Jostling fellow holiday-makers at Gatwick Airport – August 2015 – I thought I’d find a quiet corner and lose myself in the current issue of MOJO. Although Stones axe-man Keith Richard was hogging the front cover (with a free CD of his early blues influences – rather good as it happens), I was drawn to the interview with Bernard Sumner.
The usually media-shy New Order frontman was promoting the release of the first New Order album in the post-Hookie era, Music Complete. I had already waded through Sumner’s 2014 autobiography Chapter and Verse, and was interested to see what other insights he had to offer into the early days of Joy Division and the beginnings of New Order.
I wanted to know what he thought of Ian Curtis’s lyrics, particularly on Closer. “You never knew with Ian whether those lyrics were biographical or whether he was just writing about a character. We listened to the vibe more than the actual words, but when we did listen to them we assumed it was some sort of character from the past that he’d invented. That it wasn’t really about him…pre-epilepsy and drugs, he was just a cheery happy-go-lucky bloke, spouting out these heavy words. The lyrics didn’t sound like they were about Ian. After he died, we certainly re-evaluated everything. We should have listened, but it wouldn’t have changed anything. We did try and ‘cheer him up’ but of course it didn’t work. Even if we’d known the lyrics were about him, it wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference.”
More on Ian’s death, after he talks about his own battle with depression…“But it was different for Ian because he had epilepsy and he was on very heavy barbiturates to treat that and I think those tablets affected his mood, because he wasn’t like that all the time. Apart from that he obviously had relationship problems. He had epilepsy. Could he carry on with the band with epilepsy as bad as he had? He couldn’t really. We were all in denial about it, when you think back, the writing was on the wall. He couldn’t have carried on – he was too ill. Maybe he felt he was letting us all down. He wanted out, but he couldn’t bear letting us all down because we’d all fought so hard to make it a success. And that was tearing him apart as much as his relationships. Who knows? No one knows what was really going on in his head because he wouldn’t tell you.”
He fractiously side-stepped all questions concerning the bitter bust up with Peter Hook, and felt more relaxed talking about the new album and the early days. I remember seeing New Order in Cardiff (SU) in 1984, and they were pretty ordinary, apart from starting the set with In a Lonely Place (my fave B side and the ultimate funeral song for Ian) and half decent versions of Ceremony and Temptation. Here’s what Bernie had to say about early New Order:
“Well, under the bleak music of Joy Division we were just four guys having the best time of our lives, until it all went tits-up. And even in the early days of New Order, when we got to the east coast of America, we had a great time. It’s been a 30-year party really. I’m a lot more sober these days…I was my own worst enemy. Hungover, playing to 20,000 people, full of guilt [at another shit performance], feeling sorry for yourself when you just wanted to be in bed.
On poor performances with early New Order: “I probably didn’t want to be there. And I couldn’t get out of it. A good gig was invariably followed by a bad gig – we’d get shit faced and then face the next gig with bad hangovers. With the technology side of it, we were taking instruments that were designed for the studio out on the road. Rob [Gretton, manager] always insisted; “you’re not using f-ing tapes.” But Rob didn’t have to go on stage.”
Well, this makes sense to me, as I felt their performance was flat and relatively lacking in passion. Also, Bernie had a massive row with Gillian half way through the set. I had seen my idols, and bopped with the rest to a clunky version of Blue Monday, but it seemed they were reluctant performers, fulfilling just another tour date.
Interestingly, Bernie said that they were forced to play Blue Monday ‘live’ on Top Of The Pops, to which he objected: “A big part of the success of Blue Monday is that the production on it is really good. Danceable. So it didn’t seem logical to spend all that time on production and then leave it up to a sound guy on TOTP…it seemed illogical to put your future in the hands of that kind of attitude.” He goes on to say that often their record sales went down following a live TV performance.
For those of you reading this who like Temptation, well, turns out its Bernie’s favourite: “I think Temptation is my favourite New Order song. It’s got a spirituality to it. It’s really uplifting, without actually getting a specific message across. It was interesting to see that you could do that while being fairly abstract. I struggled with the literalness of my lyrics in the early days. I didn’t want to expose my inner feelings to the general public.”
So, the polar opposite to Ian Curtis, then, who poured his heart and soul out for all to see.
Bernie was then asked if he had a favourite Joy Division song: “It’s got to be either Love Will Tear Us Apart or Atmosphere. I can’t say one or the other. They both have that spirituality. Same as Temptation. They’re very moving in a spiritual way. The go beyond. I don’t feel like they came from us. I feel like they came from somewhere else, like they’ve been given to the band as a gift.”
So, almost an out-of-body experience…Bernie goes on to try and explain the underlying melancholy of many of his songs that yet have a euphoric uplifting feel. Where does it come from? “I think it came from a yearning for contentment and happiness. For a long time I wasn’t content or happy. I was having a laugh and being pretty hedonistic, but I wasn’t happy…I like to write lyrics late at night when I’m exhausted. A few glasses of wine, I’m tired and want to go to bed, then something like that will happen. It’s like it comes from instinct, your sub-conscious, that weird feeling between your shoulder blades that cannot be explained.”
So there you have it. The gate-way to the soul is when you’re tired and drunk.
His current favourite New Order song is Tutti Frutti (“a bit tongue-in-cheek, a bit silly”)…it’s like a weight has been lifted off the once young man’s shoulders…
NB It’s an excellent interview, and covers Bernie’s relationship with Johnny Marr in Electronic plus more on his new album and the re-formed band. I have taken a few liberties with quoting from the interview – shortening some sentences and altering some punctuation – MOJO, September 2015, interview by Andrew Male.