Producer Stephen Hague took New Order into the studio with an ambitious brief: to write and record a single that would break the band in America.
A native of Maine on America's East Coast, Stephen Hague started out in the mid-'70s as an LA session keyboard player, and appeared on records by the likes of Ric Ocasek, Dolly Parton, Gordon Lightfoot, Walter Egan and Suicide. He also co-founded cult band Jules & the Polar Bears, before choosing to become a producer after concluding that he preferred life in the studio to that on the road. Relocating first to Boston and then to London, he worked with Malcolm McLaren and the Rock Steady Crew, but first made his mark with Orchestral Manouvres In The Dark's 1984 Crush album and 1986 follow-up The Pacific Age. The same year, Hague's work on the Pet Shop Boys' Please album — including the smash-hit singles 'West End Girls' and 'Opportunities' — sent his career into overdrive. Its lush synth-pop sounds brought him to the attention of New Order, whose novel mix of Kraftwerk-type electronica and New York underground dance beats had already earned them UK success.
After the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, Joy Division bass player Peter Hook, guitarist Bernard Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris had recruited keyboardist Gillian Gilbert and formed New Order, with Sumner on vocals. Influential singles such as 'Temptation', 'Blue Monday' and 'Confusion' had gained the band a US contract with Quincy Jones's QWest label, and Stephen Hague was recruited to help record a couple of tracks that could be added to Substance, a collection of singles and remixes that would prove to be New Order's long-awaited American breakthrough. The album made the US top 40, while one of the aforementioned new songs, 'True Faith', peaked there at number 32. It was also one of the band's biggest UK hits, reaching number four both on its original release and again in a 1994 remix.
"I don't think I'd met anyone in the band before going into the studio with them," recalls Hague, whose recent credits have included work with Peter Gabriel and new BMG signing Letrix. "The idea was to come out of there with a single, and at first it wasn't clear if the 'A' side was the track that would become 'True Faith' or the one that would become '1963'.
"For 'True Faith' the band came with some elements of the groove, a basic bass-drum/snare-drum pattern — it was something they had been kicking around for a while — and there was also a rough version of the programmed bass part in terms of its rhythm, along with a couple of chord changes for the verse and chorus. There was no song written yet, just a direction. The idea for the partial bass line came from an 'unknown' track on a compilation cassette that Barney [Bernard Sumner] received from a friend of his in New York. It was stuff recorded from Kiss FM, which was quite new at the time, I think. '1963', meanwhile, was in roughly the same shape: they had part of the groove, bits of bass line and a few ideas about chord changes insofar as they had a key. Because they figured that I was, if not a proper songwriter, at least a collaborator, it was sort of a given that I was going to be involved in helping to pull the songs together.
"The first day was spent just loading in gear and setting up inside Advision Studio One, where they had a first-generation SSL board and big old Urei Time Align monitors. The first time I'd used Advision was to mix a Malcolm McLaren track called 'Madame Butterfly' that I'd recorded in Boston. Before that I'd only worked a couple of times in London, at Basing Street Studios — now SARM West — but I preferred Advision for the monitoring and I also liked the house engineer David Jacob, who worked with me on the McLaren mix. He was very good and we got along. We did a lot of work together for about five years, including New Order and most of the Pet Shop Boys records.
Advision was state-of-the-art in terms of early digital processing units, sometimes obtaining prototypes of gear about to be marketed. It was the perfect environment for Stephen Hague, whose work has all been digital ever since the first Pet Shop Boys album (see the 'Digital Advantage' box). "A guy named Doug Hopkins owned Advision at the time, and he was instrumental in getting me to change over from analogue to digital when I first worked there with Pet Shop Boys — everything I did for about four years was in that studio, and Doug convinced me to try the new Sony 3324 [digital recorders]. I think he was tied in with their UK distribution, or something. The nice thing about that was there were loads of them around the studio, so I got into the habit of using two of them linked together."
When New Order commenced working with Stephen Hague, they brought an interesting array of gear into the studio: a Yamaha QX1 sequencer, a rackmounted Octave Voyetra 8 polyphonic synth, a DX5 that provided most of the bass sounds and which Hague succinctly describes as "Yamaha's attempt to put two DX7s under one roof — it weighed a ton," and an Akai S900 sampler. "It was very early days for samplers," Hague recalls, "and the band didn't have many sounds for it yet. In fact, I think they brought it down mostly hoping they could steal some sounds from me... which they did.
"It was also around this time that MIDI started to get a foothold. A couple of years earlier, when I worked on 'West End Girls', MIDI was just starting to be written about, and there were only a few devices around and they didn't really have anything to plug into yet. But by the time we made 'True Faith' MIDI was obviously the way everything was going."
Although neither 'True Faith' nor '1963' featured real drums, Stephen Morris did bring his kit into the studio so that live hi-hat and cymbals could be integrated into both songs. "We close-miked the hi-hat and put overheads on the cymbals; the standard set-up," Hague explains, "but Steve also had a pillow on his lap which he beat the shit out of while he was recording the hi-hat — the silent snare."
The producer, meanwhile, had brought his own Emu Emulator II sampler and pattern-based, MIDI-less SP12 drum machine. "By then I'd had the Emu II for two or three years," he says. "It took the big 5-inch floppy disks, which actually were floppy, and I had quite a few sounds for it. We also had CV-to-MIDI converters — since MIDI was fairly new, the idea that you could link two or three keyboards together and play them at the same time was very cool. Looking back on a lot of '80s records, you can hear it happening in the synth work; those more complex sounds, before layered presets and before [Roland's] LA Synthesis came along. And because they could, people were linking boxes together just for the hell of it, just to see what would happen. I think the pad sound on 'True Faith', which is sort of the harmonic backbone for the track and the chord changes, was a combination of something in the Emu II and the Voyetra played live.
"Sync'ing up was really tough in those days. I don't think the spec for MIDI Time Code actually came out until late '87, so there was no MIDI clock/MIDI Time Code thing happening at that time. You just had a box that was attached serially to your computer that could read SMPTE, and you'd set the tempo and hope for the best. It was really difficult. All the way up until the late '80s, early '90s, I was still printing a guide click with my original sync-up, then running the click from source again live with every overdub, always bringing those two channels up on the desk, hitting the Solo buttons and making sure they were phasing before I'd actually drop into record, because it was not a sure thing. It wasn't that we were doing anything wrong, it was just the nature of the gear. We were flying by the seat of our pants. Some of the specs of these devices, and in particular the way they interfaced, hadn't really settled down yet.
"We bounced the sequences that the guys brought down on the QX1 into my computer, which was a mighty Macintosh SE30 — the one that looked like a little toaster, with the built-in screen. I was running Performer at the time. The Atari also ran some basic sequencing programs, but I was a Mac guy right from the start. Performer was one of the two or three music programs that were being written for the Mac, and it worked fine. Once the band's sequencer patterns were in the SE30, we stopped using the QX1. I think the computer was clocking to the SP12, and all the drum tracks on both songs were done in the SP12."
"I suppose I was among the first to really commit to digital [recording]," says Stephen Hague. "The first generation of recorders — and the Sony 3324 in particular — had a reputation for being a bit brittle at the top end, and they probably were, but we weren't too bothered by that at the time. I could understand people not wanting to record certain types of music on the early machines, but from the beginning you couldn't beat it as a work environment. One thing that the Sonys had going for them right from the beginning was software that enabled two 24-track machines to not only lock together almost instantaneously, but you could sync one machine to the other with a predetermined offset. Based on the tempo of the track, we worked out a SMTE-to-bars formula for how much we wanted one machine to be offset in relation to the other — the computer would spit out the number of bars in SMPTE code, and we'd enter it into the remote of the slave machine. That machine would then wind to the point we wanted, for instance eight bars ahead of the master machine, and lock to the master.
"This became indispensable for me long before hard disk recording started working properly. I was able to have a digital copy of the master reel on the slave machine, and offset it by a set amount of bars forward or backward. It was great for moving things around or for doing major structural edits. What's more, there was a rehearse mode on the master machine, whereby you could drop in to any or all tracks on the master machine from the offset slave machine, and preview the results without actually going into record. That way, if you wanted to adjust the in or out point of the drop-in onto the master machine, you could just nudge those parameters. So it was a great tool even though it was, of course, a little cumbersome, not only physically but also as far as the work it took to do that sort of re-jigging of recorded elements. Something that would now take you five minutes to do on a hard disk system, like doubling the length of the chorus or something, used to take me an hour back then. However, the fact that you could do it at all was a revelation to me. It was fantastic!
"Analogue has its charms, and I certainly know what people have always liked about it. Even now, working with Logic and various interface/hard drive configurations, I always mix to half-inch. I pick up a bit of the analogue 'thing' at that point in the process, but I really don't see any value to it before that. I remember the bad old days of working with two-inch analogue, and over the course of a project, because of wear and tear on the tape, I would often find myself chasing the top end with EQ. I'd actually start hearing the desk EQ more than the original top end I'd recorded, due to shedding and tension problems, alignment bullshit, all that. It wasn't great but it was all we had. But you know, when digital first came along there were still mechanical things to watch out for: the original Sony and Mitsubishi machines were still tape recorders, susceptible to crinkling and shedding and bad edits; all the things you would associate with analogue in terms of handling the tape itself. Things could get screwed up, but it was easier to make safeties, at least, and they had cooler-looking meters.
"Because of the spec of the conversion cards, you could get away with several transfers between the two Sonys. Even working digitally you would start to hear a difference after a few bounces, depending on the source material. You would have to listen for things happening to stuff like overheads on a live kit and certain elements in the low end. You couldn't just bounce back and forth endlessly, even though I used to do it quite a bit. Of course, with analogue, you start bouncing back and forth and by the third generation you can tell something's going on, not counting the noise."
Indeed, work on 'True Faith' and '1963' was taking place almost simultaneously, with the band and producer sometimes bouncing back and forth between the two on an hourly basis. "We didn't know which one would end up sounding better," Hague remarks, "but there was a strange kind of confidence settling over the sessions. We never seemed to consider that we might fail. We had exactly 10 days to write, record and mix two tracks, the reason being their release schedule. Coordinating the European release dates, which at that time were scattered between various companies and various regions, was a bit like pulling off a bank job. If we didn't get it out on the same day in most of the territories, we'd be faced with the possibility of people hearing the song on the radio from another country but not being able to buy it in their local record store. Not ideal. It was important for indies to release in all the European territories at the same time, and since the dates for 'Substance' were already set, we had a serious deadline. I remember getting a couple of slightly nervous calls from Tony Wilson at Factory, making sure everything was going OK.
"By the second day, we were writing in earnest for both tracks. In fact, we spent more time on '1963' during those first few days, because it seemed less apparent what it was going to be. On 'True Faith' I remember sitting down at the keyboard playing something very similar to the final pad sound, while the drum machine was running. A few of us were playing along, looking for ideas, trying to reveal the song that we hoped was in there."
Nevertheless, while all this was taking place, there was no attempt to capture any magic on tape. "New Order had done a lot of their earlier writing by jamming together in a room, each on their own instruments with Barney on vocals, and recording as they went along. But in this case none of them — particularly Barney — were keen on doing it that way. I guess by teaming up with me they were hoping to come at it from a slightly different angle. I remember a couple of times Hooky [Peter Hook] wondered if maybe we were missing something by not letting the band rip. It crossed my mind too, but generally everyone was happy to keep to the plan.
"Things were humming by the third day or so and no-one really wanted to change the approach. Everything kept falling into place. I remember we came up with a structure for 'True Faith' that ran about six minutes 30 seconds, and it started to make sense. We were writing together quite easily by that point. It was just a case of 'Oh, maybe not that chord change, but how about this one?' or 'That's good, but shouldn't we be at the chorus by now, for Christ's sake?' It was a team effort, and as both songs started to take shape I began to put a little pressure on Barney to come up with some lyrics before we went too much further. I've always been fairly lyric-sensitive, and there are certain decisions that you may or may not make depending on the atmosphere of the lyrics. I've worked on records where the words have been introduced very late in the ball game, and that's rarely a positive factor — you can get away with it, and interesting things can sometimes happen, but it's not the approach that I would normally choose.
"The band was renting a flat on Cleveland Terrace, near Paddington Station, for the duration of this project, and so at one point Barney said 'If I go home early tonight, I'll come up with something.' He left early while we were doing transfers and printing a couple of things we'd already decided on — that's something which still holds for me to this day. I've never liked that way of working where everything's running live from sequencers for most of the process, and then you print some stuff at the end, especially back then when sync'ing was so crap. Maybe that's just down to the way I was raised in the studio; the idea that you decide, record, and move on.
"One nice thing that resulted from the advent of SMPTE devices and MIDI was that you could at least sync up again and replace some sounds or change things later. You knew you had that option, but I just like the idea that you record what you've got and then work on the next thing. Like with Pro Tools or Logic today, working with the Sonys meant you could still mess around with the structure later, even if it was in a more primitive way. You couldn't really paint yourself into a corner. You could always make the intro longer if you wanted to, or top up the second verse with things you'd already recorded somewhere else in the arrangement. As long as you got the key and tempo right, that is."
The lyric-writing didn't go quite as smoothly as the band anticipated, but a day's enforced isolation inadvertently produced the goods (see the box on the final page of this article). Barney recorded his vocals in the control room while singing into a hand-held Beyer M88. "It was a very casual, low-pressure setup. He did a guide vocal and there were some parts I really wanted to keep, so we stuck with the same mic and tried it on a stand, but he preferred to just hold it and I thought 'fine'. He has quite good instincts with the mic — when he hits something a bit harder, he instinctively changes the angle a little bit, and not everyone has that kind of intuition. Barney may not be a big crooner, but he has a natural sense of how he's affecting the mic capsule. And it also helps that he's not particularly sibilant, because things can get out of control very quickly when sibilant singers use a hand-held mic."
Nevertheless, once Sumner had commenced recording the vocals, Hague still deemed that certain structural changes should be made to the backing track and melody. "We did guides for both tracks in the same session," he says, "and then decided where we needed to adjust the backing we'd already printed. For instance, I started to feel that the second chorus of '1963' should go on a bit longer than Barney had lyrics for. He agreed and added some more words, which in turn led to a whole new idea for the outro. By that point, at least, we had a pretty good idea of where the record was heading.
"'True Faith' didn't have much in the way of backing vocals — Barney and I both sang the high octave part on the chorus, and he was fairly quick with whatever vocals he did. When we did lead vocals he recorded five or six takes and I compiled them. It was pretty straightforward, though at that time Bernard was still a reluctant singer. I found out later that he hadn't been the obvious choice to take over from Ian Curtis, and he didn't really like doing it much — he'd been happy to play his guitar standing stage right with his head down, the prototype shoe-gazer, and so although he'd agreed to fill the gap, he still wasn't entirely comfortable stepping up to sing entire sets or entire albums. That would last all the way into the '90s — sometimes he'd have to get fairly pissed to get to a place where those apprehensions began to fall away. So, yeah, there was a bit of drinking going on during the sessions, but the amazing thing about New Order, which I noticed from the very first day, was no matter how much they might consume in terms of alcohol or any other 'substances', their moods would remain very stable and no one would get sloppy or pissed off or say anything stupid. To be honest, I found it a little spooky. I thought there might be some kind of strange thing happening that I wasn't in on.
"The only way I saw Bernard being affected was when he was doing a big vocal session in the evening, and because he'd knock back a few drinks while he was singing, he'd usually end up out of commission for most of the next day," Hague recalls. "He'd be great for the session, but it would really catch up with him later. But I can say that for the entire band there were never any big wobbles during any of the records I did with them; getting moody, calling each other names, walking out, none of that. It was always very civil. Sometimes they could be very direct and sarcastic, but everyone seemed to understand the parameters and personal boundaries, it was all very smooth in that way. Stephen and Gillian, in particular, were very even and dependable. They were always there when they said they were going to be, and Gillian was quite happy to just sit in the back and read magazines or work out keyboard parts on a little Juno with her headphones on while the others were doing their parts. She was so patient.
"Whenever anything mildly controversial would come up, from a chord change to a bass drum pattern or vocal take, I'd always canvas the room and make sure that we were all on the same page. I hate for people I'm working with to keep things to themselves, and then I find out near the end of the project that they're unhappy with something, and we have to undo work I thought we'd completed ages ago. I always try to know how everyone's feeling about what's going on at the time, and especially how they think things are sounding if they take roughs home overnight."
Bernard Sumner's first attempt at retiring to the band's rented Paddington flat to work on lyrics led him to return to the studio without very much having been achieved. Stephen Hague made it clear that little advancement could be made with just a groove and some chord changes, and Barney called in the next day to say he was staying home to produce the goods. He didn't, however, realise what he was letting himself in for.
"No one can actually recall whether this was intentional or not," says Hague with a slight laugh, "but when the band members left the flat that day one of them locked the door and took the keys with them to the studio. Barney couldn't get out, and apparently the only things he had there were a bottle of water and some really mouldy, rotten bacon in the fridge. He didn't have anything to eat, the phone wasn't working, and so he was there until the band returned at around nine that evening. By that time, besides being pretty pissed off, he'd actually cracked both sets of lyrics, so whether or not it had been an 'accidental' imprisonment, it was the right outcome. The whole band stayed up really late that night and finished off the lyrics, and when they came in the next day, voilà, there they were: the words to both songs!"
Perhaps Barney should have been locked in a bit longer so that he could come up with an entire album's worth...
"That's right," Hague agrees wholeheartedly. "As if by magic, we had nearly complete lyrics to two songs, although we made a couple of changes; the second verse of 'True Faith' goes, 'When I was a very small boy, very small boys talked to me. Now that we've grown up together, they're afraid of what they see.' The original line that Barney brought in was 'Now that we've grown up together, they're all taking drugs with me.' 'Well,' I thought, 'that's quite cool, but... ' By now, this song was sounding like it was maybe going to be the single, so I said 'Do you think radio's going to have a problem with that line?'
"The band's manager, the late, great Rob Gretton, was around for all the sessions, and he said 'Well, you know, it's the culture, man. This drug reference is all around us.' I knew what he meant but still felt there should be an alternate line, even if we did two versions. So we changed it, and once we had, everyone seemed happy to stick with it. Live, they've always used the drugs line, though."
Rob Gretton was, in fact, quite influential when the band and producer were sounding each other out during the first couple of days. Both Gretton and Peter Hook were sensitive in a cultural sense to where New Order had come from, what would be acceptable or unacceptable to the fans they had carried over from Joy Division, and what might be expected both musically and culturally from a Mancunian standpoint.
"I was very interested in what Rob had to say," Hague remarks. "He wouldn't make speeches, but a few words were said here and there, and it was clear that with this new collaboration he didn't want to see them take a hard right turn and come up with something that was inappropriate for their fan base. He was always protective of the integrity of New Order, and wanted them to build upon the reputation and credibility of Joy Division, not fuck it up."
Bernard Sumner didn't need too much coaxing when it came to his guitar parts, playing a DI'd Squire Stratocaster on 'True Faith' with distortion that was produced by overloading the mic preamps on the desk. "Barney's a much better guitar player than he gives himself credit for," Hague insists. "He has a very personal rhythm sense that comes easy for him, but it's hard to duplicate. I've tried."
The final parts to be added to both 'True Faith' and '1963' were Peter Hook's bass and Gillian Gilbert's keyboard ideas.
"It was amazing," says Hague. "Gillian didn't run ideas by me as we went along. There just came a time when I said 'Tomorrow let's work on your keyboard parts,' and she said 'OK, great.' The next day, when it was finally her turn, she had all these fully formed ideas for both tracks. We just got sounds and she recorded them, all hand-played. It was so painless. Although she seemed to be quietly distracted in the back of the room each day, she had completely plotted out her parts for the songs. She's a real joy to work with.
"For his parts, Hooky kept the jamming spirit alive. He purposely wouldn't come up with anything specific in advance or tinker around while other work was going on. Sometimes he had a bass in his hands when we were writing, but I think that was only because it made him feel more comfortable. His two main basses were a four-string Yamaha DB1200S that he used on both tracks and a Shergold six-string. His only pedal at the time was an Electro-Harmonix Clone Theory, and though he didn't bring his main cabinet, he did have a little rack with an Alembic valve preamp. We put that into a 12-inch cabinet that was kicking around the studio. He was happy to go through the pedal into the preamp and straight into the desk, but I wanted to include a speaker of some sort so the bass would be moving some air. As I recall, we used a couple of Sennheiser 421s on the bass cabinet. We had the amp, a straight DI, and a direct feed from the back of the Alembic preamp, all going into the desk. The amp and the Alembic were both post-Clone Theory and we mixed the three signals down to mono as we were recording.
"Hooky would try a lot of ideas, really fearless, and often it was just him and me in the studio. Once we had the sound together it happened quite fast — we'd just pull a couple of chairs up to the desk, turn it up really loud and go into record from bar one. At first I thought it would have been nice if he'd had some bits worked out before we started, but like I said, this was the first time for us in the studio, and as the years went on and we did more work together I couldn't wait 'til Hooky plugged in and just started to make shit up. That was always one of the best parts of the sessions. The first time, it was a bit scary because I didn't know what to expect, but he always delivered, and he'd often send the track into areas I never would have thought of. He came up with great stuff for both tracks. For '1963' we concentrated on the low end — more of a proper bass part — but on 'True Faith' the low bass was programmed and all the stuff he did was melodic, further-up-the-neck parts; some really memorable playing in the solo section and great thematic parts on the intro and outro. At the end of '1963', using the Shergold, he played that little melancholy motif — I love the way the bass and drums came together on that track. To this day, I think '1963' is still the only song about domestic violence that you can dance to.
"I remember getting some criticism at the time for having Hooky a little submerged in the mixes, and listening to it now they were absolutely right. The bass is too low. But you know, I didn't have any experience mixing bass as a lead instrument, I didn't know quite how to handle it, and the result was vibey, but not quite right. You have to lean forward to hear everything he's playing, and while that's not an uncomfortable feeling, if I were doing the mix now I would definitely bring that fader up. Maybe he should have dug in his heels a bit more at the time."
By the 10th and last day of the sessions, the decision as to which of the tracks would be the 'A' side and 'B' side of the single was still very much up in the air. Stephen Hague thought that perhaps both should be released as separate singles, but the band's manager, Rob Gretton, didn't want to rip off the fans and provide them with a weak 'B' side. '1963' therefore fulfilled this role while 'True Faith' was accorded the starring part, only for Gretton to opine years later that, on reflection, he'd probably been wrong not to go along with the producer's opinion.
"In the end, it didn't matter," says Hague. "We all left the studio really happy. It was just mission accomplished. There was no hand-wringing at all."