In The Dark
|Track||Album / Single|
|Almost||Electricity B-side (Factory)|
|Annex||Enola Gay B-side (Dindisc)|
|Sealand||Architecture & Morality|
|Navigation||Maid Of Orleans B-side (Dindisc)|
|The Romance Of The Telescope||Dazzle Ships|
|4-Neu||Genetic Engineering B-side (Virgin)|
|The Avenue||Locomotion B-side (Virgin)|
|(The Angels Keep Turning)|
The Wheels Of The Universe
|free single with
Contributor: Rob Morgan
“I don’t understand you guys – do you want to be Abba or Joy Division?”
Those were the words of Carol Wilson, the head of Dindisc – the subsidiary of Virgin Records which signed OMD in late 1979. That sentence perfectly sums up OMD’s early direction – they easily mixed melody with moodiness and electronic experimentation over the course of the early 80s. As time passed and record company pressure forced them into more commercial areas, this side of the band was slowly filtered out but still appeared from time to time. But it was partly this side of the band – the experimental and /or melancholy side – which drew me into their work and provided a link from their music to the work of their contemporaries (such as the Factory bands) and their influences (Eno, Kraftwerk, Neu!). So if your opinion of OMD is all perky electronic pop songs about quirky subjects – communication, electricity, historical religious figures and atomic bombs – then prepare to be surprised by some beguiling music.
OMD’s story is of course the story of the relationship between Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, two Wirral lads with a love of some of the odder musics which were on the edges of the scene as they were teenagers in the mid 70s. McCluskey has gone on record many times how seeing Kraftwerk live in Liverpool in 1975 was a life changing experience, he had seen the future and it was electronic. By 1978 Humphreys and McCluskey had been through a couple of local bands like the prog-rock Pegasus and the seven piece The Id before McCluskey joined another local band for a short period. This band was Dalek I Love You who were very different from the other nascent Liverpool bands by using synths, primitive drum machines and backing tapes. Although McCluskey only performed with DILY for a short period their philosophy rubbed off on him; the realisation that he and Humphreys could work as a duo using backing tapes, and that their more experimental ideas could still be brought into a musical context. After locating a four track tape machine (named Winston after the anti-hero of Orwell’s 1984) the duo worked on adapting old material and writing new material to suit their new format – McCluskey on bass and vocals, Humphreys on keyboards and vocals and Winston doing the rest across the four tracks of his reels of tape. They chose a deliberately daft name for their first gig at Eric’s in Liverpool in October ’78 supporting Joy Division – a month before the debuts by Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes at the same venue – and so Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark were birthed. They placed the Musicians’ Union “Keep Music Live” stickers on the spools of the reel-to-reel, just to wind people up.
A glimpse of their earliest work is available on the Live ’78 7 inch EP which was free with initial copies of their Organisation LP from 1980. This EP had four instrumentals which were part of their initial setlists and give some indication of how they must have sounded to a late 70s post punk audience. The music is intriguing – all found sound radio voices, primitive mono synths and organs, an eerie sense of beauty. Clearly OMD were on the vanguard of the UK lo-fi synth pioneers like The Normal, The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Thomas Leer and Robert Rental. (The live EP is available as extra tracks on the 2003 reissue of Organisation, which is on Spotify if you want to hear it – it is highly recommended)
Although they were a Liverpool band, OMD released their first single on Manchester’s Factory Records. They had sent a demo of two of their songs – Electricity and Almost – to Tony Wilson at Factory and although he wasn’t too impressed his wife insisted on playing it until it wormed its way under his skin. He was impressed enough to let them regularly play at the Factory Club, and during 1979 they performed on bills with other Factory bands like Joy Division and A Certain Ratio. OMD recorded both Electricity and Almost with Martin Hannett for their debut single on Factory but used their own recording of Electricity and Hannett’s Almost. It was the perfect combination – the bright electro-pop of Electricity and the moody melancholy of Almost. By the end of ’79 OMD had played as support to Gary Numan’s first major tour, signed to Virgin’s Dindisc offshoot and built their own studio “The Gramophone Suite” within spitting distance of Eric’s and The Cavern on Matthew Street in Liverpool.
OMD’s debut album was issued in February 1980 and while not a roaring success it was a consistent seller throughout the year, helped by an innovative sleeve design (from Factory designer Peter Saville, who would work on their sleeves until 1985) and a breakthrough hit single in Messages, rerecorded and issued in the Spring. OMD finally ditched the duo and tape recorder format, adding a live drummer and extra keyboard player to become a four piece band and toured regularly that year. Their first TV appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test is worth noting. Also on that show were ZZ Top who were impressed by OMD and their use of synthesisers, and this prompted Billy Gibbons to start to incorporate synthesisers into their work (leading to their multi-platinum Eliminator LP) and also to adopt a version of McCluskey’s unique dancing style for the accompanying videos!
Nine months after their debut album OMD issued Organisation, a leap forward for the band. The album’s cover was a beautiful picture of a mountain lake at dusk with storm clouds approaching, and the album sounded like that too. The album opened with Enola Gay which sounded chirpy but lyrically was about the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, which was named Enola Gay in tribute to the pilot’s mother. The rest of the album was less cheery than that. Stanlow is a seven minute hymn to an oil refinery, VCL XI is experimental yet tuneful, but there are dark clouds on the horizon. The suicide of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in May 1980 affected OMD and Curtis’ ghost hangs over Statues, the closer to side one. The song is one of OMD’s most beautiful moments, graceful, sad and resigned; the synths surge and swell while McCluskey gives a highly emotional performance and towards the end of the song he sings, “I can’t imagine how this ever came to be” – twice. The first time is full-on emotional, he really can’t believe it. The second time he’s quieter, more subdued, accepting. And of course there’s personal reasons why I love the song – it was the soundtrack to my first crush when I was 13. But even without that, Statues is special, OMD at their most melancholy. Annex – Enola Gay’s B-side – is peculiar. It starts out like a normal pop song – flute-like synth melody, simple drum beat and handclaps, but as it progresses the synth bass pulse turns odd, the synths turn dissonant, the regular handclaps turn random, it all goes weird around the edges until the bass pulse overwhelms everything and the song stops dead.
The success of Enola Gay gave them the confidence to experiment further in 1981. Their third album Architecture & Morality was distinct from other electro-pop albums and singles of the era because of this experimentation. They used tapes of a choir tuning up as the basis of chords for a top 3 single – Souvenir. They fed all their synths through guitar amps and mic-ed them up to get a more distinctive ‘airy’ sound. They took an instrument heavily associated with prog rock – the Mellotron – and placed it in another top 5 single – Maid Of Orleans. And they wrote two songs about Joan Of Arc and got them both into the top 5. They even had a loud jangling electric guitar on the opening song just to fuck with the perception of them as an electronic band. And at the centre of the album – the heart of the album – is Sealand. Named after a small town on the Wirral peninsula – across the way from Stanlow – this seven minute epic is a sound picture of a post-industrial north, the clanking of the chains in a deserted dockyard, the fog sirens in the distance, the lapping waves washing in from the Mersey, the crashing noise of industrialism followed by the uneasy calm at the close. And there’s enormous mellotron swells, and a few vague words, and it all works beautifully.
Architecture & Morality was a hugely successful album, selling over a million copies in the UK and also sold well across Europe. It almost broke the band though; the Maid Of Orleans single in early ’82 had intriguing B-sides which hinted at unease at their position. Navigation was OMD at their most orchestral – huge Mellotron swirls over a martial drumbeat, plus strange noises – a recording they’d made playing on radios in 1975, you can even hear a dog barking in the distance if you listen closely enough. Of All The Things We’ve Made was a strange valediction to their career – unsure of their future direction, a jangling guitar and lonesome piano melody underscore McCluskey’s uncertainty, “The times it’s worked before today…”. If OMD had stopped at this point in their career they would be better remembered as electro-pop pioneers.
However, they continued in the only way they knew – through experimentation. It had worked before so why shouldn’t it again?
Utilising more new equipment – an Emulator, one of the first sampling keyboards – they created sound collages of speaking clocks, the sound of submarines, all kinds of strange new sounds. They also hit writers block, using two “A&M” era b-sides – both The Romance Of The Telescope and Of All The Things We’ve Made – and an old song from The Id. What new songs they had were political – Genetic Engineering – or concerned with communication – Telegraph, Radio Waves. Throw all of these influences in and Dazzle Ships was born. Issued in the spring of 1983 to a very different climate to their previous album, it bombed quite spectacularly. The comeback single Genetic Engineering – all sharp angles, toy piano clanks and declaimed vocals – stalled at number 20 in the charts, the follow-up Telegraph barely grazed the top 40, the album was misunderstood, critically savaged and sold poorly and was soon forgotten. It is only in the last decade or so that Dazzle Ships has been reassessed and given good notices, seen as a harbinger of Radiohead’s zeitgeist munching OK Computer. As for me, it was the first album I bought from a record shop with my own money on 30th April 1983 so it was life-changing and perhaps it’s hard for me to be objective about it. And meanwhile hidden away on the B-side of Genetic Engineering was 4-Neu, a tribute to German motorik Krautrock pioneers Neu! It is simple – a sparse heartbeat drum pattern, a bass synth drone and a piano melody with basic lyrics but it somehow captures the mood of Neu!’s more serene moments like Leb Wohl and – ahem – Seeland.
Virgin were clearly unhappy with this direction for the band, and possibly the band were too, as over the next few years their output would become more pop-oriented, and therefore blander, happier, more chart-bound and less experimental. They invested in a state of the art Fairlight Computer Instrument – a hefty sampling and sequencing tool which inspired them again. Talking Loud And Clear would be the first song they tried to write on it; a top 20 hit during the summer of ’84. They still found time for occasional journeys into pure sound though. The Avenue was an extra track on the 12 inch of Locomotion, a song whose bright pop exterior hid the fact it was about the rights of the disabled, and returned OMD to the top 5 in April ’84. The Avenue sounded like an exercise in writing around a sample – in this case the sound of a train on a track, the relentless slow rhythm providing the bedrock for the song, until halfway through huge clouds of orchestral sweeps and speeding up white noise threaten to swamp it (and always caused the stylus on my Sanyo music centre to jump) before returning to the main song, and as the ending drifts McLuskey whistles the melody quietly to himself as the train rhythm returns, in a dub-like flanged and reverbed haze. It was as if they were saying, “See, we can still be interesting.” Their Junk Culture album may have sounded bright but hid a dark heart in songs like White Trash and Love And Violence, but their strangest moment came with (The Angels Keep Turning) The Wheels Of The Universe – issued as a free one-sided 7 inch single with the first 10,000 copies of Junk Culture. This is sampledelia ’84 style – mellotron choirs, big drums, synth chords, those sampled vocal tones that would end up smothering Shout by Tears For Fears – everything a Fairlight sampler could do thrown into musique concrete mixer. Compare it to contemporary Art Of Noise records like Beat Box or Close (To The Edit) and see how OMD only lacked the gloss of Trevor Horn’s production to compete.
But still they chose pop songs over collages. By 1985’s Crush, they were making widescreen soul-inflected pop like So In Love with an eye on the market in America, yet could still create something as strange and beautiful as the album’s title track. Based on four snippets of Japanese advertising jingles, OMD created a strange sound-picture of a rainy late night in Tokyo, McCluskey exhausted, at the end of his tether, barely capable of whispering, “I can’t stand this fucking rain”, as Graham Weir – part of the brass section brought in after Junk Culture – plays a mournful freeform trombone solo. Magical.
Those words “brass section” should have set alarm bells ringing. What did OMD – an electronic band – need a brass section for? But it was the mid-eighties, soul and authenticity was in, and America was calling.
From there it was all downhill. I can’t say it better than this line from Bob Stanley’s excellent book Yeah Yeah Yeah: “By the time they broke America, with the fortuitious placing of the mediocre If You Leave at the climax of John Hughes’ Pretty In Pink they were just another eighties synth duo. No more songs about power stations, no distinguishing marks.”
It wasn’t quite that bad. The experimental side of OMD had disappeared but they were still capable of great music. I’ve been deliberately choosing the more experimental or melancholy side of their music, but could easily pick another top 10 of the pure pop gems scattered across their albums and B-sides – songs as great as She’s Leaving, Motion And Heart, Bloc Bloc Bloc, Her Body In My Soul, Flame Of Hope, Garden City … Even when the creative nucleus of Humphreys and McCluskey split in the late 80s and OMD became a McCluskey solo project they were still capable of greatness – Walk Tall from Sugar Tax is minimal, clipped and beautiful, and their final album Universal – issued to general indifference at the height of Britpop – contained some of their best and most pertinent material. The classic four piece lineup of OMD reformed in 2007 and have issued two fine albums of new material since – last year’s English Electric being a fine updating of the “Dazzle Ships” aesthetic of pop songs mixed with experiments. And they can still put on one hell of a live show – and may I wish a speedy recovery to their drummer Mal Holmes who became very ill last year.
And yet there’s something special about the early music of OMD – an innocence, an attitude of “What does this do? Can we try this?”, from the days when it seemed anything was possible. Hit pop songs about martyred saints, genetics and atom bombs. We’ll never see those days again.