It is May 14, 1984, and as the UK Margaret Thatcher would like to see remoulded in her image tears itself apart, New Order are doing their bit on the angels’ side, playing a benefit at London’s Royal Festival Hall in support of the nation’s striking miners. At the climax, they unveil a song no-one has ever heard before, one they’re still writing there on stage, jamming with their sequencers. In time, this track will grow exponentially, to become the launchpad for the next chapter of their eternally unlikely career; a track that exploits and expands the possibilities of the 12” single even more than “Blue Monday”; a track so endlessly, ever-changingly glorious you could live inside it, or at least lose a lifetime’s worth of weekends there. And its name is… and its name is… and its name is… “This one’s a new song,” Bernard Sumner says as he steps to the mic. “It’s called “I’ve Got A Cock Like The M1”.”
As ever with New Order at their finest, the sublime and the ridiculous, heaven and earth, danced in close proximity at the messy birth of the song we would eventually come to know as “The Perfect Kiss”, signature track and – controversially, in those indier-than-thou days – lead single of their magnificent third LP, Low-Life.
Now getting the augmented deluxe treatment as the group’s exemplary series of “definitive” boxsets continues, it is clearer than ever that this shimmering, shadowy, grimy album, released in spring 1985, marked the commencement of their imperial phase. If 1983’s miraculous Power, Corruption And Lies was the moment New Order put it all together – all that pre-punk and punk and post-punk and kling-klang electro and ambience and rage and sadness and joy and confused, knowing naivete – Low-Life was where they set out to see how far they could take it.
In the time between the two albums, the group’s individual members had been stretching their studio technique, taking on a wild variety of producing jobs for other Factory Records acts, testing gear and ideas while searching for the perfect beat on other people’s records. They brought it all back home on Low-Life. Recorded in the dark, dying winter months of 1984, it is a record where individual influences are readily apparent, yet get set spinning in that perfect balance that becomes something else altogether.
Musically, inspirations include both the new club sounds New Order kept chasing, and the beloved old soundtrack LPs they cherished: “The Perfect Kiss” itself starts as an attempt to replicate Shannon’s “Let The Music Play”, then becomes a joyride through a gleaming, crime-infested Metropolis and out into the misty radioactive swamplands beyond, full of mutant funk frogs and laughing sheep. Conversely, “Face Up” begins like an ominous Blade Runner city fanfare, then gets hijacked by a sprightly Hi-NRG gang with “Temptation” tattooed across their knuckles.
The most persistent influence is Italian maestro Ennio Morricone, the album’s deity, whose revolutionary scores for Sergio Leone infect half of the eight tracks, most obviously New Order’s own unapologetic spaghetti western showdown, “Elegia”. (The semi-legendary 17-minute original cut, created in one relentless, well-fuelled 24-hour session because they’d been given free studio time, is among the extras, replete with admirably absurd cameos from the engineer’s passing nephews, stating their names for no reason.)
The most unexpected influence, however, is the band New Order were, as “Sunrise” – a raging argument with God, and another touched by the hand of Morricone – becomes the closest thing to a Joy Division song they’ve ever done. Perhaps, by this stage, they felt confident enough that they’d chased the last of the wrong sort of JD fans away to let that holy ghost back out; although they throw in another of Sumner’s most entirely-not-Ian-Curtis lyrics into “Face Up” just to make sure: “Your hair was long, your eyes was blue / Guess what I’m going to do to you… whoo!”
As outlined by writer Jude Rogers in the book accompanying the set, other, external forces also shaped Low-Life. For one, the general pre-Orwellian feeling in the air as 1984 dragged to a toxic close. For another, the atmosphere of pressure being released in the underground London clubs where New Order spent their nights during recording, notably infamous leather-and-rubber fetish joint Skin Two: “This Time Of Night”, “The Perfect Kiss” and the album’s second single “Subculture” all soundtrack fascinated night-trawls through a decadent demimonde.
Simultaneously, the effort underway to break the band overground in America, via their implausible deal with Quincy Jones’ boutique, Warners-offshoot label Qwest (whose other big signing that year was Frank Sinatra), fed the decision to do such decidedly un-New Order-y things as include singles on the album, and feature their photographs on the sleeve. It is difficult now to convey the sheer sense of heresy this unleashed among the most heavily overcoated sections of the John Peel nation in 1985, yet it resulted in the most flawlessly New Order-y solutions.
Clad in its fragile second skin of translucent tracing paper, Peter Saville’s cover was his most beautiful object yet, framing his portraits of the group, shot on black-and-white Polaroid, like stills from a lost Dreyer movie. Meanwhile, the dilemma of having singles on the LP was circumvented by making those singles sound nothing like the album tracks: “Sub-culture” was radically re-sung and remixed into an amped-up Hamburg-harpsichord disco beast; while Low-Life’s truncated “Perfect Kiss” edit played like a trailer that only hinted at the grandeur of the 12” released the same week. To further the confusion, the “Perfect Kiss” video, recorded live in New Order’s practice room, featured yet another version again, although this hardly mattered as, at over 10 minutes, practically no TV station ever played it – another perfectly Factory promotional tool.
Directed by Jonathan Demme, fresh from Stop Making Sense, and exquisitely photographed by veteran cinematographer Henri Alekan, who shot La Belle Et La Bête for Cocteau and chased Audrey Hepburn through Roman Holiday, that majestic monster of a promo takes pride of place among two DVDs of video extras in this set. The album, included on vinyl and CD, is further enhanced by an additional CD of initial jams and rough mixes, showing tracks in early, mostly instrumental stages. Some differences are fascinating – “The Perfect Kiss” here is a softer thing, like Shannon dancing off with “Thieves Like Us”. Most surprising, though, and demonstrating how prolific they were, might be “Untitled 1”, a discarded writing session workout that sounds very much like it is about to become “Bizarre Love Triangle”, key track to New Order’s next LP, 1986’s Brotherhood.
It is the three-and-a-half hours of mostly unreleased live footage, however, that is the real meat. All cowbell and overheating computer chips, these five 1985 shows, shot warts and all from Tokyo to Toronto, demonstrate how phenomenal New Order were in performance at this stage, even – especially – when things were almost falling apart. Eschewing backing tracks to play sequencers and samplers “live”, what becomes clear is just how incredibly hard all four members worked on stage to keep it all going, pushing themselves and their unreliable, tetchy technology – machines truly not designed for this kind of road wear – to the limit.
To stretch one of their favourite movies into a metaphor – Kubrick’s 2001, which was on heavy rotation on the VHS during the album’s recording – if the Power, Corruption And Lies epoch saw them discovering the big black monolith on the moon that was “Blue Monday”, the Low-Life era is where they took that knowledge and blasted off for Jupiter and beyond, accompanied by technology that had its own personality and peculiar agenda. They all went spellbindingly mad on the way, and they gave birth to a starchild. There are imperfections everywhere, and it is perfect.