I grew up on the outskirts of Manchester but never really understood that New Order were from there, or why that was important, until much later. New Order came to me shorn of all context beyond being the music on a c90 cassette tape given to me by my parents when I was seven or eight years old. A copy of Substance that they had got from a friend who had bought the vinyl.
I listened to this tape day after day. Learnt every song by heart. When I was eleven, the first thing I did when I was lucky enough to borrow a Korg M1 synthesiser for the first time was teach myself how to use the built-in sequencer by programming my own interpretations of Blue Monday over and over again. Later, when I was able to use the little drum machine my school’s music department had during lunch breaks, I did the same thing with that. By the time I was fifteen and got my first midi interface working with an amiga computer I graduated to instrumental True Faith covers instead. Or sometimes Shellshock. I could probably write an essay about the way those synth strings are stereo panned note by note during the opening minute of Shellshock. And the intermittent ticking percussion. And how there are two more orchestra hits than you’d expect when it sounds like a stuck record towards the end of the intro to throw you off the rhythm. Was that deliberate? Did they just not hit the button on the sequencer at the right moment? And who was panning those strings!? Was it done by midi or by hand? These are questions that bug me to this day.
A few years later we got our first CD player and one of the first purchases was the double disc CD of Substance. The excitement of finding out that there was a second cd of this music was unparalleled. And more than that, though I didn’t realise this consciously until years later, it tore apart my expectations and assumptions of what the album form could be. Because Substance is not really like most albums. It’s not an album of completely new songs, but it isn’t a best-of or a straight up compilation either. There were new versions of previously-released songs recorded specifically for it as well as songs that were not on any other albums. And the second disc is not just a lazy collection of bonus tracks – ’1963’ and ‘Procession’ are on there for a start.
But it’s the alternative versions that make the second disc so interesting for me. The instrumental version of Thieves Like Us allows those lush wavetable-y synth pads the space to bloom into the foreground. All the dissonance and heartbreak you could ever need from a chord progression. Though titled as simply ‘instrumental’, this and Confusion are more than just vocal-less versions of the songs on the first disc. The arrangements have been overhauled entirely, Confusion in particular becoming an extended collection of tight arpeggios and drum machines aimed at the dance floor.
What New Order are essentially doing here is transcending the idea of remixing before it had even been properly invented. Not just extending middle 8s to keep people dancing, but having all their machines pull apart and rebuild songs from their fundamental ingredients. Tracks like Shame of the Nation, The Beach and Kiss of Death take the ingredients of State of the Nation, Blue Monday and Perfect Kiss and spin them out into equally vital alternative versions. Creating new windows to allow the listener to catch a glimpse of the same ideas from different angles. This balancing of experimenting with form while retaining the immediacy and visceral punch of pop music is what makes it so important.
What’s even better is that it sounds like they’re making it up as it goes along. You can hear it in the laughter at the end of Confusion, in the snatch of conversation at the start of the instrumental Thieves Like Us as Sumner invites somebody into the room. The playfulness of the alternative versions. There’s no pretension here. No overly earnest sentiment or over-thought, rigorously-structured pop song arrangements. Just lively snapshots of ideas. Seemingly accidental yet also somehow fully-formed.
That’s what it all came down to for me: drums and drum machines; guitars and electronics. Real instruments and digital ones, all existing on equal footing. Growing up in Manchester surrounded by Oasis and indie on one side and a rave culture I was too young to fully understand or take part in on the other, there was seemingly nothing joining these approaches together. Except for New Order. This is what the future was supposed to sound like, they’d already been doing it for years. They still are.