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45 at 33: New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle

“It‘s always been a strange thing with the Pet Shop Boys and New Order, and especially Bernard Sumner, in that we‘ve had similar record collections and liked the same things. It‘s A Sin and Bizarre Love Triangle are both inspired by the same German record, though I can‘t remember which one now.” — Neil Tennant, 2009

With its high ended keyboards and impressively precise drums 1986’s super single from the mardy Mancunians was constructed with considerably more attention paid to its sound than its lyrics. Well, that’s what their dearly departed bassist Peter Hook says anyway. One of New Order’s best loved tunes, it’s the curious tale of that Bizarre Love Triangle.

With the band’s confident juxtaposition of guitar and electronics now proving to be a solid formula, Hooky said that when the band recorded Brotherhood, their fourth studio set, its four members conceived of a conceptually divided record, with the each side of the album as two distinct halves: “the first being quite rock-y acoustic tracks, and the second being more electronic-based.” In other words, rock versus DISCO.

Disco, the first Pet Shop Boys remix album, was issued two weeks after the equally minimalist haze of Bizarre Love Triangle. What a coincidence

The Manchester quartet wanted to kick off the dance-based side with an immediately infectious song to set the tone, something brighter and poppier than their usual discomfort zone, so they started tweaking something they’d been playing on the road.

Known at various times as Broken Promises and Broken Guitar Strings, but when it was finally instated in the Brotherhood running order it became Bizarre Love Triangle, the title of which was said to have been lifted from a newspaper headline in the News Of The World. Hook extrapolates:

“We used to take our song titles from many different places: books, TV, anything we saw that sounded good we would write down and use at a later date. That’s why a lot of our songs have titles that are completely separate to the lyrics: Temptation, Blue Monday, True Faith.”

That the lyrics of Bizarre Love Triangle were an afterthought might come as a surprise to anyone whoever thought of this poptastic slice of electronic heaven as a break-up song. I, quite unsurprisingly, thought of it as a flexible song that expressed feelings relatable to anyone who has struggled with break-ups, unrequited love, or any variation of romance and relationships gone bad.

And that includes Barney and Hooky.

Bizarre Love Triangle’s versatility lies in that there are no details that flesh out any kind of linear story. There are only abstractions, mainly feeling confused, conflicted, sad and loyal. Those are so vague that you can apply them to any troubled relationship, which is precisely why this is my go-to song when making a mix in response to a break-up.

The details of who did what to whom are irrelevant. It can mean whatever you want it to mean. It doesn’t even have to be about a love triangle. 

The only thing about the song that suggests such a thing is the title itself, but the lyrics are playfully ambiguous enough that some people have suggested it’s not about a triangle between three people, but rather a triangle between two people and an addiction.

The true inspiration for the song may be far less pure and angelic however. Legendary filmmaker Carol Morley revealed in the DVD commentary of The Alcohol Years film about her misspent Manchester youth that she believed the track to be about an incident involving her and a truck driver.

Carol and friend were dared by New Order to proposition a truckie which they did, resulting in her and said friend putting on a ‘display’ for the driver. Given their history, mixing the bright and sparkling production with these dark lyrics makes perfect, if far fetched, sense.

It’s that ambiguous simplicity which makes it a keynote track and New Order’s greatest straightforward pop statement, combining Motownish classic soul melodies and with layers upon layers of spellbinding electronic hooks, and one of the all-time great middle-eights and a swirling synth solo from Gillian Gilbert.

Despite becoming something of a secondary signature song for the band, the 45 of Bizarre Love Triangle (Factory Records FAC163) inexplicably stalled at No.56 on the UK chart. Now that’s what I call bizarre.

The rear sleeve of BLT: Discotastic

A note on the main mixes:

The original self-produced take of Bizarre Love Triangle that appeared on Brotherhood was an incandescent jewel of mid-’80s computer love with a gloriously primitive offbeat and space for Hooky’s indelibly melodic bass tones.

After that, way too many variations to delve into here, but the more mechanical version released for singular consumption in November 1986 was a high octane, four-to-the-floor remix by New York dance DJ and producer Shep Pettibone, then a fairly well-known producer who would go onto to achieve world fame thanks to extensive work with Madonna in the late 80s and early 90s.

Shep removed a lot of the track’s ragged charm and replaced it with a bunch of high-pitched synth stabs and a barrage of overdriven percussive samples. Still, his extended 12-incher became a huge club hit in the US and went on to appear on Substance, the band’s first singles collection in 1987.

Far better and much more commercial was an at-the-time unreleased rejig by Stephen Hague, fresh from his success producing the first Pet Shop Boys album, Please.

The Hague remodel went on to get limited exposure placed on various oddities such as 1988’s Married To The Mob film soundtrack, and 1991’s The Factory Tape cassette (FAC 305C) giveaway with Select magazine. It’s this almost four-minute mix that later formed the basis of an enhanced ’94 version on (the best of) compilation that year.

And that finally brings things full circle. Adios.

Steve Pafford, who last saw New Order a year ago. Hello, Buenos Aires

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