NEW ORDER - London Alexandra Palace - 09 November 2018
Alexandra Palace is a venue that is tough : it’s a huge distant hall, sometimes cold. It’s not easy to get to, nor easy to enjoy. It’s two trains from London, on packed and small commuter trains, and then a half-mile walk up a hill to get to surrounded by parkland. And every time I go, it seems to be raining.
Tonight sees New Order return there for the first time properly in 19 years, 10 months, and 12 days. The last time they played there publically was New Years Eve in 1998/1999 – also the last live show by the classic four piece lineup. (There was a two song set at an awards show in 2005, which was the only time New Order shared a stage with Black Sabbath). The ‘new’ look New Order isn’t really new at all by now, and has been together for seven years. Tonight’s also being filmed for a DVD release, so naturally, it’s going to be different.
Certainly, it’s the longest New Order set I have seen. Probably the longest ever. At two and a quarter hours, it’s a mammoth (by their standards) 22 songs in length. Whereas normally the band play one-of-five in rotating slots, tonight they play all five. These alone make it, for me, historical. As I’ve seen the band a few times over the years, there’s the fact that I’ve experienced “Temptation” live many, many years : and it’s always brilliant. But this was different. Given how many times I have seen them, you would expect that I would have seen almost every song they’ve played live recently. I haven’t. Tonight sees the first time for me for at least five songs – “Ultraviolence”, “Disorder”, “Vanishing Point”, “Subculture”, and “Decades” - none of which have been played by New Order in London in 30 years or more. And it is just what I wanted.
To start with, the sound is fairly ropey. Live, New Order have always been unpredictable – either great – or gruesome, dependent upon the night. They’ve become more reliable over the years, but still not exactly a slick stadium machine. The sound mix is muddy and the vocals are mixed harshly for the first few songs. With that in mind, the crowd are also the worst thing about the show. From where I am, and this being the only sizable European show of the year, there’s a lot of people who have come a long way. Some are worse for wear. There’s an abundance of Oasisblokes, of beered up Disco Mums, and people who don’t quite know how to do gigs. They’re drunk by 8pm, pushing past people, and then filming more of the show on their crappy iPhone. GO ON BARNEY! DO FINE TIME!
For the first few songs, despite the abundance of rarely played songs, it fails to take off. Both “Singularity” and “Regret” are great songs, but to follow those with the rarely-seen “Love Vigilantes”, the obscure “Ultraviolence” and “Disorder” deflates the mood somewhat. Because these songs are played so infrequently, I’m not stuck in the fray, I’m watching, I’m feeling, I’m experiencing. Sometimes you need to just stand and see it with your own eyes. Besides its all on DVD soon enough, anyway. SCUSE ME MATE! It’s time for me to wear some of your beer as you barge past.
The set quietly slips into, well, not a Greatest Hits set as such, but a best of. Tutti Frutti is a late period absolute classic. With Tom Chapman on bass, there’s no sense in the new songs of having to have that distinctive low slung bass : but it still sounds like New Order. “Tutti Frutti” offers a previously unhinted sense of slinky funk and deep retro disco. The visuals have become part of the show now, with elegantly crafted short films that abstractly reflect the songs. And then we get a pounding bass drum, a set of synth attacks, and it is, for the first time in my life, New Order performing “Subculture” in front of my eyes. Much like Peter Hook’s live sets, that normally offer a number of rarely played cuts from the bands body of work, this offers a subtle but modern reinvention of the song. It’s never sounded better. From here, the show is a solid hour or so of sublime, wonderful music. It baffles me why the band barely played this song for thirty years. That, and a hecukva lot of lasers, and it feels like I we are back in 1987. Perversely, when you get down the front of the crowd, as I do, the crowd are getting younger, and I am probably one of the oldest people there. The band seem to have picked up new fans in recent years, and its great to see.
There was a time when seeing New Order live in any capacity may have seemed like an impossibility to me : tonight, we see “Bizarre Love Triangle” (rebuilt on the basis of a Richard X Remix) grow into a roaring disco monster. As it fades, the band lock into a tight groove, and then spring on us “Vanishing Point”. This is my favourite New Order song. This is the song that I blame for everything. This is the song that gave me an awakening. This is the song that, when I saw it on television in March 1989, opened my world. I’ve never looked back since then, and this song formed me, and opened a door I walked through, to a world that has made my life much better than it was before. It helps that it is one of their best songs. I’ve seen every member of New Order past and present perform this song in the past six weeks, and that is one awesome achievement. Already, this is becoming one of my favourite New Order shows ever. Bearing in mind that two of the best shows I have ever seen were New Order in 1998, and this is no small statement.
The next half an hour or so is, if you are in the right place, with the right people, euphoric. There’s “The Perfect Kiss”, “True Faith”, “Blue Monday” and “Temptation”, all one after the other, all building to a crescendo of musical bliss. There’s a clearly happy band that’s locked into a groove of delivering musical joy. There’s Tom Chapman on bass, faithful to the music, but also his own man. There’s Gillian Gilbert who, understatedly, has returned to the keyboard slot after a health-related absence, and somewhat casually sprinkles magic dust over the songs. The human drum machine Stephen Morris makes every note perfect. Phil Cunningham’s been with this band 18 years now, but still the ‘new kid’. It’s New Order, not as we knew them, but as they are, as good as they were, but also, very different. Not better or worse, just different.
Down the front, there’s a sense of euphoria. It’s crowded, it’s rowdy, and it’s loud, but also – far from the maddening crowd – there’s a sense of joy, of excitement, where music levels all things and all people, where ages, hairstyles, politics, slip away like wet paint in the rain, and where there’s a simple sense of an easier time, and of the promise of a future that never happened. Or maybe it’s the 2 pint beer in huge plastic cups. The best music always walks the fine line between joy and sorrow, euphoria and heartbreak, and no band really captures that balance and walks it so perfectly to me as New Order. These songs helped me, formed me, made me what I am today and I can’t pretend they weren’t that important. If this is the last New Order show I see – and every time I see a band of a certain age now, I think that it could be the last time, because none of us are getting any younger, and none of us are immortal – then if this is the last show I see then it is a glorious way to go out. Not for them, the shambling half-arsed final Motorhead show I saw but this wonderful explosion of pop music. “Temptation” comes to a glorious close, capping off the main part of the longest New Order show there has ever been.
There’s an encore of course : but this isn’t really a New Order encore, but a Joy Division set – with three songs that I thought when I was 20, I never get to see even if I ever got to see New Order – with “Atmosphere”, “Decades”, and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. “Atmosphere” is subtly revamped, moving from a medley of the introduction to Giorgio Moroder’s original version of David Bowie’s “Cat People” into “Atmosphere” itself. It’s great : but it’s not New Order. It’s important not to forget the past and where you have come from, but important to also remember where you are and where you are going. For so long New Order froze the memory of Joy Division in amber, and never returned to it, but now it’s almost expected that the band will play those songs in the encore. The use of ancient video of Joy Division performing on the screens above does feel a little strange, but again, its right that the band are proud of their past. For me, the show ends with a gorgeous “Decades”. I’ve never seen New Order perform it, and they only played it twice between May 1980 and June 2016, so it’s not exactly a ‘big hit’, but it’s a powerful, affecting song, and – as the last Joy Division song on the final Joy Division album, it’s the right place for me to end the night.
The band do play a rampaging, hands-in-the-air singalonga-Barney version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” which is a great, lovely racket. But for me, that song isn’t a stadium rock anthem, but a desperate and final, almost angry statement of resignation from the former band. As it stands, I have to leave early anyway or face potentially staying up all night without anywhere to sleep in London, and that’s not how I want to spend the night. It’ll all be on DVD anyway.
This then, is New Order, nearer the end than the beginning, and taking ownership of their body of work and their past, stating who they are and how they have got here. It’s been a hard journey sometimes for all of us, but it was worth it, to be here now, to see them here as the old men, where they have been, and how we got here in the end. What a fantastic voyage ; what great tales we have to tell and adventures we have lived ; and what happens next? Who knows. But I’m here for the journey. Sometimes it feels like I didn’t choose this life, that music chose me, and I had no choice but to answer the call, because music saved me and music changed me, and music completed me. Or maybe, as the band named their last album, Music Complete.
Your Silent Face
Love Will Tear Us Apart