Apologies in advance. What follows is more of a dissertation than a review. Bear with me…
Round & Round is one of my all-time favourite electro-pop tracks, and a real gem amongst the rich pickings of Technique. Whereas for me Fine Time had a real brute-force Wow! impact and felt like a jet engine blast, Round & Round – with its smooth production and refined sounds & structure – is its cooler cousin. Round & Round is the sleek to Fine Time’s swagger.
One of the great things about writing this blog, reviewing each track, and giving each song renewed attention, is that you find yourself looking at New Order’s work from new and unexpected angles. Something bleedingly obvious came to mind as I listened to Round & Round, and it is that New Order – as purveyors of (in this case) electronic dance music – come at the task of song writing as a band. It’s fair to say that the vast majority of dance music is produced by solo artists, a pair of gear wizards, or a small production team, but as we’ve always known (but maybe take for granted sometimes) New Order – with their roots in punk and their branches in post-punk, alternative/indie rock, electronica and techno – come at the task of producing electronic music from a deeper body of experience and wider field of vision, and for that reason their dance music has always been so distinctive, and never ever ‘sounds like everyone else’…
With my ‘electronic music producer hat’ on, I recall strongly connecting with (and analysing) the structure, sounds and production of Round & Round and its accompanying batch of Round & Remixes. With reference to the album version, here’s what glistens in the pan for me:
- The main electro bassline sequence; particularly the verse pattern with its notes on the off-beat, and that little flurry before it dips down and then jumps up an octave. The chorus pattern also has a real ‘driving forward’ groove. The choice of sound for the bass sequence is spot-on as well, with its classic electro bounce feel.
- Although the main bassline is handled synthetically, Hook’s bass is used to add texture and colour – particularly during the bridging parts; and for that he shouldn’t feel hard done by at all.
- The drum machine programming is sweet: house meets techno meets disco, with lots of slip snares and the high/low tom combinations.
- The stripped back, crystal-clear techno instrumental break, which drops in two phases; the first which feels like you’ve just flown into clean air after Bernard’s series of growly (is that a word?) & percussive guitar chords. The song opens out into just the electro bassline with its full and rich ambience, the bass+snare drum pattern with a couple of short but notable industrial-sounding hits at the end of each bar, and a cropped brass-like synth motif giving the track its house texture. Then the break strips back further to a bar of just drum & bass – simply kickdrums and high/low tom rolls (and – please tell me if I’m getting too forensic here – there’s this sub-second rapid fire of toms in the background which is one of those gorgeous attentions to detail that I’ve mentioned before) – before rebuilding with the brassy motifs in the next bar, the snares coming back 1/2-way through that and the break ending on a Morris hi/mid/low Octapad combo. Love it!
- Sumner’s vocals, and how the lyrics are delivered with a subtle ‘slowness’ over what is quite a high-BPM track. The FX on the vocals are spot-on, highlighting Bernard’s natural sibilance. He does a great job with his emphasis, emotion and pitching on certain parts of the vocal – e.g. ‘The picture you sssee, is no portraiiit of meee. It’s too rrreal to be shooown to someone Iii don’t know‘; the lyrics of which are apparently a commentary on his problematic professional relationship with Tony Wilson.
- The orchestra-strike sounds in the intro add to the overall house texture.
- The bleep sound in the chorus and bridge was still relatively cool, and only later would become the signature of the ‘Bleep’ techno genre a-la Tricky Disco, Sweet Exorcist, et al; and eventually find its way back into indie pop as a cliché.
- Phasing the whole track as a way to end the song with a flourish.
So that’s the micro view. My overall view is that of a joyous and wonderfully propulsive electro classic; the album-version of which for me remains the definitive one, although the remixes warrant their own discussion because they are particularly good.
There are 3 sets of mixes to consider: Stephen Hague’s, Kevin Saunderson’s, and Ben Grosse’s (the latter two also in collaboration):
- Stephen Hague was engaged to remix the album version for main single release, including the Seven Inch (FAC263/7 side A), Twelve Inch (FAC263 side A), and 1994 versions (from The Best Of). Hague, as he is wont to do, brings on board additional synths, strings, ambient motifs, and sequence variations to his versions, supposedly to make the song more radio friendly / accessible; but IMHO with mixed results (no pun intended). The album version has an edginess, separation, drama and clarity that is lost in the added busy-ness of Hague’s versions, and its only really in his full Twelve Inch mix that Hague’s efforts reach their full potential. The Twelve Inch features a terrific extended instrumental intro that layers beautifully, and although it fades in, it doesn’t fade out; which the 7″ and 1994 version suffer cheaply from.
- When I first heard that Kevin Saunderson – one of Detroit’s ‘Belleville Three’ originators of techno, and Inner City’s main man – was chosen to remix New Order I thought it was an inspired choice. Having said that, his Detroit Mix (FAC263R side B) just doesn’t quite gel for me. Sure there’s a classic 808/909 techno backbone to the mix – full of handclaps, backspins and echo – which work well with the main electro bassline and chattering sequences from the origin version, but I think the mix would have benefitted from only sparingly using the vocal as samples, and keeping Hooky’s bass out altogether (sorry Peter). It’s like Saunderson’s parts and New Order’s parts were two jigsaw pieces which didn’t quite fit together. His remix could use a remix – pass the scissors…
- Ben Grosse’s 12″ Mix* (FACD263R #2) is much better. Like Hague’s, it has a tasty extended instrumental intro, but unlike Hague’s it is far less busy and is closer in tone to the original, with Grosse particularly emphasising the electro bassline and chatty sequencers in his version – not a bad thing. This version includes a particularly good breakdown in the last 1/3, and – like Saunderson – steers the drum programming across (but with greater subtlety) into techno territory.
- And finally Grosse and Saunderson collaborated on their Club Mix (FAC263R side A); a version similar in tone and approach to the 12″ Mix above but restructured differently again. It too starts on a layered but more stripped back instrumental intro, perfect for DJ-use, and in that regard is true to its mix name. A nice detail is the later breakdown to Sumner’s funky guitar. This, and the Hague Twelve Inch mix are the best ones – for different reasons and occasions – but all of them have great merit, and you can’t always say that for the remixes bundled with New Order’s single releases in the years ahead.
With my ‘record label hat’ on, I find Round & Round to be a fascinating case study. The band produces an ultra-cool, groove-laden, leftfield, electronic pop nugget; have it remixed brilliantly, and marketed with one of their best ever video clips; only for the song to chart outside the top-20, resulting in a spat amongst the label directors** – with Tony Wilson resigning as Chairman of Factory Records: FAC 253 – March 1989. How can you not love such an endearing shambles.
With my ‘fan hat’ on I’m just glad to enjoy such a great song. I loved it at the time, and still do. It makes me act like a child.
* Titled the 12″ Mix although its not the same as the main Twelve Inch, and only appeared on vinyl on what is referred to as the FAC263DJ promo 12″ release; although that catalogue number only appears on the vinyl’s side B matrix – the sleeve itself is marked FAC263. So there. Quite a few discographies out there have this all mixed up (no pun intended).
** It’s well documented that the band wanted to release Vanishing Point as a preferred single, and although I agree with Wilson that Round & Round was a strong option for a single, I also agree with Gretton & co that VP would have been an excellent choice. They should have gone with it as the 3rd single instead of Run.
P.S Wilson’s time ‘in the corner’ was brief but symbolic.
Available on: Technique