Clockenflap headliners New Order return to Hong Kong as electronic music’s elder statesmen
British band’s blend of rock, pop and dance blazed a trail for indie acts for decades to come
New Order were on the cusp of world stardom when they last played in Hong Kong. Now they are preparing to return to the city as icons of electronic music, headlining this month’s Clockenflap festival on top of a bill of acts that owe much to the British quartet.
The pioneering Manchester band were yet to score with massive hits such as True Faith or World in Motion when they played the then newly opened Canton Disco in April 1985. Just five years later, they were one of the biggest acts in the world, having melded their electro-pop sound with the nascent house music emerging from the US.
It was a move that would encourage indie bands to get their dancing shoes on for decades to come. From newcomers Gengahr and Clean Bandit, to established acts such as Ride and Battles, a slew of this year’s Clockenflap stars probably wouldn’t be around were it not for the electronic trail blazed by New Order.
“Going to a New Order show is like zooming through a history of British cultural life of the last few decades, while marvelling at just how many big hits and great songs they have knocked out over this time,” Trainspotting author and music fan Irvine Welsh has written on Singularity, a website devoted to the band. “I’ve danced, partied, wooed, lost, won, courted, got married to New Order.”
The New Order story is one of pop’s most celebrated. Formed from the remnants of Joy Division, the band spent much of the next decade fighting to shake off the stigma of lead singer Ian Curtis’ suicide. Despite scoring a huge dance floor hit with Blue Monday in 1983, it wasn’t until six years later with the album Technique that they began to reap the rewards of their hard work.
Any review of the most influential music of the 1980s isn’t complete without a chapter on the way New Order shaped underground and dance music.
Killers frontman and New Order collaborator Brandon Flowers told music news site Gigwise earlier this year: “When I was a kid and lived in this really small town in Utah, there was nothing exciting happening, but this was when MTV used to be around and play music videos. I can still see what the room looked like and what kind of day it was outside and New Order was on the screen and I was just hooked. It had a big influence on me.”
Singer-guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris augmented the austerity of Joy Division with Gillian Gilbert’s synthesisers to produce a uniquely dark and brooding sound for their next incarnation as New Order.
Later, fusing krautrock electronica and indie rock with dance beats – first unveiled at storied Manchester nightclub The Hacienda – proved a winning combination that set the musical template for the following decades, particularly inspiring the so-called Madchester movement represented by The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays in the late 1980s and then the Britpop boom a decade later.
Inevitably, internecine squabbles – especially between Sumner and Hook – tore the band apart. Twice. But each time, they’ve bounced back with a fresh sound and new lease of life.
“There are moments where you want to take a step back and go, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?’ But never moments where I didn’t think we’d carry on,” Sumner told the Stereogum music website earlier this year. “I’ve been in New Order for so long that it’s in my DNA now. It’s like an arm or something; you can’t just get rid of it.”
New Order are riding a rejuvenated wave of popularity following the autumn release of their ninth album, Music Complete, a collection that has been described as the band’s best in a decade.
It sees the return of keyboardist Gilbert – now Morris’ wife – who had left the band to recover from illness. Another familiar face from the old days is album sleeve designer Peter Saville, whose minimalist artwork established the corporate imagery of indie label Factory that New Order practically bankrolled.
More significantly, this is the first album released since what appears to be the permanent departure of Hook in 2007. It’s not as if the writing wasn’t already on the wall: the band had split in 1993 after a series of rows between the battling bandmates.
But the latest division was all the more galling as nobody was expecting it – Hook had announced the band were no more on radio without informing his colleagues.
“Hooky’s said some unforgivable things, disgraceful,” Sumner, now 59, told The Guardian earlier this year. “He was angry – he’s an angry man – and the anger was inside the band. A lot of the anger was focused on me and that wasn’t very nice to have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
“He was jealous of me. He’s said it himself. He’d got to an age where he felt he couldn’t compromise. He wanted things done his way, or not at all. In a way, he was right to leave. He doesn’t seem rancorous. He seems happy, no matter how much he’s toughened up.”
New Order will appear at Clockenflap on November 29 as part of their global Music Complete promotional tour. For the album and live shows, they have recruited two new members – Tom Chapman and Phil Cunningham – and stripped the sound back to the band’s electronic core, eschewing the guitar-heavy approach of the previous three albums.
“This album has been written in a different way: by me sitting at home, in my home studio, with a computer and maybe three synthesisers and a lot of plug-in synthesisers,” Sumner told Stereogum. “Steve and Gillian would write at their place, and Steve’s got loads of vintage synthesisers and modules. Tom and Phil would write a bit as well.”
For the time being, New Order are an ongoing project and while there are no plans yet for more new material, the band seem to be on an even keel for the first time in decades.
“I think the great thing about us is that we’ve never mapped out our career on a piece of paper and planned what we’d be doing in 12 months,” Morris told The Quietus website recently. “I think we just about know what we’re doing up to Christmas, more or less. That’s probably about as far ahead as we go really, which does get infuriating for people who try and book gigs; the people who say, ‘Do you want to do a gig in China next year?’ But we don’t really know because it’s a long way off.”
ALL IN ORDER
Five essential New Order releases
Power Corruption & Lies (1983)
Dark, brooding and menacing, the band's second album saw them finally finding their feet. It still sounds a lot like Joy Division, but Gilbert's synths are brought forward in a way that gives them a more experimental sound. Designer Peter Saville's iconic cover art combining a Renaissance still life with a colour-coded bar added to the band's growing reputation as Britain's pre-eminent art rockers.
Blue Monday (1983)
Still the holder of the world record for biggest-selling 12-inch single, Blue Monday's success came despite New Order being relatively unknown outside the UK. Its high-energy electronic rhythms piqued the interest of New York's influential DJs at a time when hip hop was replacing disco as the mainstay of dance floors. Its icy cool also appealed to the No Wave scenesters too young to remember Joy Division.
After decamping to New York to build on the success of Blue Monday, the band returned to Manchester with their heads spinning from the beats of nightclubs such as Limelight and Danceteria. The result was a third album that had more groove and melody. Was preceded by the single, The Perfect Kiss, which highlighted Hook's growing prowess as a melodic bassist, something that would be key to their developing sound.
The album that is widely seen as the moment the two worlds of indie rock and house music met. Before that, dour indie kids would go nowhere near the flowered-up dancers on the dance floor of The Hacienda. Technique's thrilling, often brutal electronic beats elevated New Order, Factory Records and The Hacienda to international acclaim.
World in Motion (1990)
Songs written for the World Cup are almost always rubbish, but soccer fans New Order were called on to give the English squad a morale boost. The result was a euphoric chant-along that transcended sport and became a bona fide chart hit. Even a dreadful attempt at rapping by player John Barnes couldn't dim its charms.