GQ Icon: Bernard Sumner, GQ, 2012

GQ Icon: Bernard Sumner, GQ, 2012

By Lee Gale

GQ, 2012

One of the unsung architects of the Manchester sound, the Salford stalwart has influenced every major musical movement of the past 35 years. Whether pioneering post-punk with Joy Division, melding rock/dance with New Order, or blowing £1m on a nightclub, “Barney” was there. As his band limber up for an Olympic concert, GQ pays tribute to the straight man of Madchester

The bogies of the Virgin Pendolino squeal like farmyard swine in the approach to Manchester Piccadilly. To the north, out of the narrow-slit carriage window, sits the Etihad Stadium, home to Manchester City, the world’s biggest-spending football club, with its mesmerising, mercenary mega-stars. The skyline has altered in the past 20 years, but on the horizon, beyond the snazzy new structures, Saddleworth Moor and its secrets loom. Piccadilly is no longer the wind-swept terminus it was in the Eighties. The concourse is welcoming and bright, while the icy blasts that once battered the grey platforms are now tamed by huge Perspex partitions. It’s Euro Manchester. Ian Curtis would barely recognise the place.

It’s raining in Manchester. It often is. Cold too, but there are plenty of achingly credible clothes shops in the Northern Quarter to find toasty attire, like a vintage Berghaus from Bionic Seven or a Fjällräven sweater from casualwear mecca Oi Polloi.

In Piccadilly Gardens, posters proclaim I❤MCR as a city unites against looters, while on Whitworth Street, the Victorian redbrick structures that provided Joy Division with so much inspiration have been spruced up and seemingly polished. Manchester’s changing – it’s electrically charged with positivity and excitement, the result of a modernisation process that began in the late Seventies with a group of strong-willed, straight-talking, intensely motivated people with a love of music and a God-given talent for wasting money.

There’s something devoutly cool about squandering cash, which makes Factory Records, the Manchester-based art experiment that existed from 1978-92, a fascinating business quirk. At the helm sat Anthony H Wilson – “Tone”, a Salford-born opinion generator with the unusual skill of being able to talk a great deal while being engaging at the same time. Factory’s prime investment was New Order, a culturally significant band that mixed traditional rock instrumentation with the synths and beats of New York and Germany.

Personnel included piratical bassist Peter Hook; dry-humoured drummer Stephen Morris; Morris’ wife Gillian Gilbert on guitar and synth; and reluctant front man Bernard Sumner, AKA Dickin, Dicken and Albrecht – a surname that changed through adoption, sensible alteration and, later, an interest in German culture, but he was born Sumner. Presiding over the band was legendarily gruff manager Rob Gretton, an ex-DJ who Wilson first encountered at Rafters on Oxford Road… Student: “Hey, can you play some Cure, mate?” Gretton: “Cure for what, sticky-up hair?” Student: “No, the Cure, mate. The group.” Gretton: “I don’t play no London s****, now f*** off!”

If you’ve seen Sidney Lumet’s 1965 war classic The Hill, concerning the clash of personalities in a North African prison for wayward British soldiers, this will give you some idea of how the internal dynamic of Factory worked: bold characters with short fuses and an ineluctable skill of annoying the hell out of each other. And yet, despite the grief, raised voices and swearing, these fractured relationships brought results. Sumner, central to New Order’s output, is responsible for some of the finest pop moments this country has produced. Fans would listen to New Order and Electronic (the band Sumner later formed with the Smiths’ Johnny Marr) material with delirious anticipation, wondering where they were being taken next. “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, “Everything’s Gone Green”, “Blue Monday”, “The Perfect Kiss”, “Bizarre Love Triangle”, “Temptation”, “True Faith”, “Fine Time”, “Vanishing Point”, “Getting Away With It”, “World In Motion”, “Get The Message”, “Regret” – these tracks epitomised their era. Joy Division, New Order and Electronic drove Britain’s musical direction for over a decade.

Bernard Sumner hangs up his yellow Helly Hansen waterproof and takes the weight off his Superdry Super Series Lo Tops. We’re camped in a side room of a Macclesfield recording studio, part of a 17th-century farm complex owned by Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert. Sheep have made way for synthesizers – although, if you listen carefully, you can hear the odd sampled ewe on “The Perfect Kiss”, “Fine Time” and “Ruined In A Day”. Staring ominously at Sumner is a Cyberman, while next door, where Morris is revamping “True Faith” for a gig, stands a silent Dalek. You wouldn’t want to be left here on your own.

For Sumner, the boyish looks have gone, but then again he’s 56. Apparently, he kept his youthful state into his forties because he was brought up on tinned food. “That was my secret,” he confirms. “Tinned food had preservatives in it. I eat organic now and that’s why I’ve lost my looks.” When you enter the Factory world, you dispense with reality and willingly accept the anecdote.

Sumner was born at Crumpsall Hospital in north Manchester on 4 January 1956. His mother had cerebral palsy; he never knew his father. During his childhood, Sumner lived in his grandparents’ house in Lower Broughton, Salford, along with his mother and stepfather. His grandad, John Sumner, was an engineer. “He showed me how to do a few electrical things,” Sumner says. “This may have started my love of technology.”

At Salford Grammar, he befriended a pre-beard Peter Hook and they developed an interest in suedehead culture. For Sumner’s 16th birthday his mother bought him a record player, and his musical journey began. His first 7” was “Ride A White Swan” by T Rex. “I’d heard it on the radio and I liked the sound of the guitar – that lovely guitar lick,” he recalls. “It’s a great track, but it’s always puzzled me what the bloody lyrics are about. ‘Ride a white swan like the people of the mmm… mmm…’ I’ve been scratching my head ever since I bought it, but it’s a cool track. I entered music at a poppy level.”

An intriguing conversation with a Jimi Hendrix fan steered Sumner in the direction of more challenging material. At first, he thought “Voodoo Chile” was the sound of a washing machine falling down a flight of stairs, but after four listens on his Dansette, the penny dropped. “I realised it wasn’t about little catchy tunes,” he says, “it was what you could do sonically with a guitar.”

The first long-players to make an impression were the epic Ennio Morricone scores A Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More, which he still admires. An obsession with Neil Young followed after Sumner bought “Heart Of Gold”, leading him to the 1972 LP Harvest. “I played Neil Young to death,” he admits.

A suffocating spell sending out rates bills at Salford town hall had Sumner frantically reassessing his career options. His CV, containing English and art O-levels, found favour with Stop Frame in Manchester, an animation company that would become Cosgrove Hall. For three years he was a tracer, assisting with the “up above the streets and houses” opening animation for Rainbow, among others. “I worked on this huge machine that… well, I don’t know what it did, to be honest. It was like a photocopier for celluloid. I loved the people there. When I left to form Joy Division, John Squire from the Stones Roses took my place.”

While Stop Frame was enthralling pre-schoolers with stop-motion inserts for Rainbow (Sally And Jake, Grandma Bricks Of Swallow Street), Sumner had already bought a guitar and was working through chord shapes. It was the second Buzzcocks-arranged Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976, attended by Sumner, Hook, Ian Curtis, Morrissey, Billy Duffy of the Cult and Tony Wilson, that awakened the Manchester music scene and heralded the start of the city’s break from its past. The next day, Sumner and Hook began their own punk band. It became Joy Division.

Through the angry, drug-addled production of Martin Hannett, Joy Division’s sparse sound was set, with Sumner’s Shergold Masquerader guitar replicating the bleakness of a rotting, rain-soaked Northwest conurbation, while Ian Curtis’ troubled lyrics, full of self-doubt, confusion and despondency, gave a dark tinge to Factory’s early output. Despite Joy Division’s depressive nature, the group was making dance music from the off. “No Love Lost” on debut EP An Ideal For Living(1978) is a panzer of a track, and was tellingly picked up by LCD Soundsystem in 2007. James Murphy’s pounding update, sympathetic to the original’s raw edge, appears on the All My FriendsEP and stands as the finest cover of any Sumner track to date. By the time of Joy Division’s final album, Closer, in 1980, Hannett’s inclusion of Transcendent 2000 and ARP Omni 2 synthesizers, plus digital drum effects, fitted Sumner’s growing fascination with Kraftwerk. “Isolation” and “Heart And Soul” set the benchmark for the following decade’s shift to synth-pop. Manchester increasingly found itself ahead of the game.

Kevin Cummins’ monochrome stills helped Joy Division establish an otherworldly aura, but behind the scenes, Factory’s inimitable way of finding itself in sitcom-like situations was making itself known. “We turned up at the rehearsal studio in Salford and Terry [Mason], our roadie, had organised a benefit screening for striking miners,” Sumner chortles. “There was a picket line outside our rehearsal room. ‘We’ve come to see the porno film,’ they said. I was like, ‘What porno film?’ Terry had forgotten we were rehearsing and he’d laid out chairs like a cinema. Terry said, ‘I thought we were rehearsing tomorrow.’ So we were backing the miners, but it was a strange way of doing it. Minutes later, Ian Curtis turned up with a female journalist from Paris. So there he is, ‘Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean-Luc Godard, Nietzsche…’ the usual stuff, and he walks into the room and he’s like, ‘What’s going on? Oh God, we’ve got a journalist here! We’re supposed to be doing an interview! It’s not like this all the time! This is a one-off!’”

Paris might have appreciated the Pennine sound, but in London the press took little notice of the Manchester scene until Ian Curtis hanged himself in 1980. As Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks mentions in John Robb’s The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City 1976-1996, “Manchester was like the animals in New Zealand –- they got on with developing because they were left alone.” After the death of Curtis, Sumner, Hook, Morris and recent addition Gilbert vowed to keep going under a new name, looking to New York to develop their sound. Joy Division had become New Order.

A contest was held to determine the band’s most able singer and Sumner drew the short straw. “I like singing now,” he reveals, “but I didn’t at the start. I didn’t think about singing, didn’t know how to do it, so I hit the ground stumbling. I had four lessons, which helped. The teacher showed me that my breathing was wrong. I stopped going when he used Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet as an example of a good singer, that I should study his voice. It’s experience. If someone throws you in a pool and you can’t swim, you’re going to struggle.”

In a period of readjustment, New Order dispensed with erratic sound scientist Martin Hannett midway through mixing the Giorgio Moroder-influenced “Everything’s Gone Green”. Peter Hook asked for the drum volume to be increased and Hannett stomped off, bringing to a close a tumultuous four-year relationship. In reality, Sumner and Hook no longer needed the input. They had studied Hannett’s technical wizardry and could produce themselves, stirred along by manager Rob Gretton shouting, “Make it go oomph!” As well as conjuring his own electronic instruments to save money (in those days synthesizers cost as much as semi-detached houses), Sumner was now working with computers. He would become Britain’s great unsung music producer, working on Factory releases such as “Looking From A Hilltop” by Section 25 (1984) and “Freaky Dancin’” by Happy Mondays (1986).

Initially, New Order were little more than an injured Joy Division, with Sumner’s vocals on Movementcontinuing the same funereal delivery of Ian Curtis. He needed to find his own voice, and this arrived on New Order’s 1981 American tour. “You could see it there, on stage at the Ukrainian [National Home gig in New York], Bernard finding his voice, right there, you could see it in his face,” Tony Wilson says in David Nolan’s biography of Sumner, Confusion. No longer a Curtis pastiche, Sumner’s voice was set free, becoming lighter, more versatile. In New York, assisted by acid tabs, he had another epiphany moment: dance music. “I don’t remember too much about that visit,” Sumner attests. “I was tripping all the time. But we felt New York was a second home, a bit of an escape from Joy Division. We were going to all the clubs and having a fantastic time. It was a mixture of English new wave with American dance, like Sugarhill Gang, and early rap, like Kurtis Blow. It was a good mix and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to hear one of our own tracks?’ In fact, we did – they played ‘She’s Lost Control’, the 12” version, which is dance-y anyway. And it wasn’t just New York, we were hearing stuff in London. There were clubs playing four-to-the-floor dance music, but done with instruments. I thought, ‘I know what they’re trying to do, they’re trying to play precise drum loops and bass loops, but you could do that with a sequencer and synthesizers.’ Music was on the cusp of change. We managed to grasp that early on and then take it out live when no one else was doing it because the gear was so unreliable. We saw an opportunity.” 

New York was a catalyst and the group returned to Manchester with fancy ideas. Dance music was part of the master plan and if Manchester was going to be a world-class music city, the ever-resourceful Rob Gretton believed it would need its own world-class nightclub. The International Yacht and Marine Centre on Whitworth Street was duly transformed by designer Ben Kelly into the Haçienda, an abstract piece of sculpture with a dance floor. It was the birth of the superclub, but even at full capacity in the Acid House explosion of 1988, the Haçienda was bedevilled by financial mismanagement and could never meet its repayments. It would ultimately lose Sumner £1m.

Nevertheless, in 1983 New Order wasted little time giving the Haçienda its first home-grown dance bomb: “Blue Monday”. Taking elements from “The Desert Place” by the Twins, “Our Love” by Donna Summer, “Dirty Talk” by Klein + MBO, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” by Sylvester, and “Uranium” by Kraftwerk, the seven-minute opus has Sumner’s fingerprints all over it.

Factory’s in-house artist Peter Saville, who was responsible for the “Blue Monday” 12” die-cut “computer disk” sleeve, believes the track was a watershed moment in British culture: “New Order brought about a change in our relationship with pop, and ‘Blue Monday’ defined this,” he says. “It’s a convergence of rock and dance. ‘Blue Monday’ is made by post-industrial progressive-rock musicians from an alternative label bravely bringing together what everyone really wanted: thinking beats. It’s more than an audio experiment. ‘Blue Monday’ changes our fashion and the way we look. It was coming anyway, but ‘Blue Monday’ brings the moment together.”

By 1987, New Order and Pet Shop Boys were at the forefront of a twin-pronged clever-pop attack on the UK and American charts. “True Faith”, Tony Wilson’s favourite New Order release, reached No.4 in the UK and No.32 in America, while compilation double album Substancewent to No.3 in the UK and No.36 on the Billboard 200. Despite the success, the money made from record sales and their lucrative American tour was swallowed by the gaping financial chasm that was the Haçienda. 

For those who partied through Acid House and Madchester, Sumner was a scene-affirming presence, Factory’s straight man to the all-out funk clownery of Shaun Ryder. Manchester’s cool currency rose: as Sumner sank bottles of Pernod at the Haçienda, Oldham Street transformed into the city’s cultural epicentre with its thrift/rave fashion emporium Afflecks Palace, New Order’s co-owned Dry Bar, and Martin Price of 808 State’s underground record shop, Eastern Bloc.

In the summer heat of 1989 the dance-floor rhythms and Balearic guitar of New Order’s Techniquedrifted from every open window in Manchester and Salford. Writers on the Faceand i-Dregarded the album as the sun-kissed sound of a fortnight in Ibiza, but for Northerners who couldn’t afford the plane fare, “Dream Attack” and “Vanishing Point” made up a Pennine soundtrack, the car stereo’s must-have tape for an M62 battle with a James Irlam freight lorry. This was enhanced by New Order’s trademark synth appearing on Debbie Horsfield’s BBC comedy-drama Making Out, a crisis-led caper about an electronics factory near Ashton-under-Lyne.

Manchester propelled itself to the forefront of the world’s music and fashion. Sumner’s hairstyle – also nicknamed “Barney” – became its own fashion statement, while the casual T-shirts he wore on Juke Box Juryand Top Of The Pops, supplied by the burgeoning Wythenshawe brand Gio-Goi (founded by rave-organising brothers Anthony and Christopher Donnelly, whose sister, Tracey, worked at Factory), were snapped up by baggy disciples and worn with wide jeans. The back cover of Electronic’s “Feel Every Beat” – Sumner’s first and last attempt at rapping – exemplifies the loose-fitting style, and it still looks cool.

Oldham Street’s influence quickly spread to sports manufacturers – the 1990 World Cup in Italy was the first since the Fifties to feature billowing jerseys. As the tournament kicked off, New Order notched their only No.1 with “World In Motion”, a Kenneth Wolstenholme-sampling track featuring the England squad, with lyrics courtesy of Making Out’s chief protagonist Keith Allen. The record was so infectious that it even reached No.21 in the German charts. Sumner appeared in the video wearing the rare sky-blue Umbro England third kit (worn once, in a 1-0 win against Turkey in 1991), and interspersed this, unfathomably, with an Elvis costume.

New Order would implode and re-emerge many times in the ensuing years, as friction between Sumner and Hook would flare and dampen in cyclic fashion. Then, following a Buenos Aires concert in 2006, Hook announced that New Order had split for good. “From the late Eighties, maybe even earlier, there was a divide between Hooky and Bernard,” recalls ex-Haçienda DJ Dave Haslam. “As Bernard says, they’re different personalities. Knowing them both, and being in different situations with them, they react in entirely different ways. They were in separate dressing rooms in 1987. The thing that attracted them, which is a slight sense of opposition, pulled them apart.”

Their latest dispute revolves around Hook re-recording and touring Joy Division material using Happy Mondays’ Pills ’N’ Thrills And Bellyaches-era backing singer Rowetta for Ian Curtis’ vocals. Hook’s response was to remind Sumner that he had played Joy Division’s “Transmission” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” on the 2009 tour of his new guitar group, Bad Lieutenant. “He [Hook] was going out without speaking to us and playing Unknown PleasuresCloser, and then declared his intent to start working through New Order albums,” Sumner reveals. “Without us, he was selling Unknown PleasuresT-shirts with… he couldn’t use Joy Division on it, so it says ‘Manchester Unknown Pleasures’. When we [New Order] were getting back together, we just thought, ‘If he’s doing that, what are we doing holding back?’ So that showed us the way. Peter Hook decided we weren’t going to play together any more but let’s say he forgot to tell the rest of the band. We didn’t split up. He left. Surely for a band to split up, you sit down with other members of the band and agree to split up.”

A more tranquil pursuit for Sumner came in the form of Electronic, a synth-led exploration begun in 1989 with the Smiths’ unassailable janglist Johnny Marr. On debut single “Getting Away With It”, pop allies Pet Shop Boys were recruited, and the foursome delivered a sure-footed piece of sunset music, with Sumner and Neil Tennant’s soft vocal styles effortlessly segueing. For Sumner and Marr, Electronic marked the beginning of a fruitful friendship: “If you were stranded on a desert island, Bernard would find food, build a lifeboat, and then make a great synthesizer,” Marr says.

First album Electronic(1991) carries on where Techniqueleft off, tightly produced and clean as a box-fresh computer, with Marr’s shimmering guitar taking Sumner’s electronic tinkering to heavenly highs. “Get The Message” is a career-defining track that plays to both musicians’ strengths, with glorious drum snaps, panoramic synth and four sumptuous guitar chords (very similar to the cult French singer Étienne Daho’s “Late Night”, from 1986). Electronic’s loftier moments such as “Tighten Up”, “Forbidden City” and “Twisted Tenderness” easily match the output of New Order and the Smiths. “Bernard’s a mix of contradictions, but he’s always consistent,” adds Marr. “He’s an unusual musician, the product of his environment… the classic industrial background, with the dream of futurism, believing in science, but a Salford scooter boy and an original Manchester punk. Visually, he’s got the eye of a graphic artist, but with a keen sense of classicism. Music, films, architecture – he’s got a strong aesthetic, but he tempers it with not taking himself too seriously; it’s a Salford thing.”

During the recording of Electronic’s second album, Raise The Pressure, in 1994, Sumner invited his hero, ex-Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos, to contribute. As gang violence and drug problems spiralled in “Gunchester”, Bartos arrived from Hamburg, sidestepping the Haçienda’s headline-grabbing histrionics by spending months in Marr’s home studio.

“Bernard sent me a fax – that’s what you did in the Nineties,” Bartos explains. “He said he liked my album [Esperanto] and wanted to know if I’d record some electronic percussion. I always thought Joy Division sounded like the Velvet Underground with synthesizers, and I liked ‘Blue Monday’ because it was cleverly unconventional and rough. So Bernard asked if I’d contribute and I went over to Cheshire. On Sundays, Bernard would invite me to his house to have dinner with his family and in-laws. All very British indeed. What a great time.”

Like New Order, Electronic never formally split. Sumner and Marr have both told GQthere’s a strong possibility of a future EP. For now, Marr is involved with his band the Healers, while Sumner has a growing list of rumoured projects. New Order are touring extensively and said to be writing new material; there’s an electronic album with Stuart Price, AKA Jacques Lu Cont; and the second Bad Lieutenant album, shelved in 2011, will be dusted down and released. There may even be an autobiography – all of which leaves little time for Sumner’s other passion, sailing. “It’s the antithesis of being in a band,” Sumner explains. “If you’re on a boat, you’ve got an empty horizon, so it’s the opposite of being on stage. The sea’s an amazing indigo, then at night when the stars come out, it’s mind-blowing. You never see things like that in day-to-day life, and that’s why, if I stay in a hotel with fluffy towels, I think, big deal. My grandfather used to recite ‘The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’, so it could come from that. He used to tell me about sailing ships.”

A select group of British musicians provide us with frameworks for life, offering solutions in such key areas as fashion, hairstyles, musical direction, dancing and how to walk up a street. Because of Sumner, we’ve kept our hair short, listened to Kraftwerk, not been afraid to whistle or throw our fists in the air while dancing, worn deck shoes, and drank Pernod with fruit juice (even if we didn’t like it). He’s affected lives on a personal level, but has also been present at a whole range of cultural quickenings. “Bernard is like Zelig,” says biographer David Nolan. “Birth of punk in Manchester, he’s there. Punk scene, he’s there. Post-punk, Joy Division, he’s there. He then does something that no one else has done, which is the lead singer dies, the guitarist takes over and makes them more successful. It’s never been done. The superclub, not only is he there, he’s paying for it. Dance and rock crossover, producing the Happy Mondays, he’s there. Acid House, he’s there. Death of the superclub, he’s there.”

Back in Macclesfield, Stephen Morris taps on the door and indicates that Sumner’s presence is required in the studio. Gillian Gilbert’s sister has arrived and begins chatting with manager Rebecca Boulton about the high price of jeans. As the kettle rumbles, Morris lifts one of his beloved model planes, a 1:72 scale Avro Lancaster (from the Dam Busters squadron), off the sideboard and reveals its immaculate detail, while Sumner reminisces about a sodden graveyard next to a Joy Division studio that he believes affected their drinking water. The scene is quickly developing into a Granada pilot for an offbeat Factory Records breakfast TV show, which is, actually, not a bad idea. As Tony Wilson was prone to reminding people: “This is Manchester. We do things differently here.”