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45 at 33: New Order go for gold with Blue Monday

And so Factory Records FAC73 has reached the 33 mark*.

Boasting Peter Hook’s iconic bassline, Stephen Morris’ untouchable drumming, twitchy synth modulations courtesy of Gillian Gilbert, and plaintive, deadpan vocals from Bernard Sumner delivered in a coruscating conversational style that still conure up the proverbial shivers, this is the story of Blue Monday by New Order. 

So much has been written about this peerlessly sibylline single that I’m not sure what I could add that hasn’t been said before, but if I did I guess I’d throw in all the positive plaudits 1983‘s magnificent monolith more than deserves; you know, ‘epochal’, ‘groundbreaking’ ‘prescient’, ‘seminal’, that kind of thing. Blue Monday is not just the soundtrack to a generation, It‘s the soundtrack to an entire youth revolution, yet it can still enliven any dance floor all these decades later.

My earliest memory of New Order is listening to Radio 1’s chart countdown on Tuesday 18th May, 1982, and the hairy monster that is Dave Lee Travis announcing that Temptation, their one-off raggedy synthpop single, was a new entry at 39. It was the lowest newcomer into the Top 40 that Tuesday lunchtime, and the main reason I was listening was to see where Adam Ant’s first solo single would enter.

The Ant and the Order were polar opposites in so many ways, and that included the current chart: the bubblegum rockabilly pastiche of Goody Two Shoes was right at the other end of the scale, smashing straight in at five, making it  the highest debut of the week. I was, however, intrigued by the mysterious moniker, New Order. It seemed slightly pompous yet curious, but then as I was too young to have really been aware of the band’s previous incarnation as Joy Division, the relevance was lost on me.

A music video for a shortened version of the original song was created in 1983, featuring military clips with false colour, simple computer-generated graphics such as colour blocks and geometric lines, digitised video of band members at very low resolution and framerate, and a short appearance of the game Zaxxon (reportedly the Apple II port). The colour blocks were created using Peter Saville‘s colour-coded alphabet

Fast forward a year and the first 12” single I owned that offered something other than just the 7” repressed on wider vinyl (hello Adam & The Ants’ Stand & Deliver rip-off US import) was Temptation. Alas it was the Heaven 17 song, which was released a month after New Order’s follow up to their single of the same name. At an epic seven minutes and five seconds, 1983’s Blue Monday can claim many firsts, though being famous for never being issued on anything other than the full twelve inches is the one that aroused the aesthetic sensibilities in adolescent schoolboys like me.

A considerable mythology had grown up about New Order, and I watched their very first appearance on Top Of The Pops, the BBC’s flagship telly chart show, with my fellow Antperson, Steve Day. It was a typically eclectic time in pop music: David Bowie’s Let’s Dance was at 2 (with a delicious reclaiming of the crown, he‘d dethrone arch admirers Duran Duran the following week), Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams holding firm at 5, a slice of Bananarama at 9, and, finally, Blue Monday had entered the Top 20 at No.17.

However, the most interesting thing wasn’t the countdown or that the band were making a rare television appearance. It was that they insisted on singing and playing totally and utterly live. Mistakes and all.

Five years later, the track was officially remixed by Quincy Jones under the title Blue Monday 88. The single reached number 3 in the UK charts, number 4 in the Australian charts, and topped the dance charts in the United States. The video features sketches by photographer William Wegman and his Weimaraner dog named Fay Ray doing balancing acts intercut with hand-drawn animation by Robert Breer. The band members are shown standing around doing various tasks, such as walking a wooden plank over a blue floor, holding wire-mesh constructed art and milk crates over their faces and being hit by tennis balls

Top Of The Pops was, and forever will be, an important part of British culture, but that didn’t prevent it getting a bad rap in the NME and much of the ‘serious’ music press for its party atmosphere frivolity and non-commitment to musical authenticity throughout the 1980s: the Thursday Mime Show it was often dubbed, pun most definitely intended. Lest we forget, TOTP was a visual programme, not an audio programme, and in some cases it just didn’t do the artist any good to sing live. A potentially disastrous sounding performance can stop people buying the record.

Before New Order, the previous act I can remember taking that risk was the slightly less credible Toni Basil and her brilliantly cheesy cheerleader number about Mickey. I quite liked the song (well, I was 12) but the live vocals kind of put me off it. So when a band who were the doomy darlings of the indies and the indies opted to make their debut without any lip-synching or pre-recording it was quite the event. Blue Monday was the dystopian sound of an electronic battleground.

Could they really replicate that demonic de-humanised vocal and fearsome Moog-sourced synth bass line? Alas, not. The performance – the first ever fully live performance on Top of the Pops and the last for a very long time – was dogged by technical problems, and was unrepresentative of the studio recording; with the track being played at a fraction of its normal speed and a self-conscious Bernard Sumner (never the world’s greatest singer anyway) sounding like a drowning cat. In the words of drummer Stephen Morris, “Blue Monday was never the easiest song to perform, anyway, and everything went wrong. The synthesisers went awry. It sounded awful.“ Was Moz right?

Let‘s have a heated debate…

Did you catch Sumner and Peter Hook, bassist extraordinaire, cringing like naughty school boys at the end? The other Steve (Day) also thought they sounded “crap”, but this Steve was less unkind. I thought it was a bold if flawed experiment, and having already started to broaden my record collection with electronic-based acts like Visage and The Human League I was intrigued by this futuristic soundscape.

But since the public expects to hear what is on the record, and too often the sound of the act on the record and the sound of the act on the television seem only distantly related, I guess both Steves had a point. A half decent TOTP appearance could catapult a single into the upper echelons of the chart the following week. Tellingly, Blue Monday only moved upwards a piffling three places.

After peaking at 12 a fortnight later the single commenced its descent out of the 40. Then in August something extraordinary happened: it started climbing the charts once more, eventually landing in ninth position in mid October. Blue Monday would go on to spend over a year on the Top 75 to become the biggest selling twelve-inch single in British music history, where at one point both the band’s subsequent 45s, the Arthur Baker collaborations Thieves Like Us and Confusion, gang-crashed the Top 20 on its coat-tails.

The track closed the band’s live concert film, Pumped Full Of Drugs (and I’m sure they were), recorded in Tokyo in 1985. What’s interesting about this rendition is the winking use of cowbells, making it much more knowingly Bobby ‘O’ sounding in parts. Hardly a coincidence when the famed hi-NRG disco producer had cheekily knocked off a slightly pitch-shifted sampling of Blue Monday as the cheap-as-chips Love Reaction for notorious female impersonator, Divine, while New Order’s original was still in the charts. Touché!

In the pop world, the 12″ single was all about zero imagination. The average extended mix consisted of the 7″ with an extra minute of drum fills stuffed in the middle or the intro played twice over or – if the boat was really being pushed out – a spoken-word interlude. New Order realised the possibilities of the 12-inch single as an artform. Sometimes they would expand on Soft Cell’s pioneering use of the extended version and record a long ever-building track specifically for the format, a sprawling monster that could only be accommodated on a massive slab of vinyl.

New Order took a practical clubber’s format and turned it into an artistic statement. Oh, and those beautiful minimalist Peter Saville sleeves, such an indelible influence on the future aesthetic of the Pet Shop Boys, are some of the best examples of design and music enmeshment. Blue Monday features a die-cut sleeve designed to resemble a 5¼” floppy disk. The front cover features no words, but instead has code in the form of coloured blocks that reads out the artist, song, and label information, once deciphered.

In Temptation, Blue Monday and Thieves Like Us there’s a tasty triumvirate of three of the best non-album singles of the 1980s. Chuck in The Beatles‘ Strawberry Fields, Roxy Music’s Virginia Plain and something from Bernard’s contemporaries, either the Pet Shop Boys’ stomping hi-NRG cover of Elvis Presley’s Always On My Mind or The Smiths‘ This Charming Man (or possibly Panic) and you have six of the best one-off 45s of any decade. Period.

You think she’s a man?

Neil Tennant, the Bobby ‘O’-obsessed journalist turned PSB frontman, thought it was all over when he first heard Blue Monday because it pre-empted the art meets club fusion that he and Chris Lowe were planning to create as Pet Shop Boys: Italo disco with New York grooves and an intelligent English sensibility. Both he and Bernard were huge fans of Klein + M.B.O.’s 1982 cult classic, Dirty Talk, of which Blue Monday’s arrangement owes a pretty substantial debt.

In fact, Neil, who’d go on to collaborate with Sumner and erstwhile Smith, Johnny Marr, in synth supergroup Electronic has been quoted in Mojo magazine as saying “I nearly burst into tears” (of envy, it would seem) upon hearing this singular sound from the future. The singer has cited how Blue Monday “depressingly” pre-empted the innovatively derivative “umba-umba” rhythm he and Chris were still working to perfect. The nascent duo‘s soundalike track was subsequently shelved and at the time of writing remains unfinished. 

Tennant was still working for Smash Hits at the time Blue Monday came out. Although a fan, he awarded New Order’s subsequent second album, Power, Corruption And Lies, a luke-warm 6.5 out of 10 review, with the backhanded compliment “They’ve made a brace of brilliant singles and surprisingly dull LPs… I’m still looking forward to their Greatest Hits.” 

Without a trace of understatement, you could easily lay a claim for Blue Monday to be the third in a trio of most influential electronic singles ever recorded, after Kraftwerk‘s Autobahn and Donna Summer‘s I Feel Love. And of course, the irony that the propulsive pulsations of New Order’s meisterwork would be little without Our Love, Summer’s later proto-techno collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, isn’t lost on me.

According to New Order vocalist Bernard Sumner, Blue Monday was influenced by four songs: the arrangement came from Klein + M.B.O.’s Dirty Talk; the signature bassline with octaves came from Sylvester’s disco classic, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real); the house beat came from Our Love, by Donna Summer; and the long keyboard pad on the intro and outro was sampled from the Kraftwerk song Uranium, from the Düsseldorf  electro pioneers’ Radio-Activity album

With the release of 1987’s Substance, New Order’s signature song was finally issued on a long-player at last. The double-disc set was the first New Order album and CD I bought, a good four years after I’d bought those Blue Monday and Thieves Like Us twelve-inchers, and I still find it an almost transcendental experience. Compiling all of their singles to date in their extended versions – along with their respective flipsides, such as Blue Monday’s perky instrumental rejig, The Beach, and the timeless fan favourite 1963 – Substance feels like one hell of an extraordinary and uplifting journey, which sums up just how far the band had come.

It‘s as if the four of them were going through half a decade‘s mourning, beginning as a fragile human psyche (Ceremony, Procession) in an inhuman landscape, enduring pain and loss and broken spirits (Everything’s Gone Green), before defiantly climbing out of the wreckage with the sublime True Faith, and not even George Michael‘s controversial cover could spoil the latter. Substance is the definitive New Order album.

You can witness the quartet rise phoenix-like from the ashes of Joy Division and its frontman Ian Curtis’s suicide, via dance-music-to-express-their-isolation iciness to pop trope reach-outs like Shellshock and the club classic Bizarre Love Triangle, and with cleaned up beats rather than murky ones that sounded like they were dashed off in an alleyway round the back of The Haçienda, the legendary Manchester club the band once owned. New Order needed to heal, needed to normalise. Later they would be so normal they would write the only really great football anthem, World In Motion, for England’s World Cup campaign.

Bizarre Love Triangle was written about Prince Charles, Diana and croc-faced Camilla. Possibly

Even with the occasional but controversial trainspotter-bridling inclusion of a re-recording or remix – none of which were advertised on the packaging itself, but then to the uninitiated there was no indication the classily minimalist Substance was even a compilation – the album captures the fundamental essence of New Order in one collection. Somehow, in spite of the propulsive, synthetic beats, the music hits the heart and head more than the feet – where they could be monotonous, they’re hypnotic.

Temptation, with the benefit of hindsight, feels like some kind of spiritual healing. Listening again over three and half decades later, you realise that vast swathes of pop music simply never tried very hard. Incidentally, the smoother Substance remake was later used in Danny Boyle’s landmark movie Trainspotting, in a scene where Renton (Ewan McGregor) is locked in his room that was originally earmarked for Bowie’s Golden Years until The Dame decided he didn’t want his material used in a low budget film about junkies.

Naturally, the Dame regretted his decision when the box office receipts flowed in.

Oh, you’ve got green eyes/Oh, you’ve got blue eyes/Oh, you’ve got grey eyes: Temptation ’87 was revisted in a video entitled The Temptation of Victoria by filmmaker Michael Shamberg in 2006, starring Victoria Bergsman of Swedish band The Concretes

Although I’d started appreciating my uncle’s Jürgen’s Kraftwerk albums the same year Blue Monday was unleashed, New Order were one of the first bands to really instil that notion that electronic dance music could be just as intelligent, moving and profoundly emotional as other genres.

Over the years, New Order’s considerable catalogue has become well known through an aural osmosis. At the time of Blue Monday they were something of a marginal cult act; a Mancunian musical enigma on the fringes of electronic rock, though now, the odd line-up modification notwithstanding, Sumner, Morris, Gilbert and the inimitable now sadly departed Hooky are remembered as an essential part of the 1980s and early 1990s.

I wonder, how does that feel.

Steve Pafford

In Walden, Colorado, July 2015: style, Substance and completely full of shit (* yes, I know it’s slightly past 33 years but then this website didn‘t exist in 2016. Sorry readers)


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