Despite being a proud Londoner, with its multiculturalism and accessibility to all types of culture, there is also a bit of me that wished my postcode began with M1. Whilst London is the home of acts from Grime legends to The Libertines and Bowie, it is hard to deny that Manchester is the home of indie music and culture. There was no better place, then, to go to my first post-COVID gig.
Rising out of the tragic ashes of Joy Division, New Order were (and still are) pioneers of the alternative-dance and synth-pop scene. With “Blue Monday” being the bestselling 12” of all-time, along with being a timeless banger of a dance track, Bernard Sumner and co are undisputed icons of British music. Their first hometown gig in four years taking place at the legendary Heaton Park, I donned my Stone Roses bucket hat and ventured up north for an unmissable night of drum machines and 80s vibes.
With the Manchester sun (as oxymoronic as that sounds) beaming down upon Heaton Park, the electronic rock extravaganza was kicked into gear by Yorkshire’s brightest new talents, Working Men’s Club. Recording their debut album in Sheffield, the home of synth-pop icons like The Human League and Heaven 17, the four-piece have a sound like very few other new bands. And this is not at all a bad thing. With thumping bass and echoey vocals, Working Men’s Club did well to transport the crowd to a different world: a world where the sun is neon lights and the wind sounds like a hallucinogenic synth fill. 18-year-old frontman Syd Minsky-Sargeant, fresh-faced and jewellery-clad, delivered an emotive and psychotic performance akin to a Shakespearian tragic hero. With wild arms, a face of focus and booming vocals, Minsky-Sargeant certainly echoed the stage presence of Ian Curtis himself. How apt. With tickets to see Working Men’s Club in a tiny little sweatbox in a couple of months, my excitement to get a second dosing of hazy and neon-doused alt-dance is immeasurable.
After an unexpectedly mind-blowing set from dance legends Hot Chip, ending on a electrifying cover of Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”, the Manchester sky was no longer beautifully blue, but a charcoal black slate. As the lights went down and the crowd’s hands went up, Bernard Sumner and co. emerged to a remarkable exception. Given that this was New Order’s first hometown show in four years, and only their second in 18 months, this was surely to be expected. Even so, there are few things as exciting as watching someone that you’ve listened to in your bedroom emerge right in front of you. The big screen showed pictures of Manchester through the ages, featuring the likes of the Happy Mondays and Ian Curtis himself, as if the crowd needed any more riling up. When the crowd was finally silent, the guitars began to jangle and the synths began to spit into “Regret”, hitting the ground running.
Sure, seeing New Order now is (not that I was there in the 1980s) a very different experience compared to their New Wave heyday. Whilst Sumner- with floppy hair and baggy clothes- used to ooze energy and indie vibes, he now has the comforting tone of a grandfather or older teacher. Although he might not have the spring he once had, Sumner’s voice and guitar playing is still in remarkable nick. Whilst he may have a few more wrinkles, he has certainly not lost the ability to leave the whole crowd hanging on his every word.
I would find it hard to believe that the band has ever performed “Temptation” better than they did at Heaton Park that night. With the crowd proclaiming “Oh you’ve got green eyes…” long after the song had finished, it was one of those moments that you never wanted to end. But then, once it did, you were served another banger with something like “Blue Monday” or “Bizarre Love Triangles”. After a quick interlude, the set was (inevitably) ended with “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, with members of the crowd grabbing who they could and screaming the anthem into one another’s faces. Rumour has it, people living 3 miles away from Heaton Park could hear the indie anthem, with the spirit of Ian Curtis and Manchester being carried across the North-West in the late-summer breeze.
And just like that, it was over, like a fever dream. Like a fast roller coaster, you wanted to get back onto the New Order Express as soon as it was over. Whilst the crowd continued to boom the lyrics, with some particularly drunk punters attempting to replicate the melodies, Sumner and his band of merry musicians had touched 35,000 people like it was nothing. After a trip to legendary indie nightclub 42s, followed by the 5.30am train back to London, my Manchester alt-dance pilgrimage was over as quickly as it had begun. Yet, as Bernard Sumner muttered at the start of the gig, it feels so good to be alive again.