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‘Substance 1987’: Behind The New Order 12” Singles That Changed The World
Steve Speller / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

‘Substance 1987’: Behind The New Order 12” Singles That Changed The World

Collected on the ‘Substance 1987’ compilation, New Order’s finest 12” singles left a far-reaching impact on pop culture.

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In his book Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, New Order co-founder Peter Hook writes, “You are very lucky in a group to change the world culturally and musically once. We were very, very lucky to manage to do it twice.” Changing the world “culturally and musically” might seem like a bold statement, but in the case of Joy Division and New Order, it’s completely justified. Between 1981 and 1987, they released a series of 12” singles that went on to form the Substance 1987 compilation: a cornerstone in music history.

Listen to ‘Substance 1987’ here.

Most bands aren’t New Order…

Most bands would be sitting on at least a decade of material before they’d consider a retrospective compilation, but most bands aren’t New Order. To promote the collection they released a 12 Inches of New Order ruler, designed by frequent collaborator – and creator of their 12” artworks – Peter Saville, etched with each single’s track title.

The unique appeal of New Order’s singles during this period was their unpredictability. The 7” versions of their singles often featured different mixes or recordings to the 12” versions, and the group’s singles frequently didn’t feature on any of their studio albums. This level of variety is a key part of New Order’s appeal, making them one of the few bands where you’ll have many versions of their tracks to choose from.

The impact of New Order’s 12” singles was far-reaching, not least in UK club culture, where they were frequent favourites during DJ sets. However, their influence wasn’t just felt on the dancefloor, but spread throughout the local Manchester music scene. The iconic Haçienda club was funded and propped up throughout its history by New Order and their equally legendary record label, Factory Records.

The tracklist for the original 1987 double-vinyl release of Substance 1987 included all of New Order’s 12” singles to date in the chronological order in which they were released through Factory Records. Here’s a breakdown of all 12 of those featured singles, with each one demonstrating how New Order continually evolved during their remarkable first phase.

‘Substance 1987’: Behind The New Order 12” Singles That Changed The World

Ceremony (FAC 33, 1981)

The true bridge between Joy Division and New Order, Ceremony was originally written by the former shortly before the death of frontman Ian Curtis, and Joy Division performed the song live once, at their final gig, in Birmingham, on 2 May. New Order re-recorded the song after Curtis’ death, with Bernard Sumner taking over vocal duties. Given its history, it seems odd to class Ceremony as a debut single, but it is undoubtedly one of the greatest debut singles of all time.

Everything’s Gone Green (FAC 53/FBN 8, 1981)

Everything’s Gone Green played a significant role in mapping out New Order’s future direction. It was the first song the band wrote over a sequenced melody line and it’s also extremely danceable, even though it retains much of Joy Division’s trademark post-punk angst. Initially issued as a double A-side (with Procession) on 7”, in September 1981, Everything’s Gone Green soon received an extended 12” release through Factory Benelux, in December 1981, with two new songs, Cries And Whispers and Mesh, on the flip. The song’s extended 12” mix features on Substance 1987, with the track stretching out into a hypnotic final instrumental coda.

Temptation (FAC 63, 1982)

With its arpeggiated, sequenced synth backline and the bouncing sharpness of Stephen Morris’ drums, Temptation is New Order’s first truly great pop song. It also marks a significant shift in their sound, from sparse, angular and guitar-led to layered and synth-led. Temptation is also the first of New Order’s 12” singles on which Sumner settles into his own singing style. Still a staple of New Order’s live set to this day (a storming version appeared on the group’s 2021 live album, education entertainment recreation), Temptation was re-recorded and given a contemporary update for inclusion on Substance 1987.

Blue Monday (FAC 73, 1983)

The New Order 12” that had the biggest impact on the dance music world, Blue Monday still sounds as fresh today as it did almost four decades ago. It also still remains the best-selling 12” single of all time – and, due to its die-cut sleeve, one of the most expensive to produce. It’s one of those rare, game-changing musical moments where all the disjointed parts come together and make something special.

Confusion (FAC 93, 1983)

Among New Order’s 12” singles, Confusion stands apart for several reasons. Firstly, it was the result of an atypically spontaneous collaboration between New Order and influential New York City-based DJ and producer Arthur Baker, and it’s also unique because it features bass by both Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner. Though heavily influenced by the sound of cutting-edge 80s NYC super-clubs such as The Fun House and Paradise Garage, Confusion also went Top 20 in the UK on release in 1983, but it was re-recorded and given a contemporary sheen for inclusion on Substance 1987.

Thieves Like Us (FAC 103, 1984)

Synths that really sound like synths. Thieves Like Us is precision-engineered pop in the best possible way. Peter Hook’s trademark bass can still be heard weaving its way throughout the track, but the lyrics and the warmth of the synthesisers make Thieves Like Us an essential moment in New Order’s career. Having previously released 12” singles designed with the dancefloor in mind, this is another successful step into different territory.

The Perfect Kiss (FAC 123, 1985)

While the album version of The Perfect Kiss is under five minutes long, the full 12” version – and its glorious accompanying video, directed by Jonathan Demme – is the true masterpiece. Every member of New Order is at the top of their game here, with Sumner’s lyrics fitting perfectly with the energy of the track. The musical ambition is palpable throughout, and just when you thought there weren’t enough layers of sound in the mix, there’s a break featuring samples of frogs croaking.

Sub-culture (FAC 133, 1985)

A highlight of New Order’s third album, Low-life, in its original guise, Sub-culture was given a radical makeover for its standalone single release. Influential New York songwriter, producer and remixer John Robie – part of the crew responsible for one of hip-hop’s most seismic cuts, Planet Rock, by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force – was given the reins this time out. Included on Substance 1987, Robie’s remix of Sub-culture is significantly sleeker and more club-friendly than the original, and it rides a much tougher groove with help from orchestral curlicues and prominent soulful female backing vocals.

Shellshock (FAC 143, 1986)

Also touched by the hand of Robie, Shellshock originally appeared as part of the soundtrack to John Hughes’ high-profile Brat Pack film Pretty In Pink a month before being issued as a standalone single. A logical successor to Robie’s take on Sub-culture, Shellshock was an urgent electro-pop anthem, aided and abetted by overdriven guitars and a guest vocal turn from Jenny Burton – and it made waves, going Top 30 in the UK and performing well on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart in the US. The song’s full-length 12” mix is almost ten minutes long, though it was chopped down to a more user-friendly six and a half minutes for inclusion on Substance 1987.

State Of The Nation (FAC 153, 1986)

Unusually, for New Order, the self-explanatory State Of The Nation was a protest song about the state of “deprivation” in the UK, and – as if to hammer the point home – its title appeared in the verses and the choruses. Featuring atypically funky guitar and some heroic bass lunges from Peter Hook, State Of The Nation was strident and instantly memorable, and it deserved better than its UK chart peak of No.30. Though issued as a standalone single (with an alternate John Robie mix, Shame Of The Nation, on the flip), the song was also included as a bonus track with the CD edition of New Order’s fourth album, Brotherhood, and its dramatic 12” version – which includes an extra verse – made the cut on Substance 1987.

Bizarre Love Triangle (FAC 163, 1986)

Bizarre Love Triangle is simply unforgettable. The 12” version builds with orchestra hits and drum-pad stabs until all the elements come together in a tightly wound bundle that never veers off course. Choral synth effects would seem like a step too far in most tracks, but here they’re key to the song’s power. It’s one of the most influential of New Order’s 12” singles, being covered by a whole host of artists over the years – including a semi-acoustic reinvention by Aussie outfit Frente! and an intensely personal remake by indie heroine The Anchoress.

True Faith (FAC 183, 1987)

Originally recorded specifically for the Substance 1987 compilation, the the True Faith 12” single stands as one of the best New Order songs of all time. Its chorus is one of New Order’s strongest and, again, saw the band working in different territory than any of their contemporaries. This isn’t a dancefloor classic, nor is it a stripped-back synth track. Lyrically, it’s reflective, but it retains a driven energy throughout.

Buy the expanded deluxe edition of ‘Substance 1987’ at the New Order store.

Original article: 24 September 2020

Updated: 9 November 2023. Extra words: Alan York

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