New Order – ‘Blue Monday’: A Case Study

OVERVIEW AND HISTORY

Manchester band New Order were formed out of the remaining members of Joy Division after their lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980. The band reinvented themselves after this unexpected tragedy and left behind the melancholy guitar driven tunes focusing instead on developing a new electro sound which was influenced by early 80’s electronic disco beats and the thriving New York dance club scene. For this case study I have chosen their most successful and well known song ‘Blue Monday’, which sold 3million copies after release in 1983 and became the highest selling 12-inch single of all time. This was especially remarkable given that the song received no radio play (its length and format did not fit the airwaves in 1983), very little promotion and that at the time, the band only had a small underground fan base. The track was remixed and a music video created in 1998 by a new producer Roger Lyons. This mix was shortened from the original to 4:24min and many new elements added including micing up an amp to thicken up the electronic bass line. I have used the original track however, for this case study (below).

At this time in the early 80’s, electronic music was experiencing a real surge but electronic ‘dance’ music was definitely something new and this was where New Order were headed. “The track is widely regarded as a crucial link between Seventies disco and the Dance/House boom that took off at the end of the Eighties (BBC Radio 2, 2008)”.

BAND MEMBERS

  • Bernard Sumner – Guitar, vocals, programming
  • Peter Hook – Bass
  • Stephen Morris – Drums, Keyboards, programming
  • Gillian Gilbert – Keyboards, programming

THE SONG

  • Genre: Post punk / synth pop
  • BPM: 131
  • Key: D minor
  • Song Length: 7:28 mins
  • Produced by: New Order

SONG STRUCTURE

This song does not have a traditional structure, as in verse, chorus, verse etc, in fact the first lyrics do not make their appearance until just over 2mins into the song! There is essentially just a long intro, three verses (no chorus), small breakdown and long outro. As a result, when I am noting a specific element of the song I will use time rather than bars and beats.

INFLUENCES AND SAMPLES

There are several key songs that directly influenced New Order when creating ‘Blue Monday’ (as confirmed by Bernard Sumner in the BBC documentary ‘Synth Brittania’):

  1. Donna Summer: Our Love – 1979 (the stuttering drum beat / break)
  2. Sylvester: You make me feel – 1978 (the bass line using classic disco octaves)
  3. Klein and MBO – Dirty Talk -1982 (the bass line, overall arrangement and synths)
  4. Kraftwerk – Uranium – 1975 (this was a direct sample used for the choir chords)

PERCUSSION

Picture1
DMX Drum Machine

Dynamic Range: There are 5 distinct drum beat variations in the track all of which were programmed on an Oberheim DMX drum machine by Sumner and Morris. The DMX was a new piece of equipment for the band and had been purchased to try and emulate the booming bass kicks they had been hearing on their visits to New York’s dance clubs. The elements of the percussion on this track are kick, snare, hi-hats, claps, tom fills and I will also anaylse the sound effects such as explosions, rockets and other elements that feature predominately after verse three. Dynamically, the percussive elements are the most prominent in ‘Blue Monday’, beginning with the sixteenth note quantised beat which opens the song. The classic ‘bom, bom, buda buda buda buda buda bom, bom, bom, bom, stuttering machine gun rhythm welcomes the listener into what will evolve into a heavily syncopated adventure where the programmed electronic drum beats (along with the booming bass line), will take centre stage. The snare is the next percussive element to arrive and its high amplitude crack will continue to feature throughout, sometimes accompanied by sparkling opening and closing hi hats. At a much lower amplitude are the tom fills that rumble away above and behind the kick and snare. Off beat claps appear at opportune moments to break up the rolling rhythm and are also prominent dynamically maintaining the interest of the listener. After the third verse, several sound effects such as metallic sounding ‘smacks’ staccato on ‘off beats’ using varied rhythmic combinations. These individual snippets of different percussive elements all appear at high amplitudes.

Spectral Balance: The Dry electronic kick sound is centered around 100Hz but has a distinctly audible ‘attack’ frequency of around 3k. The snare crack is operating in the 2.5 – 3.5k range however also contains a sibilant like frequency much higher at approx. 8 – 9k. The warmth of the softly rumbling toms are moving around in the 200 – 400Hz range whilst the crisp sparkle of the hats are approx. 5 – 6k.

Spatial Characteristics: As expected, the kick is dead centre and the snare for the most part is also. The snare however does have brief staccato fills where it moves from left to right. Both these elements are at the forefront of the sound field. The background toms appear above, behind and are predominately heard left field, but do pan distinctively left to right on occasion. The hi-hats are interesting in that they are sharply and quickly jump 100% right followed by 100% left, sometimes the other way around and sometimes dead centre (particularly when they are playing the same notes as the snare). They are usually close to front of mix also. The sound effects after the final verse are everywhere, rocket sounds flying across from one side to the other above, random metallic hits appearing either left or right and explosions filling up the whole sound field.

BASS GUITAR

Photo of NEW ORDER
Peter Hook

Dynamic Range: The bass guitar which is the only acoustic element in the song (apart from vocals), is heavily compressed and provides some catchy hooks throughout. In the verses it plays a supporting roll to the vocals by replying with a complimentary melody after each vocal line. Its amplitude during these sections is low giving the vocals right of way, however its main hooks in the other sections of the songs are more dynamic.

Spectral Balance: The bass operates predominately in the range of 100Hz thru 500Hz with most of the action above 200Hz. This is the style Peter Hook was renowned for, essentially always playing the bass guitar as a lead instrument. I feel there is also a substantial chorus effect applied to these bass ‘hooks’ (no pun intended Peter)!

Spatial Characteristics: The bass sits centre and middle for the intro, breakdown and outro sections however slightly right and rear in the verses where it echoes the vocals which are slightly left and front.

SYNTHESISERS (Bass Synth, Clavichord Synth, String Synths, Mistake Synth, Brass Synth and Choir Sample)

Moog source

Dynamic Range: The thumping Bass synth line was provided by the Moog ‘Source’ >> synth and is a dominant element dynamically throughout the piece. It plays two main ‘riffs’ throughout; one the galloping melody line in the intro, breakdown and outro sections and the ‘disco octave’ line which appears in the approach to, and during, the verses. The clavichord synth (which is the first synth element we hear in the track), begins a steady fade in at the 15sec mark and is at full amplitude by 30secs when it is joined by the bass synth. I believe this synth has had some effects programmed relating to how the sound delivers. relative to the velocity of the key strike (ADSR envelope), as there is substantial dynamic variety in what the listener hears in addition to the ‘fade in’ volume increase.

At 1:36min the Kraftwerk sample appears for the first time and brings a sense of foreboding heralding a definite melancholy ‘Gregorian’ change to the mood of the track.

Arp-string-ensemble_front
‘ARP’ String Ensemble

The string synths (of which there are two different sounds and amplitudes based on their pitch and melodies), soon follow the choral sample with the low synth (played on the ARP), entering at 1:40min. This synth has a steady dynamic presence as it is just providing harmony support to the other elements. The high string synth arrives at 1:55min and provides a contrast to the melody of the low string synth and choir sample. Its amplitude is greater as it is now supports a rise to the first vocal lines of the verse (and song), where all three aforementioned elements will disappear leaving only the percussion, electronic base line, mistake synth and vocals/acoustic bass to take over. The ‘Mistake synth’ comes in after the first line of the verse and I have named it thus as there was a note missed in the programming.  Keyboardist / programmer Gillian Gilbert explains: “The synthesiser melody is slightly out of sync with the rhythm. This was an accident. It was my job to programme the entire song from beginning to end, which had to be done manually, by inputting every note. I had the sequence all written down on loads of A4 paper Sellotaped together the length of the recording studio, like a huge knitting pattern. But I accidentally left a note out, which skewed the melody(The Guardian, 2013).

A happy error indeed as the 16th note mishap added a unique groove which the band decided should stay! This mistake synth dynamically sits at the back of the mix and whilst clearly audible is syncopated support to the main beat and vocal content.

Spectral Balance: The booming bass synth sits at between a low 50Hz and 100Hz, in contrast, the Clavichord synth around 1.2 – 1.6k. The low string synth operates in the 1.2k thru 1.8k band and the high string synth is dominant between 1.6k and 2.8k. The mistake synth is operating at between 200 and 700Hz whilst the brass synth is higher at 775Hz thru 1.5k. The last element, the sampled choir chord sample is strongest between 150 and 690Hz . These individual synth elements rarely coincide with each other during the track until the final 1:30min of the song where each melody introduced throughout the tune now blends with the others in an absolute wall of sonics. The producer has used some clever EQ to ensure each instrument still has its own space in this section.

Spatial Characteristics:

  • Bass Synth: Dead centre and front in the mix.
  • Clav Synth: Bounces left to right in the stereo field (first note left, next right and so forth). Comes from behind in the mix as it enters, moving closer to the front until the bass synth arrives and relegates it back to a mid depth. A short delay is used here.
  • String Synths: low string synth 20% right and high string synth 20% left. Moderate reverb applied.
  • Mistake Synth: Marginally to the right and back in the sound stage
  • Brass Synth: Slightly right and forward in the mix.
  • Choir Sample: Centre and above/behind. Longish reverb evident.

Vocals (Lead and Backing)

bernard sumner
Bernard Sumner in the early 80’s

Dynamic Range: Bernard Sumner sings in an emotionally disaffected and deadpan fashion throughout this track which is in a stark contrast to Joy Divisions emotionally charged style. This only serves to enhance the other vibrant and upbeat sonic elements of ‘Blue Monday’. The compression is light on the lead vocals as would be expected from this singing style and there is a short delay applied. The backing vocals however have obviously been run through a vocoder and possess a distinctly electronic, robotic sound. These backing vocals appear in several phrases of the verses and serve to increase the dynamic content.

Spectral Balance: Bernard’s voice is strongest between 200 and 800Hz with the vocoded backing vocals higher at 1.6k to 800Hz.

Verse
This OZONE spectral analyser graph graphically demonstrates the bass heavy nature of the track. This shot is taken during the verse where you can clearly see Sumner’s vocals around 500Hz…

Spatial Characteristics: The main vocal line is slightly left but always forward in the mix as one would expect. This leaning to the left is offset by a short delay perhaps a little over 50ms which pops on the right at the same width. It is an interesting effect and no doubt the result of double tracking the vocals, something Sumner was apparently quite adept at getting right. The vocoded backing vox are centred and above/behind in the field with a decent amount of reverb applied to emphasise this position.

CONCLUSION

‘Blue Monday’ really paved the way for the future of dance music using the latest (at the time), electronic instruments and new technology that we take for granted today. Bernard Sumner assembled from parts his first sequencer to save money on what at the time was very expensive equipment. He also employed a scientist to write some binary code so that this sequencer could communicate with his drum machine! We have and continue to travel a long way with the tech that is available to us in the pursuit of making music.

This has been an enjoyable deconstruction of a song dear to myself given I had just entered my teens when it was released. I have identified many more elements than I had previously acknowledged in the track and improved my critical listening skills markedly (especially concerning electronic instrumentation and effects). So far ahead of the times New Order were in the composition of ‘Blue Monday’, that hearing it alongside the newest songs in its genre and up against the latest production techniques, it continues to prove itself relevant…

REFERENCES

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/soldonsong/songlibrary/indepth/bluemonday.shtml Retrieved on 16th August 2017

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/feb/11/how-we-made-blue-monday Retrieved on 14th August 2017

 

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