New Order, Regret (1993)

NORegret

Artist: New Order
Title: Regret
Description: single; album track, Republic
Label: London
Release date: 1993
First heard: 1993

Look at me, I’m not you

In the immediate aftermath of Ian Curtis’s untimely death, for Joy Division to not just carry on but fundamentally reinvent themselves under a new banner and ultimately alter the face of British alternative pop, seemed, in that cruel summer of 1980, a mission impossible. The term “regroup” doesn’t cover it. As New Order (the name itself a manifesto), they shuffled Bernard Sumner to the front, added Gillian Gilbert at the back, recorded two existing Joy Division songs in the new formation, Ceremony and In A Lonely Place, and produced an LP that looked and sounded and felt like Joy Division minus Curtis and plus extra synth. As relieved as the discerning were to have them back in business, and so soon, Movement was robbed of sunlight by the Joy Division memorial Still, and it all felt a bit like a holding pattern. Then they went to New York, and the next ten years were about bringing it all back home.

Between the rule-rewriting Temptation in 1982 and the final long-player before the band’s first split, Republic, in 1993, New Order really did bestride the twin worlds of pop and dance like four blushing Colossi. They even outlived Factory. Regret, the majestic lead-off single and a hit all over the shop, was number one in Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play charts and Modern Rock Tracks, which just about says all that you need to know about New Order. Is it dance? Is it rock? Does it – to deploy the cliché – sound better in a club? Or in a barn? Or in a field? The answer is that it sounds better anywhere and everywhere. (I listened to it a lot, alone, in a one-room studio flat in Streatham in South London and it worked for me.) If New Order started out as three young men and one young woman with “weight on their shoulders”, they ended their first ten-year stretch on top of the world, looking down – you might say – on Creation.

That osmotic blend of guitar and synth which falteringly paints in the sky before it starts, as if touching up one of Peter Saville’s oddly sincere stock library photographs on the packaging, can surely, mathematically, never be bettered. Building on a fine repertoire of previous New Order and Pet Shop Boys hits, Stephen Hague sets a template of sleek, slick vistas and bevelled sophistication. It’s oysters without grit, a city skyline without TV aerials, a billboard panorama without imperfections, a sound so deep and wide and tall it bleeds off the edges of most pop music’s expectations and resets the aspect ratio. Barney’s guitar still maintains its trademark melancholy but the overriding theme is celebration. (Hey, it’s a song called Regret that speaks of wounded hearts, complete strangers and being upset, you see, almost all the time. That kind of celebration.)

Blue Monday may have history on its side, True Faith the video, Fine Time the Balaeric cool, and World In Motion a rare sense of fun, but Regret is the crowning achievement of a little band who could. A good deal of Joy Division’s eternal appeal lies in the struggle – the quest to hew magic out of limited virtuosity – but mastering their instruments did not rob them of their personality. It is found not just in Barney’s non-classical voice, distanced and chorused in the mix, but in the idiomatic nature of his lyrics: “Maybe I’ve forgotten the name and the address of everyone I’ve ever known … I would like a place I could call my own, have a conversation on the telephone … I was upset you see, almost all the time”. It’s amazing how much soul there is in his childlike delivery and in these storybook couplets. (This is a man who, on Every Little Counts, on Brotherhood, actually sang, “Every second counts/When I am with you/I think you are a pig/You should be in a zoo.”)

The whole of Republic is a showpiece. But Regret is pure cinema. I saw New Order on a boiling hot afternoon at Reading that year and entered a higher state of consciousness when I heard the riff to Regret, one I am physically unable to resist miming. I cannot play the guitar. This is important.

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Manic Street Preachers, Motorcycle Emptiness (1992)

Manicsmotorcycle-emptiness

Artist: Manic Street Preachers
Title: Motorcycle Emptiness
Description: single; album track, Generation Terrorists
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1992
First heard: 1992

All we want from you are the kicks you’ve given us …

Sometimes it’s a Moment. The kind that can no more be repeated ever after than instigated in the first instance. Let me take you back to the Reading Festival 1992, Saturday August 29 …

The Manic Street Preachers, who’ve been touring their debut Generation Terrorists around the world all year, are set to play to their biggest UK audience, third on the bill on the main stage. It is a beautifully sunny afternoon, crowning my last summer at the NME. I’m walking with close music industry pals upfield, away from the backstage paddock – retreat of all media hangers-on – in order to catch their teatime set (Ride have the “Magic Hour” slot, before hotly-anticipated headliners Public Enemy). I’m still walking back, in order to take in the full impact of this ascendant foursome finding their mark, when Motorcycle Emptiness roars into life, and that urgent guitar hook just does something to me, inside. It rises up through my entire body like an annual service. A perfect storm of good mood, optimum refreshment level, perfect light, clement weather, expectant time of day, proficiency of playing, timelessness of riff and all my feelings about the Manics rolled into one Festival Moment. I shall never forget it. I haven’t looked, but I hope it’s not available on YouTube. (Even if it is, it will be sucked of magic.)

I am blessed to have made one or two friendships with musicians I admire in the 28 years since I began trading as a music journalist. (It’s been a while since I thought of myself as primarily that, of course.) Those solid bonds aside, some meaningful relationships I maintain are more like connections that endure and which mean a kinship is perpetually felt. Perhaps the most interesting and eventful of these has been with the Manic Street Preachers. Too many events to tell here, in any case. I was at the NME when they burst forth onto the scene, initially skeptical (mainly because their first champion was Steven Wells) but rapidly swept up by the breakneck narcissism of You Love Us and the raucous, squalling iconoclasm of Motown Junk. What really won me over was their thirst for knowledge – Nicky and Richey, in particular, the band’s thematic architects and footnote compilers, were walking sponges. They didn’t need anyone in the future to invent Wikipedia.

I was at the lightbox in the art room the morning Ed Sirrs’ shots of Richey’s “4 REAL” carving came in. I witnessed James and Sean painstakingly constructing what we in the biz call “the music” for Generation Terrorists at Black Barn studios in Guildford while Nicky and Richey waxed controversial in their Joe Orton bedrooms about Slowdive and Hitler. They played privately for me when I had moved to Select in a Putney rehearsal room. I sat interviewing Richey on his bed at Hookend studios in Oxfordshire for Gold Against The Soul while he drifted off to sleep, murmuring about Steve Lamacq, after which I wandered down to the studio where James was laying down the vocals for Symphony Of Tourette. As revenge for drinking Richey to sleep, all four of them plied me with whiskey at a Soho rock club so that I later threw up in the fireplace of the flat they were billeted in. I cleared it up myself.

Events slowed down after that, as so did I. But every time I saw them, we greeted each other fondly. I’ve cheered their continual rise to Radio 2 house band, stadium staple and Welsh national team, and never lost interest in the music they make, and the impossible lyrics Nicky now writes solo for poor James to wrap his tonsils around.

Motorcycle Emptiness reigns supreme. It captures not just the Icarus-like folly of the Manics’ overnight bid for Guns N’Roses excess, but the incredible skill with which James and Sean were even at that early stage able to build whistleable rock’n’roll majesty while the other two goofed off with their books and their blouses. It was heartbreaking when Richey signed off in 1995 and I’ve spoken to the others about it in the ensuring years of healing. They are now candid, thoughtful, big-hearted, witty, self-aware middle-aged men, always one step ahead of what the sell-out police have deemed cool and uncool. But the work that they continue to do, when it’s good, is only as good as Motorcycle Emptiness. This would be the case even if my Festival Moment had never happened. I’m glad it did, though.

I will leave you with a classic Richey/Nicky stanza that would take an actual ubermensch to transform into song. It doesn’t scan, it doesn’t rhyme, it has no rhythm. And yet. And yet …

Life lies a slow suicide
Orthodox dreams and symbolic myths
From feudal serf to spender
This wonderful world of purchase power