New Order Never Saw 'Blue Monday' Being A Hit: 'You Can't Even Dance To It!'

8 October 2019 | 8:00 am | Bryget Chrisfield

Seeing Siouxsie & The Banshees on TV changed Gillian Gilbert's life. Bryget Chrisfield also learns that the New Order keyboardist/guitarist still gets nervous playing Joy Division songs.

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CONTENT WARNING: This article contains discussion of mental health. If you are suffering from any of the issues that have been discussed or need assistance, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

New Order last graced our shores in 2016, playing four VIVID-exclusive shows at Sydney Opera House (two of which incorporated the Australian Chamber Orchestra). During their pair of ACO shows, New Order's encore included Decades: a Joy Division song introduced by Bernard Sumner as one they hadn't played since Ian Curtis died by suicide back in 1980. That same year, Gillian Gilbert joined Joy Division's remaining members - Sumner (who took over lead vocal duty), Peter Hook and Stephen Morris - to form New Order. 

When asked how she felt performing Decades live for the very first time that night, the keyboardist/guitarist admits, "It always gives you goosebumps... It's quite spooky when you start playin' that track, especially for me as a listener and, you know, I liked Joy Division from the first time I saw them so to be playin' on that track - I still get very nervous [laughs]... We'd never play Joy Division songs when we first started, but then you sort of think, 'Well, you know, it was part of you. So we decided to play a few Joy Division songs."

Gilbert actually played in a couple of other bands before joining New Order and recalls her punk transformation happened quite suddenly. "Me dad always says to us, 'You changed as soon as you saw Siouxsie & The Banshees on television'... It was like, 'Right, I'm going to be a punk!' And I started wearing loads of make-up and dead-big hair, but it was great! Because you were part of a little team, if you like. 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.

"And I'd played guitar with my uncle who'd taught me how to play an acoustic guitar, 'cause we used to go to Manchester and stay with me nanna at the weekends. And my uncle was very much into art, he was a really good drawer, and I got into art and I played the guitar at school after that... Watching the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie & The Banshees and a group called Penetration - I just wanted to be in a band! So we formed a little band... just writing songs and jamming, and it was dead-excitin' so, yeah! That's what got me into it, really." 

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"We came back and we wrote Blue Monday especially to be played in a club; we wanted it to sound really good, and we just wanted things to sound so powerful and upbeat."

It was through The Inadequates, another of Gilbert's pre-New Order bands ("with my sister and her friend") that she first met Joy Division: "We rehearsed next door to them," she details. "They came and listened to us and they invited us in to listen to them... I'd just started college then. It was like one of those summer things - you know, like, six weeks holidays in the summer; everything seems to happen over that time.

"We met Joy Division and then just started seeing them playin' at, like, little clubs 'round Manchester and then all of a sudden they became bigger. They sold their An Ideal For Living [EP] for a pound from Stephen's boot and we got it home, played it and it was like, 'My god, it's a load of rubbish!' [laughs]. It didn't sound as powerful as when you saw them [live] and it was a bit of a disappointment. I mean, they even say it themselves. When they played it at a disco in Piccadilly, they said, 'Put this on,' and [the DJ] put it on and it was like the dancefloor cleared! It wasn't a true representation of them." Joy Division followed this EP up with their debut Unknown Pleasures set, which landed 40 years ago. 

Of New Order, Gilbert points out, "We started off playing in Manchester and over here, and I think 'cause it was so close after Joy Division people really weren't accepting of us - 'cause of the history - and they just wanted another Joy Division, really. So when we played America - especially in New York - not many people had heard of us. We started goin' out to clubs a lot [in New York] and we said to ourselves, 'It'd be really good if you had a record in a club,' and I think we came back and we wrote Blue Monday especially to be played in a club; we wanted it to sound really good, and we just wanted things to sound so powerful and upbeat and, I mean, I still think Joy Division could've ended up going that way. It was all about going out and going to clubs at the time of early New Order."

The power of Blue Monday is undeniable, most could name that tune after hearing a couple of beats and there are not many songs that pack such an emotional punch. "I know!" Gilbert marvels. "It was really weird at the start, because our manager who sadly passed away, he always thought that was a great song and we were like, 'A single? I don't think so; you can't even dance to it!' It was just like an experiment. Because, at the time, we were buying lots of new equipment and we really wanted a Fairlight, which was, like, thousands of pounds and we couldn't afford it. So we got an emulator with loads of floppy disks with sounds on. We had a really simple sequencer, Bernard and Stephen were really into sequencing drum machines and Bernard said, 'Wouldn't it be good if we could play a song that played itself, with sampled voices, and we could just leave the stage at the end for an encore and just leave the instruments playing?' So it was just a big experiment, really; we never envisaged it as a single at all.

"And we didn't really want to cut it down to a 7", because a lotta singles in them days were like three-and-a-half minutes. But we insisted it should be the full 12". So it was just an experiment with this new piece of equipment to see how far we could push it, really... But, yeah! Even kids like it."

Back when New Order formed, Gilbert reminisces, "It was just something completely new. We took everything in little stages, really. We didn't think that we would ever become, like, over 35 years old [as a band] with this entire back catalogue [laughs]. And people still want to see you so, yeah! It's quite an achievement and I feel quite lucky to still be doing it."

New Order tour from 11 Mar, head to theGuide for all the info.