rhetor has been back in touch again from Canada with what I think is a great piece on a band that were much better in their day than many have given them credit…..and a band that was the firsy ‘synth’ act I ever caught live at the Glasgow Apollo on 10 November 1980.
According to good old Wikipedia, “The Quietus magazine editor John Doran once remarked: “Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are not one of the best synth bands ever: they are one of the best bands ever.”
Yes, I figure some TVV readers will say that is putting the case a little strongly, but I really think it would be a dreadful shame if people limited their listening to the first few “experimental” singles that date from the period of their Kraftwerkesque sound and the days of their Peter Saville and Factory Records association, and write the band off as having “sold out” around the time the film Pretty In Pink came out with its chart-topping If You Leave single.
The band itself laughs off the success of this song, by the way, noting that it was written literally over night when the record label asked them for a “hit” (to break through in the lucrative American market) and at the request of film maker John Hughes, who asked them for a new song fast to fit the revised ending of his film (after a last-minute script change owing to negative test market reactions to his original planned ending).
And of course, some may not even be aware that the band is still a going concern, both touring worldwide, and releasing two new albums and a third in the works, all in the last five years. I was lucky enough to catch them live in July 2013 in Toronto, on my birthday no less, at one of their last live shows to date before, three days later (and also in Toronto) band member Malcolm Holmes had a heart incident in mid-show, and the band was forced to take an unforeseen break from live gigs.
But the show I got to see was fantastic, sweaty, and packed, and I danced like such a maniac stage-side that singer Andy McCluskey gave me a huge grin and a thumbs-up (though he is known himself for his energetic, unusual and sometimes gawky moves!).
Track 1: Enola Gay (from the 1980 album Organisation)
Likely the band’s most recognized and iconic song, this is a great introduction to the dual nature of so many OMD songs: a danceable and poppy synthesizer sound, but married to much darker lyrics…this time about the airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
There is in fact generally a fascination in the songs of OMD with historical air, rail, and naval transportation. That is, the sometimes strikingly transcendent potential of all three is often contrasted with their darker destructive power, a theme which runs through the songs and albums of the band throughout their 35 year career. This is perhaps most obvious when one glances from the 1983 Dazzle Ships concept album to the 1993 Liberator album (with its nose cone cover art), to their most recent work following the 2006 resurrection of the band following a ten-year hiatus, 2013’s English Electric.
Track 2: Electricity (from the album the 1980 album Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark)
Continuing with the theme of the history of technology, this song makes the perhaps natural connection between synthesizer music’s novel sound, and the power behind it that makes it all possible.
The real feat of the song is that the emotional range and warmth of the voice of singer Andy McCluskey offsets so naturally the “colder” machine generated synthetic sound of the instrumental track. Along with other club hits such as Tesla Girls and Telegraph, the theme of exploring the potential for both good and harm in even the simplest forms of technology continues, through the very unexpected medium of new wave dance music, treated from the uniquely historical perspective of “hindsight”.
Track 3: Maid of Orleans (from the 1981 album Architecture and Morality)
A lovely tune, and one of two songs about Joan of Arc on the same album, both released as singles. This track was originally to be titled Joan of Arc as well, but the record label told them that was just nuts…
Track 4: Forever Live and Die (from the 1986 album The Pacific Age)
One of my favourite OMD tracks, in fact, as for some reason I can’t get enough of the soaring vocals of the line in the chorus, with its sudden descent into the title, “I never know, I never know, I never know, I never know why…Forever Live and Die”. Maybe it’s just me…
Track 5: International (from the 1983 album Dazzle Ships)
For me, this is the best track on what is probably the strongest, and most experimental “long ahead of its time” album the band ever created, Dazzle Ships. So good it was, in fact, that it lost the band about 90% of its audience overnight, but satisfied the band’s inner need to experiment with every electronic toy, every tape loop, every news reel sample, every strange sound and industrial screech at their disposal. So I have placed it in its original place, the closing song on the first side of the album.
Track 6: Metroland (from the 2013 album English Electric)
This is the stand-out track and first single from the bands most recent album, which has actually done quite respectably, both critically and in the all-important sales category. The album itself reached number 1 on the UK Indie Music Charts, and Number 8 on the US Dance Charts. If you listen, you will note that it is really a return to the original sound that made OMD unique, but with just that touch of modern that was enough to catch the eye of the professional club remixers, as one can see by the 6 or so different versions available through the beatport.com dj website, or more inexpensively through YouTube…
Track 7: Secret (from the 1985 album Crush)
This was never as big a hit in the rest of the world, apparently, as it was in my native Canada, for whatever reason—perhaps it is the “children’s chorus of the titular word ‘Secret’ that many find off-putting.
On the band’s website forum, where front-man Andy McCluskey is kind enough to put in frequent appearances, answering questions and offering opinions, he puts it down to the fact that the record label forced radio stations to pull it early to make way for the “next big single” So In Love, before it had time to make any real impact.
But on Toronto indie and alternative radio stations, it played in heavy rotation, and that was (I date myself) the year I was in 8th grade, that difficult and yearning year of awkward parties, relationships which formed quickly and broke up inexplicably, and, yes, secrets, so in a way I think of this as a kind of soundtrack song for that entire period. And when the band chose it (at the crowd’s request) as the encore at the concert they played in Toronto, on a hot sweaty July day in a crammed club packed with people dancing as if they were still crazy and still in 8th grade, it seemed just perfect for the occasion.
Track 8: Pulse (from the 2010 album History of Modern)
The Allmusic review of the album refers to this track as “neo-electro sleaze, full of bedroom whispers, moans, and yearning yelps”, and suggests it is one of the stand-out tracks of the album in being an experimental update to the OMD sound for 2006, after the band had been defunct for a decade.
The album HOM itself is not necessarily their strongest, and not overly experimental musically the way the pre-Pretty-in-Pink albums were, in way more sure to pique the interest of critics, but I figure every good electronic album needs its sleaze, and track 8 is about the right place for it. And one can’t ignore the modern incarnation of OMD either, if one is to be honest…both “new” albums are worth the listen.
Track 9: Souvenir (from the 1981 album Architecture and Morality)
A return here to the earlier material, and the more conventionally “critically approved” material, this time with founder and synth-player Paul Humphreys taking a turn on vocals (as he does, incidentally, on Secret, though this is relatively rare in the band catalogue). But did you hear the 1998 remixes by Sash and Moby, with their deep house re-envisioning of the songs? I believe the interested can find them on YouTube…
Track 10: Messages (from the 1980 album Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark)
It is somehow fitting, I think, to end off with what was the band’s very first hit single from their very first album. It just goes to show how far a very, very simple synthesizer line can take you. I recently picked up from eBay copies of the 10” single for both this and Souvenir, as I have recently taken a great delight in collecting that rarest of vinyl beasts, the 10”.
I am always fascinated at just what makes a band (or a record label) choose that particular beautiful but unwieldy format. Actually, I have a suggestion that I am daring to put out there, for a new series that the The Vinyl Villain (and his followers and contributors) might wish someday to pursue: Top Ten Ten-Inches in Ten Days. Looking at my collection of vinyl, I have always felt the 10” selection, though slim, to be somewhat special…and I am really curious what lurks in the cupboards of TVV in that direction….
And that is it. And if you’ll note, I did not even include “If You Leave”…though it’s not at all a bad song, really…
mp3 : OMD – Enola Gay
mp3 : OMD – Electricity
mp3 : OMD – Maid Of Orleans
mp3 : OMD – Forever Live and Die
mp3 : OMD – International
mp3 : OMD – Metroland
mp3 : OMD – Secret
mp3 : OMD – Pulse
mp3 : OMD – Souvenir
mp3 : OMD – Messages
I too have said 10″ single and featured it back in Dec 2013:-
It is one of only about 15 singles I have in that shape and size.