best sold 12-inch ever: Blue Monday

Last week, the ‘definite’ edition of New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies was released. Thirty-seven years ago the first single of the recording session wasn’t included on the album. Blue Monday went on to become the best-selling 12-inch of all time. Three million copies were sold.

This is mainly due to the song itself, which developed into a dance classic during the eighties. Blue Monday is still part of many post-punk, techno or electro DJ sets. At a recent edition of an electronic music festival in Amsterdam, I stopped counting after twenty times.

Why is Blue Monday so successful?

Most importantly, the song is ‘designed’ very well. The band was influenced in writing by three important older pieces of music: ‘Dirty Talk’ by Klein + M.B.O. (ARRANGEMENT), ‘Our Love’ by Donna Summer (BEAT) and Kraftwerk’s album ‘Radioaktivität’ (HERE and HERE). Also, Peter Hook’s bassline was influenced by Ennio Morricone’s ‘For A Few Dollars More’ (BASSLINE, thanks Charles van Lieshout for pointing me to this). The end result bridges the gap between seventies disco and the early house and techno of the later eighties. Blue Monday became a hit on the dance floors in Chicago and Detroit where house and techno were born.

In the end, the song lasted seven and a half minutes. Ridiculously long for a single and too long for a 7-inch single. Hence the larger format. In 1988 a version of just over three minutes was released. It’s not the real thing. Of course.

Not only the music is a design icon.

The cover that Peter Saville designed is just as iconic. At the time, Saville was the permanent designer of Factory Records, New Order’s record label. The graphic designer already had a design classic to his name: the cover of the Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division’s debut album. After the suicide of singer Ian Curtis, the band renamed itself New Order. With Blue Monday New Order left the post-punk and new wave. This metamorphosis was perfectly captured by Saville: the cover represents a floppy disk, the storage medium that slowly penetrated the living room at the time. A year before that, the Commodore 64 had entered the market. The mechanical character of Blue Monday expressed these developments.

Saville told British newspaper The Guardian in 2013 that he immediately understood the song instinctively: “It sounded like something the equipment could play itself.”

Saville chose not to use text. Each colour on the side of the cover represents a letter. Those who bought the album Power, Corruption & Lies a few months later, could decode it with a colour wheel that Saville put on the back. The lack of title and performer gives the 12inch a mysterious look. And then there’s that oversized floppy disk appearance (typically 8- or 5.25-inch in size) that makes the design extra exciting.

Two design classics united in one object. Rumour has it that record company Factory was not happy with that. The production cost of the 12inch was higher than the retail price. So: the more popular, the greater the loss. The label survived, so that must have been just a rumour.

Further digging
Dave Simpson (2013). “New Order’s Gillian Gilbert and designer Peter Saville on Blue Monday”. The Guardian. Monday, February 11. (link)
Eric Klotz (2012). ‘Data Visualization Reinterpreted: The Story of Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” Album Design’. (video)
Matthew Robertson (2006). Factory Records: The Complete Graphic Album. San Fransisco: Chronicle Books.

By theo

neo-accelerationist (nX) | design and media sociologist | tells stories about alternative futures