Let’s go over a brief history of New Order. In the wake of the tragedy that was Ian CUrtis’ suicide, the remaining members of Joy Division decided to become New Order, with guitarist Bernard Sumner taking over the role of frontman. While Joy Division was an influential band that will likely remain legendary because of what they accomplished in a very short duration, it’s New Order that really earned their keep, building critical acclaim with music that was essentially ahead of its time. Many have followed in the sonic footsteps of New Order, but none have had been able to replicate their success in quite the same way. As is natural though, they were also a band of a very specific time and place. They were around for the explosion of the Manchester music scene, signed to Factory Records thanks to the insane brilliance of Tony Wilson, and were pretty much given free range to do whatever the hell they wanted with such opportunities. You can’t get a deal that great these days no matter what band you’re in. But the ’90s weren’t as kind to New Order, and they broke up in 1993 to pursue side projects. They got back together in 1998, made a couple more albums and did a couple more tours before breaking up again in 2007. This time, the breakup was more the result of bassist Peter Hook refusing to work with Sumner any more. Sumner subsequently announced he no longer wanted to make music under the New Order name. While all the other guys in the band (including Sumner) went on to do more side projects, Hook chose to dig up the past and began playing old Joy Division albums in full with a backing band he called The Light. While some were excited by that prospect, many felt that Hook was doing damage to Joy Division’s legacy and was clearly only out to make money off the corpse of Ian Curtis. Perhaps in part to protect their own legacy, New Order officially reformed in late 2011 without Hook, but with keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, who had left the band more than 10 years earlier to become a wife and mother. They played a handful of shows in late 2011 and early 2012, but didn’t make it to North America until this fall, where a short tour rolled through Chicago this past Sunday night. Here is a recap of how things went.
It’s been seven years since New Order played a show in Chicago, and to my understanding that show was a little shaky. A friend told me the band was using lyrics sheets and teleprompters to get through most of the songs. When you’ve been around for a few decades, I guess your memory can get fuzzy. But lyrical crutches aside, I guess their energy was also a little down. One wonders if tensions between band members (or just Hook) caused problems back then. Whatever their issues might have been, they showed no signs of fatigue or bad memory during their show at the Aragon Sunday night. Every note was hit and every lyric was correct. Looking at reviews of the band’s show in New York a couple days earlier, that wasn’t entirely the case, as Sumner reportedly forgot some of the words to “Ceremony.” Better to have that happen though then to stand there reading off a sheet of paper. Even the best bands forget a verse or two now and then. But like all the other shows on this tour, New Order has been smart and stuck with a veritable greatest hits melange of career-spanning material. They spread it out generously over two hours, though it’s tough to top the first few songs that included “Crystal,” “Regret,” “Ceremony,” “Age of Consent” and “Love Vigilantes.” What’s just a little odd was the crowd reaction to those songs. While the band appeared to be in top form, in particular on “Ceremony,” it seemed exceptionally tough to get people motivated to dance. These were glossy ’80s hits that continue to provide inspiration to club DJs around the world, yet I saw very little movement outside of head bobbing in the early part of the set. Now once “Bizarre Love Triangle” landed about 10 songs in, it was like a switch flipped and everybody woke up. Suddenly even a deep cut off Power, Corruption & Lies like “5 8 6” was met with some sharp dance moves. Of course it was all building to something, and the final 1-2 punch of “Blue Monday” and “Temptation” sent everyone into a frenzy the likes of which I haven’t seen since LCD Soundsystem a couple years ago. For those final 15 minutes, the disco ball dropped and I think New Order shined as brightly as they did in their ’80s heyday.
For all the critical tongue lashing I give to Peter Hook for playing Joy Division albums in full these days, when New Order chose to play an encore of Joy Division songs it didn’t feel as cheap. After all, they’ve been throwing a couple Joy Divison songs into their sets for decades now. They’re always used as toppers on an already great show, and always in expressed tribute to Ian Curtis. They present the songs with reverence so it doesn’t come off as cheap exploitation. After all, most of them were as much a part of Joy Division as Curtis was, it’s only his trademark baritone that’s missing from the proceedings. But my what a baritone it was. Sumner can’t quite get there no matter how hard he tries. Their rendition of “Heart and Soul” was okay, but the crowd didn’t react well to it, probably because it was a deep cut on Closer. “Atmosphere” was triumphant in its own way, and the background video did draw some big cheers. Of course it was only fitting to close the night with “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and it gave everyone the opportunity to dance around one last time. With that, the band waved goodnight to their adoring fans. Everyone left with a smile on their face and sweat on their bodies, which is a testament that a good night was had by all. The absence of Hook may have given many the impression that this wasn’t a legitimate New Order show, but anybody that has seen the band since he left will likely tell you that Tom Chapman is a solid if not great replacement for him. New Order’s future is likely that of Pavement’s or At the Drive-In’s in recent years – they will tour for a set period of time to play the hits, and then once again vanish into the ether as everyone returns to their side projects. It’s probably better that way, to keep their legacy as strong as possible. Whatever they choose to do next, it’s just refreshing to know that a veteran band like this hasn’t really lost a step, and that their music still feels as relevant today as it did when it was first created.
Age of Consent
Here to Stay
Your Silent Face
Bizarre Love Triangle
5 8 6
The Perfect Kiss
Heart and Soul (Joy Division)
Atmosphere (Joy Division)
Love Will Tear Us Apart (Joy Division)