“New Order presented itself as ordinary life”

One of my favorite pieces in In the Fascist Bathroom is a review of Simon Frith’s Sound Effects, for which Greil Marcus adduces a New Order performance recorded in the winter of 1981 at San Francisco’s famous I-Beam. Available online for the first time, it reminds me of what a sharp listener he is when not pursuing fanciful correspondences through the brush and over fences: “There was no spectacle in New Order’s performance. New Order presented itself as ordinary life: there was no melodrama, an occasional smile but mostly quiet faces, few extra gestures, no flourishes. These were four people doing their work.”

About ten years ago New Order released a DVD containing their Taras Shevchenko show from the same period (on my seventh birthday, as it happens) and their triumphant reunion and appearance at the 1998 Reading Festival; watching the DVD finally won me over to Movement after a decade’s resistance. These were fully realized songs performed by men and women who looked like roadies given instruments, concentrating on the material as if the act of performing it made the band and songs flesh:

As on New Order’s first album, Movement (Factory), Gillian built a drifting orchestral frame, often a distantly vamp­ing, syncopated pattern that seemed to loom up before a listener’s eyes. Within this frame, textures took shape and fragmented. One could hear the music being made, as one might find exposed heating pipes in a piece of modern architecture. Though the music was neither improvised nor abstract, the abstraction Si­mon Frith insists on was there in the difficulty one had precisely associating what one was seeing with what one was hearing. Albrecht’s melodica (a plastic keyboard horn) drew on the otherworldly tones of Jamaican dub master Augustus Pablo’s East of the River Nile; Peter Hook’s structured bass lines led the sound, taking over the role one expects the guitar to play. Gillian’s synthesizers and Steve Morris’s drums—and, at times, a drum machine or syndrums (the latter creating hard, rifle-like cracks that seemed to come from some invisible fifth musician)—further skewed the image of a band that New Order presented.

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