First published on 20 Feb 2012. Updated on 22 May 2012.
When Joy Division’s frontman Ian Curtis hung himself in May 1980, just before the release of their second album, Closer, the remaining members – guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris – were determined to carry on. Manager Rob Gretton suggested a new name, Morris’ girlfriend (now wife) Gillian Gilbert was drafted in on keyboards and guitar, and New Order was born.
Not that it was plain sailing from there, mind. Even as the band racked up massive worldwide success with hits like ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, ‘Fine Time’, ‘True Faith’ and the game-changing ‘Blue Monday’, disaster was never far away. The band were nearly ruined by their investment in disastrous Manchester nightclub, the Haçienda. The members – particularly Sumner and Hook – fought often and publicly. Gilbert and Morris’ daughter Grace was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, leading to Gilbert leaving the band in 1993 to care for her full time – and then, in 2007, Gilbert discovered she had breast cancer.
As Gilbert recovered, Hook announced in 2010 that he could no longer work with Sumner and that therefore the band was no more. Sumner and Morris countered with a statement to the effect that if Hooky wanted out, that was fine by them – even as they teamed up with Gilbert’s New Order replacement Phil Cunningham as the little-loved Bad Lieutenant.
In late 2011 it was announced that New Order were touring – with Gilbert back in the fold – even as Hook’s new band the Light were playing Closer on a worldwide tour. Despite all the drama, Gilbert is the very epitome of calm, her soft Mancunian accent echoing down the line. “It’s really good, just fantastic,” she begins, “I think I’m where I belong.”
The reunion began as Bad Lieutenant playing a benefit show for longtime video director Michael Shamberg, who requires ongoing medical care “…but someone said ‘why don’t we get back together again as New Order? It’d be more appropriate,’” she explains. “And because Hooky was still doing his own thing, we thought ‘we need another bass player’. Phil was already in New Order anyway, so we just asked Tom [Chapman], who just happened to be in Bad Lieutenant as well. We didn’t think it was going to work or anything but we just thought we’d try it.”
Was she itching to get back on stage? “I haven’t been itching, no. I was at the beginning [of her break from the band], but because my daughter was so ill I just sort of left them alone to get on with it. It was hard being away from them, but you just get into a different sort of life, being home and looking after my daughter. So it was really nice to be asked [to return], and as soon as we started rehearsing it just felt like I’d never been away, really.”
Even though the reason for Gilbert’s departure was a noble one, it must have stung when New Order released ‘Crystal’ in 2001, the first single without her.
“That was so hard,” she agrees, her voice a near whisper. “I hated it. But they carried on without me.”
And now the band is carrying on without Hooky.
“Yes, but at least Hooky had his choice,” she counters. “He didn’t want to be in New Order anymore, and he made it quite clear. But we thought ‘well, if he doesn’t want to do it but a number of us want to, why shouldn’t we do it really?’ And if he was so unhappy – how could [we] make somebody do something if they’re so unhappy?”
She pauses at the suggestion that the difference between previous Hooky/Sumner fights was the lack of Rob Gretton to grab everybody by the scruff of the neck and tell them to play nice.
“That’s interesting. Maybe,” she considers. “That’s the thing with life: you don’t know what’s going to be thrown at you. When Rob died [of a heart attack in 1999] that was really upsetting. The dynamics of everything changed and you just have to muddle on through. Life goes on, I suppose.”
Of course, that wasn't a foregone conclusion for Gilbert when she got her diagnosis. “I told Stephen on the phone because he was at the NME awards,” she laughs, darkly. “I couldn’t get through to him and I just left a message saying ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got cancer, so give us a ring when you’re able.’”
“I know!” she laughs. “It was a bit cruel, but it was a bit of a shock. It was only last year that I felt like it was getting better, and I was feeling a bit more positive, so that’s why I just said yes to New Order getting back together.”
Morris and Sumner both declared that New Order were a closed book as recently as 18 months ago, so does Gilbert see a future for the band? “Well, we’re not going to commit to anything big right now. We just want to see how it goes really because we never thought playing live was going to be doable, because Barney didn’t like playing live, and Hooky really liked playing live…”
She pauses. “But I think because things have changed we’re just doing it how it is at the moment, and I don’t think we’ve got a record deal at the moment. So we’re in this position where we can do anything we like, really, which is a really good position to be in.”