Bernard Sumner: An Offbeat Man

Bernard Sumner changed the course of pop music in England with his group New Order. After a decade of silence, an autobiographical book and a memorable album, released in late 2015, rescued him from oblivion. One of the most creative and innovative artists in contemporary music shares anecdotes and memories of forty years of good music and rock and roll with Panorama of the Americas.

By: Jacobo Celnik
Photos: Courtesy

Few musicians are lucky enough to have their names associated with two of the greatest bands in popular music. Eric Clapton is linked to Cream and the Yardbirds and Charly García is known for Sui Generis and Serú Girán. Englishman Bernard Sumner is another one of the fortunate few and the story of his life seems to have a happy ending. At the age of sixty, he watches the years pass with the wisdom of a man who has slogged through tough times to achieve happiness. First, he changed the course of punk with Joy Division, and then he altered the history of pop with New Order. The agent behind these changes emerged from one of Manchester’s poorest neighborhoods. He knew want and economic deprivation in Salford, where he grew up in a dysfunctional home headed by his mother, who was ill. She depended on her parents’ support to keep a roof over the family’s head. Sumner maneuvered through this difficult reality with good humor, beer, and music.

He grew up listening to BBC radio and watching British stars on the show “Old Grey Whistle Test.” He admired many of them and dreamed of becoming like them. The road was tortuous, but he understood soon enough that the solution was in his own hands. As a teenager, he received the life-changing gift of a guitar. His room soon filled with piles of singles and cassettes obtained from school friends, with whom he discussed his musical tastes. When he came to write his memoirs years later, Sumner would understand that music possessed a healing power that made him the man he is today. Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me is an honest look back by a man who seemed destined for an office job, but instead found success through music.

“When writing the book, I turned to a lot of the music that influenced my adolescence, from the Stones, Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin to Ennio Morricone. Music can transport us to particular times and places,” remembers Sumner from his home in Manchester. The first band in which he and his secondary-school friends played reflected all these different influences. Warsaw evolved into Joy Division and, without meaning to, those four young men from Manchester changed the course of punk in 1977. But more than the notable influence of the rawness and harshness of punk, Sumner, along with Peter Hook, Ian Curtis, and Stephen Morris, created something unique to the era, something that opened the minds of an entire generation of young people who dreamed of making a living from music. They were pioneers in the indie concept of incorporating the coldness of the city into thoughtful lyrics. Their music reflected their environment.

But on May 18, 1980, after two hit albums with Joy Division, new difficulties arose with the suicide of singer Ian Curtis. The band had to forego a promotional trip to the United States, which was essential to their transition from a local phenomenon to a global one. Sumner could not believe it. It all seemed like a bad joke and he grew convinced that his fate would rest in the hands of a boss, that he would end up working in an office and moving back into his childhood home, as happened with so many others. But that was not to happen. Bernard Sumner, the man who should not have been a music star, thumbed his nose at fate. He took charge of the group and decided to travel to the United States. The trip was difficult and full of unpleasant surprises, but it was necessary to keep the band’s place on the music scene.

“It was a difficult time, since we had to remake a future without Ian. We knew what music we liked and what inspired us, and we wanted to keep doing that kind of music. We had potential and we believed in our talent. There was no point in copying what other bands played; from the moment we decided to make a career of music, we took the matter very seriously. We gradually realized that we were creating something new when crafting our own melodies and that they worked well during rehearsals. It was an interesting way to observe, to learn, to adapt, and to listen. That trip opened our eyes.”

Joy Division soon became New Order. Choosing a new name was key; at all costs, they needed to avoid any controversy like that generated by the name Joy Division, which alluded to entertainment for Nazi soldiers during the Second World War. Sumner, who had never been a singer, decided to move behind the microphone, thus avoiding the complicated process of finding a new singer. They added keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, the girlfriend of drummer Stephen Morris, and there was a lot of material to explore as a quartet. The band was in an ideal position to witness the emergence of dance and New Wave music, which included innovative beats and melodies they could adapt to their music.

One of the most intriguing songs of New Order’s transitional period was “Everything’s Gone Green,” released as a single and not included on the band’s debut album. In that song, Morris and Sumner experimented with studio recording equipment. Sound manipulation provided them with the voice they had been seeking for a long time. “It was a very interesting period. The trip to the United States and the influence of bands like Kraftwerk, Bowie, and Iggy Pop showed us new audio possibilities for composition. It was our first attempt to dip into electronic music, our first approach to the future. It was the sound of the future and it had an aggressive edge that made it special.”

Starting in 1983, with the album Power, Corruption & Lies and the song “Blue Monday,” their first big hit, New Order became a hybrid cult band that mixed electronic music with experimental rock. The albums Low Life (1985), Brotherhood (1986), and Technique (1989) later consolidated techno dance at an international level and became cult hits thanks to the power of the beats, the simplicity of the sound, and good songs like “Bizarre Love Triangle,” “Round & Round,” and “The Perfect Kiss.” They created an audience and paved the way for groups like Depeche Mode, Erasure, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. They did it and they did it again, as did others. They had found a formula and they got the most out of it to keep their audience. “I don’t worry about the music being repetitive or about other bands copying our music. Besides, how many notes on the scale can you play before coming back to the same ones? We go back to our roots on every album, we try new things, we experiment. It’s part of the key to our identity.”

In 2015, after ten years without producing any new studio material, New Order released Music Complete, one of the best albums of their entire career. After a couple of more rock-oriented workds, this album harkened back to the group’s electro-pop essence, key throughout their career. Part of the album’s success —considered by several publications, including Mojo and NME, the most significant album of the year in the United Kingdom— had to do with Sumner’s autobiography and the possibility of coming to terms with the past. The album also revived part of the group’s classic line-up. “When you write a book, you can’t think just about the impact it can have on your life; you have to think about the readers and focus on being honest. For me, telling the truth is easy and exciting. If you’ve had an interesting life, why not share things as they are? My book is not artificial pop, it’s the truth as it happened.” Nowadays, Sumner enjoys his home in Manchester and has the tranquility to do what he likes best. He tours, promotes the book and the album, accepts many invitations to perform at festivals around the world, and thinks about new challenges with the band. Looking back serves only to give him useful reference points for the music. His plan is to look ahead, to hope for happiness, and to be happy. This is the story of an artist who was never supposed to be a rock star, but who now shines thanks to having discovered an inner peace.