Back when New Order were still anonymous, “Be Music” was first the name they gave to their publishing company and then the enigmatic alter ego behind which, for a while, the individual members concealed their true identities when they took on producing jobs for other acts on Factory Records and associated labels Les Disques du Crépuscule and Factory Benelux (the Belgian-based affiliates co-founded by Annik Honoré).
Peter Hook was the first to activate the tag when, late in 1981, he took over the controls for “Death Is Slowly Coming,” the B-side of Stockholm Monsters’ debut single, a characteristically bleak piece of early-Factory featuring keyboards that suggest pan pipes winding down a pagan ceremony. But it was after New Order split from Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, and split their own atom by becoming self-producers with the eternal “Temptation” in 1982, that Be Music productions really bloomed.
Between 1983-85 (ie, between “Blue Monday” and the Low-Life LP), all four members of New Order would employ the pseudonym as producers on a wild variety of projects, taking on unpaid production jobs partly to help other Factory signings – lending technical knowledge of synthesisers and programming, and often lending the equipment itself – and partly to try out their new gear and new ideas: making their mistakes and learning from happy accidents on other people’s records.
Available as a 3-CD, 36-track box, or double LP of 12 tracks, this set isn’t the first time some of the scattered Be Music productions have been gathered: two collections, Cool As Ice and Twice As Nice appeared back in 2003 and 2004. But it’s the first time that, anonymity be damned, the band’s name has been stamped right up front. In a sweet but emphatic touch, the new compilation also spiritually extends the Be Music brand beyond the years it actually existed, expanding the envelope to include both recent work – Stephen Morris’s remixes for the likes of Factory Floor – and earlier explorations, including “Knew Noise,” one of three tracks that Ian Curtis and Joy Division/New Order manager Rob Gretton co-produced for Section 25’s debut single in 1980.
During Be Music’s 1983-85 prime, it was Bernard Sumner who dived deepest, pushed hardest, and came up with the most lasting results, and his work dominates the first disc. (Hook is represented by “Fate/Hate” the second single by future music journalist Paul Trynka’s Nyam Nyam, to whose Hull post-punk he applies a roaring Moroder patch.)
Working often in tandem with A Certain Ratio’s Donald Johnson as Be Music-Dojo, Sumner was involved in at least three classic singles that almost everyone in the UK ignored at the time, but which stand as significant markers in the development of electronic music, even if each marked an entirely different way forward:
52nd Street’s “Cool As Ice” (1983), arguably the UK’s first electrofunk record, which was adopted by New York’s club underground; Marcel King’s “Reach For Love” (1984), sad, sweet, soul sent through a machine mesh; and the magnificent megamix of Section 25’s “Looking From A Hilltop” (1984), a glistening thing of backwards drums and reversed synths, dazed vocals and dreaming keyboards, soul sonic force and Kraftwerkian drive, all wrapped around psychedelic Blackpool melancholia. It still sounds like nothing else.
(It was Sumner’s intense work with Section 25 on From The Hip, the brilliant 1984 album from which the single was drawn , that signalled the end for Be Music productions. As he put it in at the time, “It made me realise…if I was going to put so much time and so many ideas into something, it was going to be my own songs.”)
Between these milestones, Disc One also shines a light on honourable fellow travellers (Quando Quango’s shouty breakbeat breakout “Love Tempo”) and slightly less-remembered collaborations. In this setting, the final section of the extended mix of “The Only Truth” (1984) by ex-Josef K man Paul Haig, with additional guitar by Sumner, is revealed as a not-bad-looking distant cousin of “Temptation.”
Disc Two is an extended tribute to The Other Two, New Order’s Bogart & Bacall, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert. They helmed Be Music’s furthest-out undertaking, Too Crazy Cowboys, the 1984 debut by Thick Pigeon (ie, actor-musician Stanton Miranda and Carter Burwell, who would subsequently become the guy who did all the music for the Coen Brothers), represented by “Babcock & Wilcox”, a collision between New York avant-art-pop and thin, spooky, hand made electronica.
Bringing in more recent remix work, this disc is a revelation: these are the hardest-edged sounds, underlining how Morris in particular has kept touch with some of New Order’s earliest influences, holding on to spiritual traces of Can and other kosmische brethren. Best of all is Stephen and Gillian’s own “Inside,” rescued from a 2011 EP, an excellent, gleaming slab of propulsive Blade Runner motorik.
Disc Three is more ragbag, gathering together odds, ends and remixes ranging from the great (Sumner lending an Everything’s Gone Green tinge to Section 25’s “Sakura”) to the interesting (the vocoder occultism of The Royal Family And The Poor’s Hook-produced “Motherland”; Morris helping Winston Tong throw Bowie shapes across “Theoretical China”) to the terminal (the nails-on-blackboard cover of “Telstar” by Factory supergroup Ad Infinitum). Important among these is the inclusion of the full 22-minute version of New Order’s own “Video 586,” a workout from the days when the group were still trying to work out how to get the machines to make their own music, which stands as the prototype for both the Power, Corruption & Lies track “586” and “Blue Monday.”
In keeping with Factory tradition, there are strange things going on with this set. Chronologically, the omission of Foreign Press’s 1983 single “The Great Divide,” an early Be Music production by Sumner, seems odd. But the non-inclusion of some later New Order producing jobs – namely Sumner with The Happy Mondays’ “Freaky Dancin’” and Hook’s work on The Stone Roses “Elephant Stone” – seems more wilfully pointed.
The majority of these tracks point back to the fertile, swampy era when New Order were DIY-ing the future by crossmixing guitars with Euro experimentalism, early hip-hop’s minimal electro and whatever else sounded good. It was during this period, in 1982, that The Hacienda first opened its doors. The club is popularly associated with its late-1980s acieed-drenched Madchester heyday, but this set gently stresses that the more interesting music was being made before then, when the dancefloor was half-empty. Not every track here is a killer, but even the filler is fascinating. Confusion reigns.
A version of this album review ran in Uncut magazine, March 2017