Calling Bernard Sumner an influential musician is a bit of an understatement. Initially with Joy Division, and eventually New Order, Sumner pioneered post-punk, electronic music, and definitely helped create techno and rave music during the “Madchester” scene. There are very few musical icons who can say, with confidence, that they not only helped a flourishing band survive the death of its lead singer but went on to create an even more commercially successful band as it’s singer, and create new avenues of musical exploration.
To trace Sumner’s roots all the way back to it’s beginning, it is worth mentioning a small but fateful Sex Pistols concert as it was artfully captured in 24 Hour Party People, directed by Michael Winterbottom. Bernard Sumner, and the rest of Joy Division, attended the most important gig for Britain’s music scene. Not completely dissimilar to the mythos surrounding The Velvet Underground’s story — while they may not have sold many records, everyone who bought one started a band.
The same goes for this Sex Pistol’s concert. While there were only about 50 people there, everyone who did attend would go on to do big things, more or less. Bernard Sumner, along with the other members of Joy Division, Ian Curtis, and Peter Hook, attended the impactful show. To give you an idea of how powerful this show was, others in the crowd included, Morrissey, Mark E. Smith, Pete Shelley from the Buzzcocks, and, of course, Tony Wilson, who is portrayed by the hilarious Steve Coogan in the Winterbottom’s film.
Sumner began his music career with Joy Division, whose name was a reference to the females who were kept as sex slaves for German troops during World War 2. Bernard Sumner has frequently commented on this subject, “It was the flip side of it, rather than being the master race, the oppressed rather than the oppressor.”
According to Simon Reynolds, in his book, Rip It Up and Start Again, “Sumner has often claimed that the group’s obsession with Nazism came from their desire to keep alive memories of the Second World War and the sacrifices of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations in the struggle of good against evil.”
This should give you a good insight into, not only Bernard Sumner’s ethos as an artist, but also Joy Division’s ethos and eventually, New Order’s. After Joy Division’s singer, Ian Curtis tragically hung himself, the rest of the band had an important decision to make: do they pack it in? Or do they trudge on? Sumner thought to himself, what would the generations belonging to his parents and grandparents do? Of course, the answer was to carry on.
Unlike Joy Division’s stark post-punk, machinery-like guitar music, New Order would adopt a more optimistic vision, not one drenched in 1800s romantic doomsday poetry and loud meta-punk rock. They would eventually pioneer electronic instruments while maintaining their pop ethic, which even their previous band utilised. Even so, songs like ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ and ‘Blue Monday’ were existentialist-dance hits — the first of their kind; you could simultaneously dance to your heart’s content, while thinking about life’s unanswerable questions, and absorbing Sumner’s poetic lyrics, which would have given Ian Curtis a run for his money.
New Order’s pioneering indie-pop sound would be further informed and developed through dance floor shuffles when they arrived in New York. They would find themselves heavily influenced by Kraftwerk, whose sound was created around drum machines and synths.
We did some digging into Far Out’s vaults, and, in celebration of Bernard Sumner’s birthday, decided to share with you his five favourite songs according to an interview he gave ABC’s Double J. Five tracks that ‘made’ him and kept him going throughout all the years. One song selected in the piece was Iggy Pop’s ‘Shades’, about which Sumner said: “This is a really beautiful, quite romantic song. It shows another side of Iggy. The album [1986’s Blah-Blah-Blah] showed him experimenting with synthesizers a bit. And I just thought was just that was a really beautiful song, and inspirational. I like the lyrics as well, they’re really beautiful.”
Sumner also picked out Joe Smooth’s classic ‘Promised Land’ which Sumner noted often permeated his days in the Hacienda, he remembers, “having a great time to it.” Another doff of the cap to that stage of his life is Electronic and their song ‘Twisted Tenderness’. “The reason we formed Electronic was because I was burnt out with New Order,” confides Sumner. “We just seemed to get pushed out on the road over and over and over again to pay for The Hacienda’s mounting debt. And I got sick of it.” So, alongside Johnny Marr Sumner started a new project and this is certainly one of the better songs from their short time together.
Picking out David Morales’ ‘Hideaway’, Sumner says: “This is a great example of melodic house music and that dance music has gone in a good direction. I just thought it was really strong, I really liked the groove, I thought it was really, really danceable.” He also notes his love for indie heroes Arcade Fire, picking their song ‘Ready To Start’ about which Sumner noted: “I love it because it’s really simple. I think it’s a great vocal line. I found it really inspirational.”
While it may not be plausible to suggest that Bernard Sumner was influenced by the tracks mentioned below during the salad days of his career — in fact, most of them hadn’t been released. But, it is easy to see how they play into his influences today. Whether the indie vocal lines or dancefloor fodder, Bernard Sumner has never reduced his inspiration with categorisation and conformity.
Bernard Sumner’s favourite songs:
- Iggy Pop – ‘Shades’
- Joe Smooth – ‘Promised Land’
- Electronic – ‘Twisted Tenderness’
- Arcade Fire – ‘Ready to Start’
- David Morales – ‘Hideaway’ featuring. Blondewearingblack