(Little, Brown, £20)
(Little, Brown, £20)
Fast Forward is the New Order drummer and multi-instrumentalist’s follow-up to the first volume of his memoirs, Record Play Pause.* Thoughtful, funny, rollicking at times but poignant, it adds much to the Joy Division-New Order canon and completely dispels the cruel rock ’n’ roll jokes about drummers.
“Why does everything we touch turn to shit?” you ask early on in the book. It’s not completely true though. Describe the arc of this book for us.
I suppose in the great scheme of things you are absolutely correct and I was being a bit pessimistic. But at the time I was asking myself that question it really felt like everything was going wrong for us and in a very big way.
This was at the start of October in 1980. Ian [Curtis] had taken his life in May, which was as you can imagine very traumatic for everyone. We’d taken the last two songs we’d written with him in Joy Division – Ceremony and In A Lonely Place – changed our name and were doing our best to continue without him. None of us being what you might call natural singers, this was in itself a bit of a struggle.
Then having embarked on a small tour of America, we’d had our equipment stolen, which it turned out wasn’t even insured. So it felt like one calamity after another, almost as if some malign force was trying to discourage us from doing the one thing we’d always wanted. But being young men from the North West we did our best to try and laugh at our seemingly dire predicament and wonder how much worse it could possibly get.
Immediately on our return from the US our manager Rob Gretton came up with the idea of asking my girlfriend Gillian Gilbert to join the band on guitar and keyboards, which solved some of the problems stemming from our inability to successfully play and sing simultaneously.
Once Gillian joined the band the book is the story of New Order trying to somehow become something “different” with no real idea of what “different” might be. Something other than Joy Division or Joy Division mk2, which is what I think people widely expected us to become. Instead we became interested in what was at the time primitive digital musical technology, which led us in a completely different direction altogether. That led to the creation of what is allegedly the world’s biggest selling 12-inch single.
It also led to the creation of World in Motion for the England ‘90 World Cup squad, which was seen by many die-hard JD fans as the final nail in the coffin of Joy Division, as if it was musical sacrilege of some kind.
In the process of this transition I did occasionally worry that my obsession with digital gadgetry may lead to my own redundancy as a drummer. To make all these innovations work meant change, sometimes in ways that I had never expected.
One of New Order’s musical strengths was combining the haphazard and the highly structured. How does that compare to how you write, and how has it changed from the first book to the second?
I like to think I have a way of working that is methodical. In fact to call it haphazard is being extremely kind – chaotic at times might be nearer the mark. Record Play Pause was a lot easier to write for some reason. They both cover similar lengths of time but in Fast Forward a lot more happened and it became very long and unwieldy and needed editing down quite a lot. Even then I kept finding myself wanting to put more and more stuff in, so I was constantly writing more, then having to edit more to squeeze it in – which was something I didn’t do on the first one.
Lockdown might have something to do with that. Much of the first book was written while we were away touring and the new one has been done in some sort of confinement.
When I first began writing my idea had been to write one long book starting from 1957 and ending in the present day. But that was really, really long, so it got cut into two books. Even then it still finishes in 2008.
You don’t dwell on the New Order conflicts as much as other band members do in their memoirs but was this a harder book to write than your first one because the story had got so much more complicated?
Yes, exactly. The thing is as time went on the band became much more convoluted and diverse, not least because of our involvement with Factory in the creation of the Haçienda, with all the associated twists, turns, heart and head aches that the club brought into all our lives.
It was all (mostly) good though and generally speaking we all got on really well and had a great time doing what we enjoyed: making music. I know that seems hard to believe these days, but I didn’t want to focus on any disagreements we may (or may not) have had.
From your bedroom computers through to customised synths, samplers and drum machines, you were at the cutting – sometimes tape-splicing – edge of music technology, but also fearful it would displace you. Is that something musicians of all eras have had to contend with, or was there something unique about your time?
Technology has always impacted on music in some way, from the invention of the gramophone or the electric guitar to the Roland 808 drum machine and the MP3 player. Technology has changed the way music is made, the way it sounds and how it’s heard.
I think change is unavoidable. It is the only way things do move forward and my big thing as a teenager was the anticipation of the future, instead of nostalgia for the past.
As I’ve already said there were times in the early days of New Order when I worried that my involvement with drum machines and samplers was going to eventually lead to me being out of a job. But machines can’t really replace creativity. They’re only tools. Once I cottoned on to that one, my sense of paranoia receded a bit.
Having said that, the early 1980s and 1990s were really exciting and occasionally frustrating times for a tech-obsessed nerd. You could see a world of possibilities opening up with technology, and progress at times seemed painfully slow. I remember being very impatient for the arrival of digital video.
Now we live in a world where such things are taken for granted and new better tech comes out at an ever-increasing pace. I find it hard to think of anything that might happen today that would change things so fundamentally as it did back then.
We recently asked Chris Frantz about the secret of his 40-odd year marriage to Tina Weymouth, and you and Gillian have been together for just about as long. How do you drummers buck the trend in an industry that doesn’t normally lend itself to enduring relationships?
Good question, that. Maybe it’s drumming. I find it a very calming activity – a great way of keeping fit both physically and mentally. I can recommend it to anyone suffering from stress or anxiety. Most of the drummers I know are well-balanced and easy-going people and that definitely helps sustain a relationship. That’s my excuse. I’ll have to ask Gillian what her secret is.
Despite the ups and downs in the book you clearly enjoyed writing it. Who are your favourite authors and do you have plans for another book?
I love reading. When I started writing the book I thought it would be just like reading in reverse. Sadly it isn’t. It’s a lot more like writing music than that. My favourite authors are Thomas Pynchon, Flann O’Brien, Philip K Dick and Margaret Atwood, but really I like most things. Yes, I would love to do another book, maybe finish the NO story or, more interesting, would be to write something completely different – nothing to do with my life, music or computers at all.
Do you think the live music industry can recover from Covid?
I do believe that live music will recover eventually but I suspect it will be a long and difficult struggle before it does. Live music thrives on the interaction of people, in the same place at the same time, and until that can be done safely things are going to be a lot different. I cannot imagine a future in which live music doesn’t exist in some shape or form. It’s part of who we all are and always will be – I hope.