Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (1980)
So, after twelve instalments, I’m changing things up a bit with the Pretending to See the Future column.
Increasingly, I’ve found myself listening more to a full-length synthesiser music release – a whole album instead of a single track. Why? Well, to tell the truth, examining five individual songs in each entry normally leads me to revising the records containing each track – last time, for example, writing about Depeche Mode’s The Great Outdoors! inspired me to go back for their 1982 sophomore, A Broken Frame, a record that’s full of the same pealing Roland-100 glory as the aforementioned B-side as well as being an LP I haven’t been acquainted with for some time. As-such, the format shift means that new entries in the series will see me (re)reviewing an LP or compilation – which is great for two reasons: I can share more music in one go, and it’s a somewhat more digestible chunk for the reader, being as it is without jumps in time and sub-genre. So without further ado, I give you the LP containing this column’s namesake track…
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s eponymous debut was released in February 1980. By the end of the decade, Andy McClusky and Paul Humphrey’s minimalist Merseyside duo would have experienced numerous line-up changes, underground fame, chart success and, eventually, critical indifference – it would then be 2010 before anyone took OMD very seriously again and even then, appraisals were nostalgic, not objective. That cloudy future seems hard to fathom when settling into the youthful periphery of this, their first outing.
Before the record even plays, you know you’ve got something special on your hands, from the Cold War-conscious track-listing, to the iconic die-cut sleeve, crafted by Peter Saville and Ben Kelly, later mainstays of northern new wave art design. When the needle hits the wax though, the magic really begins. The echoic, electronic-snare bleeps of Bunker Soldiers crawl into being before a backdrop of hiss, immediately showcasing the cheap, lo-fi production that either dogs this LP, or gives it its post-punk charm (depending, of course, on how you choose to hear it). McClusky’s pretentious, computer-aware vigour (articulated through his “trainee teacher dance” when performing live) comes across brilliantly in the tirade of numbers and letters shot through each stereo channel – it’s a fantastically tinny exercise in screechy new wave, with blaring monophonic synths combatting desperately poppy sensibilities. OMD’s artsy allure pulls the listener through staccato organs on the ethereal Almost, Berlin-Bowie-like saxophone melodies and falsetto on Mystereality and frantic electronic sequencing on single Electricity, a synth-pop anthem driven by McClusky’s trebly bass-guitar and leading neatly into the end of Side A – The Messerschmitt Twins, a krautrock-inspired waltz through the depressed post–war sentiment; a lamentation on the void left by the transience of punk.
Second single Messages, opens Side B, flirting with uncomfortable minor variations in its chorus. It’s followed by the seminal Julia’s Song, which features McClusky’s most agitated, Neu!-esque bass playing as well as an untamed vocal and a xylophone-like pinging melody from Humphreys. Final single, Red Frame/White Light (undeniably a Velvet Underground reference, in both its title and half-shouted, conversational vocal), leads into the droning, experimental Dancing, whose disorientating synthesiser groans are complimented artfully by a jazzy drum-track, the total product being reminiscent of the debauchery in Weimar Germany. Closer, Pretending To See the Future, is a fantastic synth-pop track, full of lyrical pretenses about not “[understanding] the advances we’ve made”, and drawing comparisons between the progression of art and soldiers at war. Underpinned by an unexpected chord-progression in the chorus that imitates the use of sharp variations in the Velvet’s Waiting for the Man, OMD cement on the record’s final moments, a very self-aware sound – one clearly informed by the musical intelligentsia of the twenty-or-so years preceding it.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark was minor a hit upon its release, reaching #27 in the album chart, and producing three top 40 singles. Even still, its popularity paled in comparison to works by the new romantics: Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and Spandau Ballet embraced an aesthetic element that OMD never did, a move that allowed them significant successes over their otherwise very comparably talented peers. Later in 1980 with Enola Gay, the lead-single from their second LP, Organisation, OMD would paradoxically court success with a darker, more brooding sound (though arguably, the single is a work of pop trickery, designed to draw in victims of the terrific bleakness that Organisation despairingly broadcasts…another time though; it’s not an album one can very easily do justice in a sentence or two). Overall, this is a record that will quite often fall by the wayside when people mention the ‘80s – it’s all about Rio, and true for most people, albums that spring-boarded off of early new wave two or three years after Messages had been and gone. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark is not just a superb debut, but it captures perfectly, a tension in time and style. In its somewhat cack-handed attempt at marrying pop and experimental electronic technologies, it caters for the chiasmic and intimidating feeling of nothing ushered in by both the destructive sentiments and early departure of punk rock; it addresses the fear of Cold War nuclear holocaust in its world-weariness and it waves prophetically at its tomorrow with its questions about the future and statistical half-successes. It’s not OMD’s finest; it’s not better than everything that came after it – but it’s a milestone for sure.