Rank Your Records: New Order's Stephen Morris Rates the Band's Pioneering Catalog
The founding member talks about his favorite records, his favorite New Order track, and what it's like to be a drummer in a band that leaned heavily on drum machines.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Following the tragic death of Ian Curtis, the remaining members of Joy Division picked up the pieces and formed New Order, a band that expanded upon their post-punk leanings and ventured into the then somewhat uncharted realms of synthesized music. What resulted was some of the most influential records of all time, and smash hits like "Bizarre Love Triangle," "True Faith," "Blue Monday," and many others.
As the long-running band celebrates it's 35th year in existence with a new LP in Music Complete (due on September 25 via Mute), we sat down with founding member and drummer Stephen Morris to discuss the band's output, the tumult that followed the death of Curtis, and what it's like to be a drummer in a band that leaned so heavily on drum machines. The results, as well as New Order's most recent video for "Restless" are below.
9. REPUBLIC (1993)
NOISEY: What do you think is your least favorite release and why?
Stephen Morris: My least favorite, I suppose, is Republic probably because it was just a very, very unpleasant record to make. And we shouldn’t have made it, really. We were making the record to keep the record company afloat and we were all just a bit jaded and a bit sick of the situation we found ourselves in that even though it was so bad we managed to write a song as good as “Regret” which I think on an album like Republic is amazing really. That we managed to do that and we managed to finish the record. It was difficult, very very difficult. Listening to it, it just brings back memories of a very unpleasant time. It wasn’t fun at all. That’s why it’s my least favorite.
Commercially speaking, it’s probably your biggest record.
It had to be. Again, that’s sort of another reason because you felt under pressure to do that. I mean, Steven Hague who produced it, he did a great job. He actually managed to pull it all together. It sounds pretty much like New Order. It’s probably okay. If I weren’t in the band, it’s probably okay.
Fair. I think from the outside that was kind of the record that was big on alternative rock radio, and it turned a lot of people on to you guys.
It did really well in America. It did great in America! It had to. I mean, the fact of the matter is it only stalled the inevitable. Eventually Factory, the record label went down and it was horrible again. But it did do us good.
Was that one of the reasons behind some of the turmoil, the end of Factory? Was there personal turmoil between you guys or what?
No, it wasn’t so much personal turmoil between us so much, it was more the fact that Factory owed so much money and they were trying to do a deal with London Records. It was also the end of the nightclub that we sort of jointly owned with Factory, which was losing money even though it appeared to be making money. Every week there was a crisis meeting somebody would turn up and say “we need 400,000 pounds.” You had to stop trying to make music and to sort out Factory’s money problems. It’s not great.
8. WAITING FOR A SIREN'S CALL (2005)
As far as Sirens is concerned, why would you put it near the bottom of the list?
[Laughs] There’s nothing wrong with Sirens. It seems like “well it’s number eight, it’s only just above Republic,” but there’s nothing wrong with it [laughs]. “Waiting for the Siren’s Call” is a good track. “Turn” is a good track. It just felt weird writing without Gillian, really, a bit strange. I think they’re a bit guitar-y records. Although not so much Get Ready because Steve Osborne put a bit of a synth spin on it, but Sirens we were using guitars more, so it’s more a guitar-y bass thing not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.
7. GET READY (2001)
What are some memories associated with Get Ready?
I mean, Get Ready has a great track on it “Crystal,” great song. It was weird because our manager Rob Gretton died just before we did Get Ready and his absence is felt. Also when we recorded it I was personally going through a bit of a bad time with my father died and Gillian was also going through a bit of a bad time because it was just after Get Ready when her daughter got ill and she had to take a leave from the bad. But I’ll tell you, “Crystal” is great, “Turn My Way” the track that features Billy Corgan vocals, great songs. They’re great. It wasn’t that the actual recording experience was a bad one, but my personal head was in a funny space.
6. MOVEMENT (1981)
The difficult first album after Joy Division? After the passing of Ian…
Yeah, that was really hard to make. We were still naive and young and felt like we had something to prove but we didn’t know how to do it really. We were stuck in this situation where we knew we wanted to be a band and knew we wanted to write music but one of the key elements was gone. So we had to find a way to compensate.
I don’t actually think Movement is as bad as people think it is. I was in America in an American Apparel and a track came on and I think it was “Denial” off Movement. Not knowing what it was at first, you sort of listen to it in a different way and go “this is a good song.” Gillian was with me and we said what do you know?
That must be bizarre to be in a public place and your song comes on.
It is bizarre but sometimes it’s good. Normally if someone was to suggest that to me, “I’m going to put on “Denial” off Movement,” you would say that I’m not going to like it. But because it was chucked at you out of the blue, you listen to it in a different way and it’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be.
5. BROTHERHOOD (1986)
Clearly this has one of your most iconic tracks in “Bizarre Love Triangle.” Are there any stories behind the making of this LP that are interesting?
“Bizarre Love Triangle” is a brilliant track, but it was kind of done in a schizophrenic mood that we were trying to do one side synthesizers and one side guitars, which I don’t know it didn’t quite work. I like it better when it’s mixed up a bit more, when the songs are more mixed up. Um, that’s probably why that’s in the middle.
4. TECHNIQUE (1989)
Technique's recording sessions were a bit different for you guys....
Technique was the most expensive holiday we ever had, trying to record an album in Ibiza which was a mistake, at the beginning of what was going to become acidhouse which probably an even bigger mistake. So we had a lot of fun not recording [laughs], but somewhere along the line we came out with a record that was all those experiences in it somewhere. It’s kind of like how I said about Republic being a miserable record because we had such a miserable time making it, Technique is the complete opposite because we had such a brilliant time making it. In a way you can kind of tell our minds are elsewhere because it comes out in the music somehow. It doesn’t have loads and loads of heavy production on it and there isn’t really one song that you can sort of say “that’s a standout track on it” it’s an album that you can sit and listen to from beginning to end, really. There’s not one track that worse than any of them, I think they’re all pretty good and work together in a good way.
Personal experiences aside, do you think the work reflects that?
Yeah that’s what happened [laughs]. We recorded Power, Corruption & Lies in the dark, we recorded Technique in the sunshine and didn’t get much done. But everyone came out with a good suntan. “But you don’t get a tan like this for nothing” that’s the words to “Run.” It’s a really unified record and it’s probably the one that if I had to put on a New Order record right now, I’d probably go for that one. Even though Low-Life is at the top because the sleeve isn’t as good on Technique.
Do you have a favorite song from that record?
I like “Vanishing Point” No, actually, my favorite song on Technique is “Dream Attack.” “Dream Attack” I love.
3. SUBSTANCE (1987)
So this is a bit of a cheat to our usual Rank Your Records M.O., but since there are many standalone singles that sit outside of the New Order albums you put Substance at number three. Why?
I think that Substance was probably our biggest record and it was an accident, really. It was the upside of Factory getting into financial difficulties. We’d done all these 12-inch singles, like we’d done “Confusion” and of course we’d done “Blue Monday” and we didn’t put them on the albums so they were only available on singles. So we had all this stuff that was only available on single and Factory owed us a lot of money and we thought “well we put all this stuff out, we’ll do a record on the cheap and you can put all these singles on and it can be like a greatest hits thing sort of.” We had to do another track. We did “True Faith” with the intention of going in and writing a hit single which we managed to do. It was a massive record, really big. I’ve got to say I’m not a big fan of compilation records really, and I think New Order has been compilation album-ed to death over the years. Personally, I think we should have stopped at Substance. We really didn’t have to do another one after that. It opened a lot of doors in America and a lot of other places as well. It was a really big record.
It’s definitely the perfect primer for you guys in a lot of ways; Substance was the “catch up” to understand your history. Specifically “True Faith.” The art direction on that video is fantastic and the opening of the video is so memorable- the two guys slapping each other. Is there a specific video that was important to you?
Well, I think “True Faith” was actually. We did all our records with producer Michael Shamberg and who died last year unfortunately. We always wanted to make great videos but never wanted to be in them. “True Faith” manages to be a great video and [laughs] has us in it a little bit, just enough to make people aware there was a band involved and not a bunch of clowns. And I think Philippe Decouflé who made it and was a dancer, really had no idea. He had never made a video before and had no idea how to make one. And it was great. It was a wacky idea. If someone had actually told you beforehand what he was going to do, you would say no. I mean, we had no idea what he was going to do until it turned up.
2. POWER, CORRUPTION, & LIES (1983)
So Power, Corruption, & Lies was, as you were saying, where you found yourself as a band post-Joy Division.
We kind of escaped Joy Division and found a different way of doing it, of writing music that sort of became our sound. It was an odd record, quite psychedelic I thought. Was it fun to do? It was kind of fun to do. I can always remember we did it in winter because there’s nothing else to do apart from stay in the studio. So it was always dark when we were making the record, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it always sounds really light to me, really colorful, which is a big contrast to Joy Division which is like lots of shades of grey. It seems like a really colorful record to me.
Synthesizers were prevalent in the lead up to this record but Power, Corruption & Lies is when you went heavier with that sound. Was there a catalyst?
Not really. It seems as though it happened all of a sudden, but to us it happened quite gradually, though when I say gradually, time when you’re young seems to last forever. It probably took three weeks and that would be a long time. We had been using lots of rinky-dinky analog drum machines and it was really getting the first digital drum machines that you could do a lot of things. Nowadays you could do very little with them, but at the time it seemed like this is as good as it gets. Also we used a proper sampler on this record, so we were getting into sampling as well. We had acquired this technology and Power, Corruption & Lies is the sound of us learning how to make it work. And on Low-life we knew how it worked.
As a drummer, was it weird for you to employ drum machines?
Well that’s the best way to look at it. You’ve hit the nail on the head. You employ a drum machine, a drum machine doesn’t employ you.
[Laughs] It unemploys you actually.
Yeah, otherwise you’re out of a job. You could see what was going to happen when drum machines turned up. So it was like well, I’m a drummer, I’ll get a drum machine. Somewhere in between we’ll reach an accommodation. I’ll do some of the bits and I’ll let the drum machine do some of the other bits. And that served me well. I remember at the time, in the early 80s there was a lot of paranoia with Linndrum and putting drummers out of work, but I don’t think it ever did really. A good drummer can make an average record sound a hell of a lot better than a great song with a bad drummer. The difference is a lot greater in the favor of if you get a good groove behind something it’ll sound great, whatever.
A good drummer can turn an average band into a good band.
You said it so much better than me.
1. LOW-LIFE (1985)
So your favorite LP is Low-Life. Why?
The one I like the most is obviously Low-Life, because it’s got such an excellent cover. That sleeve is perfect. Sumner has never bettered himself than that sleeve. It’s also got some good songs on it. The thing about Low-Life was it was kind of the culmination of three records- what we started on Power, Corruption & Lies, it was a refined version of that.
So the cover is pretty important to you. Do you have a favorite track from the record?
My favorite track apart from “The Perfect Kiss” which I don’t really think should have been on there, was probably “Love Vigilantes.” I thought that was a really weird thing for us to do- a sort of country song. That’s probably my favorite track on it. “Face Up” I remember at the time I really really loved. I thought it was a fantastic, fantastic song.
We also kind of got the knack of producing records. We kind of worked out what you could do in the studio and we were quite comfortable doing the editing, and doing lots of studio messing about. The stuff we had learned we started learning with Martin Hannett in Joy Division and then in Movement and then kind of using more technology in Power, Corruption & Lies. It kind of all comes together on Low-life.
I’ve got to say, with one caveat, that it’s the record that I’m most happy with. Somewhere at Factory when the record got mastered there’s this little- in the early days of digital recording there was a little thing called an emphasis flag, and basically what it did was rolled all the bottom off your recording and made it sound a little bit funny, and unfortunately someone pressed this button somewhere along the mastering stage and it made a mess of it basically. Some copies of it sound absolutely terrible, and yeah it’s taken a long time to get to the bottom of that one. People have said ‘We’ve remastered it’ and you’d listen to it and say ‘This sounds awful!’
Final question: if you had to pick one definitive New Order song for you what would it be?
One song that I’ve always liked by New Order is “All Day Long” which is off Brotherhood. I just think it’s a really lovely song and we never really played it live, and maybe we should think about playing it live when we do some more gigs. I just think it’s a lovely song. It doesn’t have any drumming on it, but I like it as a song.
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