The remark that New Order cofounder Bernard Sumner made between songs at the Greek Theatre on Sunday wasn't meant to sound as flip as it did. But as time passes, the devastation over the loss of a friend evolves. Life goes on, and the wound gradually heals.
Describing the British dance-rock innovators' grimly infectious first single, “Ceremony,” Sumner -- also a founding member of the seminal Manchester, England, post-punk band Joy Division, whose lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide -- referred to “Ceremony” as “a song we wrote right before Ian died. We were trying to cheer him up a bit. Obviously, it didn't work.”
That's an understatement. Had it, we would have been watching another band altogether Sunday, and the joyous, throbbing momentum of New Order's best songs, typified by Sumner's sweet, optimistic tenor, would likely have turned a particularly Curtis-ian shade of gray.
New Order was on the final set of its American tour, and that gesture was better received by fans than by Curtis. Combining Sumner's distorted, chiming guitar chords, keyboardist Gillian Gilbert’s undulating Roland synth lines, human metronome Stephen Morris' tight snare-and-high-hat runs and those haunting, high-octave bass lines created by former member Peter Hook, the band presented the synth-pop songs that soundtracked crooked-haircutted singalongs in bedrooms and dance floors throughout the 1980s.
Through hits “True Faith,” “Blue Monday,” “A Perfect Kiss,” “Regret,” “Temptation” and others, the band illustrated not only the durability of its sound but also the breadth of its influence. (Said inspiration was evident in La Roux’s tightly wound, vibrant opening set -- even if use of backing tracks seemed to extend to the singer’s vocals, as well.)
New Order imagined a post-Kraftwerk, post-disco, post-punk world in which exuberance could dance with confusion to create a swirl of emotional tension. Over that time, the band has not only witnessed but also steered the evolution of dance floor-fueled electronic rock. New Order helped foment the rise of rave culture through its legendary Manchester club the Hacienda, and it channeled the ideas spawned at the club and in the budding New York City beat music scene to deliver massive tracks. Driven to explore new synthesizer technology and its ability to deliver never-ending robotic loops, New Order (and in the beginning, producer Martin Hannett) merged these fresh tones with the frenetic energy of punk rock.
“How does it feel, to treat me like you do?,” wondered Sumner in the landmark dance track “Blue Monday” as Gilbert’s synth marked out synchronized tones and Morris, tucked among a circle of cymbals and drums, traced a tense beat. During one of the band's biggest hits, “Bizarre Love Triangle,” the entire Greek was locked in song: “Every time I think of you I feel shot right through with a bolt of blue,” they sang, echoing Sumner’s classic line.
Still, all these gigs have taken their toll. The set was similar to the band’s show at the Greek in 2012, and the videos backing the group were nearly identical to those used during the act's Coachella gig in 2013. The songs have solidified, and despite the music’s inherent thrills, the members have internalized their creation until the chords and patterns have become second nature.
So has the crowd, which let its collective expectations be known when Sumner introduced a new song, “Singularity.” As an audible, nostalgia-laden grumble echoed in the seats, New Order rightfully ignored it. Still, the fresh work sounded like classic Joy Division -- to a fault. It was as though the group had inputted the stylistic data and calculated a new song, one that hit all the notes but lost the essence.
And, it should be noted, while it’s easy to appreciate New Order’s work without Hook playing those characteristic bass lines, he’s so essential to the songs’ magnetism that hearing them from another bassist seems somehow wrong -- even if stand-in Tom Chapman nailed every note. The acrimony among Hook and the band, however, is well documented.
“Love Will Tear Us Apart,” perhaps? Certainly, and so will clashing personalities. That said, the back story didn’t hobble the set one bit. New Order, after all, has endured its share of drama.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit