Each week, one of Biff Bam Pop’s illustrious writers will delve into one of their favorite things. Perhaps it’s a movie or album they’ve carried with them for years. Maybe it’s something new that moved them and they think might move you too. Each week, a new subject, a new voice writing on… something they love.
Melanie was more than just a neighbour. Born three days before me, she was like my (ever-so-slightly) older sister and we grew up together, involved in each other’s lives day in and day out.
We walked together, to and from school, through kindergarten and the elementary grades. Her parents were surrogates to my own. I’d have a bowl of Heinz Scarios for lunch at her house on some days and she’d have a mortadella panino at mine on others. On our street, we played “Hide and Seek” as a team, and she would give me nods and winks in games of Clue so that I could surmise Colonel Mustard, in the library, with the rope. We collected, and played with, G.I. Joe figures together: me with Duke and Snow Job, and her with Scarlet and Lady Jaye. She’d have my back in the odd fist fight in the school playground, and she’d help me pass anonymous Valentine’s Day notes to the girls of my affections in grades four and five. At her cottage we caught frogs together and went fishing off of the dock, then water-skiing, then roasting marshmallows on an open fire. Those days were full and fun days.
Although there was some inherent distance between each other after grade eight by attending different high schools, like all good older sisters, we’d still spend time together and she’d still share some of her discoveries with her “younger brother” when we did get together. One week at her cottage during the early summer of 1988, the summer before grade ten, she shared her newly discovered love for pop music by handing me, along with her Sony Walkman, a white cassette tape projecting the simple, powerful, black font words of: New Order Substance 1987. “Listen to this,” she commanded me. And, as an obedient by-three-days younger brother, I did.
That cassette tape would change my life.
At first, I thought it was the notes of a deep sounding guitar, but I soon realized that the haunting, incessant pluck of strings on Ceremony, the first song off of Side A of Substance, was a bass riff. Coupled alongside a percussive slam of cavernous drums and an incessant shimmer of high-hat with, finally, the ripping sounds of an eager electric guitar, I fell in love deeply and immediately.
Ceremony was a frantic introduction to Substance, to New Order and to a high-school student’s broadening view on life: World will travel oh so quickly, Bernard Sumner sang in the second verse of that song followed by the lyric Heaven knows it’s got to be this time, in the chorus. Those words easily became a philosophy for the subsequent four years – four years of high school that passed far too quickly, where every new experience felt like it could very well be the last.
Substance continued to expose a passion in me I didn’t know had previously existed. From the darker, artsy punk roots of Everything’s Gone Green, to the elegiac song anthem for life, Temptation, New Order was creating music for me, for my life, now and forever. From the glorious dance track of Bizarre Love Triangle to the beginnings of acid house with the remixed The Perfect Kiss and Shellshock, to the accessibly brilliant True Faith, a song that belies its lyrical content with uplifting keyboard sweeps, pulsing bass rhythm and a riotously fun French avant-garde music video, a catalyst for travelling colourful acrobatic shows like Cirque du Soleil, I eagerly and heartily absorbed it all.
I spent my days and nights that week at the cottage with earphones on, continually listening to the song tracks running through Melanie’s Walkman, flipping sides, rewinding favourites, turning the volume up. I asked to be driven into town on more than one occasion to buy new double “A” batteries when the old ones died out from unceasing use of the electronic device.
That fall, during grade ten, I found and gathered together with friends who shared common interests in art and music and we would travel to downtown Toronto by bus and subway and spend money from our first, menial jobs, in the second-hand music and head shops down Yonge Street – at the time lowly, and enticing section of the city. I was busy buying more New Order cassette tapes like 1983’s release of Power, Corruption and Lies, an album that would become one of my all-time favourites even though it sounded so dissimilar from Substance. From that piece of music to the various illegally recorded tapes of New Order concerts over the nineteen eighties, to early decade recordings of John Peel Sessions of the band, and how-was-this-ever-acquired demos of early versions of the famous beat of Blue Monday and some, I swear, homemade tape recordings of New Order Christmas tune covers, I made the leap to the music of Joy Division, the band’s precursor and, importantly, the poetry of Ian Curtis, who, though deceased by his own hand, never walked away from his life in silence.
His words still affect me today.
I started listening to bands influenced by Joy Division including U2, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure, and then moved over to Television and their seminal album, marquee Moon. I listened intently to the Factory Records stable of musicians which included musicians as diverse as Cabaret Voltarie, Happy Mondays and guitarist extraordinaire, Vini Reilly. I started reading British import magazines and newspaper like the New Music Express, Select and Q. From there I learned (and then listened) to new, favourite bands like Blur, Stone Roses, and the whole Brit Pop scene and I started buying albums on compact discs, even though I hadn’t bought a device that could play them. Of course, New Order Substance was the first CD I ever purchased. It made the most sense.
Just before we were of legal age, my music loving friends and I started frequenting the clubs where we’d hear the tunes we were constantly listening to at home, danced to and played by, people that were just like us. We had found our pack. When my friends bought electric guitars or, inspired by Depeche Mode, took up keyboards, I bought a bass and, untought, fumbled around with tabs, playing it low-slung below my hip, emulating the treble sounds of New Order’s Peter Hook. He was about the look as much as the groove. I got a non-paying gig spinning my favourite tunes weekly during a midnight set as a disc jockey at the University of Toronto, while I designed pretend (and some real) album covers for international (and local) bands during my daytime hours. Peter Saville’s simplistically brilliant designs for the various New Order single and album covers and inlays he produced over the previous three decades, were always an influence. And, of course, I was a regular concert-goer for any band that came from “across the pond” or sounded as if they might.
“Listen to this,” my older sister Melanie commanded of me. And New Order Substance fulfilled its titled promise. The friends I made in high school listening to music, whether on an album or at a live venue, are the same friends I have today. All music, just like that album, is part and parcel with my daily existence.
In 1988, that album began my love for the band New Order. It began my love for music. It began my love for everything afterwards, luckily, thankfully, a life full of substance.
Then, and since then, forever, watching love grow.