Dreams Never End
Conceived in the shadow of tragedy 22 years ago, New Order forged a new kind of soul music from the ashes of Joy Division. Working-class and irony-free, their savage humour straining to contain a burst dam of raw emotion, they burned with elemental passion without ever appearing to give a fuck. They were irreverent. They were inconsolable.
New Order annexed a new branch on pop's family tree, defiantly shunning both American blues-based rock'n'roll 'authenticity' and the folk-tinged, music-hall heritage of post-Beatles Britain.
Avant-garde, progressive, they carried post-punk alienation to the top of the charts and chemical euphoria to the football terraces. They applied heroic punk amateurism to pristine disco dynamics, finding new melodic uses for Peter Hook's highwire basslines, and deep wells of emotion in Stephen Morris' and Gillian Gilbert's primitive electronics. They also rocked like bastards.
Compiled by journalist and author Miranda Sawyer, the introductory disc in the Retro quartet, "Pop", is essentially a greatest hits, sketching New Order's drivetime surface story from "Ceremony" and "Confusion" to "Crystal" and "Brutal". Nobody would argue with '80s peaks like the devotional disco of "Bizarre Love Triangle" and "Perfect Kiss", nor the sublime desolation of "Regret", scientifically provable as the finest British single ever recorded.
The inclusion of such epochal 45s as "Blue Monday" and "True Faith" can hardly be faulted, either. Even though some of us New Order bores would have lobbied for the more underrated "Run", "World", and the achingly lovely original of "1963", the one on the B-side of "True Faith", over Arthur Baker's muted 1995 remix.
More engaging for diehards and converts alike is the second disc, "Fan". Compiled by former Face reporter and DJ John McCready, it cherry-picks album tracks, B-sides and rarities from New Order's back pages. Here is a shattered quartet feeling its way from despair to disco, absorbing and abusing technology with fertile recklessness, and road-testing a decade's worth of designer drugs along the way.
Fashioned from the last lyrics of Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis, "In A Lonely Place" is funereal and monumental, a snow-covered Soviet war grave produced by the legendary Factory producer Martin Hannett (it was originally the B-side to New Order's debut single, "Ceremony"). The glacial symphonic glide of "Your Silent Face" was initially christened "KW1", in homage to Kraftwerk, although Dusseldorf's techno godfathers bury their emotions in music whereas Bernard Sumner seems to expose every raw nerve.
From "Let's Go" (an instrumental from the soundtrack to 1988's Salvation, given words and extra propulsion back in 1995) to "Cries And Whispers" (taken off 1981's "Everything's Gone Green" 12-inch), the singer plays the eternally bruised victim of a million betrayals. Which is all very well, but where's "Thieves Like Us"? (Bizarrely, its B-side, "Lonesome Tonight", IS on "Fan").
The rhythms got sleeker and tougher, although even as early as the Hooky-sung "Dreams Never End" (from their debut album Movement) New Order were using traditional instruments to approximate the sequenced throb of primitive electro (even if Curtis had lived, Joy Division might have 'gone dance' anyway—he was getting into Giorgio Moroder before his death). Unsung second single "Procession" relocated Studio 54 to east Berlin, while "Sooner Than You Think" yanked a magnificent hi-NRG hangover from a drunken bust-up with roadies in Ramsgate. Who says romance is dead? Meanwhile, New Order built Britain's first superclub years ahead of schedule, and almost went bankrupt waiting for acid house to catch up with them.
Of course, rave culture finally repaid New Order with elder statesman kudos and chart-topping singles. And yet, ironically, they have rarely been well served by remixers. The diluted purity has generally proved their first instincts to be right, reversing the alchemy of their studio blueprints. That said, Mike Pickering's remix anthology, "Club", the third CD here, is ripe with parallel pop narratives, although tellingly it includes the faultless original versions of Valhalla-bound disco-metal projectile "Touched By The Hand Of God" and the psychedelic electro of "Everything's Gone Green". They should be on "Pop", of course, but who's complaining?
Some mixes feel stranded in time, like Shep Pettibone's extended "Bizarre Love Triangle" and John Robie's cluttered "Shellshock", all rigid '80s superstructure and boxy bonus beats. Chicago house godfather Steve "Silk" Hurley fashions a safe but palatable disco-party-megamix of "Fine Time", but it is often the radical digressions which complement New Order's inherent sense of fuck-off irreverence: Jam & Spoon's ticklish happy-hardcore trance-lation of "Blue Monday", for example, or Sabres Of Paradise's plaintive dubtronic reconstruction of "Regret".
Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie initially culled the live disc, the fourth and final part of Retro—titled, with dour Mancunian logic, "Live"—from ancient history, necessitating a last-minute intervention by the band themselves. Perhaps Gillespie believes true soul and magic lurk only in runic relics, but New Order disprove such glib mythologising. Having personally witnessed many of the later shows extracted here, it is clear that their electric anti-charisma remains erratic but undimmed. "In A Lonely Place" is the earliest recording, snatched from New Order's notorious Glastonbury debut in 1981, where Sumner drank himself horizontal. The clenched-teeth versions of "Regret" and "As It Is When It Was" from their poignant Reading Festival set in 1993, when the band despised each other and seemed unlikely ever to share a stage again, are full-bodied and charged with drama.
Purists and trend-surfers will tell you New Order are a spent force in 2002 after last year's commercially successful but musically conservative return to guitar rock, Get Ready. But the tracks on Retro from their 1986 album Brotherhood, which married acoustic textures to sequencers, show a clear continuity at work. And Billy Corgan's exquisitely woozy duet with Bernard on "Turn My Way" from last year's Liverpool comeback, the first New Order show in 20 years without Gilbert, now sounds less like the end of an era than the start of a fresh chapter.
Indeed, everything on this four-disc retrospective sounds fresher and more innovative than the current crop of transient twentysomething guitar-torchers with their piffling pastiches of older men's glory. They might not acknowledge it, but their musical legacy is beyond reach: untouchable, unimpeachable, immortal.
Rating: 4 / 10