(This could be subtitled “April 30th and all that (slight return)”. To new readers, it may be worth reading “April 30th and all that” and “Transfer affection” before this one).
1st March is St David’s Day, St David being the patron saint of Wales. Us Welsh should be proud of this day because St David was actually Welsh (unlike St George) and actually did something good and real (unlike St George again – dragons?) And us Welsh celebrate our patron saint’s day a lot more than the English. My memories of St George’s Day in schools in Leeds and Harpenden are vague – they certainly didn’t involve a whole day off lessons in school where we could hang out in the assembly hall to sing, act, dance or just make a fool of ourselves. But that’s what happened every St David’s Day in Penarth – we had our school eisteddfod. In my early years at secondary school I’d participated – wrote a few poems, did a few recitations on the day – but by 1984 my class were in their mid-teens and getting too cool for that sort of thing.
Anyway, what was the point? The school had four ‘houses’ which pupils were put into when they started. Now let’s see – there was Bradenham, Arcot, St Fagans and Stanwell. And I was in St Fagans and our “house master” really didn’t inspire his “house” to work hard and to compete because everyone knew that Bradenham always won. This is because Bradenham’s “house master” was a young and slightly cool male teacher so everyone in Bradenham was enthusiastic and eager to win. So the other houses didn’t bother much – at the big annual competitions Bradenham always won. Sports day, Eisteddfod… Always the same.
1984 was no different. The Eisteddfod was dull and boring, nobody was interested in Karen Slater from 2S playing her tuba or Peter Cartwright reciting a poem in Welsh We were all waiting for the end, because this year we’d been promised a treat. The last two categories in the competition was “Animated Pop” and “Artistic Merit”. The former was a chance to dress up and mime along to some pop songs. The latter was a chance for musicians to express themselves. This year there were three outstanding “Animated Pop” entries. The first was based on Marilyn’s contemporary hit “Calling Your Name” and involved lots of dressing up and flouncing around. The second was an acted out version of “The umpire strikes back” (though I may be making that one up). The third one was “The masochism tango”, a Tom Lehrer song which stayed with me from that one hearing for 30 years, and I found it the other week. But the main reason I was so rapt by “The Masochism Tango” was because my beloved R was appearing in it,
I can still her in my mind’s eye, dressed as a waiter in a white tuxedo, being chained to a wall for the finale of the song. These moments were seared into my brain. Unsurprisingly, they won that category.
As for the other category there were two entrants. First on was Blakey, leader of Stick It (the band which has my brother as guitarist) who would become Final Ecstasy. Blakey was a total Paul Weller nut and proceeded to play a delicate version of The Jam’s “English Rose”, which was odd as usually he played songs with Stick It full of power chords which went “I can smell something – is it a rat, or a cat, no it’s the f”””ing Tories”. After he shuffled off with his acoustic guitar, some amps and a drum kit were wheeled on and a bunch of sixth formers calling themselves Total Mind Flux blasted away for about ten minutes. It was amazing. OK it was competent. But at least they’d got up and done something. All my friends said I should enter for the following year. They were full of great ideas…
You see, we didn’t see much rock’n’roll in Penarth. Of course there’s the Paget Rooms, where Man recorded a live album in the early 70s. And Shakin’ Stevens used to perform there with the Sunsets around that same time period. The closest Penarth had to a rock star was Martyn Joseph who was an ex-pupil at our school and would return every year, play a few songs in assembly – usually Christian Rock songs, and the occasional Cliff Richard song – and hand out copies of his latest LP to all the teachers (who would generally thank him, wait for him to leave the classroom and then bin the record – I’m looking at you Mrs M and Mrs D!). We were all so pleased when “Dolphins make me cry” reached number forty in the real charts in 1992. Weren’t we? OK maybe we weren’t. But hell, he’s still going and making music and is well respected now and I’m just writing this bitter memoir so good for him.
Anyway, after all that excitement everything settled down as Spring sprung. I’d started reading Melody Maker after a Howard Jones cover story piqued my interest…I was sort of a fan of Howard Jones. I’d heard “New song” when he’d appeared on local radio in September ’83, he was in Cardiff as support act for OMD – a small tour for the band to try out new songs on a live audience, to try to recover momentum after the perceived failure of “Dazzle Ships”. I liked the perkiness and positivity of “New Song”, and the follow up “What is love?” was good too – that sync-ed lead part! – so I picked up two tickets to see his concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff, 1st April. But I changed my mind and decided not to go – I really didn’t get on with “Hide and seek” – so sold the tickets to two girls in my class – L and E. And that was me and Howard Jones over with. I was so fickle, one song I didn’t like and he was forgotten.
Anyway, by the end of March there was news of new material by OMD. MM had given advance warning that they had a new album called “Junk Culture” due at the end of April and I was very excited. This was my first experience of that wonderful feeling of anticipating a new record by a band you love. Desperate for any news I could find, I would soak up snippets – a list of song titles appeared in MM, and they seemed odd and intriguing. What would this new music sound like? Would they have hits? Would they be on TV so I could soak up every detail of what they looked like, what instruments they played, the way they acted? I really couldn’t wait – it was a great time to be a recently converted OMD fan.
Then on 2nd April they issued a new single “Locomotion” which started to pick up a lot of airplay. Radio liked it, TV liked it, and OMD started popping up on T V – “Saturday Superstore” had Andy playing a strange white instrument (what I later found out was an Omnichord) and Paul playing a steel drum. I insisted that my father HAD to buy “Locomotion” on the day it came out – he did this, but only bought the 7″ not the 12″. On the one hand it was ok – I got to scratch the little box on the sleeve to see if I’m won a shiny new CD player (I hadn’t) but I wanted the 12″ for the extra b-side. I kicked up a fuss and sulked in my bedroom (I was 14 after all) and I got my way, and got the 12″ the next day. It was worth it. The two b-sides to “Locomotion” are amongst my favourite OMD songs. “Her body in my soul” is all fast and clipped sequenced notes and drum machines and Andy singing about a broken relationship in violent terms – “A sharp kick in the head is all she said”. It reminded me of “Rough justice” by Portion Control, a song I’d taped off Peel around the same time. Indeed my diary at the time stated “Why does everyone want to be New Order?”. The answer to that would be ‘because they’re all using the same synths’ but I had yet to work that out. “The Avenue” on the other hand was slower, built around a train on track sample (taken from the Andrei Tarkovsky film “Stalker” according to Wiki), moody and brooding, dubby in places, and with a huge crashing Mellotron middle eight which always caused my poor record player to jump in protest.
Then school broke up for Easter holidays and we took a family holiday to Oxford towards the end of April. We were in a caravan and my brother and I were in bunk beds, stuck at the back. I’d taken along my little Sanyo mono radio cassette player just to provide a little distraction and it turned out to be very useful. Richard Skinner’s Evening Session show on Radio One had OMD ‘in session’ playing one song a night. It turned out they weren’t in session at all, just playing songs from the album but I listened in every night and taped the five songs and replayed the tape until it wore out. But then it was a Maxell tape and they were always useless. My main memories of that holiday was listening to the radio, reading that week’s Melody Maker (single reviews for “Silver” by Echo and the Bunnymen and “Thieves like us” by New Order) on the bunk bed, and buying “Power Corruption and Lies” by New Order from HMV Oxford. It was ironic that I should say everyone wanted to sound like New Order when I’d only heard a few songs by the band themselves. This was my first New Order LP and what a place to start.
Everything about the packaging and presentation of “PCL” (as I’ll called it from now on) was intriguing. The classical painting of roses, the colour wheel on the reverse, the holes for the floppy disc, the blank inner sleeve, even the minimal information on the label in a spiral, it was like a secret code (which wasn’t that far from the truth – you used the colour wheel to work out the details in the colour code stripes on the inner and outer sleeves). And then there’s the album title. Wiki says “The title of the album was chosen by Bernard Sumner from a 1981 conceptual art exhibition in Cologne, Germany. On the opening night of the exhibition the artist Gerhard Richter vandalised the exterior of the Kunsthalle by spray painting the text, “Power, Corruption, and Lies”.”. This may well have some truth in it, but having spent the previous year reading “Animal Farm” in English classes in school I recognised the phrase from the blurb on the reverse of the book. Actually it said this: “Adding his own brand of poignancy and wit, George Orwell tells the story of revolution among animals of a farm, and how idealism was betrayed by power, corruption and lies. “. Penguin paperback, 1980. There you go. Take that, Wikipedia.
“PCL” is a remarkably fresh listen, even now. I can’t say it’s timeless but it sounds like it is beyond its time. A lot of early to mid 80s music is dated by the sounds – you can guess a record’s year by the synthesiser used – but on this album it’s not obvious what synths are being used, you can’t pinpoint the sounds directly. “PCL” is a perfect mix of traditional rock instrumentation and electronics merging together to make a rock dance hybrid that barely existed at the time. “Age of consent” kicks things off agreeably fast – Peter Hook’s high-octave bass lines, Stephen Morris’ precise drum patterns, Gillian Gilbert’s keyboards holding down the bass end as well as providing melodic interest and Bernard Sumner’s frantic guitar playing being on the edge of ragged but right. Even when he’s playing a guitar solo he is still maintaining his lead vocal melody – a trick someone else would use in 1991 – alongside some choppy guitar chords as well. And then there’s Sumner’s vocals – heartfelt and true, like a man who has been freed from all restrictions and bondage, whooping and scat-singing towards the end. All the little patterns each player creates mingle into a perfect rock song. “We all stand” is a disappointment after that, a lumbering yet slight song with a hint of dub but I didn’t think much of it. There’s probably people who love it out there. “The village” on the other hand is great. Was it a reference to “The Prisoner”? Who knows. Sumner’s lyrics are mostly elusive (with two exceptions) throughout the album, but this song has all the joys of new love in Spring bouncing inside it. The spritely performances by all concerned alongside that bopping sequence makes for a delightful song. “5-8-6” was where I got confused on first listen because it sounded like “Blue Monday” but wasn’t. It’s like someone’s shoved all the components of “Blue Monday”, thrown them up in the air and recorded what happened afterwards. Still great though. “Your silent face” is perfect – originally a Kraftwerk tribute (called “KW1”) it rolls with the grace and grandeur of “Europe Endless” but with Sumner’s peculiar little epigrams. This was definitely my favourite song from the album at the time, not least for the final line – “You caught me at a bad time so why don’t you piss off?” – which was probably the first swearing I had in my record collection. “Ultraviolence” is tense and edgy, sequencers bouncing and bass and guitars fighting each other for dominance and what the hell is with that squeaking noise? Were they torturing a mouse in the studio? And I may have read Orwell but not “A clockwork orange” so didn’t get the title reference. “Ecstasy” is almost an instrumental apart from some lovely messing around with a vocodor, and is this a reference to the drug? Had they encountered it in New York like Soft Cell had? Who knows. “Leave me alone” is a return to the standard guitar bass drums format and highlights the interplay between the musicians. This song struck a chord too ‘cos I wanted to be left alone more often than not. A great end to a great album. And while I was waiting for the new OMD album I played little else, except the five songs from their radio session.
There was a general feeling that “Junk Culture” had to be a success for OMD. They hadn’t had a brilliant 1983. “Dazzle Ships” hadn’t been well received by the public or the music press, their tour had been expensive to run and prone to problems (like when they all came into “Genetic Engineering”‘s backing tape in the wrong place), and their recent singles had barely cracked the Top 20. Their record label Virgin started putting pressure on them to start making hits again, make things more commercial. But clearly Virgin still had faith in them as they supported and bankrolled two important decisions for the bank.
Firstly OMD invested in a Fairlight CMI, a hefty piece of kit (I think it cost around £20,000) with superlative sequencing and sampling capabilities. The Fairlight wasn’t the kind of equipment used by pop bands at that time – it was usually the reserve of the higher echelons of the business, people like Trevor Horn, Peter Gabriel, Jean Michel Jarre. Most pop bands had to settle for the crummy sound of Emulators – they were good enough for “Dazzle Ships”, and Depeche Mode used them extensively on “Construction time again” and “Some great reward”, and New Order used them on “PCL” and “Blue Monday”. Secondly Virgin persuaded the band to record their next album at AIR studios in Compass Point. Partly this was to get a more professional sound and partly this was due to the band’s royalties from “Architecture and morality” pouring in and forcing them to become tax exiles for a year. And anyway, if it all went wrong the band would incur the debt, not the label. Once sessions in sunny Compass Point were completed they mixed the album in Belgium, with assistance from Tony Visconti doing some brass arrangements. Clearly this was going to be a success.
In retrospect the choice of a Fairlight was ideal for OMD. They’d not really used many sequencers before (there’s that classic interview clip from BBC4’s “Synth Britannia” show where Andy McCluskey says they should have RSI from pressing one key on their synths so often) and the Fairlight’s powerful eight track sequencing was ideal for them. There were other computer synthesisers out there like the Synclaviar but these were more complicated and users tended to get bogged down by them – that’ll be the Human League then – while Fairlights were (relatively) easy to use. Other synth pop pioneers were floundering by ’83 / ’84 – the Human League were stuck without Martin Rushent’s guidance, Ultravox were still making hits but god were they boring, Tears For Fears’ “The way you are” had stalled their career in late ’83, there had been a return to teen pop and screaming females and it was all Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet amongst the girls in my class. OMD? Who needed them?
So, April 30th 1984 – one year on from my first LP purchase and “Junk culture” is released. It felt important to me that it was issued exactly a year after I’d bought “Dazzle Ships”. Again, my dad gets it for me as he works in Cardiff and I’m in school obviously (the following year I would bunk off PE on Monday afternoon to go to Virgin in Cardiff to purchase “Crush” on the day of release) and I sadly break the seal to remove the one sided single and the album – a friend of mine never broke the seal! By now I’ve heard six songs, but it’s nice to have it all.
“Junk culture” starts, and sounds like an Emulator preset collection with some live drumming on it alongside some Mellotron choir blasts. The Emulator preset is used in the “Blade Runner” soundtrack too, so I’m told. The little speech samples become part of my life – I frequently quote “Don’t stop, just do it”. “Tesla girls” seemed to be compared to “The reflex” at the time, just because of the stuttering effect. Listening again, it does sound rather richer than I remembered. That handclap on the left hand side could almost preclude “You spin me round”. Strange. And it shows a shift in the songwriting, they aren’t just writing about electricity but about the users of it – it’s a love song to people who don’t understand the mechanics of Tesla coils. “Locomotion” is the big hit – it reached number 5 in the UK – but it’s about disabled people? Happy music, unhappy words. It’s an intriguing combination. Nicely sequenced bassline too. “Apollo” is more exotic, but with lots of drum machines, and lots of uncharacteristic funk guitar. And then in the middle it goes all acoustic and Aztec Camera! And a dubbed out ending. For such an exotic sound, it was written at the end of the Belgian sessions. A strange kind of love song. “Never turn away” however I didn’t like much, firstly because it sounds like the music Channel 4 would play when they ran out of adverts and secondly it has a skewed rhythm does nothing for me. I’ll live with it. The big climax is ok, but it’s not “Souvenir”, let alone “Statues”. Why was this a single? Oh, because Virgin said so. So far, side one has been poppy and moody, what about side two.
“Love and violence” is great, more than great. It almost became the title track of the album, as it seemed to mix the two lyrical themes. Those car horn samples! The whole song wants to explode. Oh, and it sounds like the inside of my head when I look at R and her boyfriend, cos I want to explode too. “Hard day” sounds almost live, which is a shock for OMD. But it doesn’t really go anywhere, and just when it starts fading out, they introduce some more synths which I wanted all along so it annoys me. But it has a really heartfelt vocal from McCluskey, one of his best on the whole LP. “All wrapped up” however is totally perfect. It is the soundtrack to the video in my head of me and her and him. The song is great anyway, I love the soca influence, the horns, the guitars, I cannot fault this song. SHOULD HAVE BEEN A SINGLE. And they should have let me direct the video. It’s all in my mind, I’ve rehearsed every shot. But that was then… “White trash” continues the lyrical theme of “Love and violence” so again meets my criteria for the sound of inside my head in Spring 1984, and again the sampled “trash” became a staple of my lexicon. Great sleezy sax solo too. Lots of big empty dubbed out space. And a really nasty lyric too – “Your mouth is a weapon that is worse than any knife”. Finally the album ends on a high note, a note of happiness after the generally bitter feelings of side two – “Talking loud and clear”, more Fairlight sequencing and a lovely mellow performance all round. A gorgeous love song, a proper love song. Maybe it’s the making up after the breaking up. Whatever, it was a deserved summer hit single, it’s gentle lilt swinging through the radio that June.
And then we turn to the free single. A return to the more experimental side of things, mellotrons, sampled drum loops, a sign that they can still do their weird things too you know. Listening to it now, it sounds like the Art of Noise crossed with Tears For Fears (“Songs from the big chair” is another Fairlight heavy record). This is a heavy heavy sound, you know.
And life continued. I would sit on the wall outside school every morning waiting to see R and for her to diss me or ignore me or talk about her boyfriend or annoy me in some way. And I’d sing “All wrapped up” in my head and wish it were true. “Stop going round with the girl that I love…”. And of course there’s “Thieves like us” too, New Order’s single issued in late April. I loved it and a girl in my class who had her birthday six days before mine in May came to an agreement with me. If I bought her a record for her birthday, she’d buy me “Thieves like us” for mine. You can see where this is going already, can’t you? So I ended up buying “Against all odds” by Phil sodding Collins for her, this horrible maudlin sickly piano ballad. I hated myself for buying it, but if it even made her like me just a little bit more… Six days later on my birthday, no sign of a New Order single for me from her. Not that I’m bitter. Oh no. So I ended up buying it for myself a few days later (also buying a New Order t-shirt which I would wear constantly on the July 84 holiday in France – I’ve got the pictures to prove it), and I remember playing it in our music room to my father and my gran and saying “These are great songs”. Because they were – both sides of the single were perfect in every way. The way “Lonesome tonight” surges with the introduction of the synths halfway through the song. “Thieves like us” having a huge long intro before Sumner even gets near the microphone to sing. A huge sumptuous single. And of course it was around this time Channel 4 broadcast “New Order Play At Home” (all available on Youtube) and I devoured every second of that programme, drinking in the characters and the Hacienda and the music and the sleeve designs.
Then OMD played in Cardiff on 1st June. I bought tickets and went along with Mike, a Jarre fan who I’d converted to OMD over the previous twelve months (at least that’s how I remember it – he may remember it differently). This would be my first real concert. Because the Barron Knights, Max Boyce and (cough) Sky (cough) clearly didn’t count. It was St David’s Hall, we were in a balcony so could see all the stage. I’d bought a t-shirt and a programme and poured over the details there, the pictures of the boys in chunky sweaters (they sure as hell weren’t Duran or Spandau), the discography, the news of their new album coming to Compact Disc soon. Support band was Fiction Factory who’d had one hit, and their set was dire. Nobody cared until they played their hit at the end. We oggled at the equipment on stage for OMD- a Fairlight, an Emulator and a Korg Micro-preset for Paul Humphreys, a Jupiter 8 and Prophet 5 for Martin Cooper – and drank in every second. OMD’s set was great – a lot of songs from the new album, plus older hits and classics – and a re-arrangement of “Julia’s song” with their new horn section highlighted. It was my first sighting of Andy McCluskey’s geography teacher dancing. It was wonderful, the sound was loud but clear (if you pardon the pun). And they nearly did “All wrapped up” as an encore. They brought on congos and other percussion for it, then removed them. But I was happy with it all anyway. I’ve seen OMD a number of times since but that was the best gig of theirs I’d seen.
So what happened next? Well there were three hit singles on “Junk Culture” so they must have been doing something right. Worth also noting “Garden City” – b side to “Tesla Girls” – which was the first occurence of the f-word in my record collection. And a great song. In retrospect “Junk Culture” was the end of OMD’s progression – from there it was all commercial pressure for hits and smoothed out sounds and less experimentation (except for b-sides and occasional LP tracks). But hell, I’ve said all that on Toppermost. OMD would never be as violent and angry as they were on “Love and violence” and “White trash”, and that was a shame. If anger was an energy – as a wise man suggested – then OMD’s anger helped produced “Junk Culture”, their last truly great album. And my anger at girls I fancied having boyfriends or ignoring me? Well I was still doing the masochism tango, and my anger got channelled into my diary and my song writing. But enough about me… 😎
Next time – Something for the longing