New Order have undoubtedly made some great albums since they emerged out of the ashes of Joy Division in 1980 (1985’s Low-Life and 1989’s Technique spring to mind). But on Substance 1987, the Manchester four-piece proved not only to be a singles band but the ultimate 12-inch singles band.
If you weren’t already convinced of that, this 2023 re-issue of the classic remix compilation, on all the usual formats, should help. If you were already convinced of that, this 2023 re-issue includes remastered versions of all the singles you’re familiar with, but notably also a four-CD format that incorporates all their B-sides that were previously only available together on cassette. That’s along with a unique contemporary live performance by the band at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, California, when they ran through the whole Substance track list in order.
There’s a dizzying abundance of material on offer here, then, from New Order’s commercial heyday. So it’s ridiculous to think this is just the first re-issue of Substance 1987 since it originally appeared in that fabled year of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and, of course, Rick Astley, in the interim of other state-of-the-art remix albums by Pet Shop Boys (“Disco”) and Madonna (“You Can Dance”). That’s because it can most emphatically lay claim to being essential, iconic, legendary, and all those other overused terms. Consider that it was originally released on Manchester’s mother of all indie labels, Factory. Consider that it’s housed in Peter Saville’s famously minimalist and austere cover art. But consider, most of all, that it showcases the immaculate tunes of peak-era Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and Gillian Gilbert after they were largely turned over to the American cream of 1980s dancefloor-focused production masters John Robie, Arthur Baker, Shep Pettibone, and Stephen Hague.
After 36 years, the core 12 tracks on the first CD still sound fresh, powerful, and pumped with experimental vigor. They continue to impress as smorgasbords of sublime melodies, drum machines, sequencers, samples, and vocoders while telling the compelling story of an initially dour Northern post-punk band evolving through a growing love affair with the synthesizer and, unlikely as it seems, the same New York club scene that gave rise to the Madonna of “Holiday” and “Lucky Star”. They tell a story, indeed, of a group blending rock and dance in extraordinary ways, broadening the palette of indie bands immeasurably, and paving the way for the Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses, and Screamadelica-era Primal Scream to penetrate the world of ecstasy, house music and illegal raves.
Of course, the best-selling 12-inch single of all time is one of the crucial dozen. That’s the original seven-and-a-half-minute “Blue Monday”, the undiminished New Order anthem that still sounds like nothing else on earth as an amalgamation of Kraftwerk, Donna Summer, a Moog Source bassline, Hooky’s distinctive Spaghetti Western bass-guitar work, and Sumner’s gloomy vocal. But the remaining 11 tracks more than hold their own against that definitive indie-disco cut, beginning with “Ceremony”, originally a Martin Hannett-produced Joy Division hangover from 1981, and ending in “True Faith”, the sleek 1987 dance/rock masterpiece that damn near broke the band in the US.
The burst of pulsing sequencer on “Everything’s Gone Green” is still wonderfully evocative of a group entering unchartered territory. So, too, is the sample of croaking frogs on an unedited “The Perfect Kiss”, befitting an unpredictable and epic track that builds irresistibly and brims with ideas and monster bass sounds. Meanwhile, the Arthur Baker collaboration “Confusion” sounds better than ever, stamped with the freestyle energy of Manhattan’s Fun House, where the producer worked as club DJ alongside Jellybean Benitez. It’s all hip-hop beats, hard groove, and arpeggiated synth lines, which interlock gloriously with Hookey’s melodic bass and Sumner’s scratchy guitar.
The John Robie-assisted “Sub-Culture” and “Shellshock” also shine in their remastered form, the former with its burst of sampled drums and soul-singer backing and the latter with its moody keyboard motif. But the Shep Pettibone remix of “Bizarre Love Triangle” really reigns supreme. The song’s become one of New Order’s most covered tracks, thanks to its haunting melody and wracked lyrics, but what the club DJ adds to the 1986 Brotherhood original is something to behold. There are searing orchestral touches here. Chirruping synth lines there. Plus explosive drums, extreme panning, a velvety keyboard break that melts your heart, and a robotic vocal section that’s inexplicably spiked with emotion. The same remix recently featured on Arthur Baker’s Dance Masters compilation: Shep Pettibone: The Classic Master-Mixes. For good reason.
With “True Faith” as impactful as ever as the band’s first US hit, born of their collaboration with “West End Girls” producer Stephen Hague, it’s down to CD two/cassette two to offer an alternative 12-track chronology. No complaints when it’s bookended by the echoey goth majesty of “In a Lonely Place” (the B-side of “Ceremony”) and the profoundly moving “1963”, “the only song about domestic violence that you can dance to”, according to Hague. But then there’s CD three, which gives space for Messrs Robie and Pettibone to flex their considerable muscle amidst tamer yet curious original versions of “Ceremony”, “Confusion”, and “Temptation”. If your speakers can handle it, “Dub-Vulture”, “Bizarre Dub Triangle”, and the ten-minute “True Dub” are the immaculate results.
The wholly new attraction of the live concert on CD four also doesn’t disappoint as a snapshot of New Order on their 1987 tour of North America with Echo and the Bunnymen and Gene Loves Jezebel, at the point of being (briefly) big in the US. They wow the Californian crowd on September 12, 1987, with, quite frankly, the works! That’s including a version of “Blue Monday”, which is alive with improvised samples and impassioned playing, all being tantamount to one hell of a change to what went down the night before at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre: REO Speedwagon.
All told, what’s evident from the 2023 version of Substance 1987, particularly after 2020’s expansive edition of Power, Corruption and Lies, is that New Order are no slouches when it comes to re-issues. Here, indeed, is the complete and unadulterated story of how New Order assimilated the underground dance sounds of the US and determined the direction of indie music for many years to come.