New Order is another band that is a constant in my life. Their music is always inventive, different, and unique. New Order: Decades is a bit documentary, a bit concert film. During the Manchester International Festival 2017, the band collaborated with international YBA (Young British Artist) Liam Gillick to reinvent its sound and its presentation for a project called So It Goes. The film follows the band and their team as they try to recreate this show in 2019, culminating with a filmed version of the final show in Vienna. (Our New Order podcast is tinyurl.com/zubceremony).
Decades begins with the band back home in Manchester, England, in the site of the old Granada TV studios. They reminisce about their beginnings as Joy Division (our Joy Division podcast is tinyurl.com/zubjoy). Tony Wilson, their champion and head of Granada TV, thought so highly of Joy Division that he started a label, Factory Records, for them. He, along with manager Rob Gretton, and of course the original singer of Joy Division, Ian Curtis, (whose suicide led to Joy Division becoming New Order) are all remembered fondly.
The band is shown getting ready for these special ‘reinvented’ shows, which involves a great deal of technical work,especially from drummer Stephen Morris. One conceit of these shows is to play by human hand what had previously been produced by complex sequencing, through a 12-piece ‘synth orchestra’ of young conservatory musicians from Manchester. New Order pushed 1980’s technology to its maximum as far as sequencing, sampling, and drum programming; this ‘orchestra’ will deconstruct and distribute these parts among the young musicians, who will play all the untwined sequenced parts live. The documentary does a great job of showing how monumental this re-scoring and redistribution of the complex, computer generated sounds across a dozen pairs of hands was.
Much is made of the beginning of the band, especially adopting Gillian Gilbert as the new member. She is portrayed as a calming influence on ‘the lads’ and easily holding her own in the band. One of the best parts of Decades are insightful interviews with the band’s team, such as the wonderful writer Jon Savage (tinyurl.com/zubsearinglight) and especially artistic director Peter Saville, responsible for all the Factory/Joy Division/New Order record artwork.
The art direction for this series of shows, however, is handled by Liam Gillick, a heavyweight British conceptualist/modernist. He designs a modular series of interlocked cubicles for each of the ‘synth orchestra’ members, who play in their cubes behind opening/closing blinds. It’s an impressive, ever-changing backdrop and works well for this show. He discusses the work and his designs for the collaboration, and it’s clear that he truly loves and admires New Order.
The band’s very close connection with Manchester is shown as they roam about the city. These scenes let us get to know the two newest members of the band, Tom Chapman on bass and Phil Cunningham on guitar, who replaced departed bassist Peter Hook. Little is said about the acrimonious breakup with Hooky, but Bernard does praise the prowess of the previous bass player, although does not speak his name.
Interspersed throughout the film are the live performances, mostly from Vienna. The band sounds fresh and vital, and the ‘synth orchestra’ is a great addition. It’s funny, because guitarist/New Order singer Bernard Sumner is shown earlier on as saying he “never wanted to be a singer or a frontman,” but he mostly is just the singer now. The show features great tunes such as ‘Plastic,’ ‘Subculture,’ and ‘Bizarre Love Triangle.’ The highlight for certain is an inspired ‘Your Silent Face’ from Power, Corruption And Lies. An encore of Joy Division’s ‘Decades’ is played, which may be a bit too reworked, but it is a lovely tribute.
If you are a New Order fan, you’ll need to catch New Order: Decades on Showtime. If not, it is a worthy watch nevertheless from a most iconic and forward thinking band who decades on are still reinventing and deconstructing themselves in ambitious, and successful ways.