Album : Various/Various
Review : Rolling Stone, 13 May 1982
Author : David Fricke

To English popmusic fans, there is nothing like a good six-month fad. The punk explosion, the warmed-over mods, the ska craze and the psychedelic revival–don’t look now, but you just missed the New Romantics–have come and gone (and in some cases, come again) with such confounding rapidity that it is hard to take most of them any more seriously than Hula Hoops or edible underwear.

The country’s latest rage is synthesizer music. Every hip, young Tom, Dick and Johnny B. Goode has traded in his guitar for a synthesizer and rhythm box, buying into future cool by applying the latest keyboard and computer appliances to the brisk melodic cheeriness of commercial pop and the bubbly beat of off-white funk. But far from bowing down to the great god of automation or passing off their microchip bubblegum musings on sex and energy as the stuff of a brave new world, these synthesizer bands have bestowed an almost mock-human quality upon their hardware. The beeping, farting and whooshing of the keyboards, combined with the psycho-Sinatra cabaret croon of the singers (Soft Cell’s Marc Almond and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Andy McCluskey, take a bow), creates a man-machine tension channeled into the vigorous dance beat of many of these songs. And by dancing, that does not mean the March of the Androids but no-holds-barred Soul Train swing.

The chart success of these digital dandies and their synthesizer pop – all four of the above LPs made the U.K. Top Five and are faring surprisingly well here – is somewhat out of proportion to their artistic worth. These are, after all, only pop songs in transistor drag. But if singing the same old song with newfangled noise is no great leap, selling the public on a package of postpunk do-it-yourself ingenuity, easy-to-play technology and Top Forty classicism certainly is.

The Human League is a perfect case in point. In the four years since the group’s first single, a home-recorded slice of angry young electronic New Wave called “Being Boiled,” the original quartet split in half and evolved into a six-piece, circa-2001 Abba. Singer Phil Oakey‘s lusty saloon styling is now lightly sugared with the twee harmonies of Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley. Such songs as the Euro-fizzy “Open Your Heart” and the bright motorfunk exercise “Love Action” (both on Dare) are delightful, swinging singles free of sci-fi pretensions and uncluttered by art-school cleverness. Producer Martin Rushent‘s warm widescreen production also takes the edge off the severe chill that typified the League’s earlier import albums.

Yet, more important, the League itself now strikes an appealing balance between modern technique and tuneful charm, epitomized by the hit single “Don’t You Want Me.” Alternating between a gray doomsday riff and a smart samba strut, the song is a tasty white-soul layer cake of competing melody and harmony lines whose orchestral possibilities are pared down to a sleek, glassy arrangement by the metallic breeze and regimented beat of the synthesizers. With all the knobs and buttons at their disposal, the Human League still goes for the hook. And with eight other songs as artfully grabby as “Don’t You Want Me,” Dare keeps reelin’ ’em in.

The problem with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark is that they want to have their art and eat it, too. The awkward mix of dreamy romanticism and spatial, Pink Floyd-ian abstractions on Architecture and Morality, OMD’s second American album, suggests that Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys are acutely embarrassed by their ability to pen seductive moonlight sonatas like “Souvenir” and the eerie Parisian waltz “Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans).” Why else gussy up the LP with ponderous music of the spheres, as in the title track’s construction-site rattle and the overlong “Sealand,” a nuclear beach concerto of drawn-out synthesizer drones? They even sabotage the album’s one decent party track, “Georgia,” with carnival organ and holy choir sound effects. Too much sincerity and not enough spunk on Architecture and Morality make for attractive but dull fare.

The Soft Cell twosome of Marc Almond and David Ball walks on a much wilder side, bringing the brainy bop of OMD down to a lurid red-light-district level on their debut album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. Their hit single, “Tainted Love” (included here), neatly captured Soft Cell’s fetish for R&B; camp; the twelve-inch single even segued into a heavy-breathing version of the Supremes‘ “Where Did Our Love Go.”

Not surprisingly, then, the best tracks on Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret–“Frustration,” “Sex Dwarf,” “Secret Life” – bump and grind with vibrant, tawdry soul. Ball, employing a limited arsenal of synthesized keyboard effects, tarts up the meaty funk beat with multiple rhythm figures and steamy extended chords. Together, these complement singer-lyricist Almond’s passion for sexual deviation (“Sex Dwarf,” “Entertain Me”) and rather vampiric fear of open day-light (“Memories of the night before/Out in clubland having fun/And now I’m hiding from the sun,” from “Bedsitter”).

Compared to Soft Cell’s smutty pop, Depeche Mode‘s Speak and Spell is strictly PG-rated fluff. A group of fresh-faced, suburban lads from Britain, they have neither the ambition of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark nor the overt commercial allure of the Human League. They simply drift aimlessly between the two, occasionally hitting a disco bull’s-eye with chirpy dance tracks like “Dreaming of Me” and “Just Can’t Get Enough.” Too often the synthesizers lock into dead-end grooves, and the group’s boyish caroling is anonymous at best.

There’s plenty more where all this synthesized Dream Whip came from: e.g., Simple Minds, Duran Duran, Heaven 17, the Far East fantasies of the group Japan. They’re not all completely synth, but they certainly sing the body electric. Still, the temptation is to dismiss English synth-pop as the chart’s flavor of the month. For all their undeniable pop attractions and the genuine innovative potential of electro-dominated rock, these bands so far have only bent the rules, not broken them. If this batch of records is any indication, the revolution will not be synthesized.

mp3 : The Human League – Open Your Heart
mp3 : OMD – Georgia
mp3 : Soft Cell – Secret Life
mp3 : Depeche Mode – Dreaming of Me

JC adds “The chart success of these digital dandies and their synthesizer pop is somewhat out of proportion to their artistic worth.”   Just fuck off will you?  It’s dicks like you that give music writers/journalists a bad name.

Happy New Year.  It’s great to start it off grumpy.




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!).

Side A

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.

Side B

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 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

JC adds…..

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.



This would have been one of the first synth-pop singles I’d have ever bought.  I heard it on the radio and the keyboards reminded me of Magazine and Simple Minds.  I also loved the sleeve which remains one or my favourite designs of Peter Saville and one of the few of his that wasn’t on Factory Records although Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark had previously been associated with that label.

The band would enjoy a golden period from 1981-84 with nine Top 20 hits in the UK, the best-known of which was Enola Gay, a song which arguably did as much as any boring history books to raise awareness of what had happened when the Americans dropped atomic bombs on two cities in Japan four decades previously – particularly in an era when many feared that the foreign and defence policies of US President Reagan and UK. Prime Minister Thatcher were taking us to the bring of the most catastrophic world war imaginable.

Messages was the single which preceded Enola Gay and on its release in May 1980 enjoyed a lengthy stay in the charts, climbing eventually to #13.  The version I have in the cupboard is on 10″ vinyl:-

mp3 : OMD – Messages

mp3 : OMD – Taking Sides Again

mp3 : OMD – Waiting For The Man

The first of the b-sides is a rather decent and occasionally experimental sounding re-working version of the a-side while the other track is a tremendous cover of one of the best known tracks written and recorded by The Velvet Underground.

Messages was one of the first wave of synthpop/electronic hit records and that was because OMD became one of the first to take the music that was being written and recorded for these new instruments and machines and adapt it in  a way that made it conducive for daytime radio.  For proof, have a listen to how the song was recorded for a John Peel Session some six months before the single version was released:-

mp3 : OMD – Messages (Peel Session)

The session version is much slower in tempo….dare I suggest it has the feel of a Joy Division song?….and there’s just no way it being issued sounding akin to that would have brought a hit single.  Full credit to all concerned.