Order of the Day
Matthew Vosburgh attaches tape recorder to tripod and lets New Order add their words to his pictures. He also traces the recorded history of one of Britain's most influential modem music outfits.
From post-punk doom merchants to hi-tech dancefloor darlings, New Order have charted an unpredictable but impressive course along the fringes of recent popular music. And to a large extent, the technology available to the band has influenced the direction their music has taken.
Whenever I'm asked to leave my photographic ivory tower and actually write an interview, it's normally due to a major international disaster incapacitating the rest of the staff, such as a World War being declared or a Music Fair being allowed to take place in deepest Germany. Propelled by the latter eventuality, I set off for Manchester in search of one of the most gifted and inventive bands making music today.
To stand a chance of really getting to grips with New Order, you've first got to look at the band they evolved from - Joy Division. Now they were something: a group of little compromise whose music was bleak without ever running the risk of becoming colourless. Theirs was certainly an unusual sound for the time (1978/9), but it was also an influential one. Hundreds have since sought to imitate the mixture of Steve Morris' dynamic but always competently-played drums, Peter Hook's compelling bass playing (often on a six-string bass), and Barney Albrecht's imaginatively-treated guitar and keyboards. But it was singer Ian Curtis' warm yet forbidding vocal delivery that really made the band. It was the sort of voice you either loved or hated: the sort that could make you want to hurl the record through a window or, in extreme cases, hurl yourself along with it.
Their first album, Unknown Pleasure (on Factory, the Manchester independent label the band are still with), firmly established Joy Division's reputation. It was an album that somehow managed to channel the aggression of the time into music of dark and sinister beauty, music that has stood the test of time better than almost anything else from that period. Their second album, Closer, released in the Spring of 1980, saw the band trying to vary that beauty by blending in an increased electronics content. The policy undoubtedly worked, so it came as something of a surprise to learn that it was all done with relatively unsophisticated equipment.
Barney - The keyboards on Closer were basically a Sequential Circuits Pro One, a Powertran Transcendent 2000 and an ARP Omni - in fact, mostly the Omni.'
(For the uninitiated, the last-mentioned was a low-priced polyphonic ensemble that allowed the sounds from its synth and strings sections to be mixed and layered.)
'The Omni was good, but you had to process it, like we used to put it through a graphic equaliser and then split the bands up. We used to put it through a Marshall Time Modulator as well, to get that '78 record' effect: you know, sort of speeding up and slowing down the way a Mellotron does.'
That album also featured quite a lot of electronic percussion. Barney again - 'On parts of Closer, on 'Decades' for instance, there are percussion sounds from an ARP 2600 being run from an ARP sequencer - electronic bass drum sounds and stuff. In those days, you couldn't get any sort of programmable drum machine.'
Steve - 'Yes you could. You could get that Roland CR78 Compurhythm. You had to hit this tiny pad when the little red light came on. It was supposed to be programmable, even though you'd have no idea what the results would turn out like.'
And it seems Closer also featured an early product from someone who's now rather better known, as Steve reveals. 'I used a Simmons SDS2 on that album, for things like the snare sound on 'Isolation'. That's also what I used for the explosion sound on 'In A Lonely Place' (B-side to the first New Order single, 'Ceremony', released the following year). It was a great unit that, really well built. I think the more technically advanced Dave Simmons becomes, the worse his products get. We once left that SDS2 in a car park overnight and it still worked! I remember once when two knobs broke off it, and still it carried on working. With so much gear nowadays, you've only got to have one little thing go wrong and the whole lot breaks down. Maybe we should go back to the old days, when all you needed was a PP9 and you were it.'
Yet no matter how much the individual musicians within Joy Division strove to improve and vary their sound, the role played by house producer Martin Hannet remained crucial. His style revolved around liberal and uninhibited use of outboard effects - analogue and digital delays, compressor/limiters, and above all, real and artificial reverb. The net result was a moody, atmospheric sound that has ended up influencing an awful lot of people (listen to any John Peel show). The band's manager, Rob Gretton, agrees with that sentiment: 'I think a lot of people ripped off Martin Hannet's sound, because it was certainly the forerunner of a lot of what production is about today.
'Most people in those days were recording drums as if they were being played with a wet fish. When he was working with us, Martin Hannet began to realise that it was possible to give a modern band a highly-produced sound, and it made all the difference.'
Even so, the band maintain that their relationship with Hannet was two-way: they might have learnt from him, but they gave him plenty of their own ideas in return. And it's certainly true that it was the Joy Division albums that launched Hannet's lucrative production career.
"We used to pulse the different sections of the ARP Quadra with a Boss Dr Rhythm, so that you could set up sequencer-type patterns and mix the strings section in underneath."
Sadly, and as the world and his wife are probably already aware, Ian Curtis committed suicide shortly after finishing Closer, and suddenly Joy Division were no more. Albrecht, Hook and Morris eventually added keyboard player and guitarist Gillian and reformed as New Order, Barney Albrecht taking over the vocals. After a not unexpected period of uncertainty, they proved the value of this lineup with 'Ceremony', a stunning record that had everything latter-day Joy Division possessed but succeeded in packaging it in a more accessible fashion. Things were looking up once more, but the band suffered a further setback during their first visit to New York...
Hook - 'We had to go through a strange metamorphosis because we had all our gear stolen, every single piece of it. We weren't insured either. We just had to go out and buy new stuff, and all the stuff we bought was a lot more expensive and a lot more technically advanced.' Barney - To replace the Omni we bought an ARP Quadra. That had four sections: a lead synth, a string synth, a bass synth and a so-called polyphonic synth. Basically though, the string synth was good, the lead synth was reasonable, and the other two were shit. One thing we used to do with that was to pulse the different sections with a Boss Dr Rhythm, so that you could have a pulsing sequencer-type pattern going and then mix in the strings underneath it. We used that effect on the two subsequent singles, 'Everything's Gone Green' and 'Temptation'.
'About the same time we got a Moog Source, a programmable monophonic that's good for bass lines. We stayed with that keyboard set-up for quite a while until we decided that we wanted a proper sequencer, and when that happened, I built a Powertran 1024 from a kit. This boffin we know, Martin Usher, showed me how to modify it so we could put a drum machine clock into it. He also showed me how to triple the memory to over 3000 notes by adding extra RAM chips and a bank selector: he designed the circuit and I built it - it was quite easy really. It was a good sequencer to use, that, really easy to program, but it became unreliable live, breaking down and going out of tune. But we carried on doing a lot of recording with it, using it to drive the Source - that's how the bass line on 'Blue Monday' was done.'
Ah, 'Blue Monday'. That was the song that really put New Order on the map as far as pop music history was concerned. John Peel described it as 'Pink Floyd go disco' the first time he played it, but its driving dancefloor beat, instantly memorable melody and classic electronic arrangement made it an international hit almost overnight. Not bad for a single that received no promotion whatsoever, came only in 12" format, and didn't even have its name (or that of the band) printed anywhere on its sleeve. Produced by New Order themselves, 'Blue Monday' was a reaction against the worst excesses of Martin Hannet's production eccentricity, which is why it sounds so clean and unadulterated to many followers of the band's music.
Barney - 'On the hardware front, the Source was starting to break down a lot at that time, so we solved the whole problem by getting a Sequential Circuits PolySequencer and a Prophet Five... which broke down!
'The trouble with the PolySequencer is that it's hard to program, and it's also awkward live. You see, it uses those mini data cassettes, and we used to spend whole gigs swapping cassettes and waiting for them to load. In the end we got another PolySequencer and another Prophet - that made things a bit better.'
The Sequential set-up is on 'Blue Monday' as well, playing the quieter, background bass line, and that record also saw the debut of the band's new drum machine (an Oberheim DMX) and a prominent appearance by their recently-acquired Emulator. And yes, you've guessed it, both these hi-tech pieces of equipment have given the band problems live...
Hook - 'We did a gig in Glasgow last night where the keyboard roadie tripped up on the power lead to the DMX and it re-wrote all its programs. We didn't find out until we started playing the songs, live! In some ways it was very interesting: five songs in the set were wrong, and we had to keep stopping and starting... and improvising.
'We do have a lot of trouble with our DMXs: they seem very prone to losing their memory, especially if you're using an external sync.'
"The Voyetras never break down. They're the main synthesisers we actually play live: the Prophets are just there to run the sequences."
Barney - 'We've been told that there's a circuit in the DMX that's designed to work off 60Hz. Apparently in England at 240V it can just about cope, but if you take the machine to Europe and try and use 220 volts, it can't handle it. We had to transform all the power up to 240 to make it work properly.'
Steve - 'Before we got the last software update on the DMX, what was happening with the 60Hz problem was that you had to be very careful when you switched it off. If you turned it off at the wrong phase it'd scramble the memory. Since we got the new lot of software, the only problem is that it just goes mad every now and then.'
At this point, Peter Hook spices things up with a further comment. 'We spend half our gigs hitting the Emulator with a hammer! You see, sometimes you get it out of the case and it won't load the disk - we've found out that if you hit it on the leg with a hammer, then it will load.' (Note - E&MM cannot accept responsibility for the consequences if you do this to your Emulator. You have been warned.)
It seems that if it's hi-tech and New Order buy it, it'll pack up on them at some stage, and if it does there'll be the first ones to want to talk about it. Apparently, there have been just two notable exceptions of late.
Barney - 'We've got two of those little rackmounted, eight-voice polyphonic synths called Voyetras - they never break down. They replaced the ARP Quadra (the switches started going on that), because you can pulse the Voyetras in the same way that we used to pulse the ARP, so they're a really good replacement. They're the main synthesisers that we actually play live: the Prophets are just there to run sequences.'
How ironic, then, that the only equipment that hasn't let the band down should be from a small and largely unknown company, New York-based Octave-Plateau.
There was talk, not all that long ago, that the band were paying their aforementioned boffin to build them a sophisticated sequencer based around an Osborne twin disk drive portable computer, running special software he was going to write for them in FORTH. This, they said, would solve all their sequencing problems, past, present and future. Unfortunately, the system was never built.
With Usher 'brain-drained' to California where he's now working alongside most of the rest of Britain's talented computer music engineers, New Order are going to have to enter an entirely new field if they want their operational dreams to become reality.
Barney - 'We're at a turning point now where we will be updating it all. You see, the Prophets are too unreliable, the sequencers too difficult to program, and the DMX too fragile, so what we're going to do is get either a Fairlight or a Synclavier when the new models come out. In the meantime we might get a MIDI system based around a Yamaha QX1 sequencer, but eventually it's got to be a Fairlight or a Synclavier.'
Hook - 'The trouble with the gear we've got at the moment is that you've got to physically connect it all together. We think that if we get one instrument that does everything, then there's no reason why it shouldn't be perfectly reliable. Specially if we get two so that we've always got a spare!'
Barney - 'At the moment we can't decide which one to get. The new Fairlight's going to be 16-voice and the new Synclavier 32-voice, but that's not the whole story. I think we'll have to hire them both for a while, because we're spending a lot of money, and with instruments like that, it's only when you've had them for a couple of weeks that you begin to know where their shortfalls lie.'
In addition to the crop of singles that led up to the release of 'Blue Monday', New Order have come up with two long-players entitled Movement and Power, Corruption and Lies, with a third on its way in the very near future. And perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest surface difference between the two lies in their production, as the first is the result of a group-Hannet collaboration, while the second - which came out in the summer of '83 - is an entirely group endeavour. The band have since worked with New York dancefloor king Arthur Baker, who had a huge influence over the creation of the TR808-based 'Confusion' 12" single, and a slightly smaller one on the production of its follow-up, 'Thieves Like Us'.
It seemed a good idea to ask New Order which method of working they preferred - taking orders from above or shouldering all the responsibility themselves.
Barney - 'Sometimes it's a real pain producing yourself. It's a lot more work, and as well I think you can miss the spontaneity that you get from working with someone else. I think that it works better in the end, though, purely for the reason that it's us who write the songs in the1 first place, and when you write a song you know how you want it to sound. With Joy Division sometimes, we'd listen to the record afterwards and it would sound like someone else, totally alien. If you do it all yourself, the final product is much closer to your original conception.'
Interview by Matthew Vosburgh
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