Author Q&A: Michael Butterworth

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A day-by-day account of the making of Power, Corruption & Lies, New Order’s acclaimed second album, and Blue Monday – the electro anthem it spawned, by Michael Butterworth, who was there at the invitation of the band. There’s much in The Blue Monday Diaries (Plexus, £14.99) too about his own life as a writer and radical publisher.

More than 30 years on, why did you decide to write the book?
It was more of a question of why the book decided! I kept a diary of the recording session in 1982 with the intention of writing one, but for some reason the publishers of the time weren’t interested. They didn’t know – and of course at that time no one knew – the session would prove to be so important. The manuscript ended up being filed away. It was only when I was thinking of a new project that I remembered it.

You were part of the recording process and close to the group but apart enough to maintain objective distance. Was it a hard line to tread?
Not at all, but it did surprise me how I fell into being an observer so easily. There was a tension, of course, maintaining the right distance, but I didn’t have to work at it. If I’d had to, my writing wouldn’t have achieved the same naturalness. The reason was partly New Order themselves, and Rob [Gretton, manager], who were welcoming and friendly, but it was also the working method I chose. Not wanting to come across as intrusive, I had brought with me just a pen and notebook. No tape-recorder, no camera. They got used to seeing me scribbling down things, and the whole time just felt like I was hanging out with them.

You write that Joy Division might have ended up in a synth cul de sac if frontman Ian Curtis hadn’t died. What were New Order liberated to do?
I don’t think New Order were liberated by Ian’s death; they might have headed towards a kind of dance rock anyway, but I am speculating they might not have done. Joy Division and New Order are sometimes marketed differently, and may have different core followings, but for me it makes more sense to see them as different aspects of one band. The comparison I drew 33 years ago while writing my diary was with Pink Floyd. After losing Syd Barrett the Floyd pursued a less cult, more overground sound. Would they have achieved world domination if Syd had still been in the dynamic? It’s an imponderable.

Was it evident that Blue Monday was going to be as big as it was?
When I met them to discuss a book the band were incredibly inspired by the music they had found in the black and gay clubs on their American tours. After the 1981 tour they were more confident than ever that they had found the right direction to take. Of course, as driven creators do, who hold nothing back but put everything they’ve got into new work, they hoped the songs would be successful. But no one knew how big one song in particular would become. Having said that, even then, Blue Monday was the obvious single. I’m sure they knew that it might break barriers, but that was all.

What parallels and differences do you see between making music and writing books?
They are both creative processes. The main difference is that writing is such a solitary process – whilst composing, he or she is usually set apart from the production side of the business, but with music it’s not necessarily the case. It’s a more collaborative discipline. By its nature, more people are involved. But the two forms can have equally profound cultural impacts. In the Diaries I point out that Blue Monday appeared in the same few years as Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, and for me all three evolved in great part from experiments in science fiction that were being pioneered at the time by Michael Moorcock in his seminal magazine New Worlds. They each had the same effect of breaking down barriers and introducing new creative forms into the mainstream world.

New Order now are associated with feuding. What was the relationship between band members like then?
When I knew them, the band were still in their early twenties and wanting to make their mark in the world, so the dynamic was totally different. Differences weren’t to the fore. It is like any young relationship when you are attracted to each other for the things you aspire towards. It is only after success has been achieved that incompatibilities can show up. In the studio there was friction, but it was jocular. They were simply a great bunch of friends, taking the piss out of each other. Each pulled their weight. They just seemed incredibly cool, and on top of all that if you took away one of them, it wouldn’t work. They were very clever and talented people who knew they could only make it if they stayed together. What has happened is a great tragedy. I hope they can talk before they hurt each other too much. A skilled judge might broker something. It is never too late to step back.

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