New Order: A Fine Time was had by all

New Order was not a band I took an immediate liking to. Despite one of the kids in our school having a copy of Blue Monday on 12”, and despite it being passed around with some reverence so we could all get it copied onto tape, I gave them a wide berth. The main reason was that, as I was changing my musical tastes and falling madly in love with Depeche Mode, I noticed that the music publication I subscribed to, Record Mirror, and another music paper, NME, spent more column inches fawning over this band called New Order. I was protective of my love and didn’t like the idea that they were being slighted. So as a teenager keen to find something to dislike, I latched onto New Order as figures of hate.

Then my middle sister went off to Polytechnic in Manchester and came back with a boyfriend and some new music for us all to listen to. Into the car tape player went Substance and I, reluctantly at first, then oh-so-willingly, succumbed to the angsty charm of the driving rhythms and synth stabs combined with the instantly-recognizable bass hooks from…Hooky, and the disarmingly average singing of Bernard Sumner.

New Order are something of a schizophrenic band. Everyone knows their origin story I am sure, and how it took them an album or so to shake off the ghosts. By the time Technique came out they had proven to be two bands in one. The thumping, downbeat disco of their 12” singles – all Arthur Baker style beats and bass, perhaps exemplified by the 12” B-side “Confused” aka “Confusion Instrumental”, and on the other hand, the rather more standard four-piece compositions of the album tracks – still occasionally shot through with driving rhythm, but mostly pretty basic, albeit well-crafted tunes. It would have been easy to fool someone into thinking they were two different bands were it not for the vocals of Bernard, the bass of Peter Hook and the similar, awkward, lyrical content.

So much has been written about them, by far more qualified people than myself, so perhaps I had better get on to Technique! Recorded in Ibiza and full of a party spirit, this album was perhaps their first to be more consistently upbeat. The single, Fine Time that came out in November 1988 was Exhibit A. Here was a thumping, beat-driven monster of a song, designed solely for the dance floor. An irresistible electronic bassline is bolstered by drums, introduced with a real drum roll of a fill, and some rather drunk-sounding synth melody pops over the top, before Bernard sings “you’re much too young, to mess around with me”. It sounds like a night out clubbing during the making of the album, where perhaps they were starting to realize everyone else was in the ‘Club 18-30’ bracket. Maybe not. Most of Bernard Sumner’s lyrics are not to be taken literally. The 12” artwork was a giant pill in psychedelic repeat-print. This was indeed a trip. It was also something of a false flag. Nothing that follows is quite as cheeky or gleeful.

All The Way and Love Less follow, and it seems like New Order have once again reverted to ‘teenager locked in bedroom because no-one understands me’ slightly introspective music. This time though, the melodies are lighter, and Bernard’s vocals feel lighter somehow, despite the same ambiguous lyrics. Then comes second single Round & Round, crashing in with the 80’s staple ‘Orchestral Hit’ synth sound, and high tempo beat. Another infectious bassline, a more ‘New Order’y’ synth melody, and Hooky’s bass, before Bernard delivers some exceptionally awkward lyrics. Not the content, but the juxtaposition of them over the dancefloor production beneath. This is classic New Order. “I just can’t help thinking what you’ve done to me. You built a wall of love then tore it right down in front of me”. Not something the girls dancing around the handbags in the middle of the floor will be shouting along to. This is music to observe the dancefloor from. To plant your back firmly against the wall, knock back your lager and plot your revenge to. Maybe. Frustration and futility can tend to permeate the lyrics in New Order songs, and this is no exception. They shouldn’t make you feel warm, or want to dance, yet Technique delivers this time and again.

Guilty Partner drops us back into the room at the back of the house party where the lights are off and everyone is smoking and trying really hard not to be happy. “I always know what it takes to make you my lover”. Run was the third single. It was given a delicious remix for the single, where the beat was made to pull you reluctantly onto the dancefloor, where you would start by shuffling awkwardly and staring at your feet before succumbing and spinning joyously around and around. It’s a very sweet song, in the line of their earlier, Every Second Counts “I know that I’m ok, ‘cos you’re here with me today”.

Mr. Disco and Vanishing Point take us back to the club, with the latter seemingly picking up from the drum break in the middle of Fine Time and whisking us off somewhere else. “My life ain’t no holiday, I’ve been to the point of no return”. Quite possibly another lyric penned in the clubs of Ibiza when not entirely sober. The song has an intro of around 90 seconds, but despite the downbeat lyrics, it’s a really joyous listen.

The album closes with Dream Attack. Another more ‘standard’ New Order album track, with acoustic guitar leading the way, before the lovely chords from the synths wash over the song. Later, in the build-up to the chorus, the melody is boosted with a piano and it’s all rather perfect. “I don’t belong to no-one but I want to be with you”. Our reluctant hero strikes again.

So we have nine wonderfully oxymoronic tracks, shot through with more happiness (and maybe a few other things) than before. It is the sound of some very awkward people finding themselves thrust onto a cleared dancefloor surrounded by expectant faces. No-one will have left disappointed. 30 years on I listen with the same joy as when I first heard it, skipping class and sitting on my student-housing bedroom floor.

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