Wednesday, 24 March 2010

2. Organisation - Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Acquired : 23 December 1980

Tracks : Enola Gay / 2nd Thought / VCL X1 / Motion and Heart / Statues / The Misunderstanding / The More I See You / Promise / Stanlow

First note the date. This is the first of a string of LPs that arrived on my birthday as presents from my sister Helen. By 1980 our interests had begun to diverge as we became less reliant on each other for company . This made buying presents for each other more problematic and Helen asked me for a list of books and records I might like for a joint Christmas/birthday present although she herself was quite happy to receive total surprise gifts from me until she finally left home in 1989. Since then a utilitarian exchange of tokens has sufficed. You may also have noticed that more than a year has passed since Tubular Bells arrived, the main reason being that my pocket money simply didn't stretch to both LPs and the activities described in my other blog , The Clarke Chronicler's Walks.

So on to OMD. We are in the post-punk era here although Simon Reynolds denies OMD a place in his pantheon dismissing them in one sentence as “ highly melodic, slightly wet and increasingly pretentious” (the band behind the next entry fare even worse). Let’s have a few more pages on tiresome shock merchants Throbbing Gristle instead shall we ? As "Messages" was my favourite single of 1980 (until 1992 my favourite of all time) and "Enola Gay" not far behind OMD were first on the list so Helen made the right choice. I was a bit taken aback by the bleak landscape on the cover and small shadowy picture of the duo on the reverse (Humphreys' features are invisible). Why so dark when those singles had been so bright and breezy ? A clue lies in the sleeve credit for one Peter Saville. The rest of the story lies within.

We kick off with “Enola Gay” the only single it spawned and in this context untypical. A bit of electronic percussion then a two-note fire alarm on synth that lasts for the duration of the song before bass and drums kick in along with that glorious triumphalist keyboard melody that serves as the main chorus (a recurring feature in OMD’s work to have instrumental choruses the template being Kraftwerk’s “The Model”). It evokes that black and white photograph of Colonel Tibbets cheerily waving from the cockpit of the plane he re-christened after his mother before setting off to obliterate Hiroshima.Andy McCluskey then subverts the musical message with his wry observations “you should have stayed at home yesterday” and the all too obvious “it shouldn’t ever have to end this way”. Another blast of the chorus then Tibbets is flying back “conditions normal and you’re coming home”. This time however the chorus is a repeat of the verse’s minor key melody- is the enormity sinking in to our intrepid hero’s head ? McCluskey then delivers the killer line of the song (and possibly his entire career) “Is Mother proud of Little Boy today ?” This is a question (in the personal context) we would love to know the answer to ; Tibbets himself died unrepentant in 2007. After McCluskey’s warning “this kiss you give, it’s never ever gonna fade away” Malcolm Holmes delivers a couple of huge bass drum cracks to stand in for the explosion before that chorus returns replicating the fanfare reception at Tinian base in 1945. But McCluskey hasn’t finished yet and runs through the whole song again at a slightly faster tempo his words now underlined by synth before appropriately closing at the words “fade away”

Once it has we’re in very different territory. No other track offers such easy melodic delights or focussed lyricism. We’re into a much more personal introverted world where the main themes are solitude, pessimism and betrayal. This is heralded by doomy bell-like synths before an insistent bass takes us into “2nd Thought”. The synths here are only producing long screechy chords so McCluskey’s constrained by having to carry the melody alone. It starts with the intriguing line “And all the order in our lives left some time ago” normally something that would be celebrated in rock but McCluskey is morose and vaguely regretful. He continues “Me at home and you out there” and you remember the times and where OMD are from. Is this the lament of a house husband the cry of Chrissie Boy as his wife brings home the bacon ? “

McCluskey has said that the vocals on the track “VCL XI” (named from a valve on the back of Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity” are just phonetic gibberish and so far it has failed to attract the attention of the obsessives who have debunked Michael Stipe’s similar claims for early REM material. I think I can detect the line “It’s getting hard” but the track is most notable for the layering of electronic percussion and xylophone melodies. Some melodic synth lines appear but they are quickly curtailed never allowed to steer us back to our comfort zone. The crisp brittle sound is also a good illustration of the debt Mike Howlett owes to another producer with the same initials but more of that shortly.

“Motion And Heart” was considered as a follow up to Enola Gay but discounted. It’s the first indication of the interest in French culture that would blossom with a memorable pair of singles a year later. Its Gallic swing vaguely recalls “Chanson D’Amour” (and Fad Gadget’s “Fireside Favourites” listening to it now) and there’s a hint of Gordon Kaye in McCluskey’s vocal. Lyrically it’s hard to decode covering extremes of wealth “From make do and mend to the new Paris trend” and politics “From laissez-faire to the knock on the door” and personal betrayal “The things you said and I called you my friend”. Possibly it’s a tribute to French cinema as there’s a mention of “the scenery” but I wouldn’t put any money on it.

Side One closes with “Statues” where the debt to side two of one-time labelmates Joy Division's “Closer” (released a few months earlier ) becomes most overt. The synth rhythm here replicates Sumner’s rhythm guitar on “Decades” and the glacial synths are pure Martin Hannett. I’m not sure OMD have ever confirmed it is about Ian Curtis but significantly it’s the only song written mainly in the past tense. The plain sentiments of “I’ve tried to care and understand” recall “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “If I could leave and sleep tonight” has unmistakable implications. McCluskey once expressed incredulity about then-New Order’s solemn reputation “as they’re just a bunch of pissheads from Stockport” and this gives extra resonance to the last pay-off line “I can’t imagine how this ever came to be”. As he repeats this in a lower key it's quite beautiful and deserves to be better known.

Side Two kicks off with some ambient synth noises suggesting wintry winds interrupted first by a questioning synth line then heavy drums and synthesised xylophones moving up and down the scales. “The Misunderstanding” is the only track that sounds angry and McCluskey is singing an octave higher teetering on hysteria at times. It’s all in the first person plural and there are few clues as to on whose behalf he’s protesting. Someone is not listening to their truth and as the song progresses there are hints of interrogation and incarceration. There are no less than eight pleases before “can we go home”. After which there’s a false ending before the track dissolves into ghostly babbling and those screechy synths again.

The most bizarre track is a cover of “The More I See You” a song most associated with pre-Beatles pop star Chris Montez. Apparently this happened almost by accident with McCluskey ad libbing the lyrics over the backing track for a different song and deciding to keep them there. His lugubrious vocal sounds slightly slowed down which is balanced by the jaunty one-note synth lines that start up in the second part of each verse. It’s still an uncomfortable listen though.

Late on we have Paul Humphreys coming frontstage with “Promise” his only sole composition and lead (possibly any) vocal. Coincidentally or not this is the only track that brings to mind their recent tourmate Gary Numan. Humphrey’s whiney tones are quite close to Numan and the stilted lyrics and slightly needling synth riffs also bear the influence. A love song of sorts it’s the only one with a real and harmonised chorus (which momentarily threatens to soar) bearing the opposite message to “24 Hours From Tulsa” - “To be by your side I travel all night”.

After two rather odd socks the album closes with the epic “Stanlow” which at least initially refers to the giant oil refinery which rises out of the Mersey salt marsh and which, lit up at night, can give the impression of an unknown city when viewed from the M56. It begans with the sound of a diesel pump recorded in situ (presaging the metal bangers of 1983-1984 particularly Depeche Mode whose “Pipeline” is an obvious successor) then a lone synth sounds a sustained slightly warmer-sounding chord and McCluskey as soft as he can comes in with the word “Eternally” (where have we heard that before ?) and extols the permanence of the structure. When he sings “We set you down to care for us” there’s a very contemporary relevance; twenty years later we were briefly reminded just how much we depended on that care. After the last direct reference to the plant a bass synth and drum machine reminiscent of contemporary sensation “Vienna” lift the song from its funereal tempo and it switches focus to a girl observed from a distance. Perhaps she works there; McCluskey had close relatives who did. By the last line “we always knew that her heart was never there” we are, with hindsight, bridging to the next album and “Joan of Arc” , a point emphasised by the mellotron sounds which remain as everything else slows to a halt and the pump returns with its black promise.

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