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Ceremony: The Song That Turned Joy Division Into New Order
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Ceremony: The Song That Turned Joy Division Into New Order

New Order’s classic debut single, Ceremony featured lyrics from Ian Curtis, bridging the group’s Joy Division past with post-punk’s future.


Joy Division’s three remaining members were, of course, devastated by the suicide of their charismatic vocalist, Ian Curtis, on 18 May 1980. However, even while they were processing their grief, guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris were determined to complete the last two songs Joy Division had been rehearsing together, Ceremony and In A Lonely Place.

Listen to the best of New Order here.

The backstory: “There was never any suggestion of us giving up making music”

The band spent time arranging Ceremony in the weeks prior to Curtis’ death, and they all felt the song had something special. In fact, their new track was so popular, Joy Division had even performed it live at their final gig, at Birmingham’s Aston University, on 2 May 1980. That slightly formative performance later appeared on the band’s posthumous rarities collection Still, but Curtis’ vocal sounded muffled on record. He didn’t finalise an official lyric sheet for Ceremony or In A Lonely Place, either, and rehearsal versions taped during Joy Division’s final days were extremely lo-fi. The band required technological assistance to move forward.

“To work out the lyrics we had to listen to them over and over again,” Hook wrote in his memoir Substance: Inside New Order, “and hearing Ian’s voice like that it was almost like he was back with us in [the studio] again. Weird. And then it hit you that he wasn’t.”

Curtis’ absence was the elephant in the room for Sumner, Hook and Morris. Though Morris was adamant that “there was never any suggestion of us giving up making music and returning to the day job”, he also admitted that “solely playing instrumentals wasn’t a secret ambition”. The group had to decide on a new frontman.

The decision: “With some trepidation, I agreed to do it”

“There was no way we could replace Ian, he was a special person – the band was like family and we’d just lost a close relative,” Sumner recalled in his book, Chapter And Verse: New Order, Joy Division And Me. “From there, it was a short step to deciding that one of us should take over the vocal duties. There was no obvious candidate, so it was agreed we’d all give it a try.”

Having only just decided on New Order as their new name, manager Rob Gretton arranged a short East Coast US tour for the band during the early autumn of 1980. While on the road, they recorded their debut single – Ceremony and its B-side, In A Lonely Place – at Eastern Artists Recording Studio (EARS), in Trenton, New Jersey. Meanwhile, the gigs the group performed in New York City, Hoboken and Boston determined who would become their new vocalist – with Gretton making the final decision.

Sumner, Hook and Morris all sang lead on different tracks during these shows. After some deliberation, Gretton eventually decided Sumner should be their new frontman, even though – at this stage – he was unable to sing and play guitar simultaneously.

“We got through the tour, and Rob announced that I should be the singer,” Sumner recalled. “I’ve no idea why, we must have all been as hopeless as each other, but he told me I’d got the job and, with some trepidation, I agreed to do it. I wasn’t wild abut about the idea, but I was up for the challenge.”

The recording: “Ceremony was a very uplifting track, enhanced by Ian’s lyrics”

Fortunately, the band were more confident that they had two great songs in waiting. To record them, they reconvened with producer Martin Hannett, who was also producing A Certain Ratio’s debut Factory Records album, To Each, at EARS. The band recall that the sessions were a little quirky, though in general everything ran smoothly enough.

“The engineer Bruce had us booked in as Joy Division. He’d never heard of New Order. Nobody had,” Morris recalled in his book Record Play Pause: Confessions Of A Post-Punk Percussionist.

“He’d been in Vietnam (so he said) and drank coke with milk,” the drummer continued. “The studio had that 70s varnished wooden look (shades of beige and brown), complete with impressively large monitors either side of the triple-glazed window that let the producer and engineer view the musicians toiling at their art. Like Strawberry [in Stockport, where Joy Division had recorded their debut album, Unknown Pleasures], EARS had the same chilly air-conditioning, the same fake leather sofa at the back and the same coffee machine that nobody ever bothered with.”

Despite having to adjust to life without Curtis, the band successfully completed their first recordings as New Order. Ceremony, in particular, gave them a shot in the arm, as it felt like their most positive-sounding track to date.

Noting that the song they’d pegged for Ceremony’s B-side, In A Lonely Place, was “probably one of the most doom-laden tracks we’d ever written – and we’d written a few”, Sumner observed, “Ceremony, on the other hand, was a very uplifting track, filled with and enhanced by Ian’s lyrics.”

Original release and re-recording: “I can usually tell the difference”

The band were so excited about Ceremony that they recorded it and released it twice. The EARS recording became New Order’s first single, in January 1981. Appearing in a stamped gold-bronze sleeve designed by Peter Saville and awarded the Factory Records catalogue number FAC 33, the first version of Ceremony stayed on the UK Top 40 for five weeks, peaking at No.34 on 14 March.

However, after Gillian Gilbert joined New Order late in 1980, the group re-recorded Ceremony at Strawberry Studios, again with Martin Hannett behind the desk, but with Gilbert adding extra guitar. This second version was issued in September 1981, in a completely different blue and white sleeve, but as a 12” only. The re-recorded version has subsequently been included on most New Order compilations, though it’s hard for the uninitiated to tell the two apart.

“Here’s a tip for the confused: the New York version starts with just bass and hi-hat, the second Gillian begins with bass, hi-hat and bass drum,” Stephen Morris wrote in his second memoir, Fast Forward. “Trust me, it’s simple really. I can usually tell the difference. Well three out of five times.”

The legacy: “It felt like the start of something new – or different, at least”

Whichever version fans preferred, Ceremony represented an important milestone for the group, and it still stands as one of the best New Order songs. Exuding the kind of uplifting melancholy the band would soon make their own, their chiming, happy-sad debut single pointed the way out of the shadows of their recent past and bought the group some valuable time while they figured out their new identity.

“In my opinion, it had ‘hit single’ pressed through it like Blackpool rock,” Stephen Morris later recalled. “It was probably the only Joy Division song that I played repeatedly on cassette. I liked it that much. It was something uplifting and well… up [in mood]. It felt like the start of something new – or different, at least.”

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