New Order’s iconic masterpiece ‘Power Corruption & Lies’ turns 40
"Joy Division fans hated it," New Order drummer Stephen Morris said of the band's second album. "That's how I knew we were onto a winner."
They were indeed. It had taken a little while, though. Since the death of Ian Curtis in May 1980, New Order struggled to escape Joy Division's long, dark shadow. Their debut single, "Ceremony," was an unrecorded Joy Division song, and on their debut album Movement they seemed happy to give their old fans what they thought they wanted. That included continuing to work with producer Martin Hannett to keeping things gloomy, right down to guitarist Bernard Sumner and bassist Peter Hook's aping Curtis' dour style on their vocals -- they hadn't settled on a lead singer yet.
But in 1982 lots of things changed. Bernard Sumner became New Order's official frontman and he soon developed his own voice, an endearingly wobbly style, prone to yelps and punctuated "oohs." Sumner and Morris became more fascinated with synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines which had started to become more affordable, especially if you bought kits you built yourself. The band also started basically producing themselves. All these factors culminated in New Order's sole release of the year, "Temptation," which saw them escaping the dark clouds and moving into the sunshine. It remains their most-played live song.
Armed with new equipment, new riffs, a few road-tested songs and a new sense of purpose, and fueled by the creativity that came with that, New Order entered Pink Floyd's Britannia Road Studios in October and November 1982 to make their second album. With it they found an ally in Mike Johnson, a capable engineer who helped the band capture what they had in their heads on tape. (He would go on to work with them on every album through 1989's Technique.) While guitars, bass and live drums were still a major part of their sound, electronics stormed into the picture in ways few rock bands were doing at the time. Stephen Morris joked he spent more time doing math and pushing buttons -- sequencers had to be programmed manually and mistakes were not easy to edit -- but the work paid off. "It was a bit of a science project," Bernard Sumner said in 2020. "Along with the songwriting, that's why it sounded so good."
Released May 2, 1983, Power, Corruption & Lies is a near perfect album, the sound of a band flying confidently into uncharted territory and landing the plane. The album opens with the manic, massively hooky (pun intended) bass riff to "Age of Consent," as usual played high on the neck, followed quickly by Morris' precision drumming, inspired by disco -- those high hats -- and tweaked slightly from what he did on Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart." When Bernard Sumner's guitar enters the frame, weaving intricately around Hook's bassline, and Gillian Gilbert's synth-string lead joins in, you have the sound of a band announcing themselves. "It felt like we'd become New Order, really," Morris would say in 2020.
There are so many great ideas, winning melodies, and exciting performances on the album you might not notice how simple many of the songs are from a songwriting perspective. Few bands have done as much with two chords as New Order did with Power, Corruption & Lies. Nearly every song here is just two chords, using the same progression for verses and choruses, though at this point New Order rarely followed traditional pop conventions. When they did, though, the results were undeniable, like on "The Village" which is PCL's other moment of pure joy, featuring another amazing bass lead from Hook alongside a very bouncy synth bass line, and Morris playing his kit alongside drum machines. This one was apparently a real pain in the ass to program but the result is springtime bliss, from the chorus of "Our love is like the flowers" which echoes the album's iconic cover art, to the instrumental midsection where machines and traditional instruments join forces in perfect harmony.
The other two songs on Side 1 are very different: the eerie "We All Stand" nods to Joy Division and The Doors, with Peter Hook on fretless bass, and Sumner singing about the horrors of war (a lyrical well he would return to many times); and "5.8.6," a dark disco number that began life as a 22-minute track released on a cassette that came free with a magazine and shares a lot of DNA with "Blue Monday," the band's iconic standalone single that was released just a month before Power Corruption & Lies (and was later added to cassette and CD versions of the album).
Side 2 is decidedly gloomier but no less brilliant, bookended by two of New Order's all-time best songs: the magisterial "Your Silent Face," which features synths inspired by Kraftwerk (to this day the band still refers to it as its working title, "K.W.1"), the first appearance of melodica in a New Order song, and the famous ad-libbed line "You caught me at a bad time / so why don't you piss off"; and Ian Curtis tribute "Leave Me Alone," led by another brilliant bassline from Hook and an absolutely beautiful extended instrumental outro that stands among the best moments in their discography.
In between are "Ultraviolence," which is highlighted by Morris' toms-heavy drumwork and hints at where Joy Division might have gone if Curtis had not died, and the danceable "Ecstasy" which is essentially an instrumental punctuated by enigmatic vocoder. As to the latter's title, the drug ecstasy existed in 1983 -- it played a major part in Soft Cell's classic 1981 album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret -- but Peter Hook says it didn't enter the band's life till they were working on Technique in Ibiza the summer of 1988. "Let's just say we were ahead of our time and move on," Morris quipped on Tim's Twitter Listening Party.
That the technology New Order were using was so new and prone to malfunction made the album all the better, forcing creative workarounds long before the age of loop-based digital recording. Likewise the production -- with one foot still in the '70s and one venturing into the '80s -- came just before gated drums, slap-back echo, Fairlight sampling synths and Big '80s production homogenized the charts, making for a timeless sounding album. Hook considers it the band's best-produced album and it's hard to argue against that. While the groundbreaking innovations pioneered on the album have been cribbed by countless bands since, the songs, the playing, and the creativity heard on these eight songs has not dulled one bit. Cases can be made that New Order made better albums, but Power, Corruption & Lies is their defining moment.
A few other PCL factoids:
- The album’s title was taken from a back-of-the-book blurb on George Orwell's 1984 which Peter Hook was reading at the time: "A startling tale of power, corruption and lies" wrote The Daily Telegraph.
- The cover art features 19th Century French realist Henri Fantin-Latour's painting "A Basket of Roses" that was manipulated by designer Peter Saville, using some of the same ideas he created for the "Blue Monday" sleeve. The back cover, with its die-cut floppy disk motif, also includes a color wheel that gave the album's liner notes in code. The outer ring was a decoder for those clever enough to figure it out.
- Power Corruption & Lies was one of 10 classic album covers by British artists that the Royal Mail made into postage stamps in 2010, alongside Primal Scream's Screamadelica, Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, Led Zeppelin IV, The Clash's London Calling and more.
- Another instrumental, "Murder," was originally intended for the album but was too long to fit. It ended up being released as a single in Belgium only. The run-out groove on the original pressing of Power Corruption & Lies said "Where's Murder?" on Side 1 and "I Said Where's Murder?" on Side 2.