If I were to make a definitive top ten list of my favorite songs, I’d probably go mad because making me choose ten of my favorite songs is like making me choose my favorite fingers. Last time I tried to choose my favorite songs, I got what – 101 songs? I didn’t even try to break them down into a ranking order because that would have taken years of deliberation.
Regardless, I can easily say that there’s two songs that would certainly find themselves in my top ten. The first, and what I always call my favorite song of all time, is Sometimes by My Bloody Valentine. The second – though I’m unsure where in the top ten it might rank, is Ceremony by New Order (or Joy Division, depending on who you ask).
Embarrassingly enough, I didn’t hear Ceremony until 2001. Once more, the first version of this song I heard was not the original – it was a cover. I remember the female vocalist singing “break them down, break them down” at the end of the song. It was magical. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So, with that in mind, let’s compare the original Ceremony to several covers.
Original – Joy Division / New Order (1980/1981)
What’s with the multiple artists for the orignal? If you’re not a music nerd like me, you might not know that New Order was a band composed of the remaining members of Joy Division after the suicide of Ian Curtis (with the addition of keyboardist Gillian Gilbert). Ceremony was one of the last songs written by 0803478. While Joy Division played and recorded this song in concert a couple times, the vocals were never quite audible and it felt like half a song. The first proper studio recordings happened in 1981 after the formation of New Order.
Like I said – Ceremony was one of the last songs written by Ian Curtis, which makes the song so much sadder. Looking at the lyrics, the ceremony in which the song describes is no doubt a funeral through the eyes of the deceased. Through some eyes, Ceremony might be considered a suicide letter by Curtis.
Ian McCulloch version (1986)
Echo and the Bunnymen front man, Ian McCulloch did a version of Ceremony that’s more collaboration than cover, as New Order was the backing band. For that this reason, I almost don’t want to include this version. Still – I just can’t ignore the vocals of McCulloch. The vocals strike me as being similar to Ian Curtis’ vocals. The two Ians certainly have (had) similar voices, but it sounds like McCulloch emphasized these similarities with this version of Ceremony.
Because of these vocals, the McCulloch version of Ceremony becomes not a cover, not a collaboration, but a tribute to Joy Division (and Curtis). We’ll see a lot of this in the other cover.
The Echoing Green Version (2001)
Remember when I said the first version of Ceremony I heard was a cover? This was that cover. I remember getting an early release of this CD (I might have been the first person in Portland to get this CD). I really didn’t pay attention to the content – just heard a song that seemingly sounded like a “pump you up” song.
The Echoing Green might best be considered an electronic rock band – with heavy synthesizers coupled with rock guitars. This is the style they bring with them to this version of Ceremony. the electronic rock sound builds a lot of energy, and this version of Ceremony makes you want to dance. Considering the song is a dirge – this kind of disturbs me.
Maybe the high energy of this version was the intention – maybe this was just an unfortunate accident – but the instrumentation and genre of The Echoing Green’s Ceremony gives us the wrong message. I still love this version mind you.
Xiu Xiu Version (2002)
Xiu Xiu, like the Echoing Green, gives us an electronic rock version of Ceremony. However, Xiu Xiu’s version seems a lot more harsh and brash. This cover brings us a LOT of noise – some of it indistinguishable. Is that a guitar? A synth? Some unknown instrument? We really can’t tell, and it starts to get annoying.
The vocals match the instrumentation – they’re loud and high pitched – kind of annoying, especially during the chorus! Of course, that’s the point. These loud, brash, and annoying vocals imitate crying, weeping, and sadness. Let’s not forget – Ceremony is essentially a first person dirge. Xiu Xiu’s annoying version of Ceremony captures the pain, the grief, and the anger of the original.
Radiohead Version (2007)
Radiohead gives us a pretty straight forward cover – reminiscent of the New Order and Joy Division’s versions. Having said that – there’s a sort of passion in how Radiohead plays Ceremony.
I don’t really care for Radiohead, but I have never insulted their musical ability. Every single member of the band knows how to play their instruments masterfully well. Radiohead demonstrates their musical expertise in their version of Ceremony. So where’s the passion? The very fact that Radiohead plays the song perfectly shows the passion. Radiohead knows Ceremony is bigger than they are – and they treat the song with respect and with reverence. Honestly hearing the Radiohead version of Ceremony and seeing the prostate approach to this song – it makes me gain a greater respect for Radiohead.
Chromatics Version (2012)
Chromatics gives us a third electronic version of Ceremony, but instead of a rock flare, we get a more dream pop feel to the song. Present, of course, is that tinny guitar part that echoes throughout every other version of the Ceremony. The tempo of the Chromatics version is slightly slower than other versions.
The synths Chromatics use in their version of Ceremony sound almost dreamlike. We feel like we’re drifting to sleep – maybe for an hour, maybe for the night, or…maybe for eternity. We get a simulation of what it might be like to drift off into the darkness of death.
Day Wave (2015)
Day Wave’s version of Ceremony, much like Radiohead’s, is a pretty straightforward cover. There’s not a whole lot of experimentation. While Day Wave doesn’t strive as hard as Radiohead to get the exact notes and sounds in their instrumentation, they do a decent enough job.
So why do we need a Day Wave cover? The vocals! Sure, Day Wave’s only member (Jackson Phillips) doesn’t even attempt to sound like Ian Curtis or Bernard Summer. Instead, Phillips harmonizes with himself, and the results are ghastly. We feel as though a choir of ghosts is singing Ceremony. In a sense, the song was from the point of view of a ghost – so I’d say Day Wave’s cover of Ceremony really hits the mark well.
Wussy Version (2016)
Indie rock legends Wussy give us a version of Ceremony with a little bit of Xiu Xiu, and a little bit of Day Wave. The results are almost transcendental.
Wussy as a band has two co-vocalists (Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker). In their version of Ceremony, Wussy blends these vocals together, much like Day Wave blends vocals. However, while Day Wave only has a male vocalist, the blending of both a male and a female vocalist adds more of an otherworldly shrieking sound – like that of a tortured soul.
Wussy’s Ceremony also features a lot of loud, noisy guitars, especially during the chorus. These guitars shriek and yell and make you want to cry at times. Unlike Xiu Xiu’s version, however, we don’t get that over the top, almost annoying feel to this wall of sound. Wussy’s guitars are a bit more palatable, but still get the pain and the anger of the song out to the listener. Maybe that’s a better way of approaching it – maybe that’s not. That’s really up to the listener to decide. Regardless, Wussy’s version of Ceremony gives me chills.
The covers of Ceremony – let’s break them down.
Firstly I’ll state there is not a bad cover on this list. All these covers have their merit – and as I break them down, I realize my decisions are subjective. Having said that – there’s two covers I want to throw out immediately: The Echoing Green Version and the Radiohead version.
The Radiohead version, while passionate, is, like I said, a straightforward cover. The Echoing Green Cover, while energetic, seems to just miss the point. I really don’t think The Echoing Green does this on purpose – but the final results speak for themselves.
Let’s talk about the Day Wave version. Yes, the Day Wave adds a ghastly feel, and that gives a lot to the song. Though as I said before, aside from the vocals, the Day Wave version is pretty straightforward as far as covers go.
The Xiu Xiu version of the song feels annoying – and while that adds to the song, it also detracts. You have to be in a certain mood for the Xiu Xiu version, or you just might not get it. Again, this might be subjective, but I feel like most people would go for a more palatable version – at least most of the time.
So which version of Ceremony wins?
We’ll go ahead and toss out the Ian McCulloch version, as I said that was more of a tribute than a cover. Besides, using New Order as the backing band gives it an unfair advantage.
So that leaves us with the original studio recording by New Order, the Chromatics version, and the Wussy version. Really a tough decision as comparing the three songs is a case of apples and oranges. All three have their merits, and strengths, and all three, when we break them down, feel like totally different songs. Having said that – we get the feeling from the Wussy and the Chromatics versions that they’re doing their covers as tributes. Can a tribute be better than the original, sure. However, considering the subject matter – and the death of Ian Curtis, we somehow feel like giving the “win” to anything but the studio version – by those that new Curtis well, seems almost sacrilegious. So there you have it – the best version of Ceremony, according to my subjective opinion: The New Order version.