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At Leisure - Drummer Stephen Morris

At Leisure is a series of films produced by Luke Turner, writer and co-founder of The Quietus music website and filmmaker Ethan Reid, in which they explore the hobbies and interests of cult artists, and examine the connections between those activities and their work. In this first film -  which you can watch on the Lush player tomorrow (Friday) - we travel to the English Pennine hills to see Joy Division and New Order drummer, Stephen Morris’ collection of vintage synthesisers and the military vehicles he’s saved from the scrapheap

 

IN A NUTSHELL

Stephen Paul David Morris was born on 28th October 1957 in Macclesfield, England. In August 1977 he answered a 'drummer wanted' advert posted in a shop window and joined the band Warsaw, fronted by Ian Curtis, alongside bassist Peter Hook and guitarist Bernard Sumner. They soon changed their name to Joy Division, and would pioneer what came to be known as post punk with the albums Unknown Pleasures and Closer before the suicide of Curtis on 18th May 1980.

 

The remaining members recruited long-time friend Gillian Gilbert on keyboards and swiftly relaunched as New Order, releasing their debut single Ceremony in 1981. Originally written by Joy Division, it marked the bridge between that band's sound and an increasing obsession with italo disco and electro, discovered in clubs and cassette tapes on a trip to New York that same year. Morris taught himself to use sequencers and drum machines, which made him an instrumental part in the emerging New Order sound over coming years, from the austere robot disco of Blue Monday, (which became the biggest-selling 12" of all time), to the melancholic dance pop of Temptation and The Perfect Kiss.

 

Over the following decades, New Order went on to sell millions of albums and set a blueprint for the fusion of electronic and rock music. After the departure of bassist Peter Hook a reconfiguration of the group saw 2015 album Music Complete getting some of the best reviews of New Order's career. Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert married in 1993 and now live in an former farm in the Pennine Hills, where Morris keeps the collection of military vehicles featured in the At Leisure film.

 

OUR TAKE

Few groups have been as mythologised as heavily as Joy Division and New Order. With Kevin Cummins' stylish black and white photographs of the band on the streets of late-70s Manchester, those of Joy Division had an instant visual aesthetic that tied in with the intense austerity of music. After Ian Curtis' suicide, the surviving members of the group weren't cowed by tragedy, but reassembled as New Order, releasing in Blue Monday one of the finest pieces of music celebrating the mechanised human; bringing the legacy of German innovators Kraftwerk and Can into the nightclubs, and eventually pop charts, of Britain.

 

These myths of rock & roll are always dominated by the singers or guitarists. Drummers are usually the butt of the joke, as brilliantly captured in rock ‘mocumentary’ This Is Spinal Tap, where the sticksmen have a habit of perishing in bizarre incidents. Another music film, 24 Hour Party People, gave a recent twist on some of the legends surrounding Stephen Morris. That film, starring Steve Coogan as Factory Records boss Tony Wilson, captured the highs, lows and absurdities of the scene around Joy Division and New Order, the Factory label and the financially loss-making but spectacularly influential nightclub Hacienda. In it, maverick producer Martin Hannett tells Morris to play "faster, but slower", and rebuilds his drum-kit on the roof. The film has the rest of the band driving off from the studio listening to She's Loss Control. Morris, however, is still on the roof hitting the rhythm of the song. Nobody had told him to stop.

 

It's too simple to say that Joy Division represented the darkness and New Order the light - the brilliance of both groups came in their expertise at painting with both, even if the peerless music critic Jon Savage did write: "it was incredible that this very dark gloomy, gothic rock group became disco divas". At the heart of that is Stephen Morris' drumming, and later on his surrendering of the musicians' ego in order to embrace the rhythmical potential of putting down his sticks to collaborate with drum machines.

 

It's within Morris' rhythms that the traditional, tired stories of rock & roll are broken. After all, when drum machines first became accessible in the early 80s, Morris confesses he had "a Luddite moment" when he realised that essentially he could be out of a job. Indeed, he actually offered to sell his drum kit during a Radio 1 interview in 1983. Instead of falling back on rock-centric traditionalism, Morris decided to embrace change, teaching himself how to get the best out of their capabilities while at the same time utilising his skills as a master craftsman rhythm-maker. This tension between his role as drummer resenting the new technology, and an instinctual desire to want to embrace and explore it, is what gave New Order its ability to write songs that straddled experimental, pop and the dancefloor.

 

This ease at seeing himself as part of the mechanical is perhaps why Morris has taken so well to driving around the narrow lanes of the Lancashire hills in his collection of armoured cars, doing battle with post office vans en route. It's not a fetishisation of the militaristic or anything to do with nationalism, but an obsession with how clunking great machines work, repairing and tinkering with them for the best performance. It applies as equally to Morris' vast collection of vintage synthesisers, including some that were made in the former USSR using discarded military parts.

 

After the success of Music Complete, New Order embarked on a lengthy world tour, including headline slots at the prestigious Coachella Festival, the music that once belonged to the rainy streets of Manchester coming to light and life in the Southern Californian sunshine. Meanwhile, Stephen Morris' collection of military vehicles sit silent, smelling of grease and steel, diesel and oil-soaked rags. Across the farmyard, past the full-sized Dalek and the original drum kit he used in Joy Division, his regiments of synths and machines sit ready in the New Order studio, ready to be marshalled into action once again.

stephen_morris

Five Easy Pieces - Where To Start With Stephen Morris

Joy Division - Insight

A stand-out moment on Joy Division's debut album and an early example of Stephen Morris' introduction of electronic elements via the Synare III drum synthesiser. You can hear them in the track as strange, birdlike noises, as if a squabbling flock had been recorded from a position of being sat on a studio window ledge. Morris later explained this unexpected sound as coming from the fact that "I could only turn one knob. I couldn’t turn up the resonance and turn down the volume so I was hoping someone else would turn it down!"

 

New Order - 586

Blue Monday is the track that made New Order's name, but in some ways it's 586 that best demonstrates the group’s early enthusiasm for the black club music they'd found in New York. It's the kissing cousin of the Blue Monday single, but smooths over that track's mechanised austerity in favour of a loose, warm euphoria.

 

New Order - Love Vigilantes

Stephen Morris’ favourite song from his favourite New Order album, Low-Life, released in 1985. He’s said that he feels it’s the album where the group had finally mastered the studio techniques that enabled them to realise their vision. Listen to the wonderfully breezy melodies over the rhythmic swagger and you can hear the blueprint for much of the Manchester scene of the later 80s’ and early 90s’.

 

The Other Two - Tasty Fish

Rock & roll mythology not only downplays drummers, but also tends to relegate female members of groups. So it was that during Gillian Gilbert's absence from New Order (a break taken to raise her and Stephen Morris' two daughters) fans barely batted and eyelid, yet when Peter Hook left, many claimed it wasn't the same group. Gilbert and Morris' joint extra-curricular project The Other Two rather proves that their contribution to the New Order sound is foolish to underplay. The name itself is something of a mocking retort to those who focussed on Hook and Sumner as the leaders of the group and debut single Tasty Fish is a brilliant slice of charming electropop. It's far more rewarding than the former New Order bassist's nostalgia act Peter Hook & The Light, that's for sure.

 

Factory Floor - (Real Love)

Over the years, few groups have come closer to New Order's marriage of rock and dance music as Factory Floor. As seen in the At Leisure film, that group's founder and drummer Gabe Gurnsey shares with Stephen Morris not just an enthusiasm for the marriage of human rhythms  and synthesiser but also making models of military vehicles. These shared interests were made into music when Morris used the studio skills he'd acquired on those records with Martin Hannett to produce Factory Floor's killer single ~(Real Love), released on the Optimo label in 2011. Said Morris about the group: "There is no denying that Factory Floor can be very intense at times,but it is a very hypnotic kind of thing working around the synth pulse that invokes Giorgio Moroder's disco electronics more than anything industrial. It's an unsettling disco though. Pigeonholes worry me, like too much cutlery at a fancy dinner, I sometimes wonder what they're all for."

Stephen Morris In Quotes:

"You have to use your imagination with Joy Division. There is a lot of room to fill in the blanks, and that’s what keeps people obsessing over it." 

 

"The hardest thing in the world is to be different, it’s not easy! The thing about New Order is we never know what we’re doing but we know what we don’t want to do. It’s by avoiding other things you don’t want to do, that you end up at what you do want to do!" 

 

"I just like the thing about having a machine that is very physical and tactile and you get that thing of ‘if I do this I don’t quite know what that will do but it might be good. You’re just messing about with parameters and things like that in a way that you’ll never get on a computer." 

 

"when you are drumming you drift off somewhere.. don’t ask me where, you kind of just get into drumming and you’re somewhere else."

 

This Author

Luke Turner is co-founder and co-editor of The Quietus. His first book Out Of The Woods, a memoir of family, sexuality, forests and faith, will be published in early 2019.

 

It's too simple to say that Joy Division represented the darkness and New Order the light - the brilliance of both groups came in their expertise at painting with both

Comments (2)
2 Comments

Slim8589_6684875

about 5 months ago

“It's far more rewarding than the former New Order bassist's nostalgia act Peter Hook & The Light, that's for sure.” Absolute garbage, have you seen him live? Plays with more passion than the other 3 put together! Just listen to his live version of LWTUA compared to the recent version put out by NO. Embarrassing!

dpotta_6688558

about 5 months ago

Don't blow a fuse dude, that is an odd response on a feature about Stephen Morris and his music. I reread the article juts to make sure, but at no point did it make any comparisons between Peter Hook live and The Other Two on record, question Peter Hooks attitude/passion, or make any mention of recent New Order vs PH&TL. For me, there is more to music than hearing it played with passion. Whilst that can be enjoyable, there are many other engaging aspects to music. The article said that Tasty Fish is far more rewarding than PH&TL and acknowledges Stephen Morris and Gillian aren't as celebrated by the NO fanbase. Your comment only supports that.