How does it feel? The truth behind the Blue Monday hit and myths
PUBLISHED: 12:00 08 January 2019 | UPDATED: 16:45 08 January 2019
Forget all that ‘most depressing day of the year’ malarkey - RICHARD LUCK celebrates the New Order track that left dance music forever changed
First, the pseudoscience – Blue Monday is the name given to the third Monday in January (the 21st this year) which, it is claimed, is the most depressing day of the year. We have Sky Travel to thank for popularising this concept – as a marketing ploy to sell holidays at this time of year – which holds no more water than ice cream manufacturer Wall’s insistence that the happiest day of the year falls on or around the third Friday in June.
Rather than grant this errant nonsense more exposure, I will endeavour instead to tell the story of the song Blue Monday. No, not the Fats Domino blues number; rather the New Order track whose significance is eclipsed only by the vast number of myths that have sprung up around it.
That it is the best-selling 12” single of all time there can be little doubt – Factory Records shifted 700,000 copies in the UK alone. Almost everything else, however, is up for grabs. All that can be said with any certainty is that Blue Monday detonated over the dance scene like an atom bomb, which is only fitting since the song’s half-life is on a par with Uranium’s.
The song also helped New Order distance themselves from their previous incarnation. As Joy Division, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris had been part of the most important post-punk band of the late 1970s. In the wake of singer Ian Curtis’ suicide, no one would’ve been surprised had the guitarist, bassist and drummer decided to go their separate ways.
Determined not to lose what had been so hard won, the band assumed a new identity – New Order winning out over Barney And The JDs, The Sun Valley Dance Band and The Witchdoctors Of Zimbabwe – and acquired a new member, Stephen’s girlfriend and aspiring guitarist and keyboard player Gillian Gilbert. A well-received first single, Ceremony (featuring lyrics by Curtis), preceded a debut album, 1981’s Movement, the production of which the group were never particularly pleased with. When subsequent singles Everything’s Gone Green and Temptation criminally under-performed, the group’s future seemed in doubt – or at least, it might have been had their manager Rob Gretton and label boss Tony Wilson not been so hopelessly devoted to the band.
Remarkably, the song that would utterly transform New Order’s fortunes had anti-social origins. “I’m not interested in playing out the encore game,” Hook explained to Brian Edge in the early 1980s. “We respect our audience too much to have them waiting around like mugs for us.” Instead of hanging around to wish their fans ‘goodnight’, the group hit upon the idea of recording a song that could be played entirely electronically, allowing them to set about the rider before the gig was even over.
As huge fans of Kraftwerk and Can since their Joy Division days, New Order had been early adopters on the electronic keyboard front. Chronic insomniac Sumner actually built his first synthesizer from an Airfix-style kit. Come 1982 the gang had far shinier toys to play with. A Moog Source, an Emulator 1, an Oberheim DMX Mk 1 drum machine – these were the tools with which New Order created their magnum opus.
Not that recording Blue Monday wasn’t without its woes, as Hook recalls in his memoir, Substance: “It came as no surprise to me that after spending days programming Blue Monday using every trick [the Oberheim drum machine] could provide, the mains lead popped out of the back, the machine dumped all its information and the first incarnation of Blue Monday was lost... The upshot was that we hurriedly had to recreate all these fantastic drum beats, rhythmic punctuations, fills and drum stops... as quickly as possible before they disappeared into the ether. It took a long time to recapture them, and the lingering doubt that we had lost the best version still haunts me now.”
What New Order ended up with was seven minutes and 29 seconds of incredible, cascading electronic dance music. Sure, echoes of Chic, Sylvester and Giorgio Moroder are apparent throughout but Blue Monday is so much more than the sum of its influences. When journalist-turned-Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant first heard the song, he burst into tears, Blue Monday being exactly the kind of record he and collaborator Chris Lowe were looking to create.
Would that the band had been more impressed with the fruit of their labour. With Hook particularly scathing about the lyrics, New Order refused to promote the record, interviews being something the group had side-stepped given the press’s fascination with Curtis and his untimely demise.
That they eventually showed up on Top Of The Pops was only after the programme begged them to do it and even then, the group’s part-admirable, part-nose-spiting stubbornness saw them insist on playing live. Cue the sequencers refusing to work, Sumner forgetting the lyrics and the band failing to engage with the audience. No.12 when New Order appeared on TOTP, the song slipped down the chart the following week.
Of course, if the legend is to be believed, the chart success of Blue Monday cost the band’s label a fortune; the Peter Saville-designed, floppy disc-inspired sleeve being so expensive to produce that Factory lost money on every copy sold.
This, however, was only true of the record’s first pressing – later editions came in a cheap and cheerful plain black sleeve. A good thing too given that Blue Monday was a song with legs. Having first charted on March 19, 1983, the record was still banging around the top 75 38 weeks later.
It even outperformed the group’s follow-up single Confusion, Blue Monday eventually reaching a high of No.9 on October 15.
All of this was accomplished without the aid of a promotional video or a supporting album, the group’s commitment to awkwardness meaning that Blue Monday didn’t feature on the stunning Power, Corruption & Lies – it wouldn’t be until their next album Low-Life (1985) that New Order singles appeared on their albums as a matter of course.
Choosing to do things their way would pay further dividends for Sumner, Hook, Morris and Gilbert, however. The group that played one of their first gigs at Heaven and whose own nightclub The Hacienda ran a very popular gay night, New Order’s respect for the gay scene was the product of time spent with top DJs like Arthur Baker in New York. As Morris once memorably remarked: “Arthur took us to these clubs like the Paradise Garage and you’d come away thinking, ‘This music’s fantastic! Not many women, mind you...’” Cultivating a fan base others distanced themselves from, New Order also won over those who had dismissed disco as faddish and ridiculous. “They created a sort of intelligent dance music,” explained Echo and The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch. Far from ‘boredom with a beat’, Blue Monday was the way forward.
And while New Order set about enjoying the next chapters of their world-spanning pop adventure, Blue Monday continued to have a life of its own. Quincy Jones, who among many other things released New Order tracks in the US on his Qwest Records label, insisted on remixing the track in 1988, so propelling Blue Monday to its highest ever UK chart placing (it reached No.3 on May 14 of that year). A further remix returned the song to the top 20 in the August of 1995, the group’s new backers London Records having released ‘best of’ and ‘rest of’ compilations in an effort to recoup their investment.
Yet still Blue Monday refused to die. American industrial metal outfit Orgy enjoyed minor US chart success and major MTV rotation with their cover in 1998. Norway’s Flunk then got in on the act in 2002, their breathy, stripped-back rendition finding its way onto the soundtrack of the Dwayne Johnson action remake Walking Tall. And when the song wasn’t being reworked it was being further remixed, most notably by Stuart Crichton, the Scottish producer who encouraged none other than Kylie Minogue to perform a mash-up Blue Monday and Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, the finished work winding up on the B-side of Kyle’s top three smash Love At First Sight.
Also to be heard on adverts for everything from BT+ to Mars Bars, Blue Monday is very much a part of the British dance pop furniture. Play the original 12” single, however, and something incredible happens. For not only do the years melt away but Blue Monday still feels ahead of the game. While many of the remixes seem gimmicky and dated, the first incarnation of Blue Monday is free of self-conscious samples and showing off.
A record made by a group who considered traditional band activities such as playing live to be a chore, New Order’s finest seven+ minutes is all the more attractive for making no great effort to draw attention to itself. The song the band created to ease the agony of encores is now the one song everyone wants to hear New Order play live.
Would that the group still existed in its original form. Alas, sustained infighting means that Peter Hook is no longer a part of the act he co-founded. It’s sad that the band that survived the suicide of its lead singer should have been torn apart by, among other things, financial issues.
No matter how great one’s sorrow over the demise of the original line-up, you have to bear in mind the words of rock journalist and unofficial New Order biographer Paul Morley: “Music... for all the craziness and horror and heartache is the thing that really matters.” And on that front, New Order are guaranteed immortality – their most celebrated track being so immune to the passing of time and the interference of others that, should the Big One fall, you can be certain that the cockroaches and Keith Richards will be left banging out a decent rendition of Blue Monday.