Thursday, 10 March 2011
48 Low Life - New Order
Purchased : August 1985
Tracks : Love Vigilantes / The Perfect Kiss / This Time Of Night / Sunrise / Elegia / Sooner Than You Think / Subculture / Face Up
This was bought on a visit to Manchester from HMV on a lovely sunny afternoon. I was taking a punt with it having fallen out of love with "Power Corruption and Lies" and never started with "Movement". I didn't rate "Confusion" or "Thieves Like Us" either and never actually heard "The Perfect Kiss" as it failed to reach the Top 40 (probably because it was one over-long single too many). However Smash Hits had given the LP a good review and it was very nicely packaged so I gave them another chance to impress me and they did.
Critical consensus says that 1989's "Technique" is their best LP but for me it's this one. The photos of the band on the sleeve are an indicator of their willingness to slew off the last trappings of post-punk belligerence and embrace the fame their music had earned them. Musically they were now writing proper songs rather than Barney coming up with some dogggerel to hang on a riff at the last moment. Why it wasn't more commercially successful is still a bit baffling to me but hey-ho they survived and prospered.
This LP set the template for their subsequent efforts . Although the songs are credited to the whole group it's clear from their work apart that Barney comes up with the aynthesiser - based dance tracks and Hooky the rockier ones with his bass the lead instrument. It's the friction between these musical poles and the suffusion of melancholy from their tragic past that makes them unique and compelling.
"Love Vigilantes" is probably the closest they came to re-writing Love Will Tear Us Apart with a similar ringing bass and guitar interplay although Steve Morris's crashing snare owes more to Springsteen's Dancing In The Dark and Barney adds some melodica at the beginning. The tongue-in-cheek lyric explores similar ideas to Stop the Cavalry with a soldier longing for demob to see his wife and family again. It's an effective opening statement of their intent to write conventional pop songs but there's better stuff to come.
"The Perfect Kiss" is next, perversely in shortened form. With deliberately simplistic lyrics Barney tells the tale of a suicidal friend and it's not hard to work out what the inspiration for that was. Hooky's dolorous bass is the melodic lead soon echoed by the synth while Steve Morris puts down a bed of electronic percussion. There's a long instrumental coda which throws cricket noises and cowbells into the mix before the bass re-asserts itself at the conclusion. It's a good song but over-busy.
"This Time Of Night" bridges Cabaret Voltaire and the Pet Shop Boys with a low synth rumble and whispered vocal loaded with sexual menace on the verses followed by a sweeping lovesick chorus. The Billy Currie - esque piano break in the middle is an interlude before a more aggressive second verse and chorus where Barney starts ad-libbing behind his main vocal suggesting the sexual storm is breaking.
Hooky leads us out of that track with a typical bass solo and into "Sunrise" where he's clearly in control. It seems at least in part a pastiche of their southern contemporaries The Cure who were a bit faster in embracing a poppier direction. Hook's Gallup-ing bass is the dominant instrument and Barney does a very creditable impersonation of Robert Smith's mawkish tones on a song full of unspecific complaint. The ascending synth break that takes the place of a chorus seems, along with the title, a deliberate reference back to New Dawn Fades.
Side Two throws a curveball with "Elegia" a haunting instrumental somewhere between Philip Glass and Mike Oldfield with Hooky's doleful bass prowling around beneath the pastoral synth melodies. Morris eventually intervenes as a herald of Barney's brief but devastating burst of distorted guitar bursting the bubble of bliss just as the world's realities erased Holden Caulfield's idyllic ambition. The band haven't done anything quite like it since.
The mood lingers into "Sooner Than You Think" which after a lengthy intro settles into a wistful song about the end of a holiday romance with the startling couplet "The price of a drink there is so much more reasonable / I think I'll go there when it gets reasonable." The most seamless meld of rock and dance on the LP it's a clear precursor to "World In Motion".
My favourite song on the LP "Subculture" follows. After a startling intro using the harpsichord pre-set it becomes a Hi-NRG disco song of sexual blackmail -" you can't shag without someone else" - on a bed of the sort of synth noises that Stock Aitken and Waterman would shortly flog to death. Barney provides a deapan vocal but the real killer is the middle eight where a percussion break gives way to the harpsichord motif and Hooky enters like a storm cloud with a ringing bass line that takes the drama to a new level. The band re-recorded it for a second single release and ballsed it up with superfluous clutter a la "Confusion". This remains by far the best version.
In this company the final track "Face Up" is a bit of a disappointment. After yet another excellent intro it turns out to be a virtual re-write of "Temptation" with a very similar mix of twitchy synths , heavy backbeat and throwaway lyrics. It's acceptable enough but seems like a backward step after what we've just heard.
I don't think New Order have strayed too far from the sound they first perfected here ; you can hear echoes of these songs in most of their subsequent material which isn't meant to be a criticism.
Accordingly we'll meet them again here but this one is the cherry on the cake.