Inside the early days of New Order: an interview with Dec Hickey
Dec Hickey has just released From Heaven To Heaven, a book of fly-on-the-wall photography and personal recollections of life with New Order in the early 1980s. Here, he reveals to Artrocker the inside story of how it all came about...
How did you find yourself in the inner circle of New Order?
'Inner circle' would be stretching it a bit. Partly through some bad experiences with the press the band pretty much steered clear of the mainstream media for the first two or three years of their existence.
In reality New Order didn't actively promote releases and although unintentional, their live activity in the UK didn't help to ingratiate them with onlookers either. They didn't do tours. All their British gigs back then were one offs or done in a low key, burst of three kind of way and often in towns off the usual circuit. As most were guaranteed to sell out instantly few of the promoters involved needed to advertise much. So, all of that maybe portrayed a band with an air of detachment or distance. In reality, wrongly so.
I first saw them at Heaven in London, in Feb, '81. Hooky was at the bar afterwards and I asked him if they fancied playing Bedford, my home town. He gave me (manager) Rob Gretton's phone number and six weeks later they were playing at the Boys' Club. From then on I saw every British gig for the next three and half years, something like fifty plus on the trot, but that was only made possible by me calling Rob every week or two to see where they were playing next, with me then getting a car or a transit load of us Bedford fans on the guest list.
When you catch that many gigs and a fair amount of the soundchecks there's a lot of time to get to know people reasonably well. Whatever the media perception of New Order at the time a friendlier bunch of people you couldn't meet.
Had you been a fan of Joy Division?
A big fan, but I never got to see them play live. Purely because of the impact it had on me, I think the first time I really clocked them was in Sept '79 when they appeared on Something Else, a BBC 2 youth music programme of the time. To be honest, I tuned in to catch The Jam. They were the show's 'headliners' but on so many levels Joy Division were a far more mesmerising shock to the system. Truly, a 'What the fuck!' moment, they even seemed to inhabit a completely different world to The Jam, let alone nearly everything pre punk. Weller and Co were great - all in your face, youthful bravado - but Joy Division, with their look, sound and approach, were nearly a different species.
The dynamics of it all are interesting, and a lot of that would carry through to the early years of New Order but seeing the Something Else appearance now - 'She's Lost Control' and 'Transmission' plus the short interview with Steve Morris and Tony Wilson - you can sense a few insecurities and nerves and a collective reserve, but there's an 'us against the world' sort of conviction and power when they played. The influence of Joy Division since then has been immense but to new observers imagine the impact at the time. Being hit by that sound through a live PA would have been a privilege but for some stupid reason the first time I attempted to go see them was nearly eight months later and what turned out to be the last gig they ever played, at Birmingham Uni. My girlfriend of the time usually had the use of a car but late on we got scuppered and it was too late to then hire one. I suspect we just thought, 'next time'… and there wasn't one.
Were New Order easy subjects or self conscious in front of the camera?
A question better suited to Kevin Cummins, he's a photographer. I was privy to a lot of great early New Order moments but I was just a fan/friend who happened to have a camera with him, and it was always 'fly on the wall' zero manipulation stuff with me. No matter how comfortable I got to be in their company I wouldn't have had the balls to try and orchestrate some 'photo op.' If I had ever asked to stage a group shot they (certainly Hooky or Rob, anyway) would have told me to fuck off and go and get the drinks in.
We know it's a tricky question, but if you had to choose three pictures that are most dear to you, which would they be and why?
The first is this one of Frank and Hooky (top of article) in April '81, after the soundcheck at Birmingham's Cedar Club. This partly highlights a side of New Order at the time. A few weeks earlier Hooky had been interviewed by Radio One's John Walters and with a nation of music fans at his mercy he couldn't have sounded more disinterested if he'd tried. Even with Walters' best efforts it was fairly excruciating listening. Here, in a fairly run down, spit and sawdust pub, Hooky was far more comfortable chatting to Frank, a resident in a nearby hostel who'd had a bit of a tough life.
I remember quietly informing the latter of his new drinking partner's CV but understandably he wasn't too starstruck. He did though get me to promise to send him a copy of the photo but I then lost his address. I genuinely felt guilty for years.
The second one is Gillian and Barney, April '81, in the dressing room after the above gig. (below). Barney's actually talking to Steve. It looks a bit intense, which likely means a recap over the forty five minutes they've just spent on stage. I'd only known the band for three weeks at this point and they had a slight contempt for the mainstream media (fanzines were OK) but even though I'm slightly surprised now at my gall, back then I obviously felt relaxed enough in their company to 'risk' getting my camera out. If I'd realised when I took the shot that Gillian was looking straight at me I might well have bottled it, though. Not what Mr Cummins would have done, of course.
The third is of Gillian in Oct '81, soundchecking at Bradford University (below). There's something ethereal and wistful about her here. In the early days of playing live New Order had a lot of problems trying to harness the idiosyncracies of the era's new electronic keyboards and sequencers - fine in a rehearsal room but take some of the same equipment out of a flight case in... whereversville... It was a constant battle for Barney, Steve and Gillian. She may well have been cursing inside at times but externally she's always been the picture of serenity.
This was shot around a take of Chosen Time or instrumental stabs at a then new track called Temptation. As it happens, here we're just a few hours away from the latter's second ever public outing and its first with vocals, and there's a good chance Barney's lyrics were to be as new to Gillian, Steve and Hooky as they were to us in the audience. In the early days his was an approach I've never seen adopted by any other singer. Best described as 'skeletal and improvised,' I'd say... but always very entertaining. You could write a small essay on his alternate lyrics and seeing as it's New Order, someone most probably has.
The book contains its fair share of interviews and diary entries too: was it a mammoth task assembling this together?
There's one interview proper and a number of one to one 'chats' with Barney in amongst it all but, again, it's more 'fly on the wall' stuff, mostly transcriptions of scenes from soundchecks, dressing rooms and gigs - but I did nearly lose the will to live in getting it all down.
The idea for the book first cropped up in 2001. I told the band back then I was going to piece all this stuff together and having given them a hint of the format I blitzed it for about three months, but I then then lost complete interest. If I could remember why, it's most probably not unconnected with having to decipher the chat on dozens of hissy cassette recordings of noisy dressing rooms, soundchecks etc., trying to work out who said what... and to whom. Thankfully, somebody kicked my arse back in to motion at the end of 2007 and then it took the best part of two years to finish, and as I'm no audio typist it was very heavy going.
Having said that, if someone was to find an ancient and previously unheard tape of, say, the Velvet Underground chatting about some mind numbingly uneventful weekend they'd just had there'd still be a degree of fascination. Paul Morley has alluded to this kind of thing. It goes beyond mere nostalgia. It can be on many levels and have varying degrees of importance but you are, in effect, dealing with a cultural history - in this case the people that were three quarters of Joy Division and four quarters of New Order. I captured a small part of the latter but it's definitely cultural history to me.
Is there a difference between the public personas of New Order and the people you know?
Whatever the setting they've always been true to themselves and given their achievements they've acquired a staggering lack of swagger… thankfully. In fact you'd be hard pressed to have witnessed a slower acclimatisation to 'stardom' over the last thirty plus years and that's also to their credit. I've always thought it's something to do with where they're from, their background, their upbringing. That 'Get a bit too cocky and you'll get a clip round the ear' sort of era and mentality.
All the post punk/new wave bands I knew from Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool - that vague part of the north - seemed to have been built in the same 'no airs and graces' way. What is 'different' - and as we're retreading history, I'll count him in here - is there's a side to Hooky I never would have guessed at back in 1981, and I don't mean all the war of words stuff. It's most probably always been there with family etc., and maybe it's now been nurtured by his standalone position in New Order World as the outsider, but there's an element of emotion and warmth, even, dare I say it, tenderness sometimes these days, usually in his recounting of Joy Division and New Order, that I would never have seen coming way back when.
Given both bands' tortured journeys I'm sure the pride in the achievements and and appreciation of the good times is inside all of them, it's just surprising to see that it's Hooky occasionally laying bare, so to speak, in this way. He'll give me stick for this.
What's your favourite New Order song and why?
There's a body of work - the second session the band did for John Peel (1982 - Turn The Heater On, We All Stand, Too Late, 584) - that I think is untouchable, but there's at least a couple of dozen faves, and from nearly right through their career. That bunch of mid 80s singles that included Perfect Kiss, Shellshock, True Faith and Fine Time is a fairly solid legacy but if I hear any of the Movement songs or the earliest of the sequencer driven tracks that quickly followed that album I'm straight back in those early New Order gigs watching those songs being performed, and I can practically smell our new wave club in Bedford back then.
So, it's the core years of From Heaven to Heaven (1981-1984) that are ingrained in me, and depending on what mood the equipment was in on any given night, Everything's Gone Green, Temptation, Hurt (Cramp), Ultraviolence and 586 could all signal how groundbreaking New Order were at that point. One by one those songs just raised the bar immeasurably and I don't think anybody has bettered this band when it comes to meshing rock and dance music. The foundations of it all are in those tracks.
I was at the soundcheck when the first of them, Everything's Gone Green, fully spat out of a gig PA for the first time (L'Ancienne Belgique, Brussels, May '81). Only a handful of people present, Duncan Haysom (Joy Division taper of note) was there, and at some point early on Annik (Honoré, Ian Curtis' girlfriend and then part of Factory Benelux, the gig's promoters) was down on her haunches in the middle of the huge empty floor unravelling a wad of the gig's beautifully designed posters… and then that EGG sequencer line and Hooky's bass started echoing around the hall. It sounded totally menacing, and it sort of sonically announced both itself and a new dawn, then and there.
Any of the above tracks on a great night would have been New Order decreeing to the world 'This is how good we are.' I didn't have the relationship with the recorded versions of those songs that the band obviously had, where (apart from the Martin Hannett era!) they had total control over and fully moulded the proceedings. It's the live versions, full of tension and power - and with that hint of menace - that made and still make me shiver. I know why Blue Monday finally broke New Order to the masses but they were in a class of their own well before that.
Do you think Hooky and Bernard can sort out their differences?
Sadly, I can't see it happening but I'll be more than happy to be proved wrong. You hear the adage 'never say never' a lot, and it's usually uttered with the most conviction by people who've lived a bit. There's a reason for that. For better or worse they've learnt something along the way.
In the case of Hook versus Sumner/New Order, for the business stuff you unfortunately need lawyers. For the personal stuff? The two of them and a table and two chairs in a locked room might be the only useful starting point. Depending on the words spoken, though, part of me thinks that might be the real finishing point, too… but never say never.
INCLUDING INDIVIDUALLY SIGNED AND NUMBERED EDITIONS
ALL ABOVE PHOTOGRAPHY IS COPYRIGHT DEC HICKEY