getty / Kevin Tachman
I must begin with a line in the Eagles' classic rock tune "Hotel California." The line in question is this: "Some dance to remember, some dance to forget." Why is this a useful place to begin a piece about the British band New Order? Because the kind of dancing one does to their music (which is a blend of dance music, new wave, and rock) is not for forgetting. You dance to forget when you listen to A Taste of Honey's "Boogie Oogie Oogie," or Madonna's "Holiday," or Rihanna's "Birthday Cake." These dance tunes annihilate not only the past but also the future. (Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," for example, annihilates the past but opens the future.) When you move to this kind of music, the kind that forgets, you are very present, very much in the now. You're "just happy," you've "left your cares behind," you "don't have a trouble in the world." That is dancing to forget. Now, what is dancing to remember? This happens when a dance tune makes you kind of sad or reflective at the same time you are getting down. New Order make this kind of dance music, and there is a good reason why. The thing we always remember in the dance music they made during their peak years (which is almost every year in the '80s) is the death of Ian Curtis.
For those who may not know this (and if you don't, I expect you were born yesterday or on another planet—my guess is the former), New Order are what Joy Division became after their lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide in 1980. Joy Division were born in Manchester, existed under that name for the last two years of the '70s, and made music that critics invariably describe as post-punk or pre-gothic. It is not unkind to call Joy Division depressing. One is certainly not cheered up by tunes like "Isolation," "Disorder," "Transmission," and "Love Will Tear Us Apart," the band's biggest hit (and one that successfully incorporated the new wave sound and mode). Indeed, much of Joy Division's commercial success is owed to Curtis's suicide, which morbidly fascinated the music press.
After the death of one of the gloomiest figures in UK pop, the remaining band members decided to continue under a new name, New Order. But here was the problem the new band faced: Were they going to continue the gloom of Joy Division, which by the late '70s was earning them a good amount of fame? Or were they going to choose another course? One only has to listen to the singles released between Curtis's death and New Order's first LP, Movement, to hear this uncertainty, this indecision, this search for an identity. Which way would they go? Along the lines of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (a catchy tune), or along the lines of "She's Lost Control" (a grim and raw tune)?
Two such tracks are "Leif Erikson" and "Procession," both of which were recorded during New Order's stay in New York City in the middle of 1981 and released in the late summer of that year (the former in August, the latter in September). In "Leif Erikson," what we hear is a New Order that is entirely dominated by the ghost of Ian Curtis. Indeed, it's not exaggeration to say that the singer is practically possessed by the dead man. He is not himself at all, but a kind a medium to the other world of shades, the world Curtis entered after he hanged himself in his kitchen. The ghost is in the voice, in the music (it's not for the dance floor at all), and in the lyrics, which seem to be about the affair Curtis had with the Belgian journalist Annik Honoré: "She says it helps with the lights out/Her rabid glow is like braille to the night/She swears I'm a slave to the details/But if your life is such a big joke, why should I care?" New Order can count themselves lucky that this single went nowhere. No one bought it. What people did buy, eventually, was the music direction that is heard on "Procession," which features the voice of Bernard Sumner.
Sumner's approach was nowhere near as heavy, as dramatic, as tortured as Curtis's (he always sang as if the whole world was about to end), but instead like a mild-mannered dandy who has a cold soul. Recall what the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire once said about the nature of a dandy: "[He] is a setting sun; like the declining star, it is magnificent, without heat and full of melancholy." This is Sumner, and this is exactly what we hear on the dance-floor-friendly "Procession," later on some tracks on Movement (a transitional album), and on the electro track "Confusion," which the legendary Arthur Baker ("Planet Rock") produced. The album Power, Corruption & Lies marks the point at which Sumner permanently established the band's sound and orientation.
The ghost of Curtis, however, never entirely left New Order's music. It's there on "Confusion" (listen to the bass), it's there on "True Faith" (listen to the lyrics), and it's there on "Fine Time" (listen to the meaningless bleating of the sheep at the tune's end). When you dance to these and other New Order tunes, you are dancing to remember the dark life and tragic death of Ian Curtis.