Low Life - Definitive Edition
In 1987 the arthouse cinema that I was working at showed a season of films by the American film director Jonathan Demme. This was before he'd directed the films that made him famous (the Oscar-winning 'The Silence of the Lambs' and 'Philadelphia'), so we showed earlier works like 'Melvin and Howard', 'Something Wild', 'Swimming to Cambodia' and far, far more important than any of that, the Talking Heads concert film 'Stop Making Sense'.
I sneaked into the screenings of the oft-described 'greatest concert film of all time' as much as was feasibly possible. Matinees, late-nighters, whenever, it didn't matter. In the days before I could afford a video recorder, this was going to be the only chance of watching the film as many times as possible. Since then it feels like I did actually see Talking Heads play live, albeit in a tiny arts lab next to the Aston University campus.
I wasn't too fussed about the prospect of the ten-minute music video that was shown as a support feature though! It was by a band that I'd once liked but whom I'd more or less disowned. I was dismissive of them, even snooty. But what struck me was - what could someone as astute as the great Jonathan Demme have possibly seen in New Order to entice him to direct the short film for their single 'The Perfect Kiss'?
And then, like much of the art that initially doesn't register, doesn't connect, that doesn't make sense, it began to seep into me. As I waited for 'Stop Making Sense' to start Jonathan Demme's extraordinary video, (shot by celebrated cinematographer Henri Alekan), gradually, so very gradually, brought about my change of heart.
The video for 'The Perfect Kiss' is a live-in-the-studio performance, no frills, just close-ups of each member of the band playing. Vocalist/guitarist Bernard Sumner looks nervous before he starts singing, drummer Stephen Morris seems unsure of himself, agitated, maybe even a bit bored, and then there's bassist Peter Hook who is workmanlike, head down and oblivious to any fuss. Only keyboardist Gillian Gilbert appears to have the vaguest idea about how to behave when performing in a music video. Despite a few glitches though (Bernard struggles with his vocals) this imperfect rendition of the song is so alluring, capturing the essence of the band that I'd not previously seen. The video captures the peculiar synergy of this frequently chaotic and dysfunctional band (see how the combined sounds of Sumner's guitar and Hook's bass meld into one another even though they fail to make eye contact). For a band that surrounded themselves with synths and electronic drum pads, it all just seemed so naturalistic. It completely altered the way that I felt about the band.
The promotion video for 'The Perfect Kiss' takes a much-deserved place on the DVDs included with the titled 'Definitive Edition' of 'Low Life' (1985), New Order's third album. As with all such projects the classic status of the actual album is a given, it's the fun and excitement that comes with the bonus material. Of the live material, the performance (originally recorded for BBC's Whistle Test) at The Hacienda is the most viscerally exciting, they are playing like never before (Morris's drumming in the final minute of 'Sunrise' is an ecstatic delight to behold). Elsewhere, the concert at Koseinenkin Hall in Tokyo is a more professional affair (despite Sumner introducing 'This Time Of Night' as 'Pumped Full Of Drugs'). But it's the show at Manhattan Club, in Leuven, Belgium that has some of Sumner's more entertaining moments (altering the opening line of 'Subculture' to 'I like fucking in the park' and then adding some intriguing visual gestures when singing the chorus). Maybe he was a little tired and emotional.
Of the studio recordings here, the disc of demos, rehearsal tracks, instrumentals, and extended versions is a pleasing curio - with the huge exception of the uncut version of 'Elegia' Never mind the fact that 'The Perfect Kiss' was cut in half to fit onto 'Low-Life,' the reflective 'Elegia' was chopped down to a third of its original running time to make it onto the record. Heard in full, 'Elegia' is devastating. The mournful instrumental was an unfeigned tribute to Joy Division's singer Ian Curtis (apparently wordless because Curtis wrote the band's lyrics), its tenderness is wrapped in its apparent iciness. The full 17 minutes of this is profound, utterly unlike anything else they have ever recorded.
For a band that initially felt like a work in progress, developing their sound in public, 'Low Life' is the point where New Order finally began to sound like themselves, it would be the template that would sustain them through their finest moments, their iconic football song, their Ibiza sojourn, their splits, and their reunions. It may be their finest work.
As a postscript, the arthouse cinema where I used to work (The Triangle Arts Centre) was eventually demolished and, as if it were some sick joke, I ended up working in a drably functional local authority building next to the flattened site for a couple of years. I am certain that I must have registered the cinema's absence nearly every day. The place where I saw Talking Heads, the place where New Order started to make sense to me again.
Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.
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