Saturday, 3 April 2010

6. Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark

Acquired : 23 December 1981

Tracks : Bunker Soldiers / Almost / Mystereality / Electricity / The Messerschmidt Twins / Messages / Julia’s Song / Red Frame White Light / Dancing / Pretending To See The Future

This was Helen’s second album as birthday/Christmas present and followed on naturally enough from the first. I think she knew it was really the one at the top of the wish list even though I hadn’t put it in any order.

This of course was the debut OMD LP, released at the beginning of 1980 after their successful support tour with Gary Numan. At this point neither Humphreys nor McCluskey were, by their own admission, proficient musicians so there is a primitivism to this LP that makes an interesting counterpoint to the futurism of much of the material.

The opening track “Bunker Soldiers” starts with a bald brutal drum beat from Winston their trusty metronome then a simple but insistent synth bassline comes in followed by a wailing synth line sonically very similar to those employed by Numan at the time. In fact the whole song , with its militaristic imagery (though it seems to be an attack on behind-the-lines generals) isn’t too far away from Numan tracks like “Bombers” . There’s little evidence of their melodic strengths here, the chorus being a chant while strings of random numbers and letters are barked out in the separate channels.

They make up for it with “Almost” which is built around a lovely melancholy string synth line. Against that McCluskey sings plaintively of emotional timidity and regret putting me in mind of Lockwood in “Wuthering Heights”. When the song fades out to his repeated refrain of “Happens all the time to a friend of mine” you know he’s employing the classic lie of self defence.

“Mystereality” employs conventional instruments in McCluskey’s bass guitar and Martin Cooper’s saxophone. The song is hung on McCluskey’s stop-start bassline with deliberately confusing lyrics hinting at mental disintegration -“oh reality don’t fool me” - and Cooper’s mournful sax in place of a chorus. The heart of the song is taken up by an elongated but unflashy solo from Cooper after the second verse and when you’re expecting the same after the third the song just stops dead. It’s hard to think of another record where the song structure fits the subject matter so well.

Then we’re into the unbridled joy of “Electricity” their homage to Kraftwerk with its before-its- time warning of fossil fuel depletion. Probably the most un-Factory like single ever released on the label, its memorable xylophone melody and McCluskey’s poppy bass runs are a million miles away from A Certain Ratio’s icy abstractions.

The next track however isn’t. “The Messerschmidt Twins” emerges slowly from what sounds like an electronic approximation of an orchestra tuning up. A bass synth eventually establishes a rhythm while the background noises resolve into a continuous white noise drone that prefigures JAMC. There are no German planes referenced in the song which seems to be an acknowledgement of a partner’s stronger character – “when you’re asking it feels like telling” . It’s an interesting pointer to the bleaker sounds on their next LP but rather lachrymose and melodically weak.

Side Two began with an unexpected disappointment for me. This “Messages” is not the single version produced by Mike Howlett which cracked the Top 20 for them and for a long time was my favourite ever record. Despite the low-key presence of a rhythm guitar which Howllett removed, this version seems plodding and primitive by comparison. It’s still a great song mind you , an emotionally honest account of lovers vying for the last word as they drift apart with McCluskey at his most plaintive. The last few words are wailed over a key change which emphasises the heightened emotion.

It’s interesting that it’s sequenced just ahead of “Julia’s Song” a survival from the duo’s days in The Id with lyrics by their singer and McCluskey’s former girlfriend Julia Kneale. It’s an intriguing song anchored by a fat bassline reminiscent of Bruce Foxton with a wandering spindly guitar and ominous minor chords in the background. You would guess that Julia, a trainee psychiatric nurse at the time, might be familiar with “The Wasteland” as the narrative moves from an adulterous businessman to a someone caring for a dying geriatric. There’s also a little dig at McCluskey’s interest in astronomy and a reference to “the rest of the band” which hints at some intriguing power games at the time. McCluskey retaliates by throwing in some vocal tics like rolling the r’s in “burning” or suddenly switching key on “eyes” to suggest he’s not taking it too seriously .

It’s the last highpoint of the album, none of the closing three tracks being their best work. “Red Frame White Light” made a minor impact on the singles chart at the beginning of 1980 but came to define the band in the early stage of their career – ah yes the bank clerks who write songs about telephone boxes. While the title has echoes of Velvet Underground (and expanded versions of this LP include their not-bad-at-all version of “Waiting For The Man” the song comes across as a gawky parody of Kraftwerk which almost certainly wasn’t the intention. There’s some nice melodic touches but it’s not a song that bears much repeated listening.

That’s doubly true of “Dancing” a self-consciously experimental track that the band chose to perform on Old Grey Whistle Test in a curious act of self-sabotage. A Bontempi-beat starts up, there are brief snatches of Mantovaniesque muzak and then a lurching bassline heralds some horrible farty keyboard sounds as if the synths are being detuned. It’s deliberately unpleasant and if that’s the concept - an old people’s dance being gatecrashed by a bunch of sonic terrorists - it sort of succeeds but it’s really one to skip over.

Final track “Pretending To See The Future” isn’t quite as challenging and is in fact the only song on the LP with a traditional verse / chorus structure. However McCluskey sings the verses in a very low key which makes them almost a drone and the minimalist synth backing recalls Suicide or DAF rather than more chart-friendly peers. The title and lyrics reek of the self-doubt that plagued McCluskey in particular in this phase of their career and the confusing final chorus where he sings an indecipherable alternative lyric over himself reflects his agnostic confusion.

It is a flawed debut from a band who weren’t quite sure where they wanted to go, follow temporary mentor Gary Numan into the charts or compete with the likes of Cabaret Voltaire for NME’s approval ? By the time I heard this they’d made their choice and the better tracks on the album prove they made the right one but here you get a glimpse of the alternative which makes it interesting rather than excellent.

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