New Order: Original Masters

Posted: October 22, 2008 in Music, Music tech
Tags: , ,

Blue Monday: art over wealth and ego

When I was awarded my first recording contract in the early 90s I was shocked at how the music business still encouraged childish images of rebellion and pretentious attitudes from artists, because I thought that had all been killed off. Not by the then current rave culture but by New Order, surely the best band of their era. The most iconic image, for me was their Top of the Pops appearance for Blue Monday. Seemingly dragged from Manchester via the Co-op clothing department, they looked gaunt and uncomfortable as they shambled their way through their beautifully melancholy electronic symphony. They imsisted on playing live and, as though to prove it, even the synthesizers were out of tune. Such a world away from Miami Vice, big hair, big grins, big voices, big wallets, wanker DJs, the whole shebang.

Hearing recent pastiches of their work by The Ting Tings and Sugarbabes reminded me to restock my New Order CD collection, as when my old discs were either played to death or killed by trampling and oxidisation. All their 80s albums now come remastered in a collector’s edition with a second CD of remixes. The original album tracks still sound fresh, with Bernard Sumner’s little stories and/or streams of consciousness are always poignant and warming even when intending nonchalance and sarcasm. The backing is mostly inventive, and can fluctuate from charmingly naïve to toweringly statuesque in a brilliantly disarming fashion. The effect is heightened by the fact anybody with a modern PC could theoretically make this music, but nobody ever will. The remixes, however, from the likes of Shep Pettibone sound hideously dated and weren’t that great in the first place, overlong and literally laced with bells and whistles. Blue Monday ’88 sounded bad by 1989, its shameless commercialism standing in monotonic contrast to the accidental ethics of the original’s infamous loss making sleeve design. The pleasingly restrained remastering process whilst adding nothing to the recordings, doesn’t spoil anything, making it no worse than pointless. The Perfect Pit is a glaring omission from the Lowlife CD – a short deconstructed version of The Perfect Kiss which I beleive to be the precursor of 808 State’s Cubik – the track which defined early ‘90’s hardcore and remains influential.

New Order were so hardcore from a marketing perspective that many of their singles didn’t appear on the albums at all. But the remastering of the relatively recent singles compilations has fared much worse than the albums, with the sound compressed to all but eliminate dynamics in order to raise the volume – perhaps to appeal to the severely disabled listener incapable of adjusting his or her hi-fi controls. I don’t really see the point of remastering old material at all – the originals sounded fine and translated well to CD so what’s the point? Current music is mixed in the knowledge of what the modern mastering process involves, and therefore is well suited to the procedure. Take the aforementioned Sugarbabes’ About You Now, for example. Its titanium clad production thrives on the mechanical pummelling and squashing like a super-knight, but older recordings cannot survive the punishment that they were not designed for. There is no point in imposing these 2008 production values onto old recordings, any more than there is a point to applying 21st century moral values onto a 17th century witch-hunt.

So as well as recommending the old editions of the New Order albums, a real must-have is Substance 1987 – now widely available for well under a tenner. Over two hours of New Order single heaven with their own remixes, completely untouched by misguided tweaking. The one problem – you might have to turn the original masters up.

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