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bernard sumner and johnny marr first met in 1984, when mike pickering invited the smiths guitarist to play on his band quando quango’s song atom rock, which the new order frontman was co-producing. mike and johnny knew each other through hairdresser/dj andrew berry, who worked in the basement of the haçienda club in manchester, where pickering dj’d, and with whom johnny briefly lived on palatine road (where factory records was based). despite achieving mainstream success with the smiths, sumner at first did not recognise marr, and both were surprised to discover that they had several musical touchstones in common.

johnny marr: “we didn’t know each other that well socially back then. we just knew each other in passing like a lot of musicians in manchester. i remember at the time he was surprised that i had a knowledge of new york dance music and i was surprised that he knew about early rolling stones singles and neil young album tracks.”

bernard sumner   johnny marr
1991 portraits by andrew catlin.

marr and sumner met again at the end of new order’s 1987 tour of america; bernard initially wanted johnny to contribute guitar to a solo album he was planning, but a shared enthusiasm for electronic dance music soon became the impetus to start a new project together.

johnny marr: “when we first formed we were propelled by this idea of being a new group and having new frontiers. and also the times were very, very creative in manchester, so there was a whole atmosphere around it. to me, it was never bizarre that i ended up forming a group with bernard — he was one of the only other english guitar players in the eighties who was doing anything passionate. the reason we were able to work together was we were both into making music that’s emotive.”

bernard sumner: “the idea was to come up with a new type of group with two members who stayed the same and two or one member who changed, so you get a different chemistry with each album.”

johnny marr: “but electronic will always be, as everybody knows, just bernard and i.”

electronic in 1991

the first outside name to collaborate with the duo was pet shop boys singer neil tennant, who heard of marr and sumner’s budding partnership through pets sleeve designer mark farrow and got in touch with them in mid-1989. tennant co-wrote and sang backing vocals on the band’s first single getting away with it, a top 20 hit in december 1989 which sold half a million copies and received glowing reviews from the press.

johnny marr: “we got together as a friendship around the music rather than the other way round. we were naïve when we started, we honestly didn’t anticipate the attention we’d get. it was only when the media picked up that it was me, bernard and neil tennant that it began to snowball. when we first started out we were talking about putting out records on white label on factory.”

in the new year marr and sumner began recording their debut album at the former’s home studio in manchester. the sessions were punctuated by two shows in los angeles in support of depeche mode, which featured pet shop boys guesting on two tracks. electronic debuted eight new songs, all of which appeared on their self-titled album the following may on new order’s label factory records. heralded by the top 10 single get the message, the lp featured ten concise, dynamic tracks that balanced effusive dance beats with gritty, aggressive guitars. the album shot to number 2 in the uk and sold a quarter of a million copies in america.

electronic (1991)
electronic (1991).

bernard sumner: “you’ve got to deliver the goods. we were aware of the pressure to not make a doodly, improvisational jazz odyssey-type record but we wanted the challenge of making a commercial album.”

johnny marr: “i think this album worked really well, there’s some great songs on there. people assumed bernard turned me into a synth-head on that album; the truth is that i cut out some of my guitar parts when he wasn’t looking.”

johnny and bernard performed on the second day of the cities in the park festival in august 1991, and played three more shows in paris, glasgow and london that december. after this period of sustained activity, sumner went back to new order and marr worked on his second lp with the the, but they regrouped halfway through recording to consolidate their commercial success with the top 10 single disappointed, another collaboration with neil tennant.

electronic with neil tennant
with neil tennant in 1992.

following the disintegration of new order, marr and sumner resumed their project in 1994, hooking up with former kraftwerk member karl bartos — recommended to the pair by a mutual friend in berlin — to write and record a new album. eventually released in july 1996 on parlophone, raise the pressure featured six songs composed with the music legend plus seven more by the core duo; five other songs were released as b-sides. a mix of guitar-based songs and synth-dominated dance tracks, the album had a slicker, thicker feel than the eponymous first lp.

johnny marr: “musically we meet around eighties electro. this album’s a whole load of stuff we wanted to get out of our systems. it’s got a lot of us as teenagers in it without being particularly retro.”

bernard sumner: “apart from using different equipment to update our sound, the biggest difference with the album is that we recorded it during the daytime. for the last one we’d start at four in the afternoon, work through to six in the morning, and get completely fucked up every night. this time, we were barely fucked up at all.”

raise the pressure (1996)
raise the pressure (1996).

with new order on hold and marr’s tenure with the the at an end, electronic became the main concern of bernard and johnny; marr was reluctant to tour raise the pressure so in early 1998 they set about recording their third album. twisted tenderness (1999) was an accomplished lp, brimming with crunchy, sometimes opaque layers of guitars, and featured at least one classic in the throbbing title track.

bernard sumner: “this album is more about what’s going on out there rather than what’s going on in here, my head.”

johnny marr: “on raise the pressure we were subconsciously aware of the attention we were going to get and then we in turn put too much attention on the record and took too long doing it. we couldn’t do that again — spend two years making a record — and this album is all the better for that realisation.”

bernard sumner: “we basically wrote the album on two guitars, either at my house or at johnny’s. then we’d get ged lynch and jimi goodwin in and play them the tracks as a very simple demo, then we’d all play it as a band. we’d rehearse it two or three times, then record it. in the past we’d have gone into the studio, switched the computer on, fired up the samplers and synthesisers and started writing from that angle, so obviously the change in methodology gives you a different sound. but also, getting other heads on it rather than our own has had a big influence.”

twisted tenderness (1999)
twisted tenderness (1999).

johnny marr: “it wasn’t like we weren’t pleased with what we’d done in the past. we just felt it was time for a change and found people that we could relate to personally, as well as musically, which is really important.”

despite the quality of the album, and an excellent lead-off single in vivid, the album did less well than its predecessors, with a second single (and its two b-sides) shelved in the united kingdom. after promoting the album, bernard sumner returned to a rejuvenated new order and johnny marr toured with his new band the healers; the pair would not reunite in public until january 2006, when they both played at the evening news arena in aid of manchester’s christie hospital. a best of followed in september.

bernard sumner: “for me, electronic was about taking time out to assess myself as a musician. ever since 1977 and joy division, i had been writing and gigging non-stop. just for a change, i wanted to drive the bus instead of being dragged along by it.”

johnny marr: “the idea with electronic is we were formed very much as an anti-group. both of us had obviously been in groups and we knew from first-hand experience the great things and some of the downsides about being in a band. so in a certain way, electronic was almost like a refuge for the two of us to still be able to make music, be intense about music, and a little bit pioneering in our way.”