In the wake of Ian Curtis’ passing in 1980, the grieving remaining members of Joy Division had the toughest challenge of drying their eyes and getting back to music. Deciding that Joy Division was no more without Curtis, the group aptly renamed themselves New Order. Back in 1979, Joy Division had welcomed Gillian Gilbert to play with them at one of their live performances in Liverpool as a guitarist to support Bernard Sumner. At the time, Gilbert had been a member of a local punk outfit named The Inadequates. She had begun her musical career as a guitarist and she had been inspired by the idea of female involvement in punk music. As she once recalled: “My Dad always said, ‘You changed as soon as you saw Siouxsie And The Banshees on television’”.
When New Order were setting up for their fresh start in the early ‘80s the group’s manager Rob Gretton came up with a great idea: “Rob just rang up one day and went, ‘I’ve got an idea – we should get Gillian in to play guitar,’” as drummer Steve Morris recalled in New Order’s podcast series ‘Transmissions’.
He continued: “He was dead right because we all found singing and playing impossible at the same time when New Order started. Looking back now, it seems obvious that we needed to get someone else in – sort of, ‘Blimey, why didn’t we think of that?’”.
Initially, Gilbert would take the position of secondary guitarist to support Sumner while he started to debut himself as a singer as well as a guitarist for the group. But by 1982, New Order had become increasingly interested in the idea of programmed music and the use of synthesisers. Gradually, Gilbert became involved in the experimental programming of sound for the group’s music and would begin to act as the keyboard and synth player as well as the secondary guitarist at intervals while on stage. With relentless practice, as she put it, “learning how to play precisely by pretending to be a sequencer” Gilbert became a fantastic synth player and an indispensable member of the band.
In recent years Gilbert has been often referred to as the “Synth Queen” by her admirers for her pioneering work with New Order. Welsh electronic musician Kelly Lee Owens said of her idol: “Having Gillian as the synth queen was fucking amazing, speaking as a woman in music,” she said, before adding: “To have a woman be a part of something like this and own her part was really inspiring… Women are often underrated, or their part is dismissed”.
Gilbert later responded regarding her title of synth queen: “You never think of your work as part of history or influencing people,” she said. “It was weird when I joined because nobody expected a girl to be brought into the band. They expected another singer”.
The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr also took the time to point out the importance of Gilbert as a music icon while talking on the podcast series ‘Transmissions’, commenting: “I don’t really think that in all the years the New Order story’s been told that Gillian’s been given the credit for what she did,” Marr said. “I try to avoid using the word ‘iconic’ too much, but back in the early 1980s, when they were on the cover of magazines, Gillian was uber-cool. On stage, she brought a new dimension to the band visually, and she played some great parts, too. She’d play these cool little top lines and then she’d put her guitar on and look very mysterious. Gillian added to the allure of the band with her cool, remote femininity.”
Join us, then, as we list five New Order tracks where Gillian’s presence can be felt most.
Five songs to prove Gillian Gilbert was vital to New Order’s success:
‘Everything’s Gone Green’ (1981)
One of the earliest and most impressive examples of the group’s seamless blending of traditional rock arrangements with electronic music influences was ‘Everything’s Gone Green’. The song blends cascading rhythm guitar with a fantastic synthesised electronic element.
For the track the group took inspiration from the instrumentals heard on Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’. The instantly recognisable shuddering sound was achieved by synchronising a drum machine to a synth with an oscillator, and the effects are quite something.
‘Blue Monday’ (1983)
In 1983, computers weren’t very commonplace and programming in music was even rarer. As a group of restless creatives, New Order were exceedingly interested in the idea of creating a song that was entirely electronic. Bernard Sumner had begun building gadgets called sequencers, which Gillian Gilbert would later join him to develop new ideas from. Influenced by their time in New York dance clubs, the group had decided to make their new electronic single in a way that married their post-punk sound with a danceable beat – the magnificent result was ‘Blue Monday’.
As Gilbert wrote of her involvement: “The synthesiser melody is slightly out of sync with the rhythm. This was an accident. It was my job to programme the entire song from beginning to end, which had to be done manually, by inputting every note. I had the sequence all written down on loads of A4 paper Sellotaped together the length of the recording studio, like a huge knitting pattern. But I accidentally left a note out, which skewed the melody. We’d bought ourselves an Emulator 1, an early sampler, and used it to add snatches of choir-like voices from Kraftwerk’s album Radioactivity, as well as recordings of thunder. Bernard and Stephen [Morris] had worked out how to use it by spending hours recording farts.”
‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ (1986)
After the release of their eponymous album Low-Life in 1985, the group would spend some time creating some more singles to meet the danceable heights of ‘Blue Monday’. ‘Bizzare Love Triangle’ was one of the highlights of these exploits.
Appearing on their less critically acclaimed album Brotherhood in 1986, the single was by far the most interesting moment of the record. Thanks to the drum machine and synthesiser tracks, the song has become a dance classic and has since been covered by the likes of Donna Lewis and The Black Eyed Peas, with many further artists having sampled the catchy electronic melodies.
‘True Faith’ (1987)
In 1987, New Order released their multi-platinum-selling compilation album, Substance, which was a collection of the group’s greatest 12” singles that included extended remixes of some of their older tracks. The remixed collection is a mesmerising listen and I’d sooner point someone toward this compilation than The Best of New Order as an introduction to the group.
‘True Faith’ was among the most critically acclaimed new singles featuring on the album and is to this day likely only second to ‘Blue Monday’ in terms of the group’s greatest electro-pop club anthems. The single was made legendary with its accompanying music video, directed and choreographed by Philippe Decouflé, which won the Brit Award for British Video of the Year.
‘Fine Time’ (1988)
For their fifth studio album, Technique, New Order had decided to migrate a little further offshore from their post-punk roots with an album consisting, for the most part, of Ibiza inspired rave music. The album came just in time for the rave explosion that would get into its full swing in the 1990s with its spiritual home at the Hacienda nightclub in Manchester. Incidentally, the Hacienda was founded by Tony Wilson, the owner of Factory Records to which Joy Division and New Order had been signed. After its opening in 1982, the club was said to have been mainly financed by the success of New Order’s hit single ‘Blue Monday’.
Technique kicks off with ‘Fine Time’ which is among the heaviest rave tracks on the album. The early acid-house song boasts some of the densest synth arrangements New Order have produced and definitely shows off Gillian Gilbert’s synth talents which can be heard on the live performance of the track from 1988 below.