New Order – Technique: Round 66, Nick’s choice

NewOrderTechniqueFor some reason I have never – well, until very recently – owned a New Order record. Not one. I have no idea why; I love many of their singles and must’ve picked up Substance a hundred times in record shops, only to put it down again each time, before I got to the counter.

There are, of course, plenty of artists – or authors, or directors, or TV programs – who I’ve made a subconscious (or conscious) decision not to delve into despite almost overwhelming acclaim and clear obviousness of tase-matching. As I’ve said before, you simply can’t investigate every potentially fruitful lead, because there isn’t enough time; I like riding bikes and playing football and doing other stuff too, as well as listening to records. It’s just a coping mechanism for the huge surplus there is of culture out there.

But sometimes circumstances, or fate, or whatever, aligns a little bit, and you end up deciding that now is the right time to finally investigate something. And now is the right time for me to investigate New Order. Embrace’s new record owing such a sonic debt to New Order (all those high, melodic basslines, synth oscillations and electronic drum pads) is just one catalyst among several.

Deciding I’d finally take the plunge, I asked Twitter where to dive, and the overwhelming vote was for Power, Corruption and Lies, which I duly bought and enjoyed thoroughly (especially “Your Silent Face” and, of course, the bonus non-album singles on the second disc of the remaster). Suitably impressed, I bought a copy of Technique about a week later (at the same time as I bought a CD copy of the Embrace album, actually). The very next day we had record club, so I took it with me, and so this was my first all-the-way-through listen to it (I’d put it on for about 20 minutes the night before, too), having never knowingly heard anything other than the singles previously (and not really remembering them).

So I don’t really have anything to say about Technique, because I’ve only listened to it a couple more times since. It’s certainly far more ‘Ibiza’ than PCL, and a little lacking in the (seemingly accidental) pathos and detached emotionalism they’re so good at as a consequence; I enjoyed it almost as much, though.

New Order are such a weird band; they seem to be comprised of (two, at least) unpleasant idiots who can neither play their instruments nor sing, and yet they’ve somehow managed to create some of the most emotional and beautiful music to ever emerge from Manchester (or anywhere else, for that matter). So tell me, where should I go next?

Tom listened: Over the course of the last six months it seems as though the others have conspired to give me a tour through the old and long lost TDK C90s that I used to own. Technique is another one of those – an album I always liked well enough but, much like most of New Order’s output, never really captivated me enough to entice me to part with my hard earned money. And so it was on the evening – really enjoyable, but musical ephemera  as far as I am concerned – something to do with Sumner’s vocals and the lack of warmth and emotion contained within the (admittedly) finely crafted and executed pop songs on the album. My guess is the closer (get it?) we get to Joy Division, the more I’ll connect with the music of New Order, but my instinct is that unless he has a Future Islands on Letterman moment, Bernard’s vocals will always be a sticking point for me.

Rob listened: A couple of answers and a couple of questions for you Nick. Firstly, go to Substance next. It’s as good a singles comp as any band could muster in the post-punk era, brimming with distinctive, inventive and intoxicating songs. Then Low Life followed by Brotherhood. Stop there, I reckon. You might like some of the stuff from Republic but the returns are diminishing by then. Movement is great, but perhaps a little too proto for your liking.

Questions: where on earth do you get the idea that any of New Order are unpleasant or idiots? I’ve interviewed three of them and they were warm, generous and thoughtful about their music. The fourth, Peter Hook, seems similar from what I can gather. They may have fallen out with each other, but I’m unaware of anything they’ve said and done that merits those descriptors above any other average rock star.

Secondly: where do you get the idea that they can’t play or sing? They are, all four of them, innovative and groundbreaking and they did what they did by playing their own instruments. You might find some of their technique (lol) rudimentary, but then such is rock and roll, where the emotion is often found wrung from the space between an artists reach and their grasp. Bernard Sumner’s voice is an absolute case in point. Hooky’s bass playing is distinctive and really pretty wonderful. If you’re levelling some sort of ‘they just pushed a few buttons’ charge at them, and I’m pretty sure you’re not, then I look forward to you saying the same about Orbital and Four Tet. Sorry Nick, but I think that’s lazy.

As for the album, I like Technique a lot, but not as much as the four that preceded it. It signalled the point where New Order made their last great contribution to the development of our music, their third if you count what they did as Joy Division. It’s also the point at which their direction started to diverge from where I was going (ie they went to Ibiza, I went to the Hacienda on a Wednesday instead of a Saturday). Nonetheless, they stepped ahead of the rest once more, which is pretty remarkable, and the record they made still stands up today.

Nick responds to Rob: I absolutely don’t mean “they’re just pushing buttons on synthesisers” when I say they seem like they can’t play their instruments, far from it: as Rob notes, I love lots of music that’s produced by people clicking a mouse or pressing a button rather than by stroking a harp or whatever. I mean that what they do play – the bass and guitar parts, and the drums (which are often off a machine rather than a kit, obviously) – often seems so simple and perfunctory as to seem amateurish or childlike; there feels like little freedom, improvisation, or melodic development. Of course, if there was freedom, improvisation, or melodic development, then the emotional heft that they achieve would be obliterated; it comes from the mechanistic, uncomfortable repetition, from the simplicity of the patterns being produced. Barney’s singing – flat and monotone and struggling with both range and sustain – adds to this sense I have that they’re almost just lucking it out somehow. But it’s what makes them brilliant.

As for them seeming unpleasant, again thats just a vague impression taken from a distance. They don’t seem to like each other much.

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Joy Division – ‘Closer’: Round 46 – Rob’s choice

Joy Division - CloserI’m not sure how to write about ‘Closer’. I wasn’t sure how to speak about it when called upon to introduce it to the assembled DRC members. I fell back largely to shaking my head and squawking, “It’s perfect. It’s perfect.” Over and over.

That part at least i’m sure about. I bought ‘Closer’ in 1987, and I can’t think of a better record I’ve bought since. Years pass when I don’t listen to it, but it retains its power, its grace, its majesty, sealed up in marble as if preserved, embalmed.

I must have listened to it 20 times in the last two weeks, and it just grows and grows in stature. Age will not weather it.

Perhaps the one thing everyone knows about Joy Division’s second album is that it was a swan song. It was recorded in March 1980. Ian Curtis committed suicide on 18 May that year and the album, already complete and being readied for release, including the cover with its image of the tomb of the Appiani family in Genoa, came out exactly two months later on 18 July.

Every piece written since about the album is duty-bound to point out that it is impossible to disentangle the content of the record from the context of what happened to Curtis following its completion. Why would we want to?

‘Closer’ is populated by young men, outcasts, walking away from humanity and towards eternity, to a doomed and inevitable netherworld. It may not be quite “a cry for help, a hint of anaesthesia”. From his lyrics, Curtis sounds beyond that, beyond saving. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it seems incredible that no-one heard these songs and foresaw what would follow, all of which makes the testimony of those who survived him, who genuinely saw him as one of the lads and had no idea what was happening, all the more heartfelt and affecting.

But Curtis’s tragically early death did not make ‘Closer’ one tiny bit better. The only thing that happened once the recording had finished on 30 March 1980 that made ‘Closer’ any more remarkable was whatever producer Martin Hannett did to take the tracks laid down, under his legendarily strict supervision, by these four young men and turn them into crystallised flashes of icy lightening. Not only are these 9 songs perfect, in their austere, compulsive beauty, but they also sound perfect. The balance between and space around the nagging, abrasive guitars, Peter Hook’s most restrained and haunting bass work, and Curtis’s vocals, at once friable and authoritative, is enough to bring tears to the eyes.

And then there are the drums. Hannett was obsessed with drums, and in Stephen Morris he found a drummer with the instinctive virtuosity to allow him to realise his visions. He famously made Morris reassemble his kit and mike it up on the flat roof of the studio, before recording the playback via a single speaker on top of the studio toilet during the ‘Unknown Pleasures’ sessions. For ‘Closer’ he went even further, recording every drum sound separately, Morris playing the other parts of each track by striking his knees, so that each sound could be treated individually.  He may have been deranged, a megalomaniac, but by god, drums have never sounded better. If the openings of ‘Passover’ and ‘Heart and Soul’ could be captured alive in jars and exhibited like fireflies, they’d burn forever. So crisp, so light, so ephemeral, so perfect.

Nothing on ‘Closer’ is not perfect. It anticipates so much of the music which has followed it, none of which can approach it. It has none of the noise and bluster, none of the rock or the roll, but all of the stillness, pulsing life and timeless genius. It’s the essential distillation of what these five men, Curtis, Sumner, Hook, Morris and Hannett, had in them to give. It’s a monumental album in the true sense of the word.

Nick listened: It hadn’t struck me until the evening when Rob played this that its title can be read two ways: “nearer to” and “to close”. Given what happened afterwards, and the lyrics and mood of this record, I’m almost inclined to think that Ian Curtis had the latter interpretation in mind. But that can only ever be speculation. No one really knows.

I’ve owned Closer for many years, but I’m not sure I’ve ever actually listened to it all the way through. I was a year and three days old when he died, so to me he has always been dead, and this album has always been a totem of… darkness. Isolation. I think I’ve deliberately never investigated Joy Division’s music properly (or even New Order’s) lest it prove to be too much, to be haunted. Even at record club, amidst friends and curry, it’s a you listen, harrowing in sound and sense.

Rob butted in: Nick, Curtis was one of four, and the others still say “nearer to”. Perhaps the ambiguity was deliberate, but the pronunciation has only ever been one way. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=969bX03pFg4

Tom Listened: As I have hinted in my write up of Spiderland, Closer is one of those albums that I acquired with a huge weight of expectation already on its shoulders…possibly too heavy even for Joy Division.

I had always been put off Joy Division because I never really got Love Will Tear Us Apart – it was just too gloomy for my 13 year old self to appreciate. In fact, it remains one of the few Joy Division songs I have never really clicked with (there are some on Unknown Pleasures too). But I chanced my hard earned cash on Closer anyway, mainly due to the overwhelming number of name checks in the music press at the time. And once I had got over my initial disappointment and actually listened to the album on its own terms, I began to see what all the fuss was about. For me Closer is a more accomplished piece of work than its predecessor, it works better as a whole and there are no weak links at all. And it feels so confident and timeless whereas Unknown Pleasures is much more identifiable as a post-punk album. So it’s odd that, despite all the boxes ticked and the awe with which I view the record, I hardly ever feel the urge to play it. Is that strange or unsurprising?

Graham listened: Being 14 year old on its release, this record passed me by at first. In fact it was probably a further 4 years until someone persuaded me I really should listen to this band. I wasn’t overwhelmed at first but as soon as I gave it time I was in. Devoured the back catalogue quickly and continued to buy the collections on cd. Simply awesome, but strangely something I wouldn’t think to play that often myself. I suppose that could be a degree of reverance that this album desrves.