Pumped, full of bugs: New Order live before lockdown, Sydney 2020

Talk about last minute.

I only had the nod I was being given access to the concert four hours before showtime. I was unable to use my tickets for Manchester marvel’s previous live shebang (a team up at Sydney Opera House with the Australian Chamber Orchestra for Vivid Sydney 2016), so, four years later I’m more than a little pumped, even if the world health situation was a cause for concern. Indeed, no one knew it at the time, but New Order’s concert at Hordern Pavilion would prove to be the last big gig in Sydney for the foreseeable future.

The Australian Federal Government’s initial ban on non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people was announced two days later, which forced the cancellation of the band’s second show in Melbourne and the curtailment of their Aussie tour as a whole, due to, as the band described it, “unprecedented circumstances.” Due to worries over potential quarantine that would have affected the Aussie dates, they’d already pulled out of their Japanese shows which were due to take place immediately before Oz. 

So, due to the sunburned country being one of the most geographically isolated countries in the world, the much lower than average rates of Coronavirus infect across Australia resulted in New Order taking the plunge and delighting five and half thousand fans for their first performance in Oceania since the Vivid festival, at this former Showgrounds site that had played host to David Bowie’s first ever gigs in Sydney, no less.

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On my way in to the auditorium, I overheard a bar manager briefing her staff.

“They’re telling us to wear gloves but I’m not going to. If we’re gonna get it, we’re gonna get it.”

A defiant last dance, with hand sanitiser at the gates but precious few masks in sight. Some elbow bumps. But also kisses. The surprisingly large crowd, considering, was determined to have a good time, one last good time before Temptation leads us out of the venue and heralds the long quiet.

It was under this slightly tentative atmosphere that the reconfigured and expanded post-Hooky five-piece took to the stage dead on 9pm, delivering precisely the sound and vision you’d expect, but in the light of COVID-19, casting distinctly weird shadows.

Kicking off their set with the sparkling Regret, a barnstorming opener if ever there was one… and their only bona fide hit in the otherwise barren decade that was New Order’s Nineties

“I would like a place I can call my own,” sung Bernard Sumner. “Have a conversation on my telephone. Wake up every day, that would be a start.”

Indeed.

In a foretaste of the social distancing to come, with just minutes before showtime I’d managed to slip through to the front barrier with shocking ease, and I found myself standing next to a couple who had clearly made ample use of the bar beforehand. When the male half caught sight of my happily mouthing the words to the song — word perfect if not note perfect — he promptly put his arm around me in an attempt get me to pogo like they were trying their damnedest to. Keeping both feet on the ground, I tried every trick in the book to appear agreeable, and it worked. By the song’s end they promptly disappeared! 

The thirst is real.

Maybe the will they/won’t they turn up apprehension set up an unrealistic sense of expectation.

Maybe I attached too many hopes to the legend rather than reality. After all, I dreamt of experiencing the energy and excitement of a visceral young band at their peak, and was prepared to settle for a reinvigorated group of middle aged musicians, inspired by the enduring legacy of their music and the ongoing support of their admirers. 

Maybe I just expected an excitable upper-than-up-for-it crowd as I witnessed the last time I caught New Order, in Buenos Aires 2018. I realise now that as competent as the band are, it was the unbridled enthusiasm of the audience that really carried the show. Let no one tell you anything different: you’ve never truly enjoyed a concert until you’ve done it in Argentina.

To be fair, in Sydney the quintet played a great range of copper-bottomed classics from their 40-year career as New Order/Joy Division, and they’ve often at their best when they’re impossibly aloof.

However, a great set list isn’t a guarantee of a great show. I’ve often been slightly disappointed by a few of my favourite bands live. New Order can occasionally occupy the same position as Blondie or Eurythmics, where they have an almost unparalleled back catalogue yet it’s a rare thing to walk away from one of their shows thinking how utterly amazing they were.

With four decades of live experience, New Order are a well oiled machine, hitting all their marks perfectly and delivering their lines on time (which would have been largely helped by the karaoke-style screen I noticed Bernard Sumner uses — next to his stage monitors to remember lyrics/song breakdowns, though he’s hardly unique in that respect), but overall there was an absence of the energy and passion required to transform a decent show into a truly great performance. The only time there was audible excitement coming from the stage was when Sumner marred the peerless Love Will Tear Us Apart by screaming, “COME ON!” at inappropriate times throughout the song. Ian Curtis would have been mortified.

At the other end of the spectrum, and representing 2015’s well-received Music Complete album, the pulsating Plastic and Tutti Frutti were the newest inclusions, the former’s driving Moroder-esque bassline taking on a wonderfully hypnotic quality, while the latter’s chorus was as hooky as hell (pun intended), though the track’s percolating slightly overlong structure still hampered it from truly being considered a bona fide NO classic.

A tasty triumvirate from the first New Order album that registered on my radar — 1983’s Power, Corruption & Lies — were dispatched early, punctuated by the song that introduced Joy Division to the world, 1979’s dramatic Disorder. It sounded reasonably faithful to the original, unlike several of the song arrangements which were to come later in the set.

During a supercharged Age Of Consent, and to a lesser extent Ultraviolence and Your Silent Face, it became apparent that by having additional guitarist Phil Cunningham in the line-up, the band’s live sound has become denser and in some cases taken on a sludgier texture which has unfortunately killed a lot of the clarity of Gillian Gilbert’s string synth lines.

This could be partially attributed to a sound mix issue, as the Pavilion is notorious for its often unpredictable acoustics. But to be frank, the classic instrument framework in New Order Version 1.0 worked well and having an supplemental guitarist still seems excessive especially considering that much of their material doesn’t require a twin guitar attack.

What became apparent this evening was that New Order desperately want to be forward thinking and not slavishly stick to previously set song arrangements and structure. This worked for some tracks, but for others meant that they only became properly identifiable when the lead vocal was introduced. This certainly applied to the interpretation of tracks such as Bizarre Love Triangle and especially True Faith, so potentially could have left a few fans initially scratching their heads until Sumner started singing.

The inclusion of a revamped Krafty was probably the evening’s biggest surprise. The band’s last big hit some 15 years ago has rarely been treated to a live outing, perhaps an uncomfortable reminder of the time the original quartet imploded under a wealth of Hooky-related lawsuits. Nevertheless, in Sydney Bernard goes for broke and sings some of the lyrics in Japanese, which he explains was rehearsed for the aborted dates in the Orient. Never a much loved song at the best of times, tonight it’s all sorts of endearing, though, again, unfortunately suffered due to Gilbert’s synth part getting lost in the mix.

The meta-reading of the show was a reminder of mortality. Here is Sumner, softly spoken boy genius, who was dead cute when he was slim, and changed the face of popular music. Now he’s 64 years old, and 64-year-olds can’t dance, or at least they shouldn’t. But here he was, dad dancing, and “singing” like, well, Bernard Sumner. His pitchy mumble doesn’t spoil a thing. It’s just how they always sounded.

New Order is about the sound. That crystalline synth and sharp guitar, over locomotive, irresistible beats and driving bass. That initially muddy mix gradually cleared and spread, like a friendly contagion, over heated up crowd.

A little mechanically but not unfeelingly, the bangers unrolled: The Perfect Kiss, Sub-culture, and, sounding as effervescent as ever, the Pet Shop Boys-inspired Bizarre Love Triangle. Sub-culture, with its austere keys, sounded even darker given the isolation-themed lyric: “One of these days you’ll go back to your home, you won’t even notice that you are alone.”

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Guilt Is A Useless Emotion, another extract from 2005’s so-so Waiting For The Sirens’ Call, was the misfire. When cast iron classics such as Ceremony, Thieves Like Us, 1963 and the whole of 1989’s rock-the-acid-house club classic Technique get left on the substitute’s bench in preference of the musical equivalent of a non-league striker, one has to question the judgement of the band on this particular call.

Still, the closing punch of the main set—the electronic juggernauts Blue Monday and Temptation—was a last-minute transcendence raised by a few BPMs that set a few heart rates higher still. Strangely, during the song of the same name the words Blue Monday were projected on the retina-searing rear screen. Considering the kick drum intro is probably one of THE most recognisable in modern music history, this felt bizarre and somewhat unnecessary, especially when said title doesn’t even appear in the actual lyrics.

For encore: pulled back by the audience like a life vest, they delivered some Joy Division: accompanied by video images from the retrospectively directed Anton Corbijn promo, the funereal Atmosphere still starts with the spine-tingling appropriation of Bowie’s Cat People I witnessed — thrillingly — in Buenos Aires, then the inevitable Love Will Tear Us Apart,  Stephen Morris’s breakneck snare and tom rolls completely on-point and machine-like. Then love tore us apart, wandering back to the dark, separating into our quarantined lives.

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Without wishing to over dwell on the shadow that has been cast by Peter Hook leaving the band, it was apparent tonight that whilst his iconic bass sound isn’t particularly missed on the band’s newer songs, the earlier material saw Tom Chapman sometimes struggling to put his own stamp on it, even if he displayed ample testosterone-fuelled swagger that sometimes borders on pastiche.

Without him, the band come across as far more synthpop-oriented, and with the return of Gillian Gilbert the whole dynamic is that of a less muscular sounding boys’ club that often attracted a large lager lout contingent.

Either way, nothing can take away the fact that New Order will remain one of the most influential bands of this or any musical generation.

Steve Pafford

BONUS: As I made my way out of the Entertainment Quarter, it occurred to me that New Order must be the only live act I’ve seen where each of the shows was not only in a different country but on a different continent:

1998 was the celebrated show at London’s Alexandra Palace where, after a five-year layoff, the band had finally started performing Joy Division chestnuts like Love Will Tear Us Apart.

2018 was Argentina, and the brilliant Buenos Aires hot house which pleasantly surprised me, as Blondie at the same venue a week earlier were merely perfunctory.

2020 Sydney, Australia. 

There was one other time I caught Sumner, and I can’t say it was particularly enjoyable: in December 2009, New Order were on hiatus and his new band Bad Lieutenant were supporting Pet Shop Boys at their Christmas show at London’s o2 Arena. Everything about it felt wrong. Here was the frontman of New Order, a band that were hugely influential on the formative Pet Shop Boys playing before them on their borrowed stage, with his new outfit displaying the worst aspects of Dadrock. He even had his son in the band. Not to mention the addition of Stephen Morris and Phil Cunningham (ie three-fifths of New Order’s current incarnation) could save them.

Incidentally, the name of the band was taken from Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film Bad Lieutenant, which a friend of Johnny Marr’s was watching when Sumner visited Marr’s house. Talking of which, I’ve been so embarrassed about this next next little story that I’ve been sitting on it for three decades.

In the autumn of 1991, it was announced that Sumner and Marr Electronic, the second synth pop electro-supergroup after Visage, were to play their first proper concerts that December; two in the UK and one in Paris. Considering their live work to date had been a support slot for Depeche Mode on a couple of stadium dates in Los Angeles, and a festival appearance in Manchester this was quite a thing, right? Especially when those three appearances had featured their electro pals the Pet Shop Boys, who’d guested on the combo’s debut album that year, as well as the earlier single, the sublime Getting Away With It.

Confession time: the 12.12.91 London show, third and final date of this Electronic mini mini tour, had to be held at the rarely used Wembley Hall 1 because the main Wembley Arena across the road was already booked… by Gary Glitter.

As the date was the day before my younger sister’s birthday I decided we should go to Wembley. It was widely trailed that PSB would guest at the Electronic show, so which gig did we plump for? It’s a foregone conclusion, right?

Wrong.

We went to see Gary Glitter. 

I’d just seen the Pet Shop Boys that June on their groundbreaking Performance tour. Well, that was my justification for not going anyhow.

I know I’ll never live this down, but at the time Gary Glitter’s Gangshow had become a bit of an annual event, a tin foiled festive frolic that was almost as synonymous with Christmas as Brussels sprouts and the Queen’s speech: a party for adults and kids, but mainly for office types wanting an old fashioned hammy knees up before the holiday season.

This Sheffield show is from two days after Wembley, and yes, if course it’s so bad its good. Sort of.

The show was OK. In fact, Stella was so overcome she fainted, and we sat out a few of the songs backstage in a paramedics area.

At some point in the new year I managed to torture myself and bought an audience recording cassette of the Electronic gig from a well stocked gent at Milton Keynes market. Not only had PSB sashayed on stage — to an unsurprisingly rapturous reception—but in addition to their pair of existing collaborations they unveiled a brand new one, Disappointed, a Neil Tennant “sung” song that would be released as a 45 in the summer of ’92.

“Oh, well, I’ll see them the next time they play,” I said to myself, trying to play down my serious lapse of taste and judgement.

Electronic would never give another concert, and ceased to exist once New Order reformed in 2001.

Gary Glitter was last seen giving a concert at Her Majesty’s Prison Verne, where he’s imprisoned on pedophilia and child pornography.

It’s a funny old world. Stay safe everyone.

BONUS 2: In 2014, The Guardian asked Bernard

Q: Was the title of New Order’s 1985 live video Pumped Full of Drugs appropriate?

A: Yes, but we were really ill in Japan and dying onstage. We called the video that because we knew people would think we were high, but we were actually on nothing stronger than paracetamol. A lot of them.

BONUS 2: Bernard Sumner features on Force, a stunning new single by New York-based darkwaver Zachery Allan Starkey, which acts a powerful, rallying call to the masses with a just dropped video reflecting on current world events such as lockdown and the horrifying prospect of orange ogre Donald Trump being re-elected  

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