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Music

Revisit New Order performing an exhilarating ‘Low-Life’ set in Belgium

Let’s just go out and say it: New Order were a million times better than Joy Division. Sure, they wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Joy Division, but New Order had the more accomplished melodies, the more sophisticated production design, and the better live performances. And although guitarist Bernard Sumner was reluctant to step into the role Ian Curtis had vacated, he quickly adapted to the role of frontman by modelling it on his own chirpy, individualistic personality. It also helps that he sang better too.

Drummer Stephen Morris was also adapting to change, and he wound up recording many of the keyboard lines with guitarist/girlfriend, Gillian Gilbert. With three of the members embracing change, it left Peter Hook as the one holdover from Joy Division, refining the style of bass playing Echo & the Bunnymen’s Will Sergeant described as “lead bass”. 

By 1985, New Order had cast off the shackles of their previous band, growing into the electro-pop outfit we still love them today as. Fresh from recording Low-Life, the band’s third album, New Order performed a set in Belgium that combined all the idiosyncrasies, proclivities and shadings that went into painting their records. What the clip from 1985 demonstrates is just how important every member was to the overall sound, whether it was Sumner noodling aimlessly on a guitar, or Gilbert pressing the loops that open ‘The Perfect Kiss’. 

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Hook is having a blast, thrusting himself into his instrument like a samurai contemplating his next move. By contrast, Morris is sanguine, hidden in the shadows, his drums and keyboards close at hand. And although Sumner had yet to transform into the hip-shaking frontman that he’s known today as, you can see him visibly relax behind the microphone, safe in the knowledge that Curtis isn’t going to take to the stage and tell him to clear off. 

With Morris cementing the back, and Hook entertaining the front, Gilbert sits behind her keyboard, a loyal lieutenant keenly aware of the importance at stake. Tackling some of the more outlandish hooks, Gilbert enters into an instrumental passage that offers Sumner the breathing time to switch from guitar to percussion, or back to the microphone. 

Sumner holds the more methodical guise that’s more commonly seen in bass players, while Hook throws himself across the stage with the blistering presence of a lead guitar bolstered by adrenaline. Bearing a more than passing resemblance to 10cc’s Kevin Godley, Hook looks like a 1970s rocker thrust into the confines of a 1980s pop outfit. Behind him, Morris kicks into ‘Age of Consent’, delivering an instinctive, cymbal-tinted performance that recalls the pummelling efforts of Keith Moon.

It’s these hybrid influences that helped to make New Order tick, making them a recipe that was impossible to replicate, even with the presence of new members. Gilbert left the band in 2005, which meant that Waiting for the Sirens’ Call lacked some of the style of their earlier work. Gilbert returned to the rebooted New Order in 2011, although without Hook, their live set lacked spontaneity, and, more critically, danger. 

As a whole, New Order were greater than the sum of their parts, although Sumner did record a number of gorgeous tunes with Johnny Marr and Electronic. But what Electronic lacked, and New Order boasted, was a vigour that worked on both the stage and the studio. Judging from this particular setlist, ‘Thieves Like Us’ emerges as the highlight, but that’s no reflection on the rest of the set-up. 

Clearly, the band felt confident enough in themselves to run through Joy Division highlight ‘Atmosphere’, a probing keyboard-heavy piece that preceded New Order’s work by a few months. Sumner struggles on the vocal, his singing voice is that bit higher than Curtis’ was, but he’s sincere and stands by to let Gilbert, Morris and Hook do the heavy-lifting. Indeed, you can just about make out the etchings of a smile, as Sumner luxuriates in the support of a band who have his back, much as he had Curtis’ in 1979. 

He was probably too modest to say New Order were better than Joy Division, but he didn’t have to. The music did the talking for him. 

Stream the concert below.