New Order: where to start in their back catalogue

<span>Photograph: Bob Berg/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Bob Berg/Getty Images

The album to start with

Power, Corruption & Lies (1983)

After Joy Division singer Ian Curtis took his own life on 18 May 1980, there was never much doubt among the surviving three members – guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris – over whether they’d carry on. However, how do you even begin to replace a singer and lyricist as charismatic and gifted as the subsequently legendary 23-year-old?

Shrewdly, they didn’t try. Sumner stepped into the breach as singer, while Morris’s girlfriend, Gillian Gilbert – who had already filled in for Curtis on guitar at a gig at Eric’s in Liverpool after he hurt his hand – was drafted in on guitar and keyboards. This minimised the disruption to the chemistry that produced Unknown Pleasures and Closer – two of the finest albums of the post-punk era – and meant they could become a thoroughly reinvented band, albeit one that still carried Joy Division’s heart and soul.

Movement, the 1981 debut, didn’t quite shake off that band’s long shadow, but with Power, Corruption & Lies, New Order found their sound. It’s the heavenly hum of guitars and electronics, agony and ecstasy, sunlight bursting through the clouds – and one of the great pioneering albums of the 80s.

Here, the Salford/Macclesfield quartet cast off post-punk gloom, head towards the dancefloor and embrace pop. The change is apparent from the opening song, the mighty Age of Consent, as Peter Hook’s euphoric, twangy bass riff leads into a keyboard- and guitar-soaked melodrama. However, PCL is full to bursting with avenues to explore. Side one careers from the mournful We All Stand to the giddy electro-pop of The Village, a distant cousin of 1982’s similarly sequencer-driven single, Temptation. 5-8-6 is electronic dancefloor pop from the same well as Blue Monday. That much-loved 80s classic isn’t on the album (neither New Order nor Joy Division put singles on albums back then), but teed up PCL for a wider audience by becoming the biggest-selling 12-inch of all time.

Side two of the album is slightly more statuesque. There’s the shimmering majesty of Your Silent Face (initially titled Kraftwerk 1, in homage to the German electronic predecessors) , the tense Ultraviolence, the electro-vocoder odyssey Ecstasy and sublime, melancholy Leave Me Alone, which shows they could still make new shapes from guitars and drums. It’s a record full of possible futures – for New Order and for pop – and the band’s defining album is the perfect place to start.

The three albums to check out next

Low-Life (1985)

Blue Monday gave New Order a mainstream audience without entirely shedding the army of Joy Division/post-punk era fans (myself included), who wore long overcoats, pretended to read Dostoevsky, scoured record fairs for obscure bootlegs and swapped tapes of soundchecks with their mates. Low-Life (1985) carries off the tricky feat of catering for the different camps of fans. As with Power, Corruption & Lies, it unveils a different style with virtually every track. Opener Love Vigilantes – about a returning soldier – is one of the band’s great guitar pop songs. The Joy Division end of the band’s sound is represented by the driving, post-punky Sunrise, a brooding This Time of Night and beautifully, well, elegiac Elegia, an aural memorial to Curtis that appeared years later in an 18-minute version. The newlyacquired Saturday-night-beer-monster fanbase could wobble along to Sub-Culture and Face Up. Possibly best of all, hit single The Perfect Kiss utilises state of the art Emulator sampling technology to produce a dancefloor killer featuring frog croaks.

Technique (1988)

Peter Hook’s book Substance is full of eyebrow-rocketing tales of how New Order recorded their acid-house-era classic in Ibiza, leaving behind a trail of trashed cars, hedonism and fracturing relationships. A battle between the band’s rock and electronic camps over how the album should sound hinted at the growing schisms that led to a 90s hiatus and eventually Hook’s estrangement from the band.

Given all this – and the fact that partying took priority over recording until they relocated to Peter Gabriel’s Real World back in the UK – it’s remarkable that they managed to come back with much at all, never mind such a fantastic album. Technique assimilates Balearic beats but is recognisably, inimitably New Order. The band’s most dancefloor album starts off with the acid-house-flavoured Fine Time and ends with the supernaturally melancholy Vanishing Point, while the rest of the album careers from guitar pop (Run, Dream Attack) to plangent electronic pop (Round and Round, Mr Disco), the sound of summer adventures, Ibizan clubs and long, reflective sunsets.

Brotherhood (1986)

Power, Corruption & Lies and Low-Life defined New Order as a band who were able to weave together guitars and electronics, a format used by countless bands today. However, Brotherhood separates the two sides again, virtually entirely, with a guitar/drums side and an electronic side. Brian Eno had done something similar with the very different halves of Before and After Science, while David Bowie’s “Heroes” divided neatly into rock music and synthesiser stuff. New Order were fans of both, and here they pull off a similar feat.

The first side is a Hook masterclass. Having been a huge part of Joy Division’s sound with those mournful/powerful bass lines, his trademark twangs fire five supremely catchy guitar-pop songs such as the hurtling Weirdo or the truly lovely As It Is When It Was. Side two kicks off with a classic – Bizarre Love Triangle’s soaring symphonic electronic pop – and ends with a rare recorded moment of their idiosyncratic Mancunian humour. As Sumner sings Every Little Counts’ madcap lines – “I think you are a pig, you should be in a zoo” – he can’t stop laughing. It’s a long way from their roots, but, if you like these albums, head back to Movement and Joy Division to listen to where they started out.

One for the heads

Peel Session, 1982

New Order didn’t travel to Maida Vale studios in London to record their second session for John Peel’s Radio 1 show – the standard practice, which they followed for their first one. But perhaps recording the four tracks in Manchester gave them room to experiment. The skeletal, minimalist, embryonic version of 5-8-6 is barely recognisable as the pop song it became later. The haunting, melancholy version of We All Stand is arguably superior to the one featuring 80s fretless bass on Power, Corruption & Lies. The anxiously mournful synth- and bass-driven Too Late is a terrific lost New Order classic, which was never played live or recorded elsewhere. The oddest curio/gem is an unlikely but sublime melodica-driven cover of Jamaican artist Keith Hudson’s 1975 reggae song, Turn the Heater On, which led Peel to remark: “Skank with New Order.” It’s a wonderful remake of a song apparently loved by Ian Curtis, and this session is as fine a 20 minutes of music as New Order have recorded. It’s being reissued as an EP for Record Store Day this year.

The primer playlist

For Spotify users, listen below or click on the Spotify icon in the top right of the playlist; for Apple Music users, click here.

Further reading

Substance: Inside New Order by Peter Hook (2016)
As its title suggests, the now former New Order bassist’s weighty memoir reveals all about the excess, ruckuses and recriminations behind the scenes. Some revelations about how the seminal music was created also crop up in a once top-secret cache of drink, drugs and debauchery.

Record Play Pause by Stephen Morris (2019)
The New Order drummer’s first volume of memoirs combines humour, geek-level detail and insider insight in a terrific read that’s especially good on the environment and chemistry that produced Joy Division (and hence New Order). A second volume on the New Order years and fall-outs, due later this year, promises to be similarly gripping.

From Heaven to Heaven by Dec Hickey (2010)
If you can find it, this originally limited hardback is a beautifully designed and presented pictorial and text record of New Order’s early live years, 1981-84. Hickey was one of the few fans to access the then cult band at close quarters, and his eagle-eyed recollections are accompanied by input from Hook, Morris and journalist Paul Morley.