Hailing from Salford, England, the music New Order have been making since 1980 could be described as synth-pop, electronica, or alternative dance. And yet so many other influences can be heard throughout their catalog (new wave, post-punk, indie rock). Like all the best bands, they combine all of these genres and make something wholly new (no pun intended).
The band’s backstory is a tragic one that can’t be overlooked. Before they were using sequencers and drum machines, they played together as Joy Division. The now widely hailed Manchester four-piece made sparse, gothic post-punk in a style all their own. Shortly before they were due to tour the U.S. for the first time, singer and guitarist Ian Curtis, who had for years suffered from epilepsy and depression, took his own life aged just 23. This left the remaining members of the band (Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris) without a frontman, and grieving the heavy loss of their friend and irreplaceable creative force.
Unwilling to down tools, the three decided the only way to continue was to carry on doing what they knew best – make inspired, captivating music. Eventually deciding on Sumner as their lead vocalist, they hired keyboardist Gillian Gilbert and got straight to work. New Order emerged from the rubble of their former band’s collapse to become a beloved dancefloor mainstay.
From sparse, moody industrial electronica to sunny indie classics, here’s our pick of the best New Order songs.
12. Love Vigilantes
‘Love Vigilantes’ is about a soldier returning home from War. At face value, the lyrics tell the story of a man who’s “got to go home, I’ve been so alone you see”, but Sumner has since said the lyrics are tongue-in-cheek. With a bleak ending that the songwriter admits can be taken “one way or another,” the first song on our list is a guitar-driven tune, and though there are some synths, it’s an arrangement that makes up a lot of New Order’s material when they’re not leaning into their more electronic side. Instead, ‘Love Vigilantes’ is more straight-up indie-pop, and finds the band embracing new instruments (the opening riff was played on a melodica) while still maintaining a more conventional rock sound. The result is like something The Cure would go on to make once they introduced more pop elements to their post-punk style.
11. The Perfect Kiss
Released by Factory Records in 1987, the album ‘Low-Life’ was perhaps New Order’s biggest push away from straight-up rock arrangements, favoring instead electronics they could play around and experiment with. The band have frequently cited Italo disco as a constant source of inspiration, claiming listening to it helped them get over the death of Ian Curtis. ‘The Perfect Kiss’ is a fast-paced, raucous song that captures the spirit of the band’s punk roots but trades in the primitive instruments for luscious, washy keys. The lyrics are some of Sumner’s most joyful too, as he declares, “I know, you know, we believe in a land of love” while the song marches forward. In one particularly boisterous live performance before the song had a name, the singer told the crowd it was called ‘I’ve Got A C**k Like The M1’.
10. Vanishing Point
Once the band had developed and incorporated danceable electronica into their sound, they felt they had to keep going with it. That’s exactly where they found themselves in the late ‘80s when recording the album ‘Technique.’ The band relocated to Spain, where they spent four months and, according to Sumner, had the album “20% complete” before eventually returning to England to finish it at Peter Gabriel’s studio in Wiltshire. Their time spent partying wasn’t all wasted, though — they hit the Balearic beat clubs and along with the sun, soaked up the eclectic mix of music they were hearing, from Spanish salsa music to trippy acid records. This schizophrenic influence can be heard throughout ‘Vanishing Point’ with its bells, keys, programmed hi-hats, and shimmering synths. Sumner sings, “my life ain’t no holiday”, but it sounds like the four of them had a hell of a time.
9. Thieves Like Us
‘Thieves Like Us’ is a classic case of art imitating art. Or rather, music imitating music. The group spent time in New York in the early ‘80s, and it proved a huge inspiration for their sound. There they heard disco, more electronic music being made, and of course, the club scene. Before long they’d buddied up with record producer and DJ Arthur Baker, who was producing hip hop artists like Afrika Bambaataa as well as remixing Bruce Springsteen and Cyndi Lauper songs so they could be danced to. They teamed up with Baker for this one, and it can be heard in the groovy bass slides and bouncy production. Peter Hook later confessed to stealing the bass licks from Hot Chocolate’s ‘Emma’, and eventually got a nod of creative fair play approval from their frontman Errol Brown.
If you listen to ‘Ceremony’ and mistake it for a Joy Division, it’s because it originally was one. It’s also New Order’s first single, and was worked on after the song was carried across from their previous band, including the lyrics written by Ian Curtis (the words were some of his last). ‘Ceremony’ was still early days for New Order, and this song pushed them forward. The experimental, off-kilter drumming was something the band would continue to embrace, but it’s the band at their most straight up. Despite Curtis’ reputation for doom and gloom, the lyrics about “forever watching love grow” are more optimistic than the ones he wrote for Joy Division’s similar sounding ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. A catchy, atmospheric number from the band’s formative years.
6. Dreams Never End
‘Dreams Never End’ is another early New Order song to make our list – it’s the opening on their debut studio album, ‘Movement.’ While they were undecided on a singer, they were still writing songs and practicing them. Peter Hook wrote this one on a 6-string bass (he used to favor the Shergold Marathon), which he’d later use for studio overdubs on some songs. He also sings this song, and it’s fair to say he sounds a lot like Curtis here. Gillian Gilbert would also switch to guitar for this one during live shows. It’s a melodic, bass-lead rocker that was surely stuck in Robert Smith’s head when he came to write ‘In Between Days.’
Described by Peter Hook as “going down a storm” when it’s played live, ‘Temptation’ is New Order nailing the euphoria of the clubs they’d been partying in and trying to replicate the vibe of. The song builds and builds, and finally bursts with energy as Sumner sings “Up, down, turn around, please don’t let me hit the ground”. In a fashion typical of the band, words about love and longing wrap around jangly guitars and off-timing-on-purpose drums. Fans of The National will appreciate the combination of sorrowful words and hopeful music – the band have since made their influences known by naming a new song ‘New Order T-Shirt.’
Before we talk about this classic from 1993’s ‘Republic’, it would be remiss not to mention a certain video performance of it. The single was the band’s biggest hit in the U.S., and while they were touring America, they decided to swing by the set of hit tv series Baywatch to film a live version for Top Of The Pops. Such was the band’s popularity at the time, David Hasselhoff managed to find time to make an appearance. It’s a catchy, hooky, pop number that still weaves dreamy, clubby synths with radio-friendly guitar rock. Peter Hook has since declared ‘Regret’ “the last good New Order song”.
4. Age of Consent
When Peter Hook first started practicing with Ian Curtis and Joy Division, he claims the late frontman was an instant fan of his fondness for playing the high notes on his strings. But Hook’s real intention of moving up the neck was just so he could be heard in the room. That might be the reason he went on to write so many simple, yet driving bass lines. ‘Age Of Consent’ is no exception. It’s an instantly recognizable, straight riff that kicks things off and carries the song before expansive synths bleed into it. The thick bass sound is due to it being laid down on both a 4 and 6 string, and the lyrics and mysterious title evoke coming-of-age relationships gone sour.
3. Bizarre Love Triangle
Like most of Bernard Sumner’s lyrics, the meaning of his words are never made explicit. We don’t know who’s involved in the bizarre love triangle that title this song, but Sumner sounds wistful as he ruminates on doing emotional damage. Musically, it’s the band finding their biggest sound. Synths are layered throughout the song (everyone barr Peter Hook is credited as playing them), but there’s drum loops and chiming keys during the hearty singalong chorus. It’s a distinctively ‘80s sounding New Order, and has the anthemic, stadium-filling capacity of a Pet Shop Boys hit.
2. True Faith
Written on the back of a demanding tour schedule, the song didn’t feature on an album but was instead released as a standalone single. It’s less frenetic and more conventionally put together than some of their other releases, but the song is typical of a band capable of pulling so much from their locker. With lyrics about drug dependency talk from the perspective of a heroin addict (although it’s not based on Sumner’s own experiences), it’s a biting slice of life that was masterfully produced by the band and American producer Stephen Hague. Led by Yamaha DX5 synths, it’s a glorious-sounding pop masterclass, and was the hit they’d hoped would help them break the States.
1. Blue Monday
Our top pick is the best-selling 12-inch single of all time, as described in the film ‘24 Hour Party People’, which tells the story of Tony Wilson and the rise of Factory Records. The film was shot around Manchester, specifically in Cheetham Hill, where the band practiced at the time and where this smash hit was born. It’s fair to say ‘Blue Monday’ was the band’s official crossover to the mainstream – it entered the chart top ten in most countries and was inescapable in dance clubs. With an iconic Oberheim DMX drum machine intro followed by an irresistible Moog Source synth bassline, this song put the band on the global map.