Unraveling the Many Mysteries of New Order's "Blue Monday"
Sooner or later, someone was going to write a song like New Order’s 1983 alt-dance classic “Blue Monday.” The conditions in the early ’80s were just right, as musicians on both sides of the Atlantic piggybacked on disco and punk—the genres that had revolutionized the music industry the previous decade—and began inventing new ways to warp sounds and move bodies. But no one could do it quite like New Order, a forward-looking UK guitar group uniquely qualified to bridge the worlds of post-disco and post-punk.
With a runtime of seven minutes, 29 seconds, and no real chorus to speak of, “Blue Monday” is a pulsating, enigmatic curiosity that was initially released only on 12” vinyl, the preferred format in the world of dance music. Radio had no interest in the song, but club DJs spun it like mad, and the single entered the top 10 in the UK. It eventually became the best-selling 12” single of all time.
In the decades since, “Blue Monday” has achieved legendary status. New Order’s signature song has been remixed and covered countless times, and critics cite the track as a major influence on generations of rock and dance artists. It’s no stretch to say the song “changed music forever,” as NME proclaimed in 2018.
Not that New Order went into “Blue Monday” with any such goals. The song was the product of four musicians paying homage to (or straight-up copying) some of their favorite records while experimenting with newfangled gizmos like sequencers and drum machines. Equal parts happy accident and technological triumph, “Blue Monday” is a supremely weird and brilliant song that continues to pack dance floors and transfix listeners 40 years later.
Prelude to a Hit
From the very beginning, New Order wasn’t like other groups. Three of the band’s members—guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris—got their start in Joy Division, a moody post-punk band formed in Manchester, England, in 1976. Joy Division featured lead singer Ian Curtis, a troubled young man whose cold, monotone vocals and disturbed lyrics made him a distinct presence on the scene. Curtis suffered from epilepsy and depression, and died by suicide on May 18, 1980, at the age of 23.
Following Curtis’s death, the surviving members of Joy Division decided to press on. Sumner took on lead vocals, and they added keyboardist Gillian Gilbert. The newly rechristened New Order released their debut album, Movement, in 1981 and gradually began leaning more heavily on electronic elements. There was at least some precedent for this in their former group, as Curtis had been a massive fan of the pioneering German electronic band Kraftwerk.
New Order’s early tours of America brought them to New York City, where they indulged in the local nightlife and experienced the cutting edge of dance music. Manhattan clubs thumped to the emergent strains of post-disco, electro, and hip-hop, and these vibrant sounds began to influence New Order’s songwriting. As luck would have it, the band had access to a bunch of new equipment that would help them realize their electronic dreams.
The two pieces of gear that most directly led to the creation of “Blue Monday” were the Oberheim DMX drum machine and the Powertran 1024 Composer sequencer, a device that would play back musical notes inputted by the user. Sumner built the sequencer himself—it had to be programmed with binary code, and at first, there was no way to sync it with the drum machine. Fortunately, New Order’s producer, Martin Hannett, introduced the band to a scientist named Martin Usher, who designed a special circuit that allowed the machines to operate in tandem.
“The day that we wrote [“Blue Monday”] was the day that we brought the circuit in, hooked it all up and pressed ’GO’ on the drum machine. Then the synthesizer started chattering away, and somehow it all worked,” Sumner told NME in 2015.
Other high-tech noisemakers heard on “Blue Monday” include the E-mu Emulator 1 sampler, which New Order used to grab and manipulate the choir-like vocals from Kraftwerk’s 1975 song “Uranium.” As Gilbert told The Guardian, Sumner and Morris mastered the Emulator by “spending hours recording farts.”
As Sumner recalls, it only took a day for him and Morris to program the drums for “Blue Monday.” They finished around four in the afternoon and decided to back everything up to cassette. But something went haywire with the drum machine, and they lost everything. That meant they had to rebuild the beat from scratch. “Even today, I think about how bits of it were better on the original, kind of funkier,” Sumner wrote in his 2015 memoir, Chapter and Verse.
Hook tells a slightly different version of the story in his 2017 book Substance. The bassist says Morris accidentally unplugged the Oberheim DMX, and that’s what caused the machine to erase everything. Nevertheless, Hook shares Sumner’s fear that they “lost the best version” of the song.
This wasn’t the only snafu that occurred during the making of “Blue Monday.” Another involved Gilbert, who was tasked with programming the synthesizer part into the sequencer. “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,” she told The Guardian. “But I accidentally left a note out, which skewed the melody.”
The slightly out-of-sync melody is part of what makes “Blue Monday” great. “What we love as humans, what we react to in our souls, is imperfection,” famed UK producer Giles Martin—son of Beatles producer George Martin—told the New Order podcast Transmissions. “[‘Blue Monday’] is perfect because it’s imperfect.”
Pablo Picasso famously said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” He might as well have been talking about “Blue Monday.” The members of New Order freely admit that numerous parts of the song were lifted from other sources. The song’s stuttering drumbeat comes from disco goddess Donna Summer’s 1979 song “Our Love.” The funky octave-laden bassline sounds exactly like the one powering Sylvester’s 1978 disco staple “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” The overall structure and production nod to Klein + MBO’s 1982 Italo disco jam “Dirty Talk.”
While the band was writing the song in 1982, Peter Hook happened to watch For a Few Dollars More, the 1965 Spaghetti Western starring Clint Eastwood. As a result, Hook’s lead six-string bass riff on “Blue Monday” directly echoes composer Ennio Morricone’s famous score.
Morris claims he got the song’s title from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday. Hook disagrees; he says it was inspired by rock ’n’ roll trailblazer Fats Domino’s 1956 hit “Blue Monday.” Either way, the title phrase does not appear in Sumner’s lyrics. This is standard practice for New Order, whose song titles are generally non-sequiturs.
It is unclear what, if anything, inspired Sumner’s lyrics. Beginning with the line “How does it feel / To treat me like you do?,” which Sumner sings with icy nonchalance, “Blue Monday” hints at deep emotional pain and perhaps even some type of abuse. In Chapter and Verse, Sumner offers no explanation about the song’s meaning. He makes it sound like he just dashed off the lyrics after Hook wrote his bass part.
Speaking with the website Songfacts in 2014, Hook dismissed the notion of any deep meaning. “I don’t think there is a great deal to tell behind the lyrics if I am going to be brutally honest!” Hook said. “It was just one of those things where [Bernard] just went for it and the rest was history.”
When “Blue Monday” hit shelves on March 7, 1983, it featured a rather unusual cover. Designer Peter Saville had visited New Order in the studio while they were working on the song, and while he was there, he saw, for the first time in his life, a computer floppy disk. Saville was fascinated by the object and took one home—alongside a cassette of “Blue Monday.” The song and the disk became inseparable in his mind, and he came up with a record sleeve shaped like a floppy, complete with three cut-outs.
It was an amazing design with just one downside: It was very expensive to produce. Both Sumner and Hook claim the sleeve cost more to manufacture than the record sold for—meaning their label, Factory Records, lost more and more money as “Blue Monday” climbed the charts. Saville doubts this story, though. “Nobody ever said to me: ‘This is a costly sleeve,’” Saville told The Guardian. “No one sent me a copy, either; I had to go to a record shop.”
Three weeks after “Blue Monday” dropped, New Order appeared on the popular BBC music series Top of the Pops to promote the song. At the time, it was customary for acts to mime along with backing tracks, but New Order insisted on playing “Blue Monday” live. This was a risky proposition, given the temperamental nature of the machines needed to recreate the sounds heard on the record, and the resulting performance was less than stellar.
“It was almost guaranteed to sound awful,” Sumner wrote in Chapter and Verse. Hook describes the performance as “bloody awful.” Both musicians claim “Blue Monday” dropped 10 places on the UK charts after the appearance, but the Official Charts website debunks this idea.
“Blue Monday” spent 38 weeks on the UK charts in 1983, cresting at No. 9. While it missed the U.S. pop charts, the single reached plenty of nocturnal young Americans, as evidenced by its No. 5 peak on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs tally. And that was only the beginning. In 1988, a remix by Quincy Jones—head of Qwest Records, the label to which New Order was signed—hit No. 3 in the UK and No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs. Yet another remix in 1995 made it all the way to No. 17 in the UK.
“Blue Monday” has been covered by dozens of artists, including the alt-metal band Orgy, who scored a massive radio and MTV hit with their 1998 version. “Blue Monday” has also been sampled or interpolated in at least 40 songs, among them Rihanna’s 2007 smash “Shut Up and Drive.”
New Order continues to perform “Blue Monday” live, and it was a constant on the band’s 2022 Unity Tour with Pet Shop Boys. It wasn’t used as the show closer, which is curious, as Hook insists in his memoir that the whole point of writing the sequencer-driven song was to make something New Order could play for an encore without having to actually return to the stage. The machinery would do all the work while the musicians relaxed in their dressing room. In his memoir, Sumner calls that plan a “side effect” of the song’s creation—not the impetus.
Whatever the reasons for its existence, “Blue Monday” never loses its hold over audiences. In Sumner’s estimation, it’s less a song than it is a “machine for making people dance.” Whereas Joy Division’s 1980 favorite “Love Will Tear Us Apart” overpowers listeners with raw emotion, “Blue Monday” delivers what Sumner calls a “startling lack of emotional content.”
“I think the way that everything in it is synchronized, so it’s like all these different gear cogs meshing together, and each synthesizer part is like a different gear,” Sumner told NME. “It all comes together like clockwork. If I could properly explain it, I’d write another one!”