Heaton Park, Manchester
Sept 10th 2021
Transformation – it even sounds like a New Order song title!
Tonight is a triumph of the transformative power of pop culture. This is a greatest hits set and beyond that still peers into the future from a band that has perfectly soundtracked a city emerging from post industrial ruins whilst now motoriking into a post punk horizon.
It could be argued that all modern pop starts with New Order – the embrace of technology coming out of punk, the marriage of dance floor excess to post punk adventure, the mix of pop nous to art eternal.
They remain a hi tech dark music that is forged in the underground and effortlessly embraces the mainstream and is steeped in history but is still going forwards. This is the perfect soundtrack for Manchester – the restless metropolis that is never finished – the world’s first post industrial city that became the world’s first post punk city.
New Order’s biggest ever headline show sees them playing to 35 000 people in Manchester’s Heaton Park not far from the Broughton streets where Bernard Sumner grew up and the city he knew as perhaps the ‘little boy’ he maybe sings about in the classic True Faith is much changed. It could be argued that of all the rich history of Manchester bands that have sprawled out of this rainy place since the punk and post punk era and that his former band Joy Division were such a catalyst for that New Order are the true heart and soul of this city that has changed so much.
Writing this review I look out of my Hulme city centre flat that overlooks the famous bridge where Kevin Cummins freeze framed the band so perfectly one cold afternoon in January 1979 in one of the most iconic shots in rock history. That photo, in a sense, created the myth and fed back into the music and gave that band a gravitas that sometimes they themselves have tried to debunk but somehow still adds to that attractive darkness that still defines their most pop moments.
The claustrophobic dying post-industrial place that Joy Division reflected by default whilst Ian intoned his heartfelt personal poetic baritone genius over the bass-driven narratives has transformed into a twinkling high rise digital 21st-century super city just like New Order themselves. It’s fitting that we celebrate this tonight as New Order celebrate the legacy of both bands and play a stunning show to the myriad masses of older post punks, Britpoppers, Manc kagouls, international art heads, wild-eyed scousers, indie kids (now indie adults) and a surprisingly large amount of youthful faces that are basking in the band’s hi-rise/hi-tech effortless pop.
This is a hi-tech pop that New Order themselves pioneered and patented. The band were always the new Manchester with its swirl of music and ambition, they are now the accidental soundtrack to the city that now looks like a pumped-up steroid mass of a million Haciendas – the iconic club that they themselves ended up paying for.
On this perfect evening of unlikely balmy weather holding out against the grey clouds (how perfectly New Order!) the band delivered a pristine and perfect set that sees them celebrate their decades-long history in front of their biggest ever headline audience. The band, who have somehow survived at the frontline of pop culture for decades, remain a powerful potent force and retain that special edge that has survived such wounds as the suicide of Ian Curtis that forced their hand into becoming New Order in the first place and the departure of iconic bassist Peter Hook in 2008 leaving the influential bassist touring with his own muscular, rootsier version of the music – his Yin to their Yan and an equally enticing vision of the iconic band.
It’s this mix of the pulsating pulsar dark energy and the shimmering thrill of perfect pop that is at the core of New Order. Add to this their ongoing fascination with technology that Barney brought to the band with his homemade synthesiser kits in the Joy Division days that has now expanded into a backline of computers and keyboards that feeds a fascination with the tech soundscapes that paint their colours around the melodies. A tech that turns the deceptively simple songs that drip their perfect pop into huge soundscapes. Songs that still somehow retain a frail human heart despite this armoury of equipment. Songs like Bizarre Love Triangle that somehow tie this all together with its beautiful heartfelt melodic simplicity, its perfect electronic grooves that brought cutting edge New York club culture to the dancefloors of the north of England. A new synthesis of post-punk to the dance floor where it was further filtered by the hippest kids on the block into new shapes and new styles. New Order were the conductors and conduit of these seismic culture shifts – so cool that they had no masterplan – just instinct and a curiosity and a pop nous to back it up and the version of this song tonight sums this crucial adventure up perfectly and sounds gigantic as it fills the air with its joyful lament to love.
Tonight’s set was filled with songs like this that have become deeply embedded in our culture, songs that sometimes were often not even massive hits in the first place that now have huge crowds bouncing along to the crisp electronic grooves driven by Stephen Morris’s ever-brilliant heartbeat drumming that still has the motorik perfection and rhythmic hypnosis of the German underground bands like Neu he loved as a teenager somehow carved into the heart of pop.
Watching this seething mass of humanity tonight in celebration my mind wanders through the decades. I think about those early New Order shows that I saw when the band was understandably fumbling with their legacy after Ian’s shock suicide like a chrysalis trying to turn into a butterfly. Shell shocked and trying to find a direction with tech that would often break down, they were trying to go forwards with no compass and no map, often with the late and great manager Rob Gretton yelling at them and trying to avoid being trapped in the most recent past – a move they somehow made despite the glare of the media spotlight.
I remember those early shows like their third ever gig at Scamps in Blackpool in 1980 with Hooky singing most of the songs or in Sheffield at Romeo And Juliets the following year, watching a band slowly coalesce from the wreckage of a truly awful heartbreaking suicide and with the added pressure of expectation try and find themselves in the public eye under the intense spotlight scrutiny of a cult audience – the 20 ‘weirdoes’ in every town as my old mate Martin Kelly – former Membranes keyboard player – points out tonight as we chat before he disappears back into the huge crowd. Pop culture is often these micro scenes that are eventually embraced after being looked on with total bafflement by the mainstream decades later . New Order themselves encapsulate how to become mainstream with zero compromise – it was like they and their small clutch of an audience were right all the time!
New Order somehow found a way of making great pop from the wreckage of the shivering genius of Joy Division. Tonight is end to end great big huge bouncing pop anthems that still have that Joy Division DNA in their structures and melodies – sometimes in former bass Viking Hooky’s dark bass runs, a moment of rhythmic intensity from Stephen or a wash of melancholic keyboard from Gillian or Barney’s frail heartfelt vocal and it was all somehow threaded into pop perfection of the endless hits that make this a jukebox set.
Like the city that birthed them, the band have grown from post-industrial wreckage into towering monoliths – Manchester has changed so much since those fumbling early days and New Order’s music is also a bold skyline of steel and glass – it could be argued that the band and the Hacienda and Anthony H were the catalysts for this change and as I cycle home through the new Manchester and its impressive ever-changing skyline that New Order soundtracked and inspired with their restless creativity that has never stood still. Tony Wilson himself had this vision for this city – maybe he was fired up and inspired by the band’s musical fast forward vision that gave the energy for such dreaming that has become reality.
Despite a set of hits that span decades, this is not a nostalgia fest. The core of the band may be in the sixties but they still sound like the now. The songs are plucked from any year and still sound like the future. They somehow freeze-frame the past but still rush towards this mythical future (inter)zone. The gig production is fantastic – the sound is pristine and the lights engulf you with the lazers stretching out over the audience – the same piercing green slivers that in the mid-seventies Blackpool illuminations were treated with fear with rumours of being decapitated by their sci-fi swathes! This is a big production – bold light and sound and perfect sound mixing – it’s multi-layered, nuanced and beautifully constructed and built around these melodic masterpieces that often work around a couple of chords and stitch the melody and possibility to the max in the ebb and flow of instrumentation.
Blue Monday is greeted like the old friend that it is with its haunting keyboard and four to the floor kick drum given an added tension by the Morricone bass line – an eccentric yet brilliant combination. Barney’s perfect imperfect vocal giving the sonic machine a humanity. It’s the core of just why New Order really work – on one level they are monolithic digital perfection and on the other they are frail and human and always with supreme melodic nous. True Faith with its melancholy and euphoria is perfect pop whilst Temptation is brisk indie post-punk and memories of a million indie clubs where half this audience met with its shrapnel rhythm guitar sending shivers up spines with its shrapnel skree Velvets riffing and its fantastic anthemic coda ending the set.
The set reflects the many faces for the band from the bass-driven rush of Age Of Consent, the pop perfection of those many hits including the aforementioned Bizarre Love Triangle, a glacial reading of the introverted Your Silent Face with its melodica motif part and atmospheric strings and the more recent dark pop of Be A Rebel. The much mooted Joy Division encore sees Decades – a hard song to play but still powerful in its intimacy despite the huge arena then a driving and thundering Transmission that transform the audience into a dancing tsunami that makes you think of Tony Wilson trying to flog the single when it came out all those years ago when so few were interested and, inevitably, the climactic set ending Love Will Tear Us Apart complete with Ian Curtis staring down from the backdrop frozen in a very different time. A time when the song was created in the TJM rehearsal room on Little Peter Street one Sunday afternoon around that classic bass hook (new book about TJM is getting launched at this event in September). This was magic created in an old warehouse in a then semi-derelict area on the edge of a broken city centre which has also been transformed into blue plaques and city centre flats. Those days and that city is long gone but these songs live on, eternal, a glimpse into the past but also somehow still a portal into the future and the perfect pop of an ongoing story that is celebrated tonight.
- Age of Consent
- Your Silent Face
- The Perfect Kiss
- Be a Rebel
- Guilt Is a Useless Emotion
- Bizarre Love Triangle
- Vanishing Point
- True Faith
- Blue Monday
- Love Will Tear Us Apart