When it comes to game-changing songs, Blue Monday is up there with the best of them. First released on 7 March 1983, New Order’s signature hit is frequently hailed as one of the 80s’ most innovative tracks, and it remains the best-selling 12” single of all time, topping the dance charts in the US and selling over a million copies in the UK alone.
Those are the headlines – and they make impressive reading, but they probably surprised the song’s composers more than anyone else. After all, while Blue Monday is now accepted as a bona fide dancefloor classic, the song sprang from a loose experiment in which New Order attempted to create a piece of music their equipment could play itself, thus circumventing their need to play encores at their live shows.
Embracing new technology
New Order’s dislike of encores is traceable back to the anti-showbiz stance that was so prevalent when they started life as Manchester punk outfit Warsaw in 1977. Within 12 months, however, they’d rebranded themselves as Joy Division, creating a future-shaping sound of their own and releasing two highly influential Factory Records albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, before their charismatic vocalist Ian Curtis committed suicide, aged just 23, in May 1980.
Joy Division were primarily a guitar-driven rock outfit, but pioneering synth-pop outfit Kraftwerk were one of Curtis’ favourite groups, and his bandmates were also drawn towards electronics. Producer Martin Hannett encouraged them to incorporate synths and drum machines into their sonic palette circa Closer, and when the band regrouped as New Order following Curtis’ death, they threw themselves into exploring the possibilities of electronica and embracing the new technology.
After successfully integrating sequencers into their trademark post-punk sound on early game-changing singles Everything’s Gone Green and Temptation, New Order went on to record their second album, 1983’s Power, Corruption & Lies, at Pink Floyd’s Britannia Row Studios in London. It was here they took receipt of two new bits of kit which shaped Blue Monday’s sound.
The first of these was the Oberheim DMX, a drum machine capable of almost supernatural precision, which drummer Stephen Morris programmed and then added fills and little drum stops akin to those New Order had recently heard on dance records spun at the cutting-edge New York clubs.
The band then added Blue Monday’s thrumming bass synth part, based on Sylvester’s disco hit You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and Gillian Gilbert’s sequenced synths. They then utilised their second newly-acquired gadget, the Emulator sampler (effectively a high-tech 80s successor to the 60s analogue Mellotron) to sample the track’s distinctive choir-like voices from Kraftwerk’s classic track Radioactivity. Peter Hook then added his instantly recognisable, Ennio Morricone-esque bassline and Bernard Sumner completed the song with his memorably melancholic vocal.
“A prompt to make you dance”
The band were rightly pleased with the outcome, but didn’t imagine they had a hit single on their hands. Aside from being such a radical sonic departure, Blue Monday had no obvious chorus and also clocked in at seven minutes – hardly the stuff of daytime radio hits.
However, after the song was released, it rapidly became a word-of-mouth phenomenon. Immensely popular in clubs the length and breadth of Europe, Blue Monday crossed over into mainstream charts around the world, as well as climbing to No.9 in the UK: a result that necessitated a famously fraught Top Of The Pops performance for which New Order insisted on playing live.
Blue Monday was also issued in a sleeve which became the stuff of legend. Designed by Peter Saville and Brett Wickens, the 12” record came housed in a striking die-cut cover resembling a floppy disk. It was aesthetically pleasing but, due to the use of die-cutting and specific colours, the sleeve’s production costs were so high that Blue Monday actually sold at a loss of five UK pence per copy. Multiply that by around 250,000 copies reputedly sold before the sleeve was modified and you’ll see why the 1988 and 1995 reissues of the song were packaged in more conventional sleeves.
“Even today, it still cuts it”
In terms of prestige, however, Blue Monday more than delivered. Effectively the record that ushered New Order into the mainstream, it encouraged the group to alchemise the distinctive electronic-tinged rock sound they made their own on classic albums such as Low-Life and Brotherhood, and ultimately led them to significant success on the international stage.
“As a song, I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite New Order track, but as a prompt to make you dance, it’s unsurpassed,” Bernard Sumner reflected in his 2014 memoir, Chapter And Verse.
“Even today when Blue Monday comes on in a club, people get straight up and on the floor. It still cuts it.”
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