I was, and still am, impressed by the track Blue Monday, by New Order. I think that it was, in many ways, a new order of music. I had this idea of compiling information about New Order and this brilliant track. There are many background stories about how this track was invented, about the record company, about money losses, but also on the technical side of creating the track. I try to touch all these different aspects in this compilation.
This Part 3 is an interview about the technical issues, and the role of vocalist-guitarist-keyboardist Bernard Sumner . This article, called Working Order, was created by Tony Bacon and appeared in the One-two Testing magazine, july 1984. Please note that all (c) are with the magazine and the author. We have added some images for illustration purposes.
An overview of the different parts in this series can be found here.
“Last question,” said Barney as we sat in a ballet rehearsal room at London’s Royal Festival Hall. New Order were shortly to take the stage at a miner’s strike fund benefit there, about to offer one of the group’s rare and individual concerts. From the remnants of Joy Division has grown an ensemble of self-confessed poor technicians (‘cept drummer Steve Morris, perhaps), which manages to balance precise sequenced backdrops against a contrasting ragged vocal, with bass and guitar underpinning the forward flow, and drums sounding electronic and acoustic by turns.
But a last question? OK. One that’s been worrying me: I’ve heard you referred to as Barney and Bernard, and the surname Albrecht seems somehow unlikely to be native Mancunian. What do I call you, I ask? It’s good to get it right.
“My real name on my… no, it’s not on my passport actually,” reflected the pale yet agile New Order person, as yet unnamed. “I must get it on my passport. We were coming through East Germany and the guard looked at my passport and said could he have the card documents – it was my car. I got my documents out: different name! Anyway, my real name is Bernard Sumner.”
And now the real last question. What does it say on your passport, “non-musician”? “Graphic designer,” proclaims Bernard Sumner. So let’s take a look at some of his finer designs.
“In Joy Division I used to be a guitarist and play keyboards, in New Order I have to do vocals, so I’m a guitarist, keyboard player and vocalist, I suppose. I can’t do all three at once – I can’t even do two at once. I can’t play and sing at the same time. I can sing and play really badly at the same time, but there’s not much point.
“I started to sing after the demise of Joy Division… at our very first concert, at a place called the Beach Club in Manchester, a little 200-people dive, we tried using tapes with drums and synth on it. But it was unemotional to play to that, mechanical. We just put them down on to reel-to-reel at the rehearsal room; it wasn’t very good because you couldn’t get any feel into it. We use a lot of sequencer programs and drum machines now – a lot of people think we use tapes but we don’t, the Beach Club was the only time.
“So anyway, we eventually asked Gillian to join – she joined, plays keyboard and some guitar as well. It didn’t change things much because she couldn’t play. She couldn’t play at all, so she had to learn. But we wanted someone who couldn’t play. If you learn to play yourself you learn from the heart.”
“We started with a Dr Rhythm drum machine, we got one as soon as they came out. They were good but the sound was… awful. We used to pulse synths with one of them, a rhythm pulse and a 16ths pulse. After that I got a Powertran sequencer kit – we altered it so that you could put a drum machine trigger into it. We used that set-up up until about a year ago.
“We know this guy in Manchester, Martin Usher, who’s helped us out a lot, a real boffin. He altered the Powertran sequencer so that you could drive it off drum machines. He tripled the memory for us too, to 3000 notes. That’s quite easy to do: he’d design a circuit for me, I’d build it. There’s two chips that contain all the memory, so you put legs on extra chips and just stack them up, with a bank selector to pick a bank.
“The Powertran sequencer’s good, great to program, but it used to break down badly, it’s not reliable. We got really fed up with that – you’d be playing a song and suddenly the tuning’d go out. Even Martin couldn’t track down what was wrong.
“After that we decided to get a Prophet-5 and Sequential Circuits’ Poly-Sequencer. The only three polysequencers you could get then were the Roland MC machines, the Sequential one, and the Oberheim one. We wanted one for live use, one that you could store a lot of songs on, press a few buttons and go on. So the MCs were no good. The Oberheim’s great but I don’t like the sound of their synths – you’ve got to use Oberheim synths with their sequencer. So we got the Prophet one which was dirt cheap. It’s very tricky to program – you have to press a button about a million times to put one bar of music in. And there are loads of button codes where you’ve got to press all these buttons in a particular order just to get in the right mode. It’s relatively reliable… well, it’s not very reliable to be honest. We’ve had a few problems. But it’s more reliable than the Powertran.
“We never decide what we’re going to play in a set until about ten minutes before we go on stage. The Poly-Sequencer uses mini data cassettes: if you’ve got half the songs on one cassette and half on another, some on another and more on another, you’ve got to wait for cassettes to load, and that takes quite a while. You just stand there whistling. So we bought another Prophet-5 and Poly-Sequencer. That solved that problem somewhat – but it’s still tricky to program.”
“We’ve decided to get Martin Usher to make us a sequencer to our own specifications. It’s going to be like an 808 drum machine – drum machines are really easy to program because they cycle bars, you can see what’s going on and you can hear what you’re doing. So our sequencer will be like that, cycling a bar. You tell it what key it’s going to play in, and it won’t make any sound until you enter something. Say it’s in the key of A, it’ll start blipping in A as you enter things, you’ll be able to tie notes together to get long or short blips, and then you’d just assign note values or chord values to the blips.
“To get over the reliability problem, Martin’s gonna find us a computer that’s really built well. We’re thinking of an Osborne at the moment – built-in screen and twin disc drives, really portable, very reliable. He’d use a language called FORTH – he’s got £200-worth of programming tools for the Osborne. We’re also hoping to get it to be able to switch echo units in at certain points of the sequence. Sequences are very important to us now.
“Our Emulator we use on stage on something like ‘Confusion’, the bit where it goes ‘Ra-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-hey!’ It’s pretty embarrassing to sing. Arthur Baker made us do that – everyone went in the studio, even Rob (Gretton) the manager, Arthur and his wife, we all did. It was a good laugh. But if you’re stood in front of 5000 people you feel a real c**t doing it! So we put it in the Emulator. There’s an acoustic guitar we use in it, and there’s loads of things Steve plays on it, like the ‘voices’ in ‘Blue Monday’. We use it as another synth, as well.”
“First time I went to New York we got all our gear ripped off, we weren’t insured either. It was outside the hotel, they just nicked this massive truckful. So I went out and bought my 335, you can get Gibsons at quite a reasonable price over there, it was like £250. So I thought great! Got it back to the hotel, and on the back of the head it said, ‘Second’. You know the toggle switches? There’s a little bit of wood near there that they’d broken off and then replaced – shit, it sounds all right. I can’t find anything else wrong with it.
“I’ve got an old Les Paul Special as well, one of those with double cutaways, but all I’ve got to do is pick that up and it’s ‘eeeeeoww’, the tuning’s terrible, and it sounds dull as well. I bought it off some cabaret bloke in Manchester, had it about two years.
“So I use the 335 most, because it’s dead light, semiacoustic, it’s bright too – doesn’t sustain a lot, so I use a compressor to make it sustain. I always used to use a guitar amp on stage called a Vox U30, dead weird, half-valve, half-transistor. That got nicked in New York too – I always used that amp with Joy Division. Two months ago I found another one, so I started using it again. They really emphasise the attack in the note somehow; I like them as well ‘cos they look like Daleks. It’s only 30 watts, and I did have a 15-watt version at one time too. But Hooky’s got, must be a thousand watt bass amp! So I put the Vox in a frame, angled up towards me. We try not to play too loud on stage anyway, because I don’t like putting a lot of things through the foldback, just vocals really.
“I don’t know how I use guitar. I try not to think about it at all… if you do something and you don’t understand how you do it, then it’ll never get predictable. I don’t mean the actual notes you play, I mean the style you play in. One thing I don’t believe in is using effects, hardly at all. All you should really rely on is the notes that you’re using, and not the sound. The notes you play are much more important than the sound really. Also, I’ve got to be able to play the guitar parts live – I don’t like to do things in the studio that you can’t reproduce live.”
“We wrote ‘Blue Monday’ a week before we went in the studio, and the week before that we’d got the Oberheim DMX drum machine. So instead of reading the instruction book we wrote ‘Blue Monday’ with it. Originally we wanted a song because of everyone moaning at us for not doing encores, we wanted a song where you could switch the drum machine on and it’d play itself – but it didn’t quite work out that way. We recorded it about a year and a half ago, must have mixed it in January 1983.
“We went into Britannia Row studio, where we always record, with engineer Michael Johnson, we had the bottom line and the string arrangements. In the studio we came up with the ‘voices’, the sort of brass sound, and Hooky wrote the bass in the studio too, that macho bass line at the end. We started with the sequencer, and got all the sequencer and synth lines recorded over a straight boom-crack beat. A good thing about the Poly-Sequencer is that it’s got a 10,000-note memory – so you can have real long sequences. We tried to do ‘Blue Monday’ with a lot of changes in it.
“We knew we wanted little bits of drums to punctuate changes, DMX drums, though there’s some played Simmons drums on it for toms and cracky sounds. We thought that every time a drum changed, the sequence should change slightly, say from a straight um-dit-um-dit-um-dit to a triplet rhythm; you’d have a triplet hi-hat on the straight bass riff, and a straight hi-hat on the triplet bass, for example, so it swaps parts around a lot.
“We put on two bass sequencers simultaneously, drove them off the same clock. The weedy one you hear at the end is the Prophet-5. The rest, the main line, is Moog Source triggered from the Powertran – the Moog just sounded better for the bass. I think for bass lines mono synths are better, they seem to cut the note off cleaner somehow. It’s a dead simple patch on the Moog, two square-waves. The Source hasn’t got any pulse-width modulation, so it’s just like.. two square-waves!
“We tried Di-ing the bass synth. It was good, but something was missing. So we pumped it through a speaker in the cellar at Britannia Row, where they keep the reverb plates, and it sort of came alive. Quite weird really. I think your ear can detect that there is something unnatural if there’s Lexicon reverb or whatever – the best reverb maybe, and yet your ear can detect something unnatural about it, it feels uncomfortable to listen to. Now, you can hear the bass synth bouncing off the cellar’s concrete walls.
“We used this other little trick as well, which is to gate the synthesiser to the bass drum. We pump one sequencer through a noise gate, but the noise gate is shut until it receives a trigger from the bass drum, so every time the bass drum hits the noise gate opens and you get a bass pulse behind it. That was an old idea of Martin Hannet’s, he did it on ‘She’s Lost Control’, the sort of disco 12-inch version of that. We learnt quite a lot of things then.
“‘Blue Monday’ is really dead simple. We always try to keep our songs childishly simple, because we don’t really consider ourselves musicians. We consider ourselves as members of the public who fiddle around with musical instruments. Technically we’re all pretty bad at playing, ‘cept Steve, he’s quite good on drums. It’s part of the punk thing really, because we were brought up in the punk era. Before punk I thought you had to be some sort of god or something to be able to play guitar. When we saw the Sex Pistols we realised that anyone could do it really.’
“So the strength of ‘Blue Monday’ is really the arrangement of it, it’s only simple. The general public listen to it as a whole… I always think, why use five words when you can use three? It’s the same with music. If you can do something in three notes, why use more?”
“I stay up very late at home, I tend to get up at about 12 and stay up until four or so in the morning. I get a lot of ideas at night. I feel more inspired at night-time. I’ve got a theory that it’s because during the day there’s a lot of people all over England sat up, awake, they’re all thinking. And I think you pick up their thoughts, brainwaves. When they go asleep at night you can think more clearly, there’s less interference. It’s like the reverse of radio stations – at night you can pick up the world, because the radio waves bounce off the ionosphere. But during the day you can only pick up relatively few stations. It’s a theory. It might not be true
“We just jam at the rehearsal room – either Steve plays the drums or we get a drum machine going and jam to it. We might hear a bass riff or a synth riff or a guitar riff, switch the small cassette recorder on, play it a bit, then leave it. Come back the next day, and if it sounds OK, we start building and working on it.
“Sometimes it’s good just to get one riff and keep it going as like a backbone to the song, just change the things that are put over the top of that, something like ‘Temptation’. Or sometimes it’s good to change the whole thing, like ‘Thieves Like Us’, it’s got loads of changes in it. ‘Blue Monday’ is sort of half way between, it’s got a lot of changes, but they’re just slight rearrangements.”
“When I’m doing the vocal we go through the track quite a bit till I get a really solid idea in my head as to how it should sound. I listen back to it each time and find the notes where I’m going out of tune, and try to correct them. Then everyone has a look at the lyrics to see if there’s any dodgy ones, or in some cases to finish off the lyrics in the studio. Then we just go through it until we get a take we’re happy with it. Basically we go for a lot of feeling. First of all we try to get it good technically – by technically good I just mean in tune – and then we try to put as much feeling into it as possible. We might spend about four hours on the vocal – on average a single might take two days recording and two days mixing; on ‘Thieves Like Us’ we spent three days recording and one day mixing.
“I really enjoy singing. I never used to when I first started, I never wanted to be a singer. But when Ian died I had to be; it just felt a bit odd. Expressing yourself in words is very personal, whereas expressing yourself in music is abstract – it’s personal as well, but it’s an abstraction of what you feel. But words, they’re a bit more to the point. I quite like keeping things to myself. But when we were doing ‘Temptation’ I took some LSD and really enjoyed singing, I could see what a singer gets out of singing. Ever since then I’ve really enjoyed it.
“The type of person I am – I was thinking about this last night – before I can express myself emotionally, I’ve got to get really angry. I get myself angry, then I can express myself. It’s like if you try to pick something up that’s heavy and you can’t do it – and as you try you drop something on to your toe and get really annoyed. Suddenly you can do it. I’ve got to get myself worked up into some sort of state before I can express it. The first few times I do a vocal in the studio it sounds really shit. So I hear it through the speakers, and I get angry!
“I don’t think any of us do anything from the brain, we always do it from the heart. Always feeling.”
“We did ‘Thieves Like Us’ originally with Arthur Baker in New York, went into a studio with him and jammed, found bits that we liked, and made a song out of it. It was during the same session as ‘Confusion’, we recorded the two songs.
“There’s a guy in New York who’s like Factory’s representative there, and he knew Arthur Baker. He played him a John Peel session we did. There was a suggestion that Arthur Baker and John Robey might remix something for us – John Robey is the guy he always works with, an absolute genius who did that ‘One More Shot’ record with the breaking glass, and ‘IOU’ by Freez, brilliant – but we suggested that rather than remix a track we’d just go and meet him and write something in the studio. That seemed more exciting, because everyone’s doing that American remix, a hip thing to do. This seemed more challenging.’
“Arthur Baker doesn’t normally work the way we did it, jamming and picking bits. He normally works by getting a chorus line or a hook line to a song first, even a title first. That’s really the opposite, completely, of the way we do it. But then again we don’t normally write in the studio, so it was dead weird for us and dead weird for him. We really had to work our balls off.
“We went in and we got the drum machine going… everyone would be in there and have goes at different things, he’d say that’s OK, this is OK, try this, play this, play it this way or that way – this was Arthur Baker.
“But once you got an idea it was oh yeah, that’s all right, we’ll do a take! Five seconds later it’s a take, so you go in, start playing it, put loads of bum notes in. And you keep it, first or second take. He’s not bothered about things like that, he doesn’t care whether it’s well played or badly played. Anyway, the public can’t hear mistakes, it’s only the musician who can hear mistakes. I like it, I can hear bits that I played out of time on ‘Confusion’, but it’s good because you can hear somebody.
“What was also weird about those sessions was that the studio where we worked was really busy, one group at daytime, one group at night, there’s always a group waiting outside just to go in as you’re going home. So the only shifts we could get were 8 at night till 9 in the morning, then a day’s break, then 9 in the morning till 8 at night. Your body clock was just… On the last day, just as I was gonna do the vocals, I got flu really badly. At one stage in a break I fell asleep on the studio floor underneath the microphone. Uncle Arthur stood over me, kicking, ‘Wake up, wake up. Gotta do the vocals!’ – we were getting the plane out that night.
“We didn’t have enough of ‘Thieves Like Us’ to make a record. After that we went back to tour in America, then went all around the world playing – we didn’t really fancy going all the way back to America again, because you get pretty fed up of foreign places, ha ha. So we went to Britannia Row to re-do ‘Thieves’ – we just kept the drum riff and all the synth parts.”