselves in possession of the keys to 2005's musical kingdom is as much of a surprise to New Order as it is to anyone else. "It seems rather cruel," admits mild-mannered family man and occasional collector of 1970s British military vehicles Stephen Morris, "that I had to wait till I got to this age to become fashionable." But someone with a couple of personnel carriers, an armoured car and a self-propelled gun in his barn should have no fear of the vicissitudes of history. And far from being intimidated by the rush of interest in their past which has followed its cinematic representation in Michael Winterbottom's riotous Manchester biopic 24 Hour Party People (another film is now planned, loosely based on Touching From A Distance, the anguished memoir of Ian Curtis's wife, Deborah), both he and Hook have decided to "take it as a compliment".

"Rob Gretton, our former manager, God rest his soul," Hook remembers fondly, "he used to tell us Joy Division would be really big. Whereas we - and quite rightly really, because of Ian's demise - looked upon it as something which was over: 'That'll go away and this is what we're doing now.' But he was always saying, 'You mark my words, Joy Division will be even bigger than The Doors were 10 years after Jim Morrison died.' And he was absolutely right. The thing is, we haven't done anything to perpetuate it - in fact, in the early days we were trying to get away from Joy Division. It's just the music, that's all there is."

With the haunting beauty of their classic albums Unknown Pleasures and Closer having proved magically impervious to the passage of time (the band's still-heartbreaking last single "Love Will Tear Us Apart" was deservedly nominated as one of the best of the last 25 years at last week's Brit awards), it's no surprise that Joy Division should now be supplying other people with the same inspiration that they themselves once drew from Iggy Pop or The Velvet Underground. But talking to the ever-candid Sumner, it's clear that the roots of the band's celebrated sombre streak ran much deeper than their record collections.

"As a self-taught musician," he explains, "you're always going to be shaped to a certain degree by the records you listen to, but I think what really influenced Joy Division was what was going on in our personal lives. Speaking for myself," Sumner continues, "I had a pretty unhappy time in my late teens and early twenties, as there was suddenly a lot of ill-health in my family."

Sumner had been happily brought up by his mother and grandparents ("I never knew who my dad was: he buggered off before I was born, which was something I never had a problem with"), as the only child in a "Coronation Street-type" house in a rough part of Salford. But in the early Seventies this domestic idyll came to an end: "Basically, they all became ill, and I had to look after them, which I wasn't very good at." The deaths of first his step-dad ("he got cancer from smoking and died right in front of me when I was 17") and then his grandfather, left him "deeply affected".

Having moved out to a tower block "which I thought was great, at first", he soon began to experience the downside of urban renewal. "All the people living on my gran's street were moved out one by one, and each time someone left, their windows got boarded up, until she was the only person left. It was like some God-awful dream - in fact I still do dream f about it to this day. It was probably these events that gave birth to my bleaker aspect, but Hooky had personal problems within his family as well, which it's not down to me to go into, and obviously Ian [who suffered from grand mal epilepsy, among other things] had his troubles ... The strange thing is," Sumner continues, "we never studied his lyrics until after he died, because before that they seemed perfectly normal. Ian was just another jolly chap like the rest of us." He laughs at how improbable this sounds: "But when we were together, we actually were very happy, because being in the band was our solace."

"I think maybe something in the particular chemistry between us caught the spirit of that time," adds Hook, "which was a certain kind of darkness. My daughter sometimes says to me, 'Of course everything was black and white in your day' - but that is very much how I remember it."

In this context, New Order seem to represented a deliberate move from monochrome into Technicolor. After Ian Curtis's death - he was found, hanged, at his home in Macclesfield on 18 May 1980 - the band battled to build itself a new identity. Sumner was installed as reluctant frontman and lyricist, and Morris's wife-to-be Gillian Gilbert was drafted in to keep up the all-important Macclesfield/Salford equilibrium (now that she in turn has taken time out from the band to look after the younger of her two daughters, it's appropriate that her replacement - cheery guitarist Phil Cunningham - should have started out in Macclesfield's second biggest band, Britpop refugees Marion).

During this awkward formative period, New Order "found comfort", Sumner remembers, "not only in our music, but in travelling around the world and getting away from Manchester and all the bad memories". They ended up spending a lot of time in New York - "boozing and getting out of it" in the city's thriving club scene. And it was their decision to "see if they could make the kind of records that might get played in those clubs" that culminated in the global electronic dance-music phenomenon of "Blue Monday", the minimalist disco fantasia that became the world's biggest selling 12-inch single.

Some of the places New Order's music has ended up in - especially the ecstasy-fuelled euphoria of 1989's career highlight Technique - have been a long way from Joy Division's solemn point of origin. But with hindsight - and bearing in mind Closer's subliminal echoes of Donna Summer - the divide between the two incarnations was fuzzier than it seemed at the time. "In a way," Hook muses, "it was always one band ... I know we drew a very clear line, but that was for us - to enable us to move on. We were still the same people, just without Ian. And I'm not sure the music would have been all that different - apart from the vocals - if he'd still been there".

At an early playback of the new New Order album - in the lounge area of a swanky Barnes studio, in the late autumn of 2004 - there are candles and wine and someone is playing Brian Wilson's Smile in a doomed attempt to generate that elusive quality known as atmosphere. "We thought we'd put something shit on, so we would sound good by comparison," Stephen Morris notes drily.

Bernard Sumner is a truly impish presence tonight. "You'll never get a straight answer out of him," he warns, pointing at the famously taciturn Morris. At moments like this it's easy to see why, after headlining the Reading Festival in 1993, the band didn't really speak to each other for the next four years. But then Sumner leads everyone through to the mixing suite to hear a new song which is eventually going to have Scissor Sisters' Ana Matronic on it, and tells a great story about the way the talismanic Rob Gretton would punish people for bad service, by tipping them really heavily.

In this band's company, you are never more than a couple of minutes away from a great story about someone who's no longer with us. But the amazing thing about New Order is, while their music ought to be hemmed in by memories and ghosts, it actually seems to draw energy from these departed spirits. It might even be that when Sumner's lyrics have a shadowy "you" in them - as they often do - that is who he's addressing.

Either way, Waiting For The Sirens' Call finds New Order miraculously re-energised. From the marshmallow kiss of the first single "Krafty" through the heady whirl of the title track to the improbable but uproarious Kinks-style garage- rock of "Working Overtime" (Sumner's bank- clerk fantasies resurfacing again, presumably), it turns out to be their best new record for more than 15 years.

"We've not had a boring career," says Sumner, "we've had a series of unfortunate events. But that's what's created what we are." He goes on to tell a final tale, by way of exposition. Making this album, the band were staying at Peter Gabriel's residential studios near Bath. One night, Sumner woke up hearing "a strange muffled sound, like fireworks underwater". He got out of bed, only to see the bleary form of Hook also emerging from his room ("Hooky's a really light sleeper - The Libertines were in another studio and he used to come down in his underpants and tell them to 'turn that fucking telly off' - so he's had a sleeping tablet and isn't really with it").

Looking up the hill, they could see 100-foot flames coming out of a burning farmhouse, so they decided they'd better drive up the track and have a look. Sumner dropped Hook off and followed on after parking the car in a field, only to see "Hooky being attacked by a maniac - this guy's swearing in yokel language and screaming that he's gonna kill him, and so Peter shouts: 'Leg it - he's a mad arsonist!' "

Having fled back down the hill, they realised they'd left the car behind. Sumner went back for it and got chased again: "This guy stops head-butting a tractor and starts coming after me with a big lump of wood, so I dive in the car, start the engine, do a sharp right turn, and I'm just heading off down the road, when there's this huge bang on the back of the car. I think it's the lunatic throwing something but it turns out a gas canister exploded in the fire."

Lifting up the rear of the vehicle - "like something out of a James Bond film" is how Hook describes it, corroborating the story afterwards - the blast left the two erstwhile scooter boys miraculously unharmed.

Just for good measure, I decide to check that the whole heavy-rock-fans-riding-Lambrettas thing is true too. "We had 'Santana - Abraxas' written across the fly-screen," Hook confirms delightedly. "I've got the photos to prove it ... It was only our second favourite album, but we couldn't spell [preferred Santana landmark] 'Caravanserai'."

'Krafty' by New Order is out on 7 March; 'Waiting For The Sirens' Call' follows on 28 March (both on London Records). The band will be playing the Glastonbury Festival in June

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