New Order are the only band where every time I’ve seen them perform has been on a different continent. And it’s even harder to believe that their 2020 concert in Sydney was my last gig in Australia, and the very definition of ‘live before lockdown’ just as people were starting to get twitchy, myself included. Barney ended up enduring Covid, so I’m sure he’s more than happy to celebrate his birthday today.
When Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr made their first album together as Electronic, breakfast was sometimes a testy affair. Recorded piecemeal around his duties as The The’s lead guitarist and Sumner’s responsibilities with Technique-era New Order, in late 1989 and early 1990 the duo were fitting sessions at Marr’s Clear Studio, a recording facility “set up in a bedroom in my house” at Forest Edge in Bowdon, all leafy luxury affluence where the Cheshire Plain meets Greater Manchester.
Eventually, it made sense for Sumner and his girlfriend to move into Marr’s attic. “As absurd as this sounds, Technique and The The were more side projects,” Marr told Apple Music. “Our main passion was for Electronic. When we came downstairs in the morning, I would talk about a track and he would tell me to shut up for half an hour: ‘Please, let me just put my toast on.’ It was a bit like The Odd Couple.”
This odd couple was also a dream team. After Sumner first approached Marr with the idea in 1988, Electronic brought together two of Manchester’s finest songwriters just as the acid house revolution was gathering around New Order’s Haçienda club—and dilating the ambitions of local bands who would soon coalesce into the “Madchester” scene.
“I had this real dichotomy going on,” says Marr. “The fallout of [leaving] The Smiths and the effort that that was taking to deal with. Then this amazing promise of a new dawn, the nascent beginnings of this major cultural explosion. Bernard probably has a similar tale. He didn’t really have dramatic issues with New Order but was looking for some kind of sanctuary on a personal level, a change in his life.”
Together, they made a dazzling debut that allowed Marr to explore synth-pop and dance music in songs that were often finessed during parties at his house. More than the other two albums the duo released during the ’90s, Electronic restated what ‘alternative’ music could be by cross-pollinating techno and pop, rave and rock. “One minute he was Bernard from New Order, I’m Johnny from The Smiths, we’re writing,” says Marr. “The next, there’s this wave of activity and culture and change and creativity. And we’re right in the middle of it with a bunch of our mates—it’s kind of amazing.”
Those ‘mates’ are essentially Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe—Pet Shop Boys to you and me—and former ABC drummer David Palmer. Not exactly strangers to having hit records then. And before you could say Northern Powerhouse meets synth supergroup, Getting Away With It—the first of three Marr-Sumner-Tennant-Lowe co-writes—was born.
“I always try to come prepared with some ideas when I’m collaborating with people. That was something I learned to do from being a boy, joining different bands. So in the afternoon [before PSB arrived], I came up with a chorus, the chord change, the bassline and the topline. Then Neil and Chris arrived. Bernard came up with the piano chords for the verse. Then Neil kind of arranged it. And Chris said, ‘Well, the bassline should do this.’ And before we knew it, we had this single. It really helped define what Electronic was going to be about. It helped when it was a real huge hit.”
With Tennant’s verse lyrics written from the miserabilist point of view of being Morrissey, the rich, fluid production incorporates a full orchestral arrangement (conducted by the Art Of Noise’s Anne Dudley), a classic house piano riff, and a rare almost Spanish-style guitar solo by Marr, who is quick to give credit to the other two:
“Neil and Chris were a really, really big part. Their involvement really helped build the foundation of Electronic and not only helped make it successful, but gave us more of a focus.”
A candidate for best song of 1989, Getting Away With It peaked on the very last singles chart of the 1980s. Three places below was another 45 Tennant and Lowe helped author—Dusty Springfield’s incendiary In Private.
Not a bad time to be alive then.
Live review: Pet Shop Boys & Johnny Marr, London Royal Albert Hall is here