We’ll take that as an NO… Recollections of interviewing the great New Order

If I was to pick one “band of my life” it would be New Order. What a trajectory. This nascent group growing up in terrain akin to Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town or Lowry’s factory gates. Then the chip shops and grey skies somehow being exchanged for silicon chips and new digital dawns; all that astonishing modernist art and futurity. 

What wonderful happenstance – if they hadn’t intersected with Gretton, Wilson, Hannett, Saville and several others, then things would have been very different. This wider Factory Records network brought such wonderful context, wit and detail. Yet it was the band members who’d come up with the basis for the undimming image on the front cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album –  the image of radio waves from pulsar CP 1919, taken from The Cambridge Encyclopaedia Of Astronomy. This gesture toward the cosmic void was strikingly apt, out toward neutron stars and white dwarfs beaming forth electromagnetic radiation. The radio waves that carried this music around the world were, of course, also part of the electromagnetic spectrum. But the pulsar was indicative of other dimensions – the way these boys and this girl from the post-industrial northwest repositioned themselves somewhere else, somewhere beyond earthly pop-music gravity.

Gilbert, Hook, Morris, Sumner

Bernard, Gillian, Peter, Stephen

Lucky to be given the chance… I’ve done full-band, front-cover interviews with New Order on two occasions. The first time was in 1986, marking the release of their Brotherhood album. The interview was for the UK weekly music paper Sounds. When I was got on the train to Manchester, accompanied by New Order press officer Dave Harper, I was pretty scared. It was my first cover story.

I’d started freelancing for Sounds in 1985 after doing a diploma in magazine journalism at The City University in Clerkenwell in London. When I started writing for Sounds it was edited by Tony Stewart. I owe Tony a lot. For reasons that now seem slightly opaque, he let me start earning a living writing about pop music. It was a joy to work for Sounds. These were different times. I remember a fellow freelance writer, Damon Wise, speaking in awe of the facilities: “You could just go into the office and call anyone anywhere in the world. There was a coffee machine, and a photocopier and faxes…” At that time, an overseas phone call seemed an exotic thing; pricey too.

One day I was in at Sounds and editor Tony called me over. He had a jovially brusque manner. Myself and writer Cathi Unsworth knew him as The Birmingham Bruiser. Why? No-one knows. Tony grew up mainly in Darlington and Germany. In Deutschland ’65 he’d played in a few beat groups… Tony asked me, “Would you like to go to Manchester? Interview New Order?” I could scarcely believe it. To me New Order were a sainted presence. I was in awe of them. They had an adversarial repute regarding press interviews. I was both excited and anxious. I’d be travelling to Manchester the next day.

The New Order single Ceremony has a key place in my life. Of all such artefacts, it is the one most dear and important to me. As a Cumbrian teen I was into Rush, Queen, Saxon, Rainbow, that kind of stuff – a rock mix, occasionally leavened by the odd punk single. The Sex Pistols’ Holidays In The Sun. The Clash’s Tommy Gun. By the time I’d heard of Ian Curtis he was dead and Joy Division were gone. But, when it arrived in my life on its release in 1981, New Order’s Ceremony was a gateway to somewhere else. I would have been 17. 

I found New Order through Simon Hayes, who’d appeared at our Cumbrian grammar school in the fifth year or lower sixth form, arriving from distant and unknown London. At that point I’d never visited the capital. Simon knew about all kinds of new and compelling music. Pere Ubu, Jim Carroll, Joy Division, The Durutti Column. He was big on John Peel.

I would’ve got New Order’s Ceremony in Kendal in Cumbria – the 7” single, from a record shops called Smyth’s, run by two brothers. At the time our family lived in a market town called Milnthorpe, about six miles from Kendal. Dad would’ve collected the record for me. It amazed and captivated me. To just take the vinyl from the sleeve was exhilarating – neat golden lettering against smart black.

The bronze-effect embossed sleeve was unprecedented for me – gravitas, a new and artful kind of design aesthetic. It was long way from, say, Saxon’s debut album, where the sleeve featured a sixth-form-standard illustration of some Dark Ages berserker wielding a sword. Or the Rainbow Rising sleeve – a rock-Wagnerian spectacular where gothic blackletter-style type sits over a giant sci-fi fist grasping a rainbow. New Order’s music was as enveloping and life-modifying as the sleeve – a new kind of subfusc beauty; words that were at one haunting, austere, unplaceable: “World will travel, oh so quickly / Travel first and lean towards this time… ” Wow. Taking you somewhere else, somewhere new.

Later, Simon Hayes started training as a quantity surveyor in Manchester. I would visit him and we’d go out to see bands, mainly at the Haçienda. That was the period when you’d typically see someone liked Delta Five or Liaisons Dangereuses playing to two hundred people in a venue that could hold over two thousand. One lunchtime Simon and I were at the Haçienda buying some tickets. Hooky turned up in his Audi and did an aggressive three-point turn. This seemed an heroic manifestation, a scene like from myth or legend. We looked on, open-mouthed.

In 1986 I got on the train to Manchester with PR Dave Harper. Dave has a sardonic, slight saturnine disposition. I now have a reasonable understanding of Dave; he’s very good company. But, at the time, I found him a little menacing, which made me even more anxious. We took the cab to New Order’s Manchester HQ / rehearsal studio. Nowadays, I would be very interested in the studio’s location, wherever it was. I’d make sure to fit in a little “psychogeographic” survey of the area… Today, off the top of my head, I have no idea were the studio would have been in Manchester. But Peter Hook’s extensive bibliography tells us the New Order HQ was in Cheetham Hill, a mile or two north of the city centre. 

Cheetham Hill is a place I’m now a little familiar with. In her last days, our mum was in a care home in Greater Manchester – quite a way from my current home in Devon. When visiting Mum I would stay overnight in Manchester, generally in the cheapest accommodation I could find. This led me to a strange pseudo-hotel in Cheetham Hill, weirdly unpopulated and overseen by a wiry, tightly-wound young man whose bearing suggested he may have recently left prison or the Army. On the floor of my room I found an empty condom wrapper, an empty Rizzla packet and some dark black hair, presumably human. Cheetham Hill is a kind of unprepossessing place, free of indices of obvious prosperity. But looking just a little reveals interesting facets: Manchester Jewish Museum; immensely-scaled Indian restaurants. Don Arden, the famously brutal manager of the Small Faces and ELO, the father of Sharon Osborne, was born into a Jewish family in the area.

Looking at my Sounds New Order interview today, it’s really not the best thing in the world. Indeed, the most striking thing about this Sounds New Order coverage was the way the editorial staff decided to make a play on the album title Brotherhood and have the band’s sole female member, Gillian, alone on the cover. In retrospect, this seems a charming and slightly quixotic move. Gillian certainly wasn’t the band member who would be most easily recognised on the newsstands.

I would’ve been 22 at the time – not that young in years, but pretty young in experience. I was being somewhat thrown at my first big job; with a band known for their recalcitrance and Manc mischief. In retrospect, much of New Order’s reputation was likely down to a mix of awkwardness and Manchester sangfroid; not wanting to be seen to try too hard.  It was a demeanour they were, gradually, to move away from. Subsequent years and decades have revealed Stephen Morris and Peter Hook, in particular, as acute, fascinating raconteurs. Today my Sounds interview seems a missed opportunity. New Order were dry, laconic, but also perfectly pleasant to talk to – not far removed from people I’d encountered growing up in the northwest, at school and in summer jobs in pubs and factories. With additional and better questions, they might have said a lot more. There is, however, some pretty interesting local colour in this Sounds New Order piece.

On the wall of the  rehearsal studio was a photo of Ian Curtis, to which someone had added a Hitler moustache. Gillian told me she’d recently radically extended her musical palette – she’d been taking piano lessons, and had started using the black keys alongside the white. Bernard, meanwhile, emphasised that Stephen was the only musician in the band, which he seemed to intend as a compliment. But some of my narrative is flat-out odd. At one point, with a peculiar lack of affect, I mull on how it would be handy for my interview piece if Barney were to reveal having been abused as a child – because that would have tied in with the new album track All Day Long, where Bernard sings about a child who is now “gone” and who was “abused and used by what adults do”. I now read that the musical backbone to this track has a strong resemblance to the prelude from Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold. It does indeed.

In Manchester I interviewed New Order separately. I imagined this would be by far the best way to get them talking. Hooky was funny and only a little antagonistic.  “I’ve always wanted a scrapyard,” he told me. “Just sitting there and getting a few quid for parts and wrecking all the cars – an idea which has always appealed to me.” For Bernard’s interview, I now read, he suggested we step out to a neighbouring pub. Though this boozer lacked the character it once had… “It was really wild,” he said, “with a woman with metal teeth playing the organ and inflatable pictures of kittens all over.” I now have no absolutely no recollection of this pub. The inflatable kittens must, indeed, have gone. In this period, Manchester had its share of idiosyncratic public houses. My friend Simon often mentioned Tommy Ducks, a pub that stood near the big Midland Hotel. Tommy Ducks was famous for its ceiling, which was covered in pairs of used knickers, pinned up to the plasterwork. 

I now read that Tommy Ducks also featured glass-top coffins, used as novelty tables. Together with the Rheingold this makes me stop and pause. Most of my recent working time has been spent finishing a book – Dark Lustre, a so-called “alphanumeric fictive progression”. To a large degree, this website and the content here is intended to support this book. The book touches on the idea that “Nazi gold” – a kind of Rheingold – might somehow have been hidden in North Devon. The book also invokes the notion of the glass-top coffin and the way this design idea has recurred across human activity. Sometimes it really does seem someone might be trying to tell you something?

The other time I wrote a major New Order interview piece was in 2001, a cover story for MOJO magazine, to go with the release of the Get Ready album. I feel so fortunate to have had this assignment. It involved three separate spells in the band’s company. First at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios near Bath. Then at the big 16th-century house Hook End Manor, at the time home to an impressive studio set-up owned by Trevor Horn and his wife and partner Jill Sinclair (sadly, Sinclair died in 2014; the house and studio were sold). Finally, I met New Order as they rehearsed for a forthcoming tour, the band preparing at Stephen and Gillian’s farm outside Macclesfield.

I had a guided tour of Stephen’s collection of armoured fighting vehicles. No actual tanks, rather an armoured car, a big Abbot self-propelled gun and a couple of tracked recovery vehicles. 

By the time the MOJO New Order feature was completed I’d become a little bit pally with the band. Before they played the first of their their three 2001 shows at Brixton Academy, I said hello to them in they dressing room, offering unbidden advice: “New Order, I can tell you without fear of correction that this audience is JUICED and LOADED. Do your best and all will be well… Are you playing Age Of Consent? Aw, why not?!…” Something like that anyway. Age Of Consent was, in the end, played at one of the Brixton shows – at the last night, but only by Peter Hook as a driven, defiant, solo, bass-only version. It seemed there had been some kind of backstage impasse, and only Hooky wanted to go out for the extra encore.

New Order and Peter Hook, of course, came to a wider impasse, the group eventually reconfiguring without their totemic bass guitarist. Now, after time and tide and the scorched-earth mood of Hooky’s 2016 New Order memoir Substance, it’s difficult to imagine the bassist and band reuniting. 

For me, the Mancunian northwest will always be intimately coloured by this group and by the people who formed it.

When I’d visit our mum in her Altrincham care home, my train from Devon would head up through Macclesfield. Then I’d change at Stockport. As I waited for my connection, there was what I took as an odd reminder of Mancunian musical heritage. Stockport station has a platform 0. Was this some railway-planning person paying oblique tribute to the late Martin “Zero” Hannett, the man who produced both Joy Division studio albums and also the first New Order album?  And, spookier still, Stockport saw the recording of Joy Division’s debut album, Unknown Pleasures – imparted to magnetic tape at Strawberry Studios, then run by the esteemed 10cc, hourly rate £45, from 10am.

Strawberry Studios was also home to studio work from The Durutti Column, Stockholm Monsters, A Certain Ratio, Happy Mondays, Buzzcocks, Crispy Ambulance, James, The Smiths and Simply Red. And not forgetting the single Boys In Blue/Funky City, laid down in 1972 by Manchester City FC. Stockport’s platform zero – there for the ghost of Martin Hannett, there for the ghosts of Manchester sounds past. There can be no other explanation.

November 2020.

MOJO New Order story available as PDF here.

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