Nothing in this world

New Order, Glasgow Academy, 18th October 2006

When I was a very small boy, or perhaps more medium sized, my school held something it called a garden party (most people would call it a fete), and my class elected itself the role of pop quiz host, presumably on the grounds that it wouldn’t take very long, or very many of us, and that we could then either slink off home or gloat at the stalls of classes whose ideas took all day. A quiet sort, with a set of friends separate from the upper echelons of influence, the echelons were nonetheless aware (because I had lent one of them Technique) that I was pretty keen on New Order, and so I got to set ‘the New Order questions’. At the time and in the context, liking New Order was a reasonably cool thing to do, mid way between liking the Pet Shop Boys (which I also did) and liking the Pixies (which I didn’t, yet). Not that I did it to be cool, you understand. It was a happy accident, buying the first Electronic single because Neil Tennant was on it, and following things from there.

I missed the quiz itself, having been busy in town buying a New Order T-shirt (green, with what looked like a Sci Fi skyline under the lettering. Never worked out what record it related to, or did New Order not do T-Shirts off albums?) On arriving mid-afternoon, wearing it, I was surprised to get a big laugh from several of the classmates I bumped into. Why had all my questions been about New Order? they wanted to know. Apart from anything else, it became rather obvious after the third one what the answer was going to be. Or that was the imputation. I’m sure some of the answers weren’t ‘New Order’. How unfair, though! I’d given them their questions, even done a little tape of excerpts, and they’d gone and forgotten what they’d asked for. Probably nobody else had done any questions at all, which might have made it a little ridiculous. The episode taught me a valuable lesson though: I do totally love New Order.

The other week I saw them for the first time, and was equally nervous and excited. They’re notoriously unreliable live, of course: didn’t they once attempt the dub version of ‘Shellshock’ with no rehearsal? Doesn’t Barney absolutely wreck an otherwise serviceable ‘Temptation’ on a mid-80s live video by shouting ‘un due tre quattro!’ like a rock star wanker just before the chorus? But equally: isn’t ‘Transmission’ on Tony Wilson’s show the most exciting thing that has ever been on television? It could have gone either way. On they came, Sumner, Hook, Morris, and somebody who wasn’t Gillian Gilbert, and straight away Barney announced, with exactly the same mock modesty you could hear in his voice on the Glastonbury 1987 recording when he said it for the first time, ‘This is called “True Faith”.’ Oh me of little. Then ‘Regret’, Hooky pointing delightedly at someone in the audience, ‘You knew that was coming!’ Looks like they’ve been fine tuning this opening, have happened upon the two best songs in the world.

Then oh my stars make that three it’s ‘Ceremony’, and a million years peel away and I’m sitting with my Grandpa at his house in Wiltshire, him playing me some choral LPs, trying to instil a bit of culture, and me playing him ‘Ceremony’ in return. What did he think of it? ‘It’s boring,’ he said, and it was a natural assumption. Your 14 year old grandchild is hardly going to have in that little box of tapes which represent his musical all, anything other than the latest pop nonsense is he? Certainly nothing to rival... well, it works both ways, I’ve no idea what exact records he played that day. He died a year or two later, and I’ve always been glad that, though a spoilt brat in many ways, the song I played him when given the opportunity was ‘Ceremony’. Even though he didn’t get it. I could’ve played him any old rubbish. What were the chances?

The great thing about New Order in 2006 is, they know they’re essentially curators at their own museum. They played a few newer songs (‘Krafty’, ‘Crystal’, ‘Waiting for the Siren’s Call’), which was fine, but they know that the things they recorded between 1977 - 93 are what make them great, what people love them for. Hence that dream opening. Hence an equally dream encore (when did they start doing those?): ‘Transmission’, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, the latter an unlikely but everything-affirming sing-along. This music has nothing to do with now, and everything to do with the personal histories of everyone in this crowd. Does that make it nostalgia? Of course, but so what? As Proust says, re-living, or re-imagining the past is the only time we’re really alive, the only time it’s possible to appreciate and enjoy the things which have happened to you; at the time, you’re too distracted by the future. And these songs (‘Temptation’! ‘The Perfect Kiss’! ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’!) are so unassailably brilliant that they’re not just signposts to 1987, they entwine with your soul, they form who you are in a way that, say, ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ doesn’t. I sometimes wonder, when Alistair writes about the transience of pop, what he makes of New Order, who seem to me as permanent as anything can be.

Ed Harcourt, Dundee Westport Bar, 21st October 2006

It seems to be the week for gigs, so I go along. Someone says he’s ‘an English Tom Waits’ and I rather hope not, because what would be the point, a) of another Tom Waits, b) of an English one? If you’re English sing with an English accent, people. How many more times? Ed appears alone and does multi-instrumental things. He has a waistcoat, and so I immediately assume he’s smug, perhaps unfairly. Perhaps not though: what he does is create a shell, a crafted sound, all pose. The audience do seem to pretty much love him, and respond enthusiastically to a song called ‘Born in the ’70s’ which goes ‘we don’t give a fuck about you’ a lot, one presumes about those new fangled people born in the ’80s. It’s more or less the flipside of the New Order effect: their old songs enrich the past for people who were there; Harcourt would rather bitch about the people who weren’t.

Tenniscoats, National Park, Tape and Ass. Mono, Glasgow, 26th October 2006

No such ego problems at Mono, where all is unassuming warmth. This line up is absolutely of a piece with the International Airport gig I wrote about here a few months ago: no-one tries to be clever, or even loud (National Park come the closest, being the only band with a drum kit). The sound is full of wonder, and delicately fills out the dimly lit bar, slowing down time, reaching for the place beyond it in which music happens. Ass do this from quite early on, and we miss all but the last song. I’d assumed from the name that they’d rip the joint (some muddled recollection of Turbonegro’s Ass Cobra album), but no, it’s a solo acoustic guitar affair. Gentle, can’t say much more than that really.

Tape start off that way too, with ‘A Spire’ from their Rideau album. A single acoustic motif, wrapped around for endless minutes with noises from a peculiarly large squeezebox, which eventually ease away leaving the motif stark and beautiful. The squeezebox provides drones throughout the set, a more prominent ingredient than is noticeable on record. It’s great to hear them live, because the record (I say ‘the’ because Rideau is all I have; there are others) left me without much sense of how the noise on it was made. Seeing it done opened it out for a while, before the drones closed over my head again. Other things shooting through: two-note xylophone parts, an ever so slightly discordant whistle / flute duet, some manic shakers shaking, regular and unchanging. The drone doesn’t oppress, it lights you up from inside.

National Park I have seen once before, but not as a full band. The circular that came round advertising the gig says they don’t have an album, though they’ve been around for a decade. Just singles. How’s that for modesty? Not even mentioned on the tickets, they’re the surprise hit of the gig, perhaps because they ripple the clear surface of the evening with something approaching rock, filtered through that Californian haze that obscures certain Glaswegians. They have their bliss out moments too, kicking off with a song I know I’ve heard (I think from the Geographic compilation, which would make it ‘No More Rides’), but so slowly, only gradually melting from the strung out guitar intro into the drawled song and then out into the swelling outro, at which point someone should probably mention Teenage Fanclub or Neil Young or Galaxie 500. Things continue brooding for most of the set, until near the end there’s suddenly a three chord pop wonder, fresh as a daisy. This had better be the single I just ordered, ’cause it’s great. The bass drops out and they have to start it again, but it doesn’t spoil it, the clanging and the thumping, the awe-struck just-audible kind of vocal Norman Blake used to do before his voice changed (at some point, every great singer’s voice changes, gets slightly worse: happened to Bill Callaghan and Kristin Hersh too. What causes it? Do they start listening back to their own recordings? Buy expensive microphones? Get vocal cord insurance?) This needs to be #1 now.

Tenniscoats return us to millpond clarity. I’ve missed an album since The Ending Theme worked its magic a few years ago, so it’s all new to me. Their new 7” is: ‘Tree or not to be’ b/w ‘Dream is Refreshing’, which titles sum up the band pretty well. Dreaming, waking, dew. Idiosyncratic in word and sound. Anguish and politeness. To begin with it’s just the two head ’Coats, the guitar and keyboards often indistinguishable unless you really concentrate (same thing Tape do, come to think of it), both cutting through the tremolo in a similar way. A particularly Japanese sweetness in the vocals, but also a sadness, and the accompaniment too balances melancholy with optimism. Halfway through Tape join in and tip things more towards the latter with some bongos and recorders and more of that squeezebox. I preferred this half, the more fun songs, the more filled-out sound. Some of the others didn’t connect so much, maybe through unfamiliarity. But a stately end to a gentle evening, with a twinkle in its eye.

© 2006 Chris Fox