One can’t help but think that if Anthony H Wilson was still around, he would approve of New Order’s approach to celebrating their back catalogue. Their albums are being released in a series of definitive editions – beautifully boxed, containing the album (vinyl and CD), demos and outtakes and contemporaneous videos and concert footage. No singles – you don’t put the singles on the bloody albums (or at least if you do its a different version).
We’re up to album number 3 – 1985’s Low-Life. The one wrapped in tracing paper with the drummer on the front.
And we’re sat in Walthamstow with said drummer, Stephen Morris and fellow New Order musician Gillian Gilbert. They’re married. There is a sense, amplified by Morris’s excellent autobiographies, that Gillian could identify as long suffering. Stephen is a collector of electronic instruments and tanks. The military ones with a gun and tracks. Long time fan Miranda Sawyer is interviewing them for an instalment of the wonderful Walthamstow Rock’n’Roll Book Club.
The electronic instruments were mostly a constant source of disappointment and buyer’s remorse. They often didn’t do what the extensive manual said. On the rare occasions they behaved, they promptly forgot what they did the next time they were switched on.
Low-Life was made at a time when the band was becoming more confident. They were gaining their own identity, beyond what had gone before. It is a perfect symmetrical album – four tracks each side, gone in 40 minutes. It has an arc. Despite being written in distinctly different environments, it is highly cohesive. The instrumental Elegia was created over a single night in Wembley to soundtrack an ID Magazine fashion video. Subculture was inspired by a drunken party in a hotel with the Furious Five (Grandmaster Flash was AWOL). The Perfect Kiss was an exercise to create their own homage to Shannon’s Let The Music Play.
Before the conversations, we had the privilege of listening to the album via a tube powered hifi from Muswell Hill’s very own Audiogold.
It is one of those records that I feel I know I know every nook and cranny. I can tap counter rhythms and riffs as I go along directly via my subconscious.
Yet hearing it on a wet Wednesday night in E17, a few things struck me.
The first was how brave a record it was. The preceding Power Corruption and Lies was wonderful but it was very much a cohesive record that reflected a band who were aware of their history and where they were at that point in time. Low-life is about where they were going. A more conservative band could have adopted a more formulaic approach. The somewhat low key northern industrial vibe that was incredibly cool but wrapped up in own charity shop trench coat. They could have had a good few years on the University circuits and traced a path lit by Peel sessions and UK festivals.
Low-life set out the bold plan that would make New Order still relevant today. It combined the immediacy of pop with the rhythms of the clubs with a very specific balance of mystery and accessibility. Quincy Jones took a shine to them. America started paying attention. They acquired an audience that still supports them forty years later. It required some compromises on their behalf but it diluted the cussedness that would have ultimately restricted them.
The other act of bravery I heard in Walthamstow was the framing of the oft-derided vocals of Bernard Sumner. The role of being the singer in New Order was the booby prize that no particular member was keen on winning.
Hearing Low-life on a top notch music system exposed Sumner’s voice, which is very much front and centre of the mix, particularly on Subculture. There’s no multi tracking to bolster the impression of his vocals. It is his voice, doing its honest best at being the lead singer. On Sunrise, it is clear that the song doesn’t suit his pitch and he is often straining to keep up with the momentum and key of a loud guitar thrash. It isn’t grating in the slightest. It is a demonstration that before auto-tuning and vocal tracking, that less is very much more. Perfection isn’t always the answer.
We finish with Face Up. There seems a consensus that this is the unheralded gem. It has the same built for the concert hall dynamic as Temptation. It flies and it soars and it feels a shame that it doesn’t occupy the same place in the New Order canon as Blue Monday or True Faith. It deserves more.
I think I’ll wait for the price to drop before I invest in the Low-life box set. In the meantime, I’ll unwrap my near 40 year old copy and dream of Birmingham Tower Ballroom’s plastic palm trees.