Monday, 26 September 2011
64 Substance - New Order
Tracks : Ceremony / Everything's Gone Green / Temptation / Blue Monday / Confusion / Thieves Like Us / Perfect Kiss / Sub-culture / Shell Shock / State Of The Nation / Bizarre Love Triangle / True Faith
This was bought as soon as it came out from Bradford. I was there on the recommendation of a wanker because the main purpose of the trip was to at last acquire a gore-tex caguole something that had always previously been out of my price range. The imperative to get one was that I wanted to be a voluntary countryside ranger with Calderdale Council and had applied as soon as I graduated. There was a six month training period and I did well in excess of the number of patrols required but that enthusisam proved my undoing. I turned out on a dreadful day which exposed the inadequacy of my equipment and gave the paid ranger ( a certain Mike Taylor ) for the western half of the borough ( the only area I could practically get to on a Sunday ) the excuse to reject me in March. I think the real reason was that I didn't measure up to his macho man ideas of what a ranger should look like. I think the much more amiable guy on the eastern side would have let me through but unfortunately I hadn't a car to get over to his base and so it wasn't his call.
However I'd seen their boss since then ( also a nice bloke ) and he led me to think the door was still open if I applied in October. With working and living at home I soon had enough to buy a new caguole so it seemed a good idea to ring Mike Taylor on the pretext of wanting his advice on the purchase. That way he would know I'd addressed his concerns when my re-application form was considered. To be fair to him - which is still painful - he was helpful and suggested a wholesale place Austens in Bradford ( in a very grim-looking area ) where I could get one at a very decent price and he was right. Unfortunately he then rejected me again on the grounds that they had enough volunteers now.
"Substance" saw Factory succumbing to market pressures by releasing a compilation album of their most ( at the time only ) commercially successful act. Attractively packaged as always in a tastefully minimalist Peter Savile sleeve the vinyl version took the form of a double LP with three tracks on each side. Ominously the cassette and CD versions gave you all the B sides as well but I didn't appreciate the significance of this at the time.
"Substance" is chronologically arranged starting with the Joy Division leftover "Ceremony" and ending with their recent Top 5 hit "True Faith". It covers all their Factory single releases to date mainly in their original 12 inch form ( the only format some of them were ever released in ) although a couple have been re-recorded.
"Ceremony" sticks out like a sore thumb with nearly all elements of the Joy Division sound intact save for an absence of synths and a woefully weak lead vocal. Ian Curtis had neither sung it adequately nor written the full lyrics down before his death so Bernard Sumner had to put the tape through a graphic equaliser to decipher the words then re-record the vocal himself. As JD songs go it's at the melodic end of the spectrum led by Peter Hook's wandering bassline and decorated by much cymbal work from Steve Morris. Sumner and new recruit Gillian Gilbert colour in the spaces with their guitar work alternating between thrash and laying down a higher tone over the bassline. With our knowledge the final lines about "watching love grow forever" will always perplex. There's no sense of this song being a suicide note; it's B-side "In A Lonely Place" fit the bill much better. The song reached 34 in the charts in March 1981.
Eight months later the band released their second single, a double A-side featuring "Procession" and "Everything's Gone Green" the latter making the vinyl cut here. Although Martin Hannett was still on board as producer the twitchy synth sound which predominates here was completely new. The lyrics are still very sub-Curtis without much bite ( save for "I'll hurt you when I can" ) but you can hear that Sumner's finding his own singing voice. There's not much of a song here but the music is intriguing with Hook seemingly in charge early on with a galloping bass run and then being restricted to a dolorous commentary from the sidelines as Sumner's loose-wristed thrashing and Gilbert's synths combine with Morris's metronomic tub-thumping to dancefloor effect. It too stiffed in the thirties.
The third single "Temptation" from May 1982 originally had a similar sound but crucially also a verse/chorus structure and scraped inside the Top 30 due to day time play from Simon Bates. However that's not the version here , the band deciding to completely re-work it for this album's release. So the wordless refrain at the end becomes the intro and the original primitive drum machine is replaced by the heavy explosive drum sound recently employed by Morris on "True Faith". The rest of the song is intact but sounds less tinny than the original, their first recording without the increasingly shaky hand of Martin Hannett on the tiller. The song also sees the debut of Sumner's gauchely romantic lyrical style - "oh you've got blue eyes " . The lyrics don't mean much in themselves but this song marks a decisive break from trying to replicate Ian Curtis's dark poetry.
On the second side you have the three epics from 1983-4 starting of course with "Blue Monday" ( perhaps surprisingly unaltered ) which we've already covered. The song of course changed everything, introducing them to the Top 20 and Top Of The Pops ( which they tried to sabotage with a truncated and utterly dismal live performance; they gave Hook a microphone and he contributed a sole indecipherable murmur early in the song ).
That meant their next release was eagerly awaited particularly as it was a collaboration with New York's most celebrated electro-dance producer Arthur Baker. Baker's contribution was substantial enough to garner a co-composer credit but as so often happens with these musical summit meetings the result was pretty underwhelming. Baker just piled his trademark percussive clatter on top of a weak song that couldn't bear the weight and it went on for over 8 minutes. The lyrics are back of a fag packet stuff and the tune is non-existent. It peaked at 12 in September 1983 and was quickly over-shadowed by the re-appearance of "Blue Monday " on the back of European resort exposure, the earlier single reaching its peak position of 9. Here it's been re-recorded with a greater role for guitar, bass and real drums but still sounds over-cluttered and, even at a trimmer 4-and-a-half minutes , outstays its welcome.
The following year they tested the patience of their more casual fans with another 12 inch only, 6 minute plus epic "Thieves Like Us" again co-written with Baker. You do get the feeling that he was put in his place a bit on this one with Hook's prominent bass and glacial Krafwerkian synths providing a firm melodic bedrock for Sumner's raw but sincere meditations on love. It's much better than its predecessor but still too long . Sumner doesn't start singing until 2.22 . With daytime radio turning their back on it it peaked at 18 in a 5 week run.
With the band seemingly realising that you can't sustain a career on "event" singles ( though George Michael would try it two decades on ) their next two releases were from the 1985 album "Low Life" and both were released in the 7 inch format. However their chart hangover continued and neither made the Top 40. Now of course we've already covered "Low Life" and both these songs.
"The Perfect Kiss" is a good song, here with its final pay-off verse ( on the single but not LP version ) restored, but doesn't really benefit from being stretched out to 8 minutes. "Subculture" was an even better song on the LP but they re-recorded it for the single release and near-ruined it with utterly superfluous gospel-y backing singers ( a very unwelcome trope in mid-80s pop ) and electro-clutter ( which obscures the great rush of Hook's entrance towards the end ). Fortunately they weren't rewarded for it as it became their lowest-charting single to date.
They did return to the Top 40 with "Shell Shock", possibly my favourite of their singles with its yearning chorus ( a clear precursor to "World In Motion" ) and dramatic Fairlight string sweeps. However it doesn't really benefit from being extended to over six minutes with nearly two of them given over to a stop-start intro with already tired-sounding electro-stuttering .
"State Of The Nation" also made the Top 40. It was released concurrently with fourth album "Brotherhood " but only appeared on the CD version. Almost uniquely for them the title is very prominent in the chorus although the suggestion of a political critique is misleading as Sumner's lyrics are even more back-of-a-fag packet doggerel than ever - "I went on a summer cruise, upon a nation born to lose". Musically it's a touch over-busy with its Oriental intro followed by fuzz guitar power chords then scratchy funk guitar and a classic mournful bassline but it does sustain intrest over the six+ minutes better than other tracks here.
"Bizarre Love Triangle" was on all versions from "Brotherhood" but did less well in the 1986 Christmas market. Beloved of Douglas Coupland ( it features prominently in Girlfriend In A Coma ) , it's a mid-paced synth pop ditty with meaningless lyrics anchored to a sledgehammer drumbeat. Neither Morris nor Hook are obviously on it and that's a minus as is the humdrum instrumental passage that separates each verse from the chorus and interrupts the flow of the song. In the latter part of the song there's a nice passage with bell-like synth sounds then a couple of choruses with treated vocals to get it up to 12 inch length but it's still not one of their better songs.
That leaves us with "True Faith". The muted critical and commercial reception for "Brotherhood" led to liaison with another big name producer Stephen Hague who'd come to prominence with the Pet Shop Boys. Hague co-wrote the song but he also cleaned up the sound. Morris's drums never sounded as taut and springy and the juddering bass synth relegates Hook to cameo contributions. He also coaxed out a more meaningful lyric from Sumner with an Ecstasy confession that pointed the way forward for the band..
Bloated as it is in parts this is still a fine progress report on a great band.