Dissonant Notes

Monday, August 25, 2014

Non-Anniversary Writing - 'Ceremony' by New Order

What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.

'The Devil’s Backbone'

So the last shall be first, and the first last.

KJV, Matthew 20:16

Like the legend of the phoenix. All ends with beginnings.

Daft Punk - 'Get Lucky'

‘Ceremony’ by New Order is an enigma turned into sound. Like New Order’s monolithic slab of dance angst ‘Blue Monday’, it took several recordings before the definitive version emerged but, unlike ‘Blue Monday’, it was always the same song being recorded and not old songs mutating into something new (Both ‘Everything’s Gone Green’ and ‘586’ are essentially ‘Blue Monday’ practice runs). Recorded first by Joy Division and then twice by New Order, it is the second New Order version which remains the most familiar and the one that plays in our heads when we think of the song.

Why is ‘Ceremony’ an enigma? It is both a Joy Division and a New Order song. It is the last words of one group and the first of another. It is both words from beyond the grave and the first noises emerging from a newborn. It is death and rebirth. Never has a song so perfectly played into mythological archetypes yet defied categorisation completely. It sits uneasily with the rest of New Order’s catalogue, yet tacked onto the end of Joy Division’s it would seem out of place. ‘Ceremony’ exists solely on its own terms and in its own self-created context.

The lyrics are written by Ian Curtis which means they qualify as the best set of lyrics in a New Order song. This is not to suggest that Ian Curtis was a flawless poet given that many of his early lyrics fall flat and, in retrospect, reek of juvenalia. Yet he continued to refine and improve and the words to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ are startlingly mature and world-weary for a 23 year old, leaving behind the abstract existentialism of Unknown Pleasures to paint an earthbound portrait of domestic unhappiness. The words to ‘Ceremony’ are perhaps an unrevisable work in progress and an unalterable point in time, nonetheless they speak of mystery and unbearable visions. The enigma of the lyrics matches the conditions through which the song emerged. The inscrutable is often mistaken for depth but, in the case of ‘Ceremony’, it is nigh on impossible to dismiss the words as throwaway. Their inscrutability occasionally gives way to discernable emotions that tease the listener into thinking that some solution to the enigma might be found. For all that, the song remains stubbornly undecipherable. This is understandable given that they are among the last remnants of speech from a man who could not bear the weight of his own existence.

While temporarily staying with Bernard Sumner, Ian Curtis engaged in some past-life regression therapy with Bernard as his guide. A recording exists of Curtis talking in a detached voice about reading a law book and being aged 28, an age which Curtis never came close to. With ‘Ceremony’, the roles are reversed and Sumner is singing words from a past-life with Curtis as his guide. It is left to Sumner to utter these lyrics from beyond the grave, the same lyrics that will introduce New Order to the world. The voice of Ian Curtis was a pitch black cry of desperation. In contrast, the voice of Bernard Sumner has a lightness of tone and an unstable pitch which lends the words of Ian Curtis a measure of humanity often lost in the music of Joy Division. The blank existential chasm which opened up whenever Curtis sang meant that the emotions being expressed often struggled to escape the black hole at the heart of each song. On ‘Ceremony’, Sumner’s delivery make the words seem like both an invitation and a question mark, as opposed to a full stop. As his quivering inflection lets out the words “Heaven knows it’s got to be this time” it lends the song a tearful quality as Sumner’s frail voice enables underground reservoirs of emotion to seep out through the cracks.

‘Ceremony’ is old/new, dead/alive, first/last. It is a kind of phantom caught between worlds, a frozen moment in time that represents neither the music of Joy Division nor New Order. It exists in an artistic shadow-realm that was captured on tape and as such can be repeated at the listener’s pleasure. ‘Ceremony’ retains the same intense musical simplicity that was the hallmark of Joy Division. Nothing more than two chords, the song is held together by the most basic of guitar lines married to a sparse drum sound, and the song peaks in ferocity as a rhythm guitar frenetically slashes away at those same two chords. Something has changed, however, and as such it feels and sounds different from any Joy Division song ever recorded. As for New Order, their music would soon change to embrace electronic music and dance culture. For a while Sumner attempted to emulate the lyrics of Curtis by writing words that implied something dark and ominous while struggling to make sense. He eventually settled in as a chronicler of domestic irritation and contentedness, shedding the existential doom to emerge as the everyman Wallace Shawn of New Order, in stark contrast to Ian Curtis’s spiritually tortured Andre Gregory. As such, ‘Ceremony’ stands alone, inhabiting a barely discernible borderland that could only have been created by events and circumstances beyond the control of the music-makers. It is the sound of wheels turning endlessly, turning forever towards that one moment in time. A moment that was both an end and a beginning. It served its purpose as an escape route into the future and, from the wreckage of tragedy, New Order constructed something that comes close to perfection. New Order escaped, but ‘Ceremony’ reminds us what they escaped from. It has kept its power, its mystery, and its vitality. Few moments in the history of modern music vibrate with such intensity. Listen again, the wheels are still turning.

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