Originally released as a single off the Brotherhood album on Nov. 3, 1986, New Order‘s “Bizarre Love Triangle” was an unparalleled head-rush of a synth-pop song, combining classic soul melodies and borderline-gospel lyrical reverence with layers upon layers of spellbinding electronic hooks, crafting an incandescent jewel of mid-’80s computer love in the process. In the three decades since, the song has come to stand not only as a New Order fan favorite, but one of the best-loved alternative songs of the entire decade. Here are 10 of the reasons the song has endured as a classic.
1. The title. Like few other rock bands of its stature, New Order eschewed titling its songs after its most obvious or oft-repeated lyrics, instead naming them like they were impressionist paintings: “Ceremony,” “Everything’s Gone Green,” “Your Silent Face.” As in all those examples, the phrase “Bizarre Love Triangle” never appears in the song it titles — even the word “love” is nowhere to be found — but still brilliantly mirrors and illuminates its content, tying the song’s delirious sonics and dumbfounded lyrics together in a three-word summation of simultaneously thrilling and terrifying romantic confusion. (The fact that it abbreviates to BLT is pretty fun, too.)
2. The drum launch. Different edits of “Bizarre Love Triangle” begin in different ways — more on that in a bit — but each of them shoots off into turbo-pop hyper-space the same way: with a pummeling 13-note drum pattern that interrupts all the synthy sparkle and bursts through with the panic and over-excitement of a heart arrhythmia. Before the vocals even come in, your internal circuitry already feels the overload.
3. The opening line. “Every time I think of you / I feel shot right through with a bolt of blue.” New Order frontman Bernard Sumner never got much respect as a lyricist — especially when compared to the gothic poetry of Ian Curtis, the band’s leader in its previous incarnation as Joy Division — but his ability to capture the essence of an emotion in a single lyric was singular among his new-wave peers. “Shot right through with a bolt of blue” is an image as evocative, puzzling and unforgettable as any of the band’s Peter Saville-designed album art, and the way Sumner spits out “shot” — as if struck while singing — makes it particularly indelible.
4. The non-instrumentation. New Order spent much of the ’80s fascinated with the idea of turning itself over to the machines — if only to have a song available for encores that could play without its involvement — and by the time the band got to “Bizarre,” every element in the song was sequenced besides the vocals and some bass. Rather than rob the song of its humanity, the flooding beds of Fairlight-programmed synths and orchestral hits just come off sounding like the distracting chaos of a cluttered brain, with Sumner’s besieged vocal at the middle trying to make sense of it all.
5. The pre-chorus. The most magical moment of the song’s overwhelming production comes in between the first verse and first chorus, as the cascading keys tiptoe around swirling faux-strings, which coil tighter and tighter before ultimately exploding into the refrain. Most bands would never risk delaying their chorus with such an interlude, but it’s such a beautiful synth mini-ballet that it’s impossible to imagine the song without it.
6. The chorus. Of course, if you remember “Bizarre Love Triangle” for one thing, it’s that wallop of a chorus, hopping up and down the octave: “Every time I see you falling / I get down on my knees and pray.” The quasi-religious wording gives it echoes of Al Green, and the melody is classic Motown, but the imagery of it is vague enough that it doesn’t break the song’s enigmatic spell with lyrical or musical cliché. The pacing of the phrasing is similarly inspired; alternately awestruck and rushed, never comfortable but always enthralled.
7. The verbal brevity. Though the song itself isn’t particularly short, the lyrical content is, in most versions, fairly sparse: just two verses and two choruses. It’s a subtle but crucial element of the song’s brilliance — it never risks over-explaining itself, or repeating itself into redundancy, rightly confident in the fact that its words will be bouncing around your head for hours to come anyway without any extra help from them.
8. The different edits. It’s sort of tough to discuss “Bizarre Love Triangle” as a fixed entity because there have been so many different famous versions of the song: the four-minute album version from parent album Brotherhood, the three-minute 7″ version most frequently played on radio, the Shep Pettibone-extended seven-minute version collected on the band’s famed singles compilation Substance. And each sibling version has its own charms: even the extra-twinkly 1994 re-release from (The Best of) New Order maybe has the best ending of the bunch. (Don’t forget about the video version, either, with its stupefyingly non-sequitorial dialogue interlude — “I don’t believe in reincarnation because I refuse to come back as a bug or as a rabbit!”)
9. The Coverability. New Order did a bunch of versions of “Bizarre Love Triangle,” but the rest of the musical world did far more. The song’s been covered by everyone from industrial rock denizens Stabbing Westward to teen pop/rock hitmakers Echosmith to singer-songwriter Frente! to synth-rock superstars The Killers to, uh, Scarlett Johansson’s band, and dozens of others. And though none of these renditions could ever rival New Order’s original as the song’s definitive version, they’re all at least pretty good — as dressed-up as “Bizarre” is in the production trappings of its era, the musical core of it is so strong that it’s virtually impossible to ruin.
10. The lack of commercial success. Remarkably, as well as the song has endured, “Bizarre Love Triangle” was never actually a hit. The song failed to chart in the U.S. during its initial 1986 release — it did hit No. 98 on the Billboard Hot 100 upon re-release in the mid-’90s — and fared little better in the band’s home country, peaking at a marginal No. 56 in the U.K. In fact, the most commercial success the song ever had in this country was through Frente!’s acoustic cover, which climbed to No. 49 on the Hot 100 in 1994, and made the top 10 on the Modern Rock chart the same year.
But the song living on, to the point where it still gets covered fairly regularly 30 years after its release — despite never having actually been a smash in real time — just speaks to its insidious genius. It may have outpaced the rest of the alternative and pop worlds in 1986, to its own detriment, but at least we caught up with it eventually, and now we’re really never letting it go. Three decades from now, it’ll probably still be bringing us to our knees.