HELEN COLLETT stalks the members of New Order and their greater entourage during their first New Zealand tour in 1982.
Editor’s note: There are those of us who consider Helen Collett one of the few truly great rock writers to have emerged from NZ, and more specifically, the post-punk scene in Wellington. With a wit as sharp as a Japanese usuba knife and attitude to spare, her work and words were sometimes contentious but impossible to ignore. Unfortunately, much of her work is lost to time, and she gave up music writing too early, so Witchdoctor is joyfully digging up and republishing some of the features and reviews she wrote for Gary Steel’s In Touch and TOM magazines, with her permission. This piece appeared in IT mag, Christmas 1982.
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By devious means, I inveigled my way into the flat of Martin Usher and Bernard Albrecht. Rob Gretton wanders past, clad only in glasses, a grin and a pair of red underpants. I drink coffee and pack a couple of shirts for Bernard Albrecht. He seems flustered by the sheer volume of his clothing, and wonders why he bothered bringing so much on tour. But if you don’t talk to people, it must be difficult communicating with shop assistants and the like.
Still, the reticent New Order have had more than their share of sicko/sentimental press coverage. They didn’t want or need to speak to the press here either, they were in New Zealand to play music.
Upon the group’s arrival in Wellington, I’d wanted to speak to Gillian, the newest band member. After two days, the idea of a set interview with any of these people was starting to seem both boring and superfluous. Sure, I’m supposed to be a “reporter”, but not a private investigator. I also think a formal interview type situation would have revealed little of relevance pertaining to New Order’s music.
So I talk with engineer Martin Usher again. “I got into computers around 1978”, he says. “The people I knew at the time weren’t using equipment of any quality, getting a degree or working in real firms.
“You’ve got to do that. It’s a question of getting enough experience to become eligible for corporate status as an engineer. You do that so you can get out and earn vast sums of money! But also, your previous work often involves good techniques for bands.
“But some bands won’t be using that stuff until it’s well-established, because usually they’re a bit behind, technically, what’s state-of-the-art.
I had two million pounds behind me. To them, that was tea money. A typical-sized contract was 60 million pounds.
“I mean, it’s big league! Another example: one firm I worked for commissioned me to make a prototype tape recorder over 12 weeks. I’ve got 91,000 out of that.
“These sums are what you spend in an industrial context. But it would bankrupt a record firm to get in at that sort of level. Factory don’t have enough money to throw away on speculative ventures.
“My point is, that once you’ve done the work and learned the various techniques, you can use them elsewhere. Like with music, The Factory, etc, which is bloody interesting to me.”
How did you meet [Factory boss] Tony Wilson? He’s got a rather weird reputation, Mark Smith said…
“But Tony Wilson is the type of person who meets you. You roll up in the car park outside your flat one night, out of your head, and this guy says… ‘Do you know how to make a vocoder?’ I thought he was really nice. A mess! Isn’t everybody?
“Greater Manchester’s like a club. Everybody knows everybody else.
“I’ve worked with New Order for about 15 months. Bernard comes to my house and says, ‘This doesn’t work straight, it doesn’t do what you want it to do.”
Bernard: “Yeah, fucking hell, I’ve done this and it don’t work no more! You know?”
Martin: “And he needs it for tomorrow…”
So you’re like a fixer, a mender for the machines, then.
Martin: “I don’t actually fix things, I modify them. I hope, or I don’t believe that things should go wrong.”
What part, if any, do you have in writing New Order’s music?
“None”, says Martin. “Bernard puts the stuff in. Who writes the music anyway? I don’t know who writes the music; it turns up in memories!”
No, what I thought you were saying before was that Bernard would turn up with a “faulty” sequencer, something that wasn’t being used by him in the way originally intended for it. Then you’d show him how it could be used. I wasn’t sure whether that just implied interpretation of ideas or the actual creation of music on Martin’s part.
Bernard: “No, a sequencer’s just a tool, a machine, right?” [Explain that term more fully please, I say. Bernard shuts up completely. It’s alright, go on, I say in reassuring tones. What’s the matter?]
“I have an aversion to tape recorders, actually.” [Tee hee. That’s okay, I have too].
“Turn it off then,” suggests Bernard. [No, I have to become accustomed to the bloody things. It’s just a tool of the trade that’s been misused in your context. Get over it, kid!]
“Alright. A sequencer is… what you do is you play a synthesiser into a sequencer. Well, you program a sequencer and after that, you don’t have to play into it any more. The sequencer plays it in, okay?
“So it plays very fast sort of rhythm things that you couldn’t play anyway, because they’re so fast. It leaves your hands free to play something else.
“But a lot of people only use them in the studio, whereas we use them live. And when you do that, you’ve got to be quick. And they’ve got to be reliable. A lot of them aren’t though, you know?
“But if we buy a new sequencer and it won’t do what we need it to do, we take it to Martin and he susses out how it works. He makes it do what we want it to do, basically. Technically.”
Martin: “Usually on a Sunday night.”
Bernard: “Yeah, it gets a bit boring on a Sunday, doesn’t it. There isn’t much happening.”
Martin: “In fact from lunchtime until about midnight Sunday, we all go into Factory. That’s the best time to get the circuit things fixed up.”
How are the various types of computer systems being utilized, then?
Martin: “Well, one thing you can do with them is run groups. Another is that you can run robots in factories. But the biggest business is bombs, missiles and other explosives. It’s where the bulk of work goes. If you see someone advertising certain types of heavy duty computer systems, then invariably they’re military systems.
“The main problem in keeping a lot of engineers amused is finding something interesting to do that doesn’t involve going BANG! At some stage in its career. I think in England, the vast majority of work is in military equipment, most engineers employed are involved with it. There’s little else they can do. So industrial automation covers a multitude of sins, you see…”
Bernard: “Excuse me, do you know how to fold shirts?”
The next shirt I notice is red, printed with white lettering, and being worn by a red-headed member of the road crew. Vicious on the eyes. Various band members attempt to explain its history to me, for some reason.
Bernard: “This is the story of the shirt. This shirt…”
Steve, New Order’s drummer: “I remember the day we first saw that shirt, that bright young little shirt. He was jumping around in it.”
The Wearer: “And then, disaster. Drink. The final frontier…”
[Steve: “It makes slaves of us all…”] “Then after drink, it was twin-engines. Non-stop, a space shuttle. Disaster…”
I see why you wanted me to read that shirt.
Steve: “It’s written in the Finnish language. A language we all know very well. We know it well.”
Dammit – if it was in Russian, I could read it too.
Steve: “Show her the back. It’s in reverse printing. An old Finnish joke. In fact, the only Finnish joke!”
I’ve heard that one. “What’s it mean?” I curse them all viciously in Russian and laugh.
End of story. Finito, as Rob Gretton would say.
While walking through Wellington’s Botanical Gardens, I’m accosted by Rob Gretton, New Order’s manager. “Hey! Come over here!”, he yells. “This is Martin.”
Not… Martin Hannett, I ask, falling to my knees.
No, this is Martin Usher and he’s into Industrial Automation. “I’m an engineer. I operate computers,” he says.
Rob: He’s a boffin. He’s here to take an analytical approach to our music and uh… criticize everything. Can I have another cigarette?”
Martin: I try to rationalize stuff so that it’s much simpler and more versatile. I take some of the guess-work out of playing, so you can just press a button and go off into the dark. The equipment’s set to work itself.
I also make blow-up models of the band. At the beginning of the set, they just sort of inflate.
No, I don’t do anything that spectacular. But this is a nice holiday. I get to see a bit of the world. Long way to go to see a New Order gig though, isn’t it?
Rob: He’s never seen a New Order gig before. [Rilly].
Martin: I’ve heard all sorts of bits of their music, because of Martin Hannett, who plays all this sort of racket.
Rob: He’s a good friend of mind. But [this] Martin sorted out all our sequencers.
M: Well, last year’s model. You’ve changed, you’ve now gone and bought a new lot! It’s hell, you just can’t trust anybody.
R: You’ve got to keep moving ahead, Martin…
M: It’s hardly what you’d call moving ahead if it’s just the same job.
R: But the search for reliability is one of our biggest problems. We used to have some embarrassing gigs when everything would just get out of sync with everything else.
But the trouble is whenever Bernard [Albrecht, the singer], gets hold of a piece of equipment, he decides to do something that the manufacturer couldn’t possibly have anticipated. So you’re drowned again. You know, ‘oh, ah, um, how do you make it do this?’ So you give Bernard a circuit, he goes off and he makes it. It doesn’t work, so you fiddle around making it work, and he goes off and makes a few more. And gradually, they accumulate, more and more bits of equipment. I think one of the plans now is to try and get hold of some kind of rationalized piece.”
M: Probably just a computer. But nothing of any great complexity or, dare I say it [to Rob] expense?
But no matter what you do there, I suspect the band will all think of something totally different.
[He picks something up from the grass].
M: What strange things you’ve got growing in this part of the world; what’s this?
[Well, it’s either a very weird joint or a mutant cigar. Light it and see].
M: But as I said, my main business is industrial automation. Which seems appropriate really, when you think of an outfit like Factory.
R: Into automating the process.
M: There’s a lot to be said for this type of music, though. It could be fun.
There’s no money in it though – not by industrial standards. That’s only possible if you’re very big. I suppose.
R: God, I’m tired. What did you think of the gig last night? [Monday, Victoria University, Wellington].
[I thought the sound was good, especially for John Cooper-Clarke – although I suppose that would have been easier! New Order were like a huge vibration, just great].
R: Oh, it was probably a good-type gig, really.
M: Were you pinned against the back wall of the hall?
[No, I was pinned against 1000 people with their mouths open. Possibly thinking of Joy Division, or trying not to. No, that’s a generalization.]
R: Or thinking of Warsaw. I’d say it’s very time-warpish in Australia and New Zealand. It’s like England two years ago.
[It’s difficult to hear much new music out here though, unless you spend a fortune on imports].
R: Well, we’ve been having a lot of problems with our New Zealand record company. In fact, they haven’t been to see us at all. But I think the promoters have done a pretty good job. Considering we weren’t doing any interviews, or talking to anyone.
Not even phone-in interviews. It’s very difficult for them to promote us. See, we’re not really into self-promotion…”
[Understatement of the century. Various band members and associates arrive, sit on the grass, talk and sun themselves. They’ve had a day off, which was spent touring the bays of Wellington, shopping and resting.
The tape runs out, the sun goes down and everybody leaves.]
- New Order performed at Victoria University on 8 December, 1982.