As a Joy Division fan, I was lucky enough to see the band perform live twice, given that for the majority of their effective career, I was living seventy miles away in Nottingham. I had barely returned to Manchester when dear old much-missed John Peel gave us the horrible news of Ian Curtis’s suicide.
Naturally, I became a New Order fan, and they were my favourite band for much of the Eighties, at least before they came under serious challenge on my discovery of R.E.M.
Being back in Manchester, I had far more chances to see the new band in concert, at various venues, from my first gig at the Haçienda in 1981, and my last, also at the Hacienda, in 1987.
That first gig was not, to be honest, the best of experiences. It was my second gig in as many days, the previous night having been taken up with The Nolans at the Free Trade Hall – and the Nolans were the better night.
But that was the only time I had to make that complaint, and perhaps it was something to do with the band still being in that early period of uncertainty when they were still cleansing their souls of the traits of Joy Division. From 1983 onwards, New Order were powerful and focussed, and at its best, their music was propulsive and overpowering when performed live on stage. It had a tremendous physicality to it that I’ve never experienced in quite the same manner from any other live band.
So the gigs racked up, and they were great fun every time: Salford University when the nascent Happy Mondays were in support, and you can hear my voice roaring on the bootleg when Barney announces they’re doing an encore because Man United have beaten Liverpool in the FA Cup Replay that evening, G-Mex for the eleven hour Festival of the Tenth Summer concert, finishing the day by inspiring my first and only indoor Mexican Wave.
Encores were always something to think about at New Order gigs. The band rarely did them, and most of the time, once they left the stage the house lights went on and it was up to you whether you chanced it and stayed, more in hope than expectation.
This was certainly so the night I last saw New Order on stage.
It was May 1987, back at the Hacienda again. The band’s fourth album, Brotherhood, was out, but not yet True Faith, which would break the commercial mode for the band. By 1989, New Order would have recorded Treatment, their most overtly dance music oriented album, and the first break in the continuity of my enthusiasm for their music.
But the gig was another stormer, from beginning to end. I had taken my usual position on the balcony, clinging to the front, overlooking the floor below. One thing I didn’t like was the band’s habit of not coming on before 11.00pm, meaning a finish somewhere about or after 12.30am. Add in the return to my car and the drive back to South Manchester, I wasn’t getting into bed until 1.00am, and getting up again at 7.00am to get ready for work.
This time it was 12.40am when they finished the last number and went offstage, the Hacienda house-lights coming up immediately. There was a buzz in the air from the gig. Some people drifted out, but the majority of the audience stayed, me among them. There were no indications – there never were – that they might come back, and it was late and I was tired and I had work in the morning, but I stayed. There was something in the atmosphere, something telling me to stay, that it would be worth it to me if I did.
So I hung around, dehydrated, clammy from the set, whilst nothing happened. Then, without a change in the lighting, or an announcement, the band drifted out again, plugged their instruments in and prepared to play an encore. It had been worth waiting.
It had been more than worth the waiting. The rush of chords, the insistence of drums were instantly recognisable and a cold thrill went through me: they were playing Love Will Tear Us Apart
I’d only once heard that song live before, at the Apollo, that Saturday night in 1979, supporting the Buzzcocks. To hear it again, by the only band who, in my mind, had the right to even think of playing that song, was an astonishment and a dream. I was there. It had happened to me, as it had for a tiny number of audiences over the past three years, as the band chose a solitary gig, near the Anniversary, to remember Ian Curtis. I’d got the bootlegs of those three instances, but now I was here for one.
But the strangest thing of all was the band. They were the same four people, dressed in the same clothing that they had worn during the ninety minutes of their set, the four who had gone off-stage more than five minutes ago, but they were no longer New Order. They weren’t Joy Division, but for the four or so minutes that they played that song, with Barney misremembering the words, but with that oh-my-god, so brilliant a riff that I had missed so very much in the hearing live, they were… different. It was if the song existed in its own zone, into which everyone that entered had to leave their selves behind.
And it was over. There wasn’t the voice in the world with which to scream my delight, my gratitude, my delirium at what had happened.
I went home, undressed, got into bed. It wasn’t a deliberate decision on my part not to see New Order live again: the chance just didn’t happen for long enough that my enthusiasm began to dim, my loyalties shift from Manchester, England to Athens, Georgia. By then it had become fitting that the last song I’d heard New Order play had been the only time I’d heard them cover Joy Division, and become something different in the process.
They had touched magic, and I was there.