Dancing in the ruins of the western world

wpid-r-4275225-1360491508-1635.jpeg.jpgwpid-r-506142-1313790310.jpeg.jpgwpid-r-150403-1245012047.jpeg.jpg“Someone likes you and he’s in your class”

That was all that Rhiannon had to say to D for her to guess it was me. Maybe I wasn’t as subtle as I had hoped to be over the previous few month. But this was my 14th birthday and my little secret was now common knowledge throughout the third years.

Damn.

Still, I had a load of birthday money and handed over a wad of it to my father saying “Get the first three OMD albums for me”. I had been absorbing “Dazzle Ships” since the end of April that year (1983) and was ready to investigate further. I had seen their other albums in HMV but had no idea what they would sound like. So I handed over £15 and hoped for the best. He popped to Hippo Records, opposite Spillers on the Hayes in Cardiff, a shop which specialised in cheap records from faraway places. My brother’s copy of “Beggars Banquet” was bought from there and was on Pax Records from Israel. So the night after my birthday I settled down with three new albums to absorb.  These were the third, fourth and fifth actual albums in my collection after “Dazzle Ships” and “Their Satanic Majesties Request”, and I kept my albums in the order I bought them in until … 1991 actually. I’m odd like that.

“Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark” was their debut album, issued in February 1980. It was mainly songs from their live set which they had been playing since late 1978, some songs going back further than that to previous Liverpool (Wirral) bands like The Id. My copy of the album in the standard sleeve – no cut out grid on the sleeve, just white background, black grid orange squares and a black border with lots of information on it. The labels were the typical Virgin green on side one red on side two, not that I knew that at the time. And as the album started, a problem was solved.

You see, I knew NOTHING. I’d managed to catch a repeat of OMD’s  Peel Session from earlier in the year and they had played “Bunker soldiers” and I had no idea where this song was from. There wasn’t anywhere I could look for information at the time, and here it was opening the debut album. Phew, I hadn’t missed anything.  But what the hell was the song about? Even now I listen and I struggle with the words, Andy McCluskey sounds very young here, his yelp accenting the words. I’ve looked them up now but I still prefer the words I think he is singing. It’s about war and having little control over your circumstances. I think. I’m probably wrong. But the song itself is different. Even in the distance from 1980 to 1983 it sounded like a different universe. Sharp snaps of synthetic drums, bursts of melody, but sparse as hell, primitive too. But GOOD primitive and sparse. The chorus is McCluskey and Humphreys chanting letters and numbers while the music takes a turn towards the odd, the untrained nature of their music creating intriguing harmonies.

Next came “Almost”, a plaintive melody to start, echoing into the distance before other instruments come in – bass and organ and hissing synthetic percussion. Slower too, more of a ballad. McCluskey sounds calmer slightly, but disturbed – he is missing someone, wants to travel but is unsure of everything. The melody rises and falls across the song, acting as a commentary on McCluskey’s indecision. He repeats the line “Happens all the time to a friend of mine” over and over, nothing has been resolved. And there’s something stuck in the bloody groove of the fade out POP POP POP POP and it was there on the first play and is ingrained in my mind every time I hear the song,
“Mystereality” follows. More upbeat but more confusion. The drum machine hisses insistently, McCluskey is again on the edge of incomprehensible, and there’s a new sound – Martin Cooper’s sax, adding a humanity amongst the electronics. Again there’s another POP of vinyl muck in the last minute of the song. “Electricity” is an immediate favourite, even on the first hearing it sounds like an instant classic, short word bursts, melody melded to insistent rhythm, a perfect song. Of course later I would discover it was the third recording of the song, it had been issued on Factory Records in 1979 but that information was still far away from me. The side closer “The Messerschmidt Twins” was something else though. It drifts in quietly, echoing synth lines bathed in reverb, before the rhythm starts. There’s space in the music now, a halting haunted atmosphere. Even when the main synths join in, arpeggios of chords there is still too little going on. And McCluskey can’t quite accept or believe or understand what is happening.  Has there been an argument? Nothing is clear, but the passion is intense. A beautiful song I still don’t truly understand.

Side two starts with “Messages”. Now this I knew, it was their first hit single in the summer of 1980. But I didn’t remember it sounding like this. The album version is minimal again, that insistent octave jumping synth (a few years later I found a Korg Micro Preset in a music shop and worked out how they did it, a feat of manual dexterity) and organ and not much else. Oh a marvellous sense of melody, a yearning lyric and a curious bass line. And somewhere in the background, an electric guitar played not as a rhythmic element, just a source of additional sound. Yet this version sounded familar and it was a while before I worked out why – because it sounded like the theme tune to “Brookside”, which I believe was played by some members of OMD (an urban myth apparently ). I may be wrong about that. After the climax of that song, “Julia’s  Song” kicks in with an ancient beat box rhythm before turning into a more conventional song. A real live drummer, a propulsive bass line, more guitar hiding in the background. But the words are again hindered by McCluskey’s yelp, but there may be a reason for this (the words were written by Julia Kneale, a member of The Id and McCluskey’s partner at the time the song was written so it may well be that some of the words are about McCluskey himself). But the song falls over itself constantly, like a drunk climbing some stairs. As it fades it highlight the oddball guitar and dubby organ washes. “Red frame white light” is a perky ditty about the telephone box they used as an office for a while, but all short word bursts again, strange descriptions – “You have a yellow book with adverts… 632-3003…” I know that number better than my own phone number. But again the middle eight swerves off into a different key before resolving back to the home key. Very Kraftwerk, not that I know this at that point. “Dancing” is odd, fading in on a collage of found radio sounds before a drum machine starts playing followed by a bass guitar and synth seemingly playing at right angles to each other. A semi instrumental, with occasional spoken word interjections from McCluskey distorted by effects. There’s tons of space here, gaps in the sound you could drive a car through, lots of reverb too. The album closes with “Pretending to see the future”, sparse verses and low voices before a rich chorus – fear about becoming a pawn in the record industry (the giveaway comes towards the end, in a multiple pile up of voices, McCluskey is very clear with “See you the same time the same place next year with the same kind of product and a similar sound”). The last three album tracks have a strange atmosphere, a hint of darkness, spacious yet odd. I liked the album a lot on first impressions, it was minimal but melodic and thoughtful.

I eagerly moved on to “Organisation”, their second album released nine months after their debut. My copy of this album had the standard grey sleeve, unlike other copies with a black sleeve. A foreboding photo of dark clouds over a mountain and lakes. On the back, Humphreys and McCluskey look pensive in black and white. Only one song on the sleeve that I recognise. The labels are two tones of grey with the DinDisc logo and credits.

“Enola Gay”, well I knew this song from late 1980, from Top Of The Pops and Nationwide. Already a leap forward is noticeable – in the quality of songwriting, the layering of synths, even McCluskey’s singing is more confident and less yelping. There are a few reasons for this – “Organisation” was produced by Mike Howlett  (former bass player in Gong and at that time partner of DinDisc label boss Carol Wilson) who added a new level of polish to the music. Also Malcolm Holmes – who drummed on “Julia’s Song” on the debut – has been integrated into the band to give it some physical muscle and heart. And there’s another reason which I wouldn’t learn for a year or so…. “Enola Gay” though is electronic pop at its catchiest – almost every element is a hook, from the drum machine to each layer of synthetic sound. Sure, at this point I don’t understand the lyric at all but that doesn’t stop the enjoyment. “2nd Thought” begins with atonal chimes, synth drops and bass pulses before starting properly, a strange choral synth tone as lead, propulsive bass and rhythm and while the chordal organ beds from the debut album remain, there’s more around them, a new level of intricately woven melodic elements and hooks. McCluskey sounds calmer but the words don’t sound that way – “though the order in our lives left sometime ago, we are the ones who never cried – or so we’re told”. What, told not to cry? So you DO cry? But why? “VCL XI” offers no solutions, a melange of noises, synthetic and otherwise (is that a prepared piano clanging away?), McCluskey’s words are smeared and close to the ear and almost impenetrable – and it turns out to be deliberate. I’ve tried to decipher this song for 32 years and I find a website now saying McCluskey mumbled into the mic some vocal sounds which sounded good. Only there’s one word which is loud and clear in the first verse – “Suicide”. Hmm. “VCL XI” bangs and clatters along, quite experimental for a pop album. “Motion and heart” breezes along on a swing drum machine pattern and is rather nice but just as with songs on the debut the instrumental chorus swerves off into a different key. And there’s hurt too – “I couldn’t believe this would happen again, the things you said – and I called you my friend”. But on the surface a pop song. The side ends with “Statues”. This may need a paragraph on its own….

A drum machine patterns in, bathed in reverb, mid tempo, deliberate… do you know what? I can’t do this song justice. It’s odd, as soon as I heard “Statues” that evening it stopped me dead, just as it is now. This is powerful music, so calm yet so pained too. The synths swell and soar, McCluskey sings his heart out, and no honestly I’m not crying it’s just something in my eye. That high synth note that sustains in movingly throughout the whole song. This song is beautiful. This song is wonderful. This song is one of my three favourite songs of all time. This song means more to me as time passes and friends and family move away or pass on. This song has never been surpassed. This song sends chills down my spine. This song can stop time. This song has the most gorgeous fade out. This song should be played at my funeral. This song is SPECIAL.

Side two starts with “The misunderstanding”, the tension is almost unbearable, wavering synths wail in the distance, Holmes beats a martial tattoo across the song, McCluskey and Humphreys are almost shouting in unison – “Misunderstood but our intentions are good”. Towards the end they almost scream “Please please please please please please it can’t be over….” (or is it “It’s clouding over”, back to the storm clouds approaching). “The more I see you” is light relief after that, layers of cascading melodies and McCluskey’s crooning. Curiously this was one of the songs which made the deepest impression on me at the time and even though I know OMD aren’t keen on it (Carol Wilson wanted a cover version, they had a backing track with no words so McCluskey sang an old Sixties hit) I rather like it.  “Promise” is Humphreys’ first solo lead vocal, his voice more tentative than McCluskey’s but a pleasant change of mood. The song itself was another instant favourite of mine and at this distance I’m not sure why. Yes I love the song but it’s not that good. Still the album has one last genius move – the closer “Stanlow”. Again, I knew nothing at this point, I didn’t realise it was an oil refinery and that years later it would become famous for being the scene of fuel protests at the start of the 21st Century. But the song is a gorgeous tone poem, creating a sound picture with the clatter and clang of a real pump at Stanlow, the hissing white noise and echoing machinery – this is a huge step onwards from the debut album only nine months before. The synths create a swathe of orchestral grandeur, the machines pulse, and McCluskey sings of love for home – Stanlow was always lit up in the night on the outskirts of Runcorn when the band returned home from gigs, it was a sign of comfort. The song moves through stages, the main song throbbing with layers of melody and McCluskey’s voice is richer, darker, subtler than before. The song returns to the machine pulse to close and the last clang reverabates as the music stops. A powerful end to a great album.

And there was still one àlbum left to listen to – the 1981 LP “Architecture and morality”. A yellow sleeve with a cut out to show a picture within on the inner sleeve, which can be reversed to have two different pictures showing (an idea Pulp would extend in 1995, I’ve just realised). Again on the back McCluskey and Humphreys look like contestants on The Apprentice, not smiling. This isn’t going to be a bundle of laughs.

What is odd about “A&M” is that seeing it and owning it at this point reminded me of something, how the album had already been in our house before. My father was a member of a record club in his work, people would buy an album and it would be passed around the members who would listen and tape it and pass it on, blatantly ignoring<strike the old mantra of “Home taping is killing music” – oh how we laughed at that one. But “A&M” had appeared at home in late 1981, lothen disappeared a few days later. I can’t remember hearing the album being played at that time and none of it made its way onto any of his compilation tapes. It can’t have made an impression on him, I wonder what kind of impression it would make on me. I looked at the two tone red label, similar to the one on “Organisation” and dropped the needle on side one.

Hisses and crashes, a thumping bass drum, some guitar noise and then a two chord guitar thrash, quite charmingly amateurish like my own attempts at guitar playing at the time. But this sounded desperate. McCluskey is almost shouting, something had gone wrong and he knows it and it’s all his fault – “Oh my God what have I done this time?” Synth lines whine and wheeze across each other, the song hurtles toward a second verse, a second vocal emphasises occasional words, and now it’s not “what have I done?” but “Oh my God what have WE done this time?” It’s a collective fear now, and drones take over the song as it fades. This isn’t the kind of sound electro pop bands make. Scratchy guitars? Wow. “She’s leaving” is more conventional – the title a nod to a previous Liverpool group – and more layers of melody, for a song based on so few chords there is a rich selection of melodic ideas and little riffs. The words took me a long time to work out, but it doesn’t matter, by the climax of “The more we learn the less we know” it makes sense. And was that line a nod to another Beatles song? A song so ridiculously catchy, it was kept as an album deep cut – yet is still played live today, and was issued as a fourth single in the Benelux countries in 1982 (took me years to find a copy, that’s how I am, determined) but vetoed in the UK as ripping off fans, four singles off an album. “Souvenir” floats in and I knew this one, from the Summer of 1981 and the school disco that Christmas where everyone wanted me to do the “Prince Charming” dance (long story, don’t ask), the couples slow dancing as the song weaves it’s spell. Paul Humphreys takes a lead vocal, Martin Cooper’s sax is filtered through effects to make it unrecognisable, and those choir tapes give a distinctive bed of sound to the song. I’ve never really understood what the lyrics mean but “You’ll understand, it’s not important now” says a lot. A top 3 hit single. How could such an odd record be such a huge hit? 1981 was a great year, but an odd one. “Sealand” is a natural partner to “Stanlow”, another sound painting and another real place – it is close to Stanlow, and earlier this year while visiting my parents in Chester I saw it. But the song is all fog and sirens, clanking machinery, audible click tracks, surging rushes and huge empty spaces. It shouldn’t be heard in daylight. Hardly any words but not a problem, over seven minutes the song stretches out and is a remarkable piece of sound. A landscape to become lost in. To come to this from the debut in two years – incredible. “These arms fail you so”. Arms? Sorry, I’m stepping on someone else’s toes, someone else’s intepratation here. Please read Marcello Carlin and Lena Friesen on “A&M” here , they’re a thousand times better than me. “Sealand” closes with a coda of mellotron, an instrument which will become more dominant as the album progresses, yet was the bastion of psychedelia and progressive rock, the washes of orchestra and choir on Genesis and King Crimson and Tangerine Dream records. Nobody was using them in 1981…

Side two opens with “Joan of Arc”, another top five single and another odd hit single. Childs xylophone, echoing falsettos in echo chambers, throbbing and surging synthetics and McCluskey impassioned yet gentle too, wanting to be understood “Listen to us good and listen well”, preachy but acceptable under the circumstances. Somehow I never thought this was about Joan Of Arc, unless he had a personal relationship with her. On the other hand “Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)” does sound religious. And what’s with the intro? Atonal, avant garde and bloody hell it was another top five single. Strange times. A waltz, a strident Mellotron sounding like a bagpipe, and McCluskey… sorry, I can’t hear this song without seeing McCluskey dancing… I’ve seen OMD numerous times live and every time this song is a highlight, as is his dancing, a version of someone else’s dance, someone else who I had no idea about at the time. Sorry, sometimes this song just hits me hard and today is one of those days. The album’s title track follows. Ice cream van chimes, deep silences, more Mellotron, more discord, more tension and the miserable cheap Greek pressing letting sound through from across the grooves. What else sounded like this in 1981? When the song moves into the second section – throb and klang and building site noise – it shocks and the build of mellotron chorus stuns to silence. How could they get away with such experimental music, yet ground it in pop melody? “Georgia” sounds like “She’s leaving” part two, perky but desperately trying to convey something dark. The high lying synth line expresses disquiet and the instrumental chorus is a swirl through a bunch of radio stations but is far from random, there’s voices and sirens and what sound like Red Army choirs… and deep in the background a song… finally the sounds clear away to Humphreys singing the most important lines of the album

“Here we watch the morning star
Rising over home Georgia
Dancing in the ruins of the western world
Blindfolds on like we don’t care”

And suddenly it makes sense, a slow coda where the song deep within the miasma earlier reveals itself (and again thanks to Then Play Long for clarifying this puzzle for me) – “Keep the home fires burning – but none survive”. And a gun shot to stop. Nuclear dread was as real in 1983 as it was in 1981, nobody knew what would happen, the Cold War was a threat which certainly kept me awake at night. Morning stars? Georgia is a state in Russia, and America… and something struck me as well in that verse. “Dancing in the ruins of the western world” was the title of an article about OMD in a copy of Melody Maker my father bought in late 1981. I didn’t read it then and it was long gone by the time I heard the album, but why had he bought that MM? He had bought MM when we lived in Leeds and Harpenden but had stopped around 1978, so why with OMD on the cover in 1981? Odd. The album closes with “The beginning and the end”, a gorgeous piece of music bringing the whole album together – glockenspiel and clicking sticks like a primary school music lesson, synth surges, McCluskey playing rudimentary but effective guitar arpeggios, a simple Mellotron choir descent, acoustic piano and so much melody. And that’s just the music, McCluskey sings like a wounded angel. Accepting the inevitable end, blaming himself. So sad. A beautiful close to a wonderful album.

—————

Reading my diary entries for the period of late May to early June 1983 is instructive as I devour these albums. When I first hear them, initial standouts are “Georgia” and “Motion and heart” and I reference D in liking “The more I see you”. A few days later I list ten songs across the albums, including “Statues”. Then I go on holiday to Plymouth for a week (Whitsun holiday again) and have to leave them behind, as I didn’t have a Walkman yet. But the night before I go I write out the entire lyric of “Statues” in my diary and sing it to myself every day. While in Plymouth I buy a few OMD singles (“Telegraph” 7″, “Genetic engineering” 12″, “Messages” 10″) and devour them when I get home. On 7th June I state “Is there such a thing as a perfect album? I have one in my collection – ‘ A&M'”. And I may have been 14 and may have owned less than a dozen albums at that point but bloody hell I was right.

Over the years “Architecture and morality” has held a special place in my heart. I still listen in awe and wonder. As time has passed it becomes more unique, the whole process of the album’s creation seems like a special time for the band, when their desire to experiment was matched by their melodic ideas. The album has matured wonderfully and doesn’t sound dated as it didn’t sound of its time anyway. This is due to a decision while recording the album to play all the synths through guitar amplifiers, then micing them up, to create an air in the sound, the sound of the room. Also the use of acoustic piano, bass guitar, electric guitar and Mellotron expand the sound palette of the band immensely.

A few days ago I asked my followers on Twitter to help me find other electro pop albums issued in 1981, to compare and contrast with “Architecture and morality” and thanks to those who responded I had a list of records to listen to. Huge thanks to everyone who responded with suggestions and lists on websites, it was an interesting exercise. It seems Virgin Records had cornered the market – Human League, Heaven 17, OMD, Japan, DAF – but they all have their distinctive styles. “Tin drum” creates it’s own sound world and “Ghosts” stands tall (was this influenced by “Statues”? It inhabits a similar atmosphere). “Dare” and “Penthouse and pavement” are two sides of the same coin, as to be expected, and are both clean and dry, no air in the sound. The Depeche Mode debut “Speak and spell” sounds trite and wimpy – thanks to the Salient Braves for the NME scan of Paul Morley comparing Depeche’s debut to “A&M” and getting OMD’s album so wrong. Gary Numan’s “Dance” LP is so in awe of Japan that it hurts – but sounds tired and dated. I never took to either Ultravox or John Foxx though I’ve tried, I’ve tried… “Computer world” is in a class of its own, as perfect as “A&M”. I think “Anywhere” by New Musik is of a similar hue, a mix of electronics and guitars, sometimes the human touch of a real drummer, and lyrics which touch nerves in different ways to OMD. Soft Cell were a different kettle of fish. But nothing exactly has the same sound world as the OMD album. Marcello Carlin did suggest “This is the ice age” by Martha and the Muffins and that does make sense – also on DinDisc, and Martha Ladly suggested the OMD album title, and it was the first production job for Daniel Lanois too. I’ve not heard the full Martha and the Muffins album but the few songs I’ve heard do bear comparison. There are distinct hints of Mellotron within songs like “Casualties of glass” and “Boy without filters” (song title or what?), there is a feeling within the songs I’ve heard of fear and trepidation on modern living, even more directly expressed – the repeated chant of “Don’t lose hope” for instance. Sometime it sounds like the Feeling crossed with A Certain Ratio – as on the title track. Definitely an album I intend to find and hear in full.

Since writing the majority of this post, the unspeakable events in Paris have shocked me and wondered at the validity of writing over 4000 words on something as trite as pop music. Then a thought struck me – “Architecture and morality” is under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust, today we are under a shadow of a different kind of terror. Yet nobody is creating albums about today’s terror which could sell millions of copies and spawn three Top Five singles. Different times, as I always keep saying. But that is no excuse. What mainstream artist is making similar moves now? Radiohead I suppose. But how long did it take them to reach such heights? OMD’s progress through their first three albums is remarkable – all the more so considering the music was popular yet cutting edge, tuneful yet experimental and all made within 24 months of their first album. An amazing feat, which today’s music industry – risk averse, safe, formulaic and boring – would never allow.

“Blindfolds on like we don’t care” indeed

Next time – where I was before I got sidetracked probably

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One thought on “Dancing in the ruins of the western world

  1. I’m glad I listened to the songs as I read this (although I only have Dazzle Ships on vinyl) because hearing Statues as I read your paragraph on it was quite a moment. I don’t alphabetize my records as I’m not inspired to listen to them that way, plus they’re split into two listening areas at home😬

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