Made in Manchester: the creativity & innovation of FAC73

It’s now 36 years since New Order’s Blue Monday was released – 7 March 1983, and its cutting-edge electronic groove had a major influence on popular culture. The song has been widely remixed, re-released and covered since its original version, and is still a popular anthem in dance clubs.

The song begins with a distinctive kick drum intro, programmed on a synthesiser, which fades in a sequencer melody. The verse section features the song’s signature throbbing synth bass line, played by a Moog Source, overlaid with Peter Hook’s surging bass guitar. Bernhard Sumner delivers the lyrics in a deadpan manner, almost a hark back to their founding Joy Division days.

Blue Monday is a dance track with a deep hint of melancholy. A seven and a half minute-long single, it became the biggest-selling 12-inch of all time. After a lengthy introduction, the first and second verses are contiguous and are separated from the third verse only by a brief series of sound effects. A short breakdown section follows the third verse, which leads to an extended outro.

People have interpreted the title all sorts of ways. It actually came from a book drummer Stephen Morris was reading, Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. One of its illustrations reads: Goodbye Blue Monday. It’s a reference to the invention of the washing machine, which improved housewives’ lives.

The original 1983 artwork is designed to resemble a 5¼” floppy disc. The sleeve does not display either the group name nor song title anywhere – the only text on the sleeve is “FAC SEVENTY THREE” on the spine. Instead the legend “FAC 73 BLUE MONDAY AND THE BEACH NEW ORDER” is represented in code by a series of coloured blocks.

The single’s original sleeve, created by designer Peter Saville, cost so much to produce that Factory Records lost money on each copy sold, due to the use of die-cutting and specified colours required. Nobody expected Blue Monday to be a commercial success, so nobody expected the cost to be an issue. The artwork was so late that Saville sent it straight to the printer, unreviewed by either the band or the label.

New Order performed the track live on Top of The Pops on 31 March 1983. The performance was dogged by technical problems, and it wasn’t their greatest moment. In the words of drummer Stephen Morris, Blue Monday was never the easiest song to perform anyway, and everything went wrong.

The coded colour blocks design by Saville were part of his distinctive and iconic work that set Factory Records apart. Saville was primarily interested in the contrast of historical and modern, technological and natural, and in a wider sense, perceived when seen through contemporary eyes. His colour code was a way of juxtaposing, as he said, the hieroglyphics of technology with historical classicism.

Although the code first appeared on Blue Monday, it was with the release of the Power Corruption and Lies album, that any sense of what it might all mean began to surface.

The cover of this brilliant album is a reproduction of the 1890 painting A Basket of Roses by the French artist Henri Fantin-Latour, and apart from some coloured squares in the top right, that’s it, there’s no band name and no album title. The seven squares however are a continuation of the Blue Monday code and it’s only when you turn the sleeve over to find a coloured wheel that it becomes possible to work it all out.

The first clue is that the circle is made up of twenty six segments around its outer rim. The wheel is decoded using only the outer two rings, which are either a single colour or a doubled up colour (with either green or yellow). The inner segments, as far I can tell, are to complete the device and for decoration only.

The alphabet starts with the double depth green at the top and works round clockwise. The numbers 1 to 9 also start at the doubled green which means they are effectively identical to the first nine letters of the alphabet (context is everything for Saville).

It might just be the happy conjunction of the beat and timing, but for Blue Monday blankness is the overwhelming quality, from Sumner’s pale, robotic vocal to Peter Hook’s desolate bass melody, but the design adds to the feel that this is a very special record.

But it wasn’t meant to be this pivotal. It was supposed to be an entirely automated excuse to end a gig and for the band to hit the bar. One of the four would press the button and the track would take care of itself, allowing the band to leave the audience to it and get a swift half. That was before they realised how complicated it was to try and get all these mad sequencers and drum machines to actually talk to one another.

At the time, and even in retrospect, New Order were amazing innovators. If I think about what innovation looks like, the same slideshow of images clicks across my mind: that photo of Einstein with his unkempt hair all over the place, Edison with his light bulb, and Steve Jobs onstage in his black turtleneck jumper introducing the latest iThing device.

But for all the innovators who have impacted our lives, it’s not just about that romantic Eureka! moment, it’s about the nitty-gritty work that comes after the idea in terms of getting it accepted and implemented. Thinkers need doers to get things done, and idealists need practitioners to tether them to reality. Then again, the risk-takers and the risk-averse must co-exist otherwise an organisation veers too far to one extreme or the other, and either jerks all over the place with the push-and-pull, or simply moves nowhere at all.

Everyone is born creative, everyone is given a box of crayons early on. Then when you hit puberty they take away the crayons and give you books, on algebra and calculus (which I liked better than crayons). Suddenly years later when get the creative bug, you want your crayons back.

Many creative geniuses are driven by anxiety and self-doubt, yet the way they create stuff, despite innovation seeming to be a random, messy outcome, is methodical. Many have routine or process that is disciplined and ordered. I discovered this disciplined approach when I came across the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. In it he examines the schedules of painters, writers, and composers, as well as philosophers, scientists, and other exceptional thinkers.

He hypothesised that for these geniuses, a routine was surprisingly essential to their work. As Currey puts it A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods. He noted several common elements in the lives of the geniuses that allowed them to pursue the luxury of a productivity-enhancing routine.

Here are the highlights of structure, routine and habits that seem to enable a creative genius to do what they do:

A workspace with minimal distractions Jane Austen asked that a certain squeaky door hinge never be oiled, so that she always had a warning when someone was approaching the room where she wrote. Mark Twain’s family knew better than to breach his study door. Graham Greene went even further, renting a secret office, only his wife knew the address and telephone number.

A daily walk For many, a regular daily walk was essential to brain functioning. Soren Kierkegaard found his constitutionals so inspiring that he would often rush back to his desk and resume writing, still wearing his hat and carrying his walking stick. Charles Dickens took three-hour walks and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck.

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork Before there was email, there were letters. It amazed me to see the amount of time the people in Currey’s study allocated to answering letters. Many would divide the day into real work (such as composing or painting in the morning) and busywork (answering letters in the afternoon).

Others would turn to the busywork when the real work wasn’t going well. Ernest Hemingway always tracked his daily word output on a chart ‘so as not to kid myself’, but left dedicated time for letter writing.

A habit of stopping when they’re on a roll, not when they’re stuck Hemingway puts it well: You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. Arthur Miller said, I don’t believe in draining the reservoir. I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say.

Limited social lives One of Simone de Beauvoir’s friends put it this way: There were no parties, no receptions, no bourgeois values; it was an uncluttered kind of life, a simplicity deliberately constructed so that she could do her work. Pablo Picasso and his girlfriend Fernande Olivier borrowed the idea of Sunday as an ‘at-home day’ to enable undisrupted painting, and kept themselves to themselves.

I find the routines and habits of these thinkers strangely compelling, almost extreme, as the very idea that you can organise your time as you like is out of reach for most of us.

So reflecting back 36 years and the release of Blue Monday, FAC73 in the Factory Records catalogue, we may never know precisely where such innovation comes from, why some people use their creativity more than others or why some people are most creative during specific times in their lives.

Music is one of the things in our humanity that really matters, and for New Order their most celebrated track is immune to the passing of time and the interference of others such that, on the final day before all the lights go out for one last time, you can be certain that the cockroaches will be banging out a decent rendition of Blue Monday.

So you’ve got the itch to do something. Go ahead and make something. really special, something amazing, and sing in your own voice. That’s what every entrepreneur must do too, use their own creativity to shape their own innovation agenda and make their mark.

Creativity is the root of entrepreneurship, it’s not just a skill but also an attitude. Ideas are at the core of the modern economy, shape your future, keep yourself open for possibility. Don’t walk in silence, make your own music. I’m sure you’ll find some unknown pleasures in your own creativity.

One thought on “Made in Manchester: the creativity & innovation of FAC73

  1. Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

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