‘Goodbye Blue Monday’: the curious history of the best-selling 12-inch vinyl of all time.
By Millie Granger
Maintaining a successful band after the death of the lead singer is no easy feat, yet following the tragic suicide of Ian Curtis in the spring of 1980, that is exactly what Manchester synth-rock group New Order managed to do. The three previous members of Joy Division—Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris—were joined by keyboardist and singer Gillian Gilbert, enhancing their already impressive musical prowess as they transitioned to form New Order. Continuing the legacy of Joy Division, New Order joined forces with iconic northern label Factory Records, rapidly ascending as one of the label's most eminent bands. Releasing ten studio albums across their illustrious career, the band is primarily recognised for its 1983 single ‘Blue Monday’, an amalgamation of electronica, rock, and pop that has since become a landmark in dance music history. This article will explore the intriguing narrative behind ‘Blue Monday’, telling the story of how New Order came to make the best-selling 12-inch single of all time, and how they lost up to £100,000 in the process.
It is difficult to source the exact origin of the iconic single’s name, which is never actually mentioned within the track. The best attested claim comes from the band’s drummer, Stephen Morris, who according to a 2013 article by Dave Simpson for The Guardian, was inspired by an illustration in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, referencing the invention of the washing machine to improve the lives of housewives. Besides the seemingly random song title, ‘Blue Monday’ is largely known for its slightly disjointed melody, which can be attributed to its early implementation of new music technology such as the synthesiser and sampler. The fragmented experience for listeners was not an intentional device, Gilbert explained in a 2023 interview with Music Week: ‘The synthesiser melody is slightly out of sync with the rhythm. This was an accident. It was my job to program the entire song from beginning to end, which had to be done manually by inputting every note. I had the sequence all written down on loads of A4 paper Sellotaped together the length of the recording studio, like a huge knitting pattern… but I accidentally left a note out, which skewed the melody.’ Adding to the comical creation of one of the most celebrated singles in British music history, Gilbert also discussed the role of flatulence in forming the innovative sound heard on the single. ‘We’d bought ourselves an Emulator 1, an early sampler, and used it to add snatches of choir-like voices from Kraftwerk’s album Radioactivity, as well as recordings of thunder. Bernard and Stephen had worked out how to use it by spending hours recording farts.’
Kurt Vonnegut, Goodbye Blue Monday, 1973. Illustration in Breakfast of Champions, 1973.
After recording the song in the Britannia Row studio in Islington, it was up to Factory Records’ co-founder and graphic designer, Peter Saville, to design a fitting cover for the synth-pop classic. In an interview with MOJO Magazine in 2005, Saville recounted the memory of visiting New Order at their Cheetham Hill rehearsal room, and finding inspiration in the ‘fascinating’ equipment used to create their tracks. He was particularly influenced by the floppy disk, a data storage device that became popular with the influx of personal computers in the 80s and 90s, which he felt reflected the emerging digital age that the record is set within. ‘I asked [Steven Morris] if I could have [the disk] and drove back to London listening to “Blue Monday” on a cassette but staring at this floppy disk. I knew there was an intrinsic link between the disk and their new direction.’ This created the foundations for the groundbreaking design of the 12-inch record, which utilised die cutting technology to carve three separate holes into the top layer of the record, mimicking that of the floppy disk.
Peter Saville, Blue Monday (front and back sleeve), 1983. Images taken from https://www.furiomagazine.com
The coloured blocks running alongside the record further elaborate on this digital-era narrative of ‘Blue Monday’. Saville, who had previously garnered acclaim for his iconic design for Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, sought to create a cover that reflected the essence of the song. He used a system of coded colours, deciphered through a specialised wheel key, to replace the single’s title. In an interview with BBC Radio 4 in 2019, Saville linked this to the original inspiration of the floppy disk, explaining: ‘the colour alphabet came from the fact that I understood the floppy disk contained coded information and I wanted to impart the title in a coded form—therefore I converted the alphabet into a code using colours.’ Therefore, by following the front and back of the sleeve and reading the combination in descending order, the colours reveal: ‘FAC 73 BLUE MONDAY AND THE BEACH NEW ORDER’.
Once released, the single gained immediate traction, owing to a combination of its groundbreaking electronic sound and innovative cover art. However, this radical design would also play key a role in the reputed loss of thousands of pounds for Factory Records.
Peter Saville, Power, Corruption & Lies, 1983. Image taken from https://www.radiox.co.uk
As it turns out, to die cut three separate holes into each sleeve is expensive. This, in addition to the cover’s vibrant colours and silver inner-sleeve encasing the record, made it considerably more cost-intensive to manufacture than a regular vinyl cover. Bassist Peter Hook expanded on this problem, explaining to Yahoo Entertainment in 2023: ‘the sleeve unfortunately cost 10p more than the record could earn, so every time we sold a copy of “Blue Monday”, we were losing 10p.’ The commercial success of ‘Blue Monday’ could not have been anticipated by anyone involved, and this genuine sense of surprise underscores the failure in considering the production cost. Because of this, Factory Records is alleged to have lost around £50,000 to £100,000 across the course of its release, according to Hook’s 2023 Yahoo Entertainment interview. The story has since become an emblematic, yet unintentional, tale of art triumphing over commerce in the music world.
Placed against the backdrop of Joy Division’s heartbreaking demise, New Order exceeded expectations by not only continuing the band’s legacy, but also putting their own unique stamp on British music history. The band’s blending of musical styles—combining electronic synth- pop with new-wave rock—gave rise to its iconic single ‘Blue Monday’, a song that was more than just its melody: it was a representation of the times. The band's pioneering spirit, along with Peter Saville’s design genius, inadvertently placed creative innovation before monetary gain, a concept unheard of in the music industry today. It was an oversight, yes—but it also illustrated the perfect storm of events which led ‘Blue Monday’ to becoming the best-selling 12-inch single of all time. As history would have it, the single stands as a testament to the resilience, creativity, and sometimes costly pursuit of artistic authenticity in the ever-evolving world of music.