I was seventeen when Joy Division came into my life. A sixth former at school in Birmingham, I was at their last ever concert, May 2nd 1980, at a student venue at the University of Birmingham.
A few months later, I was at Manchester University studying English, and found my way to a semi-secret gig at the Squat (near where the Contact Theatre is now). It was the first New Order show featuring Gillian on keyboards. That was October 1980.
Over the subsequent thirty-seven years I’ve seen a dozen or more New Order shows. They’ve soundtracked my life and, back in the last century, they employed me to DJ at their club, the Haçienda. Peter Hook says my fees helped bankrupt the Haç.
More recently I’ve done some work at Manchester International Festival. For 2017, new artistic director, John McGrath invited me to throw a few proposals at him with a view to letting me loose on a big project.
Among my ideas was a live-performance-with-a-difference by New Order. I had half a conversation with the band about this, suggesting that quality remixers could re-imagine some of the band’s songs and then the band play a set of the remixes. No originals.
It turned out that there was some synchronicity in the air. Manchester Art Gallery were already planning to stage an exhibition called True Faith exploring the enormous legacy of Joy Division and New Order visuals.
The idea of including live shows would serve to emphasise that New Order were historic and iconic but still working, still creating and evolving.
I wrote notes on scraps of paper every time I met up with New Order and MIF. We looked at four potential venues. They all had merit.
The band were very happy to experiment, to move away from a traditional gig. I kept calling it an “art happening” but actually we didn’t know what it was going to be.
Art curator Mark Beasley was on board to advise on the visuals and proposed that conceptual artist Liam Gillick should design the staging and the overall presentation of the show.
Early last September, John McGrath said everything needed pulling together as MIF get major funding and connect with many valuable sponsors, but the content of the programme, its attractiveness, and viability, also has a part to play. Without a concrete idea and a two paragraph explanation, important funding could not be accessed.
John told me we needed to agree an idea and confirm a venue, otherwise it was too late for MIF2017. He told me to chair an all-or-nothing meeting of the band, management and several MIF big cheeses. Er, OK. No pressure.
The band arrived. We sacked off all my ideas and went with the one the band liked the most – to rework a load of their songs, then perform them with a synthesiser orchestra. We took the band into Granada Studios and agreed immediately it was 100% right.
The band suggested the twelve synth players should be students from the Royal Northern College of Music. It was a perfect MIF thing to do – to provide a platform for young people to contribute their talent, learn about performance, and have the time of their lives.
Joe Duddell had scored New Order songs for a string orchestra for some gigs in Australia and was easily the best choice to involve as synth arranger and orchestra conductor.
Liam Gillick began to develop the look of the stage based on some original ideas from Bernard. Then Liam and I wrote two paragraphs explaining the concept, and MIF went off and magicked up some funds, announced five shows, and sold out all the tickets. Rehearsals began.
Four weeks before the world premiere, at yet another meeting, I pointed out that we’d decided not to have a support act or a warm-up DJ so there would be silence before the band. Should we fill the silence with something?
All eyes on me. What would you suggest, Dave?
An hour-long soundscape, ambient weirdness, static, disembodied voices. Maybe the band’s or Tony Wilson’s. No synths, nothing to sabotage the impact of the New Order performance. Dark too, like you’re in a womb, muffled sounds, a heartbeat.
When can you do it by?
So they flew me to Paris where I worked with this brilliant sound designer who works under the name The Option. She has a great ear for sounds, and knows how to layer, and give emotion and sonic depth to music. We decided to thread all the other sounds around my heartbeat.
Half an hour before the first show, the soundscape, complete with my heartbeat, was pulsing and floating round the venue.
Half an hour into the first show, the band’s performance was beautifully melting together with the visuals and the synth orchestra, and the audience was bewitched.
Then it was Shellshock. Bernard sings the chorus: “The deeper you get, the sweeter the pain / Don’t give up the game until your heart stops beating…”
Suddenly everything, even the soundscape, made sense.
“Don’t give up the game until your heart stops beating…”
Details of the remaining New Order shows during MIF here.