Be A Rebel: New Order's Bernard Sumner on COVID-19, Growing Up in Manchester, and the Show that Changed The World

Owen Murphy
photo by Dave Lichterman

New Order released their first new music in five years recently with their single "Be a Rebel." The song came along with the news that their 2020 tour (with The Pet Shop Boys) was postponed because of Covid-19. It's been rescheduled for 2021 with a stop at The Gorge next October. The band's leader, Bernard Summer, spoke with KEXP Owen Murphy about the new single, the punk rock show that changed his life (and maybe the world!), and also revealed that he was recovering from the coronavirus. 

Listen to the interview or read a transcript below.


Bernard Sumner: I got [Covid-19] for four days. Then it went away for four days and then came back for four days. It was extreme fatigue, like when you got a bad hangover, but minus the headache and the feeling sick. And it was (a) really tired (feeling), you know, just really tired. I still can't smell anything, but I didn't get a lot of the traditional symptoms that are supposed to go. I think I've got away with it pretty lightly compared to (others) and I've heard some horror stories. I know a couple of people (who) know people have died from it. It was scary going to bed every night thinking how am I going to feel when I wake up in the morning? (Am I) going to need to get an ambulance? But I was OK.

KEXP: Wow. I have to say, I'm so glad to hear that you're OK. And it makes it seem all the more vital to see you guys play live again. Let me ask you, you've planned this tour for 2021, yet the U.S. is setting records for covid cases. But let's say you do get a tour. What do you think is the first song you'd want to play to lead off your show?

I don't know. Maybe “Be A Rebel. (It) would be great to start with, you know, a new year with a new song that will be really cool.


It's a wonderful song. What does the phrase "be a rebel" mean to you right now in 2020?

It means don't listen to the crap that they tell you. Be an individual. Make your own mind up. And make your own mind up (via) personal observations rather than (being) indoctrinated by idiots. You can learn a lot about the world. I think personally, you can learn a lot more about the world by personal observation rather than (by being) dictated to, you know? In a way, when you were at school, you're programmed (to be) a nice little human being and do things you supposed to do, get the sort of job you supposed to get, you know, get a nice car and get a nice house and do all things supposed to do. And then when you've broken your realize, well, I'm not happy. So the song's a bit like the road to happiness is (found) by...ignoring all of that. Finding in your own route and being an individual. Not being afraid of being different to other people.

It seems like the spirit of rebellion has been part of your entire adult life. Did it start in 1976 after you went to what now many consider one of the most important concerts in music history – The Sex Pistols at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall? It's incredible to note who all was there. Members of the Buzzcocks, The Smiths, The Fall, and of course, your band, Joy Division.

Up until that point, I thought you had to be a born musician, and music was about virtuosity ... you would say I could never do anything like that. (I) thought if (The Sex Pistols) can do it, we can do it. And that was the essence of punk. A lot of urban kids suddenly formed was an eye-opener. It wasn't particularly (about) the music, although their music had great energy, really good energy, and their attitude was great, you know. We liked the attitude. (It was about) that fuck you attitude because that's what we felt at the time.

What was England, and Manchester in particular like then?

It wasn't so great. There was a lot of decaying factories, unemployment. The jobs that were there were not good jobs. It was kind of stuck in a period (and) we could sense that something new was coming.

It was around this time that you, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and the late Ian Curtis formed Joy Division and poured that angst into songs that would change music history. Songs like "Love Will Tear Us Apart," "Transmission," "She's Lost Control," and so many more, including one that seems perfect for this covid era; "Isolation". Tell me, what is it about that song that resonates 40-years later?

I built a synthesizer from an electronics kit and I think "Isolation" was the first song we used it on. It had this repeat function where you could hit the key, twist the LFO and then just (makes synthesizer sound) and it was amazing, you know? A new type of music.

Here's hoping we're out of this pandemic and get to see you and the rest of New Order, along with Pet Shop Boys, next October.

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