This is the third instalment in our blog series on The Blue Monday Diaries: In the Studio With New Order. This book, written by Michael Butterworth, is a memoir of the time he spent with New Order in 1982, whilst the band was recording ‘Blue Monday’ and Power, Corruption and Lies. Butterworth kept a handwritten diary documenting this period, when he was both living with the band and going with them to Britannia Row studios during the recordings. This diary forms the centre of the book.
The blog posts that we are sharing are selected passages from The Blue Monday Diaries. These are simply highlights, which are explored in much greater detail in the book.
When I thought of writing about New Order at Britannia Row it was a simple question of okaying it with the band. I knew of their disdain for the usual, unsolicited approaches of journalists. This was my feeling also and from the start I made it clear that no tape recorder would be present. I would bring notepads and pens, and keep a daily minute-to-minute diary. To explain this, I phoned Rob, their manager.
We all met one windy day in spring or early summer 1982 over lunch at the Unicorn, a regular’s watering hole on Church Street in Manchester city centre, across the road from the busy fruit and vegetables barrows (which are now gone). Although I did not realise it at the time, and the subject never came up, the band were in the throes of writing ‘Blue Monday’. To allay crowd disappointment at their refusal to do encores, they were intending to produce a ‘machine’ track that could be left playing at the end of performances. But despite ‘Blue Monday’ being conceived in this functional way, once they started making the song, their perceptions of what it might be, changed.
‘New Order,’ my first notes begin:
. . . who have the reputation of treating the capricious media and its agents with impromptu and often violent absurdist displays, have kindly assembled to listen to my intentions regarding them.
‘I just want to do a book . . . but not with a tape recorder. An informal book.’
‘Yeah, okay. That’s okay,’ they smile.
Barney complains of a malingering stomach. An ulcer? It is my area, and I try to advise him what to do.
Gillian – the band’s newest recruit and Steve’s girlfriend – sits tastefully, cross-legged, biting at a Cornish pasty.
Hooky lounges in the comfiest corner, smiling, arm extending towards a glass of Pils.
Steve’s disembodied face grins satyr-like at me.
Is that it, then?
Not really. Rob puts me through a dozen questions disguised as casual conversation. Nothing direct. Smiling. Pushes up his glasses to confront me.
I cock up the replies. He is baffled. The band is baffled. I am baffled.
Hooky rises to get in the next round.
‘Is it alright, then?’ I ask.
‘It’s okay with me.’
‘Yeah, guess it’ll be alright.’
After lunch, Barney and I have a game of snooker in the ‘middle’ Yates’ on Oldham Street, which still has a sawdust floor. I get soundly beaten, and this clinches it.
The first diary entry: Friday 22nd October 1982:
As I cross the city, I sense London’s size and restlessness, its relentless presence. As I move through the city in all its ways and byways, for the first time in days I feel as though I am properly situated inside myself. I feel a sense of place, like a Londoner must. Even though I am a Mancunian through and through, having lived in London and visited and been through it so many times I feel like a true citizen, never a visitor.
Britannia Row is a long, narrow, entry-like street. As I walk down it away from the roar of the main road, struggling with my suitcase, I suddenly feel vulnerable. The Row is like a kind of borderland where an uneasy truce has been struck.
I am relieved to enter a cheerful common room full of light and sound. Steve greets me, still wearing the same grin as he had at the Unicorn pub, a half-guilty look as though he has been caught with his hands in the till. He is dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and trainers. His trademark smile has been joined by a look of genuine amiable mystification. As he talks, he absently waves a cigarette. They are having difficulty with their drum machine, he explains – part of a batch of new equipment. Its memory keeps fading. They are trying to fix it. Despite working ‘with Superglue and sweat’ for weeks beforehand, most of the equipment still has teething problems, he confides cheerfully.
‘The new rationalises the old,’ he adds philosophically, ‘replacing numerous little boxes with just a few bigger ones.’
He is playing with an ITT 2020 custom-built-for-Morris word processor. The 2020, an Apple 2E clone, programs the drum machine and converts programmed words into electronic speech. It can electronically generate a Japanese woman’s voice or permutate words vocally like a duck and can randomise words (chosen at will from memory) and dream its own dreams on the backing tracks.
The Emulator intrigues and I sense it will command a starring role at this gig – feed any tape into its memory and ‘play’ back the sound on a keyboard. For this reason it is far in advance of its predecessor, the Mellotron, which was less digitally versatile.
As I look over the ‘tinker-toys’, as he calls the equipment, Steve intimates to me with a self-satisfied smirk that Cozy Powell once found he could get a great drum sound in this very room. Whitesnake and offshoots and, of late, ‘a lot of heavy-metal bands’ have been recording here.
We are in the studio’s games room, which has been dubbed the ‘Hanging About Room’ (HA) by the band. As well as equipment, HA contains a dartboard, two or three video games, coffee facilities and a full-size mahogany snooker table with fantasy carved legs. The walls are raw brick. Tall, dark oatmeal-coloured Sonaplan baffles, used to achieve extra separation in the recording of sound, stand about like slim futuristic speaker cabinets, some vertical, others horizontal. Dave Pils, New Order’s black-mopped road manager, who has been with the band since early 1979, is quietly playing snooker by himself.
Barney, Hooky and Gillian, all wearing short sleeves in the heat of the studio, are in the Control Room, which is out of the door across the passageway. I wander inside to announce my arrival, and sit and listen with them. Elsewhere in the studio it is almost stiflingly warm, but in here the temperature is kept lower to protect the equipment and the air has a distinctive coolness about it, like being in dark shade on a hot day.
The tape has a dead-solid funky drumbeat, coiled by a tight-wire rhythm that goes gradually, relentlessly through permutations. Barney tells me in a casual monotone that it is the backing track for a song with the working title, ‘Blue Monday’. He is looking relaxed in jeans, loafers and a T-shirt. The casual, business-like manner with which he beat me at snooker in the Manchester Yates’s is to the fore. They are modulating the tone of the pre-recorded backing tracks and trying to rid the system of a treble buzz. He alters the modulation and occasionally plays overlays while Gillian intently feeds the tapes into the poly-sequencer – another piece of equipment that is causing problems. Set up in the rehearsal rooms in Salford, they had managed to get it to perform. Here in the studio, it is playing up. She wears a skirt and a light short-sleeved blouse. The quietest and most self-contained of the band, once she gets to know you she has a ready smile and laugh.
Hooky, the least conformist sartorially, is wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and sporting a pair of heavy-looking brown jackboots. He is sitting near the mixer watching their engineer for the session, Mike Johnson, the other person in the room, who is of a similar age in his mid-twenties, slim, with wavy-brown hair and dressed in jeans, T-shirt and trainers.
Mike has been at Britannia Row for four years, three-and-a-half of them as an engineer. He assisted on Closer, Joy Division’s second and final studio album. This session is his first album as a fully-fledged engineer. He maintains a quiet, calm awareness that he occasionally breaks with a wry smile.
I am happy not to interrupt what New Order are doing, content to just be in the flow with them, catching things occasionally until I can build up a picture of what is going on, but with Mike I sense it is okay to ask questions, a most generous guide.
Back in HA, I find Hooky, who got bored and left the Control Room before me, playing snooker by himself. He asks how book publishing works. We get to talk percentages. He tells me that Virgin paid 0.5 percent for their track on the Virgin Sampler, Live at the Electric Circus. Virgin did much better out of the deal, he thinks, lining up a shot to pot a red. I tell him I am not qualified to comment. The two worlds are quite different, I explain. There are usually fewer creators involved in writing a book, often just one. Everything is simpler. In music there are musicians, singers, producers, mixers – in addition to the cuts for retail and industry, which are common to both fields.
About 2:15pm, while we are all sitting in HA waiting for takeaways to arrive, Tony Wilson arrives in baggy pinstripe and orders a joint, which Steve immediately rolls. Tony nods acknowledgement to me, without a flicker of surprise. Whether he expects to see me here or not, I don’t know. We are more used to seeing each other in the bookshop on Peter Street where he often breezes in to show off our selection of bootlegs and underground records to whomever he has in tow, chatting affably to the shop staff by name. Today he is on the Granada Studios payroll, en route to New York.
Tony never stays anywhere for long and after fifteen minutes leaves for his plane – but not before forcefully arguing several points about the practice of innovative stateside record businesses, citing the entrepreneur Chris Blackwell of Island Records, who – in a novel manner – pays Atlantic to put out his records.
‘Fuck off, Wilson,’ Rob intones half-audibly from where he is seated on the floor, back to the wall. ‘I’m not paying a single dollar to cunts.’
‘Well, fuck off as well, Gretton,’ Tony rejoins from the doorway, almost nonplussed. ‘Anyway, I can’t hang around here all day.’
‘Has he fucked off yet?’ Rob asks more loudly while Tony is still in earshot.
The Blue Monday Diaries: In the Studio With New Order is available from Amazon both in Kindle and paperback format. Click here to find out more.
Next week’s extract explores the first time ‘Blue Monday’ was dropped at the Haçienda.