In summer 2017, after some thirty-three years of seeing them whenever they came near me, I finally made the pilgrimage to see New Order play at home on their own turf, in Manchester. The band were playing five nights as a special event at the heart of that year’s pulsing and defiant Manchester International Festival, billed under the algorithmic title ∑(No, 12k, Lg, 17Mif) – a faintly chemical equation which gives off a blank, enigmatic atmosphere, yet, when you break it down, is pretty straightforward, which is a decent summary of New Order themselves.
Certainly, for these shows, being conducted in the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing, the group seemed engaged in weird alchemy, secret conjuring ceremonies. The gigs were staged down by the river, inside Manchester’s former, once-iconic Granada TV headquarters, then in a quasi-derelict state, being ripped out and refitted for a gentrified tomorrow, but still recognisably the abandoned television studios: like a building caught flickering in the night between its own past and future. On the way in, I suddenly realised I was walking over the old Coronation Street cobbles, and had a weird sense of ley lines converging and beginning to vibrate time beneath my feet.
Ghosts were summoned. The soundstages where the performances took place once played home to Granada Reports, the regional news show on which, four decades earlier, Joy Division – the much-mythologised group that New Order had been until the death of singer Ian Curtis – made their first television appearance. They were introduced on that night in 1978 by presenter Tony Wilson, who would soon after sign Joy Division to his now-fabled independent label Factory Records, whose chaotic, unlikely, unwanted influence, by slow osmosis, somehow seemed to encourage Manchester to reassess itself, and who himself passed away in 2007.
Elsewhere in the city, at Manchester Art Gallery, an exhibition devoted to the impact and legacy of Joy Division and New Order shared gallery space with the paintings of L.S. Lowry and a magnificent collection of the street photography of Shirley Baker, pictures of kids at play in Manchester and Salford taken in the early 1960s, when the members of Joy Division and New Order were themselves kids playing on the same streets.
For these 2017 shows, New Order were digging deep through their catalogue to build a set largely featuring songs they hadn’t often played, or hadn’t played in a long time, including a few Joy Division tracks. With so much past around, it might seem the stage was set for nostalgia, and that would’ve been okay. Yet instead, aided by the “Lg” and “12k” elements of that mysterious title, New Order conjured something new and restless.
“Lg” was the artist Liam Gillick, who had co-designed the stage setting, with the band playing in front of a vast, rigid structure of twelve blank squares (two high, six across). Inside each cubicle, part-hidden, then part-revealed as louvered slats opened and closed in rhythm with Gillick’s lighting, the “12k” were gathered: a dozen young students from the local Royal Northern College Of Music, assembled into a “synth orchestra,” playing deconstructed parts of the music and combining them into a pulsing, colossal new sound. When it all started going, the result, the combination of this veteran band, these very young collaborators, and all the old and recent history crackling in the air, was surgingly alive, and unexpectedly moving.
New Order: Decades is a film about those performances, except, in the New Orderly way of things, it isn’t. Given that they are a group built from contradictions (analogue/digital, machine/human, past/future, lots of different groups, yet always the same group) this is fitting. But it’s perhaps also what prevents a very fine music documentary from being a truly great one.
Director Mike Christie, who also did the excellent recent film on Hansa recording studios – the Berlin recording facility made mythic by David Bowie and Iggy Pop – didn’t actually catch the creation of the Manchester performances. Instead, his cameras filmed the two special reprise versions of the show that New Order and the students put on a few months later by invitation to festivals in Vienna and Turin. (Another of the band’s eternal contradictions: they are always associated with a certain place, yet always stubbornly of the world.)
Christie gets great access to the group and various collaborators in rehearsal, performance, and discussion as they chew over the technical, musical and logistical challenge, and possible “meaning,” of the original gigs. But all this is in retrospect, and so the film misses out on a first-hand document of the actual heat and struggle, the moments of frustration and breakthrough, that went into creating them in the first place. If he had been around for that, this might have been one of the ages, rather than just the best music documentary we’ve had on TV for months (ie, since Christie’s Hansa film).
Still: when it all gets going, when they start playing “Decades” – one of those Joy Division songs that seem to come from somewhere else altogether, here rendered in a version that would make Ennio Morricone sit up and shiver – it’s the only show in town.