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How New Order's 'Blue Monday' changed the musical landscape

Looming in the shadow of Joy Division, it took New Order a couple of years to grab the spotlight with their signature work. In 1980, after the death of Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner, and Stephen Morris decided to start afresh to honour a pact the band made during their initial days and try to succeed as a band. Though Joy Division had a bumpy start and a short journey as a team, their musical contribution was significant. When Gillian Gilbert joined the trio, their next project, New Order, was still struggling from an identity crisis. Over the two years, they carefully carved their own path and brought a revolutionary change.

Released in 1983, ‘Blue Monday’ marked New Order’s triumphant moment as a band and introduced rock lovers to dance music in the most permanent of ways. The song was originally made in response to crowd disappointment about the fact that they never played encores. Allowing them to return to the stage, this track would take care of itself at the press of a button and engage the audience in a rapturous moment. However, everything didn’t go according to the plan. While working on this experimental song, they realised that it was quite difficult to synchronise all the elements properly, but the rewards were like nothing they’d heard before. Desperate to make a breakthrough, the band improvised on the draft and evolved it into a single. Since then, the band has played the song as an encore in most of their live performances, and it has become a landmark moment in music’s history.

Like every work of art, ‘Blue Monday’ was also influenced by its musical predecessors. Hook even said that the song was “stolen” from ‘Our Love’, the Donna Sumner song from the album Bad Girls. Bernard Sumner, on the other hand, confessed to borrowing ideas for the song’s arrangement from Klein+M.B.O’s ‘Dirty Talk’ and Sylvester’s ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) for the synthesised bassline. After watching For A Few Dollars And More, Hook was so impressed by the great Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack that he decided to design his bassline after it: “I stole it,” said Hook.

But in reality, the way the band synthesised all these scrap bits from different tracks can hardly be called stealing. Instead, it testifies to the band’s musical intelligence and acceptance of technological evolution that they were able to stitch it all together to make such a revolutionary tapestry.

The end product did not have any prominent trace of the assembled materials. Rather, it brought forth a fresh sound, a sound that mixed some of the recent era’s disco music with the dance and house music that boomed during the 1980s. The band’s manager Rob Gretton is the loudest man to take credit for encouraging the team to draw influence from the New York club scene—and, who are we to argue with Mr Gretton?

The intro starts with a Hi-NRG style of club music with a semiquaver kick drum in which Gilbert’s sequenced keyboard melody fades in gradually. Although out of sync as Gilbert forgot to put in a note in the sequencer, the keyboard creates an interesting pattern that ensures dance floor folly. The song’s verse section features the throbbing synth bassline that was played on a Moog Source and intersected by Hook’s defining bass guitar lines. ‘Blue Monday’ wasn’t just unique because of its tools; the song was unique in structure too. The track is atypical in the sense that it doesn’t contain a verse-chorus paradigm that pop music had defined itself by. Sumner’s deadpan delivery of the lyrics compliments the track’s mechanical soundscape and provides a vision of the future.

The 12 inches of pleasure is remembered for yet another reason—its cover art. The iconic sleeve was designed by Peter Saville, the co-founder of New Order’s label Factory Records. The man behind Joy Division’s viral ‘Unknown Pleasures’ album cover, Saville’s digital art, was a patent for almost every work that Joy Division and later New Order did. Having a clear understanding of each other’s aesthetics, they advanced with a holistic approach that enhanced each project’s appeal.

For ‘Blue Monday’, Saville came up with the idea of an oversized floppy disc which was an in trend, hi-tech invention of that time. The sleeve typically following its ancestors’ tradition, didn’t contain the name of the song or the band. To make it look cool and futuristic, Saville devised a cryptic colour code, printed on the left-hand side of the cover which gave away the details once decoded.

However, it was a costly affair. The black outer sleeve had to go through three expensive die-cut processes to include the hole found on a computer floppy disc. The silver inner sleeve added to the expense as the colour was outside the usual printing palette. In fact, this ambitious sleeve made the label lose 10p on every sold copy. Giving an accurate account, Peter Hook said that whereas the record sold for £1, the packaging cost £1.10. But clearly, both the band and the label had their priorities right while producing this album. To them, the value of the cover art was worth suffering a loss.

Later disapproving of this decision, Saville said that the sleeve “broke every single law” that governed the recording industry and was obtuse “to the point of being obstructive to any sales.” He even called the packaging the second part of a “pointless exercise”, while the first part, according to him, was the decision to release a lengthy seven-minute song that nobody was “going to play on the radio.” Probably disappointing Saville’s cynical anticipation, the song went on to be a gamechanger for both the band and the industry. It sold 700,000 copies and 1.2 million if the1988 and 1995 re-releases are taken into account.

Not only did it bring about the EDM revolution but also guided future artists through the newly paved path. For example, Flower Up’s ‘Weekender’ couldn’t have existed without this New Order track. Moreover, it brought rock enthusiasts to the previously deserted dance floor which was an achievement in itself.