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education entertainment recreation: New Order’s Ally Pally Master Class
(c) New Order / Warner Music UK
Interviews

education entertainment recreation: New Order’s Ally Pally Master Class

Filmed in 2018, ‘education entertainment recreation’ finds New Order fresh as ever. ‘We’re always thinking of ways to update,’ they tell Dig!

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Has there ever been a more aptly named live release? Sure, Live At Leeds, Live At The Apollo, Live/Dead – they all get straight to the point, but education entertainment recreation pretty much nails everything it’s about. Filmed at London’s Alexandra Palace on 9 November 2018, New Order’s only UK gig of that year, it finds the Manchester group serving a master class in their post-punk fusion of rock and dance music, resulting in a euphoria-inducing live document that’s more than just a way to pass the time.

“There was a fantastic atmosphere at the Alexandra Palace gig,” New Order drummer Stephen Morris tells Dig! “The audience – who are a great part of the vibe of a gig – were great, and for such a large crowd it didn’t actually feel that daunting.”

Listen to education entertainment recreation here.

“It’s good to surprise people”

That, four decades after emerging from the wreckage of Joy Division, New Order can still pack out a 10,000-seater venue such as the iconic Ally Pally is testament to the durability of their songs. With an eye on the future of rock, pop and electronic music, the group fashioned a run of classic albums such as Power, Corruption & Lies, Technique and Low-life, plus a run of unimpeachable 12” singles – among them Blue Monday, Thieves Like Us and True Faith – that sound as innovative today as they did when they stormed the UK charts in the mid-80s.

“I really have no idea – it can’t be just our good looks, can it?” Morris jokes of New Order’s continued cross-generational appeal. “Perhaps it’s the music. That would make the most sense. I guess the majority of people come to New Order gigs to hear New Order’s music played in our ‘inimitable style’.”

He’s on the money. For a band often considered studio boffins, the chance to see them play their music live, in the flesh, remains too good to pass up – especially when they’re in the sort of form education entertainment recreation finds them. Inspired by a run of Manchester International Festival shows staged in the summer of 2017 (“The thing that made doing the MIF shows so much fun was playing stuff that we don’t normally do. It’s good to surprise people every now and then,” Morris says), the group fashioned an Alexandra Palace setlist that traverses the expected hits, plus lesser-spotted album cuts such as Ultraviolence and Love Vigilantes, and – digging further back – a closing trio of legend-enshrining Joy Division songs, Atmosphere, Decades and Love Will Tear Us Apart. It makes the show a reminder that, however much they keep their eye on the future, New Order are fully aware of the weight of their legacy.

“The thing is, when you are starting out as a band you’ve probably got maybe ten songs, so your setlist writes itself – all you have to do is jumble the order every now and then to keep things interesting,” Morris says, reflecting on the challenge of doing that legacy justice in an evening’s performance. “As time goes on, the repertoire naturally expands, and things get tricky should some of your compositions be fortunate enough to be classed as hits,” he continues. “You’re going to have a hard time not playing them – unless, of course, you really like upsetting and disappointing your fans, something that did occasionally happen in the early, wilfully eccentric days of New Order.”

“We’re always thinking of ways to update the songs”

Forever ready to reboot themselves when needed, New Order also use the live arena to interpolate elements from DJs’ and producers’ remixes of their work, among them Richard X’s reconfiguring of Bizarre Love Triangle, whose club-friendly embellishments provide a standout moment on education entertainment recreation. “There’s a good example of surprise right there,” Morris says. “Playing a different version of a familiar song like Bizarre Love Triangle keeps things interesting, and I think the latest incarnation of Temptation is brilliant. The thing is, we’re always thinking of ways to update the songs.”

With technology having changed so much in the decades since the group first crafted these classics in the studio, the hardware they now use is arguably able to not only finally keep up with their ambitions, but serve them in their quest to keep things fresh. But while some songs refuse to play ball (“There are some that, despite trying different arrangements or versions, never seem to work,” Morris says. “Run, off Technique, is a good example – it sounds great on record and is seemingly quite simple, but it never felt right live. An unplugged, percussionless acoustic version might do the trick”), frontman Bernard Sumner himself tells the education entertainment recreation crowd that Ultraviolence “sounds a lot better than it did in the old days”. As Morris reflects, the gear they used back then “was pretty primitive by today’s standards”.

“The thing was, it just wasn’t really meant to be used live,” he says of the equipment that gave New Order their signature sound – among them the Oberheim DMX, the Voyetra-8 and the Pearl Syncussion SY-1. “It was, to put it mildly, temperamental, and Gillian [Gilbert, synths and keyboards], was the victim of dirty looks from the rest of the band when a sequencer or synth decided to go on strike.

“The fact that it was simple and unsophisticated meant there wasn’t really that much you could do with it,” Morris continues, “but what you could do sounded great – on a good day.”

Though the group today steer clear of playing live with the original gear (“If I wanted the sound of an old drum machine or synth, it’s safter just to sample it and trigger the sound, rather than drag a bit of antique gear on tour – it would only complain and manifest its disapproval of life on the road by behaving badly”), Morris still returns to those era-defining instruments when it comes to recording.

“The studio is a different kettle of fish,” he says. “I am a sucker for restoring old machines like the DMX and the Voyetra, as well as my old Syncussion, Synare and Simmon – I could go on and on about the geriatric gear I’ve got. My studio is a bit like a synthesiser retirement home.” But despite the advances in technology – and “a bit of a thing at the moment for new gear that sounds like old gear” – Morris notes, “No one has managed to pull off a really convincing remake of the ARP Quadra – New Order’s first polysynth – which is a shame. I have fond memories of that one. It has a unique, ethereal sound.”

“You have to change to work with the machine”

Fond memories is what New Order’s performances continue to evoke for their fans, who remain as committed to the group as ever. Though it’s Bernard Sumner up front, the cheers that greet the individual band member’s names as they flash up on the screen behind him during Your Silent Face make it clear the group are the sum of their parts: “Synth Queen” Gillian Gilbert’s otherworldly atmospherics, underpinned by Morris’ metronomic drumming, sit behind the emotive fragility of Sumner’s voice to create a unique sound that’s both humanising yet fully plugged into the digital backdrop of the world we live in. As a musician who pioneered the ways in which the fluidity of live drumming could be combined with the rigidity of drum machines, Morris has, at this stage of his career, seamlessly bridged that technological divide.

“The main thing about accommodating technology is that the machine in is charge, and any human attempt to extemporise or deviate – aka wildly jam – will more often than not end badly,” he says, inadvertently describing one of the anxieties of our digital age – are we in charge of our devices, or are our devices in charge of us? “Over the years there have been many attempts by gear-makers and software-writers to reverse this trend and get the machine to follow the drummer. As an enthusiastic early adopter of things that promise to ease the drummer’s lot, I’ve tried nearly all of them with very little success… Once you accept that you have to change to work with the machine, then all is well.”

Though practice has made perfect in this regard, Morris suggests that New Order’s continued willingness to enter territory that even they may not fully understand is what has enabled them to occupy such a unique space in the musical landscape. “You would expect that the more you do a thing, the better you will get at it – and, in many respects, this is true,” he says. “You do become more accomplished and sophisticated in what you can do musically – ie, you learn how to play properly. However, there is something to be said for the playing of things that just sound good without understanding that they may not be technically correct – I think the term is ‘feeling’. That sometimes works better. In Joy Division, for example, we didn’t really know what we were doing, so we just did what felt right to us.”

“Maintaining some sanity is a big achievement”

With footage of Ian Curtis projected behind them as New Order return to the stage for those rarely played Joy Division songs, their late frontman is – however fleetingly – reunited with his former bandmates for a cathartic half hour that brings education entertainment recreation to a close. New Order’s future, however, remains – as with everything in their career – a pleasingly open question the group are willing to explore. The group are due to perform a one-off show at Manchester’s Heaton Park in September 2021 (“I find it funny that it gets called a ‘homecoming’ show, as if we’ve all been off on some great quest or something, instead of cooped up at home,” Morris says), while the September 2020 release of standalone single Be A Rebel gives fans cause to hope for more new music to come (“New stuff? Who knows?”).

In the more immediate present, however, there’s that legacy to tend to in the shape of an expanded reissue of Low-life, set to take its place alongside the acclaimed “definitive edition” reissues of Movement and Power, Corruption & Lies. While we wait, education entertainment recreation stands as a victory lap for what Morris suggests may be New Order’s biggest success of all: “After being in the music-playing game for over 40 years, man and boy, I think maintaining some semblance of sanity is a pretty big achievement.”

education entertainment recreation is out now. Buy it here.

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