The trio of Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris took on a monumental challenge when they decided to start afresh under a new banner by sacrificing all the advantages that came with the name Joy Division. Though they embarked on this journey in 1980, it was perhaps too soon, as they were still grieving the loss of their friend and Division’s ex-vocalist Ian Curtis. Moreover, New Order reeled under the shadow of Joy Division, unable to produce anything different and was the target of constant comparison. The entry of Gillian Gilbert at this point changed their entire game.
Before joining New Order, Gilbert used to play in a punk girl-band called The Inadequates. The rehearsal venues of Inadequates and Joy Division being adjacent to each other, the band members knew one another back in the day. Gilbert, recalling the first time she came to know about Joy Division, said: “We didn’t have a car and us three needed a lift home. So we asked them, and they said, ‘Alright, but you have to buy one of our singles.’ So we did and got it home and played it on this horrible record player. We’d known Stephen before. We thought, ‘My God, this sounds horrible.”
Being well acquainted with Gilbert and her style of music, the band’s manager Rob Gretton naturally suggested the trio take her on board to complete the line-up. Joining in October 1980, her first live performance with the band was on the 25th of October at The Squat, Manchester. Not only did Gilbert’s presence help the band establish their separate identity, but also to navigate through an ocean of sounds, hauling a few among them on the way, that went on to define their music for the longest time.
After one year of aimless voyage, their ship hit the shores of New York where they were introduced to electro music, post-disco and freestyle. The influence can be noted in the singles that followed like ‘Temptation’ and ‘Everything’s Gone Green’. Having found their sound, they steered towards the direction of dance music, widely experimenting with electronic music. In some ways, New Order can be credited for founding the very base of house music as it preceded Chicago’s Warehouse music. The band even opened their own nightclub called The Hacienda in Manchester in May 1982 which became the hub of EP dance music. Being UK’s first ‘superclub’ of sorts, it’s opening was marked by a 23-minute long track that was composed by Sumner and Morris.
Apart from co-producing some revolutionary music, Gilbert was memorable for many other reasons. During that time almost all bands were exclusively male-dominated, and the representation of female musicians was restricted to the category of the vocalist, Gilbert’s emergence as a fearless guitarist and keyboardist that too in a male majoritarian band was truly unconventional. Not only did she create her own space, but also paved the way for many other aspiring musicians of her gender by setting a slid example before them.
The Smith’s guitarist Johnny Marr expressed in an interview how unappreciated Gilbert’s role in the New Order is: “I don’t really think in all the years that New Order’s story has been told that Gillian’s really been given the credit for what she did and what her joining that band meant to young people at the time,” he said. Talking about her influence, he added: “She was very enigmatic. I try to avoid using the word iconic too much but back in 1981 when they were on the cover of a magazine, she was uber cool. Nowadays we are so used to a band with a girl playing keyboards, quite rightly. She was the first to do that, as I remember it.”
A huge fan of Gilbert, Kelly Lee Owens also confessed that it was Gilbert who dared her to live her dreams. While speaking to NME, she stated: “Having Gillian as the synth queen was fucking amazing, speaking as a woman in music. You can’t be what you can’t see, so to have a woman be a part of something like this and own her part was really inspiring.”
Gilbert consciously played the “role model” figure as she knew its importance in the contemporary music scenario. Once inspired by the Siouxsie and the Banshees live concert on the television herself, Gilbert knew exactly what sort of impact she wanted to create. “Me dad always says to us, ‘You changed as soon as you saw Siouxsie and the Banshees on television’,” she once said. “And I really liked Gaye Advert out of the Adverts, who played bass, and I thought, ‘Oh, there’s nobody playin’ guitar’ – you know, women in bands,” recalled Gilbert. She even stressed the importance of female representation in bands later in an interview saying: “Women should be in bands. Every band should have one!”
Though Gilbert chose to leave the band in order to look after her children, she did not give up on her music. Returning to New Order after a hiatus of ten long years in 2011, she resumed work as if there had been no discontinuation at all. Among the huge number of musicians that Gilbert inspired, is her own daughter Tilly, who followed her footsteps and took up the keyboard as the instrument of her choice. “She plays keyboards. She’s quite good. It’s kind of weird. She supported us at a couple of European festivals in Paris and Stockholm. That made me feel really old.” joked Gilbert.
Although the male-dominated industry refuses to give Gilbert her due recognition, we can only be thankful to her for being the guiding light for a huge number of female musicians.