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‘Bizarre Love Triangle’: How New Order Created Synth-Pop Perfection
Steve Speller / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

‘Bizarre Love Triangle’: How New Order Created Synth-Pop Perfection

A transcendent synth-pop song, Bizarre Love Triangle is a big part of New Order’s legacy, and it remains a firm fan favourite.

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A standout track on their fourth album, Brotherhood, and an evergreen live favourite, Bizarre Love Triangle is rightly ranked among the best New Order songs. However, while it was chosen for single release in November 1986, this shimmering electro-pop classic didn’t follow the likes of Blue Monday, Confusion or Thieves Like Us into the upper reaches of the charts – a result which still bemuses its creators.

“Today it’s up there with everyone’s favourites,” drummer Stephen Morris wrote in his second memoir, Fast Forward: Confessions Of A Post-Punk Percussionist: Volume II. “But in 1986 it was a damp squib. A thing that baffles me to this day.”

Here is the story of how Bizarre Love Triangle became an adored classic and one of New Order’s greatest achievements.

Listen to the best of New Order here.

The backstory: “We started to write more electronic songs… and things really began to take off”

In fairness, on its initial release Bizarre Love Triangle did open doors for New Order. The song went Top 5 in the US Hot Dance Music/Club Play Singles chart, and a similar chart placing in Australia helped build the band’s stalwart fanbase down under. More importantly, the song’s stock has risen ever since. It’s been remixed twice (firstly by Shep Pettibone, for inclusion on the group’s singles collection Substance 1987, and then by Stephen Hague, for 1994’s The Best Of New Order), and it has been repeatedly praised by the critics. Indeed, the NME’s assessment (“their finest synth-pop moment”) seems especially apt, as Bizarre Love Triangle sprang from an expensive bit of studio kit that exceeded New Order’s price range during the mid-80s.

The recording: “This song has no key change but the chorus jumps out on its own”

“The Fairlight had been refined since its introduction in 1979 but its price hadn’t,” Stephen Morris recalled of the digital synthesiser and sampler favoured by Kate Bush and Prince in the mid-to-late 80s. “You could have opened another club for that kind of money – almost,” he added. Instead of shelling out enough cash for a second Haçienda, the group borrowed a Fairlight and, before long, frontman Bernard Sumner had “an interesting rhythmic bass and top-line sequence which eventually evolved into a song, Bizarre Love Triangle”.

In keeping with their original modus operandi, New Order built upon their new track’s thrumming, Giorgio Moroder-esque pulse through performing it live, though as the song changed shape, the band were forced to jettison what could have been one of the best Peter Hook basslines of all time.

“It started life in a different key,” the bassist recalled in his book Substance: Inside New Order. “I had a great open-string bass riff which we lost on the key transition… This song has no key change but the chorus jumps out on its own. A great pop tune, driven by Barney’s wonderful string riffs.”

The release: “We’d created the right sound at the right time”

Hook also recalls that the song was given several working titles – including Broken Promises and Broken Guitar Strings – before Bernard Sumner finished its ambiguous lyrics and chose the final title from an article in one of the UK’s Sunday newspapers.

“We used to take our song titles from many different places,” Hook told Songfacts. “Books, TV, anything we saw that sounded good, we would write down and use at a later date. That’s why a lot of our song titles are completely separate to the lyrics: BLT, Blue Monday, True Faith.”

A highlight of one of the best New order albums, Bizarre Love Triangle was released as a single on 5 November 1986. Arriving amid a run of fantastic New Order synth-pop tracks which culminated in two UK Top 5 hits, True Faith and a remixed Blue Monday, in 1987 and 1988, respectively, Bizarre Love Triangle may not have been as commercially successful as those songs, but it still played an important role in New Order’s international standing.

“It seemed we’d created the right sound at the right time,” Bernard Sumner reflected in his book, Chapter And Verse: New Order, Joy Division And Me. “We started to write more electronic songs, Bizarre Love Triangle, for example. People began to latch onto it, and things really began to take off.

“America was a great barometer for this,” Sumner continued. “Where at first we’d be playing to four hundred people, we began pulling in fifteen hundred, then two thousand, and every time we went back, the crowds would just go up and up, until we were playing to twenty or thirty thousand people.” It also helped that, in 1986, New Order had three tracks in John Hughes’ “Brat Pack” movie Pretty In Pink: Thieves Like Us, the Low-life album instrumental Elegia, and Shellshock, the latter written for use in Hughes’ film.

The legacy: “An absolutely perfect pop record if ever there was one”

Certainly, Bizarre Love Triangle was a hit with New Order’s core audience as soon as it appeared in the band’s setlist. And it’s still a regular feature of their live shows today, with the group delivering their own reworking of the song in a mash-up with Richard X’s remix during their 2018 show at London’s Alexandria Palace, filmed for release as the education entertainment recreation live video and album. “There’s a good example of surprise right there,” Stephen Morris told Dig! in an interview at the time of the album’s release. “Playing a different version of a song like Bizarre Love Triangle keeps things interesting… The thing is, we’re always thinking of ways to update the songs.”

Revealing Bizarre Love Triangle’s versatility, Australian band Frente! reimagined it as an acoustic-based folk ballad in 1994, scoring a Top 10 hit at home. More recently, acclaimed Welsh singer-songwriter The Anchoress (aka Catherine Anne Davies) also put her own inimitable spin on this alluringly timeless pop song which remains among her all-time favourites.

“I first heard Bizarre Love Triangle via the Frente! acoustic cover version before discovering the New Order original and falling for it all over again,” Davies explained. “It’s always felt like a very mysterious novella to me. As every perfect song should, it allows the listener to project their own meaning and narrative onto it.”

The song’s enduring appeal has also resulted in heavyweight retrospectives, such as Billboard’s 2016 appraisal of Bizarre Love Triangle as “an incandescent jewel of mid-80s computer love”.

Praising another “brilliant video” from director Michael Shamberg, whose work on the True Faith and Blue Monday clips also maintains New Order’s place among the best 80s music videos, Stephen Morris proudly concluded, in Fast Forward, that Bizarre Love Triangle was “an absolutely perfect pop record if ever there was one”.

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