Sometime around five years ago, I bought a “BBC Radio Live in Concert” New Order album on the strengths of the famous “Blue Monday” and the absurdly catchy “Bizarre Love Triangle.” I had never listened to a full New Order album, and this stuff was definitely not the music of my generation, but I dig synthpop and the excessively reverent way I had heard the band described on the internet piqued my curiosity.
As it turned out, the album was awful. The band seemed to be drunk, or at least playing sloppily, and the crowed could be heard actually booing at the end of one song. I was disappointed, but I listened to the CD a few more times anyway because there was something special about the overall vibe. Eventually, I realized that underneath the poor quality of the performance was some remarkably strong songwriting. The thing that stuck out most was the nearly 10 minute long new wave dance-rock epic, “The Perfect Kiss.”
I sold that album pretty quickly and forgot about the song, but I rediscovered it on youtube recently (youtube is great for rediscovering things). The video, which is an actual 10-minute live performance of the song, both amazed and amused me.
For starters, there’s the deadpan nervous way the band members glance at each other during the intro, with the singer Bernard Sumner licking his lips in anticipation and keyboardist Gillian Gilbert trying to put on a poker face. She looks like an older, darker version of Molly Ringwald’s character from The Breakfast Club, doing her best to ward off a potentially unpleasant situation. Stephen Morris, the drummer (more like drum programmer, here) gapes his mouth and fidgets like a middle school kid at his first dance. These people are all in their late 20s in a very successful band, and only the bassist Peter Hook looks like a seasoned adult who isn’t really worried.
At 1 minute in, with Gilbert staring up almost angelically at the synth module and showing great concern, I realized I was probably going to like this despite the strange pretenses. The music gets lush fast. People look back on 80s synthpop with a lot of disdain nowadays, but it isn’t hard to imagine how incredible the layered synths in this song sounded at the time. They’re pretty necessary too, because Bernard Sumner is a terrible singer by conventional standards. It’s another mark of the era and something to think about that this group could be incredibly successful with such a run-of-the-mill vocalist. Apparently they chose him to do the vocals because he played guitar, which was the easiest instrument to play and sing. In our current times of autotune, he’d either be pitch-corrected into oblivion or simply replaced, and the band would’ve probably had a much greater struggle to get recognition in the first place. Or maybe I’m wrong… There are probably plenty of awful indie rock singers out there, but I’m not seeing them on the charts.
In any case, the strength of the melody and the depth and complexity of the instrumentals more than make up for the sub-par vocals, and Sumner does have a strange kind of innocent charisma. He gives it his all in a guileless way that seems to characterize the spirit of the group, invoking a youthful fragility that many bands fail to produce by trying too hard at it. Being innocent and baring your soul is something that’s hard to fake.
At 4:45, the song starts to get really interesting. Hook beats the hell out of a drum pad with accompaniment from grinding, devilish synths, and Morris starts playing, yes, a cowbell. We all need some chillout time after this intensity, so we’re treated to some gently layered synth pads and a smooth guitar, segueing into a chorus of croaking frogs. It’s hard not to laugh during this part.
The frogs don’t last long, though. The electro-pulsing synthesizers return (with more cowbell!), and the group really starts to jam. It’s like this was the card they were holding up their sleeve the whole time. Hook slowly ascends to the skies in a solo, moving up to what looks like the highest possible notes you can play on a bass. Sumner joins him momentarily with rhythm guitar, bobbing and weaving, and it seems like Hook is fighting with his bass to keep it from flying away due to the unfettered power of the jam. This is pretty heady stuff, and pretty surprising too. I think I kind of woke up the first time I heard it, because I wasn’t expecting a group I had pegged as robotic, drum machine and sequencer pop act to suddenly show so much soul. They even smile a bit!
Finally, it ends, with a single finger hammering down to play what sounds like a sample of a car crash. Cheesy, but effective. The members exchange wry looks, seeming a bit pleased with what they’ve done but certainly not overconfident. Gilbert gets the final shot, her eyes narrowed and the lines around her mouth tight as she walks out of the frame, like she’s leaving a funeral.
What to make of this? I had a good laugh at the absurdity of the group’s demeanor the first time I watched it. It seems like such a far cry from anything you would see in a music video now. Sure, we have more pursed-lipped poseurs than you can count, and nearly everyone nowadays tries to act hard, but there’s a kind of genuine uncertainty in New Order’s posing that gives me pause. These people aren’t trying to give us a hard sell; instead, they’re just throwing it down on the table and saying, “there it is.” The strange thing is, one gets the feeling that they would be bothered if you were to reject their offering. They’re vulnerable to your lack of approval, and they’re not too proud to show it. Maybe it’s all just an act, but I doubt it. Having an official music video filmed live must have been a lot of pressure, and in our modern age of computer-correction it seems like something only fools would do.
That said, it seems like New Order were geeks even by 1980s standards, firmly in the heart-on-the-sleeve category with The Cure, The Smiths, and all those other borderline-goth mopey bands. I think they’ve aged well, though. While their demeanor may seem absurd, it doesn’t cross over into annoying. It’s hard to call them whiny, but easy to call them weird. Fortunately, weird is usually synonymous with interesting.