Tag Archives: OMD

Christmas And Other Trivial Pursuits

Christmas 1986 and I’m seventeen, halfway through my second year of A Levels and quietly happy. The reasons for feeling contented will be explained more in the next Goldfish post but for now just accept that for once life seems to be swinging my way for a change. As Christmas swings around I’m happy and not worried about anything and for once didn’t write a long and detailed Christmas list of what records I wanted and where to find them, which I had for the previous few years. This meant that my presents would actually be a surprise and I wouldn’t spend Christmas Eve predicting what I was going to receive the following morning. Genuine surprised face all round then when the presents were opened. 

OMD “Live at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane” video 

Echo and the Bunnymen “Pictures on my wall” video

You know how some people make the wrong choice every time? Well that’s me and my family. Remember how Lancia gained a reputation as rust bucket death traps in the late 70s? We had one. I bought a Blackberry phone just as they stopped being good, ditto Windows Phone just as Nokia and Microsoft ditched the idea. Oh and we had one of those Vauxhalls which caught fire. And one of those Hotpoint tumble dryers which also caught fire. But the biggest wrong decision made by the Morgan household was the purchase of a Betamax video recorder in the summer of 1984. Even then we knew it was the lesser option. We would pop into the video rental shop at the top of Plassey Street next to the chip shop, gaze at the walls of videos to rent, pick one up, take it to the desk and ask forlornly “Have you got this on Betamax?” The shopkeeper would laugh and reply “Nah, only got these on Beta” and point to a small display of outdated films. Yes the sound and picture quality was fantastic, yes I had tapes which still looked great 20 years on (I ditched my last Betamax machine about ten years ago, I just had too much good stuff to lose it all) but bloody hell it was hard enough to find videos for Betamax in 1984, so how the hell did I end up with two of them for Christmas two years later? I still don’t know really.

As for the contents of these two videos they can’t really be faulted. The OMD video was reissued as part of a package with “Architecture and morality” in 2007, a CD and DVD package which was nice to see again, except that was the sixth time I had bought that album (and the fourth time on CD). As a concert experience it’s great. It’s OMD in December 1981, just cresting their wave of popularity and playing songs from their first three albums. It was the only chance I could get of seeing them perform “Statues” live and probably still is. Then there’s “The new stone age” and “Mystereality” and “Stanlow”….  There’s also some odd announcements from Andy McCluskey, some comment about “Just because the royal family come here doesn’t mean we can’t come here and have a good time” (the Royal Variety Performance had taken place in the same theatre a few days before the OMD show) He also sniffily announces “Enola Gay” as “a pop song”. Ouch.

It’s a fantastic historical document really. The audience is fascinating. The men wear suits with skinny ties and dance very awkwardly (McCluskey introduces “Motion and heart” saying “This is for those wearing thin ties”) The women have Princess Di hairstyles and wear a lot of frilly blouses. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. Watching the video in 1986 was odd, I had seen OMD twice by this point and it was a far more professional band I had seen – lots of Emulators and a Fairlight on stage, a brass section and some chunky jumpers to replace the skinny ties and shirts. Back in 1981 everything looked like it was held together with sellotape and string, hardly any kind of stage show, the focus on the music and McCluskey’s dancing. Looking at it now is like stepping into a time machine. But bloody hell the band put some energy into these performances, tempos are high, they tear through “The new stone age” in the middle of the set, this electronic music is really quite human.

The Bunnymen video is somewhat different to their Liverpudlian neighbours. It’s a compilation from 1984 and contains a variety of music and forms – there’s some live footage from “Shine so hard”, their debut Top Of The Pops performance with “The back of love” from 1982, some promo videos and more. The major difference is that the Bunnymen have a mystique that was there right from the start and they’re going to maintain it no matter what. Will Mac smile at any point? Hell no. There’s lots of smoke, camouflage netting, lights from behind, shadows, coats, misery, serious and important stuff. The early live footage is great, the impressionistic film for “The puppet” and “A promise” is a little boring. The TOTP performance is fascinating – Mac can’t decide if he wants to mime or not, Pete De Freitas drums like a demon and the audience look bewildered. There’s moody videos from the Iceland trip which gave “Porcupine” a cover image. There’s a few songs from the Royal Albert Hall Concert in 1983 and a few videos from “Ocean rain” to finish with. All fine and dandy but there isn’t much personally being projected other than an aloofness which sometimes seems unfriendly. The glimpses of the audience during the RAH footage shows a very different crowd to OMD – a lot of serious young men, one female fan dancing crazily while everyone else ignores her. But the vibe given off by the whole video is “We’re special, we’re dark and moody, we’re serious” and frankly I may have enjoyed that when I was seventeen but thirty years on it’s a bit tedious. OMD seem to be having a lot more fun.

“The Smiths” – The Smiths

Now this came as a surprise. Someone must have looked at my record collection and realised that I didn’t have the debut album by the Mancunian miseries. I hadn’t told anyone I had wanted it, remember, but this was a welcome addition to the collection, even if it seemed quite old fashioned already two years after its release. After all, The Smiths of 1986 were a huge rock monster,.Johnny Marr playing a Les Paul, a second guitarist  (who had just been sacked, as it turned out) and anthems like “Panic” and “The Queen is dead” filling up the Festive 50. So listening to “The Smiths” would be a reminder of those more innocent times. But it just wasn’t like the old days any more.

The problem with “The Smiths” was the same in 1986 as it is now – the songs are great but the production is a little flat and grey, and there’s alternate versions on “Hatful of hollow” which are brighter, more sprightly and just generally better. Take album opener “Reel around the fountain” – on “Hatful” the song is in a higher key and slightly faster and Johnny Marr’s guitar shimmers like sunlight on water. On “The Smiths” the key is lowered, it’s a little sluggish and Paul Carrack adds Hammond organ and piano fills which are completely unnecessary and quite distracting. What should be the defining opening song of the debut album just drones a lot. “You’ve got everything now” also had these odd organ rolls which get in the way. On the other hand Carrack’s organ on “I don’t owe you anything” sounds more integrated into the song and works beautifully so I can’t dismiss Carrack’s contributions completely.

There are a number of elephants in the room really. There’s the lacklustre production for a start and there’s the lack of “This Charming Man” too. Yes it was on the cassette – I remember a friend showing me the tape in early 1984, as we were the only two people we knew who liked them then. And then there’s the material itself. There’s a lack of variety on offer, too many songs taken at mid tempo, too many arpeggios from Marr. You could flip the argument and make it a positive – a linear grey drizzle which is the perfect aural metaphor for the ennui and lack of drive of those lives stuck in Whalley Range and other parts of Manchester. At the time I didn’t know there was an alternate version of the album recorded with Troy Tate, and frankly if I had known I would have moved hell and high water to find a bootleg of it. As it is, the few songs issued with Tate at the helm (“Jeane”, “Pretty girls make graves”, “Reel around the fountain”) show he had a far better idea of how to layer guitars than John Porter. But then I was a huge Teardrop Explodes fan and was collecting up Tate’s excellent solo releases at the time so I would say that.

Er, where was I? Oh yes I suppose I should mention the actual album rather than what’s not there.

As always it was very easy for me as a teenager to associate myself with Morrissey’s lyrics. God damn it I would have killed for 15 minutes with whoever I crushed on at the time (again, more on that next time). There’s something very sexual about the early Smiths songs but a lot of it is thwarted by Moz’s awkwardness – he is impelled to give in to lust on “Pretty girls make graves” but he refuses, he’s too delicate for that and bloody hell yes I sort of identified with that too. “Still ill” feels like a manifesto of some kind, and I had to laugh many years later when I saw a preacher in church quote the first four lines of this song. I actually prefer this version of “Hand in glove” which must make me in a minority of one. “I don’t owe you anything” is wonderful and worth the price of admission alone.

Oh I don’t know…. I just find this album unsatisfying, a glimpse of a great album seen through a dark window. The songs are mostly great (only “Miserable lie” fails), there’s dark humour and dark thoughts and chilling thoughts and uncomfortable songs but it’s not as good as it could be. Better was to come, and even with a perspective of two years I knew they had done better. However I didn’t realise within another year they would no longer exist.

“Arthur Lee” – Arthur Lee

In 1986 I had bought “Forever changes” and “Da Capo” by Love and adored them both. I was quite happy with what I’d heard and was in no hurry to explore the rest of Love’s catalogue, or Arthur Lee’s solo work. Clearly my brother thought otherwise.

This album was recorded and issued by Rhino in 1981 and issued in the UK by Beggars Banquet. There’s twelve songs and intriguing notes from Lee himself on the sleeve. It’s an odd album this – I thought so at the time and even more so now. It’s an album out of time really. Knowing more now about Lee’s career trajectory from 1968 onwards the stylistic variety makes more sense, and I feel far more generous to this album now than I did back in 1986 when I listened a few times and consigned it to the “interesting” part of my record collection.

For a start, it’s better than I remember. “Happy me” and “One” would fit nicely onto “Four Sail” or one of the Blue Thumb albums Love made around the end of the sixties. There’s some delicate moments like “Do you know the secret?” There’s some ill advised reggae like “One on one” and “Mr Lee”… actually this album sounds like it’s been compiled from about four different recording sessions. There’s no need for Lee to rerecord “Seven and seven is” or to tackle “Many rivers to cross”. On the other hand “I do wonder” is an absolute gem, which isn’t surprising as the song was written and recorded for “Forever Changes” in 1967. It must have been hard for Lee to sit on a song as good as this for so many years.

I don’t think this album has been reissued since though I’m willing to be corrected on this. It’s a lot better (in places) than I remember. Belated thanks to Andy, only 30 years late.

“Back in the DHSS” – Half Man Half Biscuit

Could I have received a more indie present that year? Maybe “C86” but then I hated all that jingle jangle shit which clogged up half of Peel’s shows at the time. Even if HMHB had appeared on that tape, nobody really considered them to be part of C86. Sure, they shambled and were as ramshackle as the next bunch of amateurs with three chords and a mistuned Telecaster but HMHB were different …

I’d first heard them on Peel of course, it was “Sealclubbing” which ended up on the tape from early 86 with the Yeah Yeah Noh and Microdisney sessions. Then there was an appearance on “Whistle Test” breezing through “Trumpton Riots” and rumours of them blowing out “The Tube” because it clashed with a Tranmere Rovers game – this band weren’t going to be playing the fame game by the usual rules. Then there was the strangely melancholic Peel session with songs like “I left my heart in Papworth General” and “Reasons to be miserable” – “And I don’t know anyone who puts peaches on their corn flakes either” – and a farewell single of “Dickie Davies Eyes” and they were gone, for four years anyway.

But “Back in the DHSS” was their debut album, recorded for £40 to test out a friend’s recording studio, according to the tale at the time, and frankly it showed. There’s rough around the edges and there’s this – tape hiss, a band playing live with no time or facilities to remove mistakes, but a lot of charm. And of course there’s the songs.

This album became a totem for me and my friends. We would learn the songs off by heart and sing the lyrics when we were drunk down the Railway or hanging out in each other’s bedrooms, checking out each others record collections – “Oh, you’ve got this too?” and then ten minutes of quoting lines to each other accompanied by raucous laughter. It wouldn’t take much to set this off. My friend Nigel would look at me in the Railway and ask me “What did God give us Rob?” to which I’d reply “God gave us life, Nigel” and off we’d go. This was our Monty Python, this was our Young Ones, this was our “The Jerk”, this was OURS. The songs were fermented in a mix of minor celebrities from crap TV shows and sports programmes, children’s TV, a life of idleness in front of the worst of seventies and eighties TV, while smoking rather good weed and waiting for the next dole cheque. It could have been dreadful, but the attention to detail was so right, the references were so spot on that it made it hilarious, and not just once but over and over again. There was a form of impotent rage about the shiteness of mid 80s life within these grooves, but with humour too. There was still melancholy – which is why “Reflections from a flat” is my favourite song on the album – but there isn’t much of a hint of what they would become, which is national treasures.

Of course my main memory of this album was Christmas Day itself. My dear old Gran was with us, she was living in our house while she waited to move into a nice retirement flat after selling her house in Canton. When I opened this album, she said “Oh that looks interesting…” and starts to read the song titles. I hastily grabbed it off her because I didn’t want her to see “Fucking hell, it’s Fred Titmus” on there…. sorry Gran, you wouldn’t have understood.

Trivial Pursuit 

Gordon Wood was a work colleague of my father’s from BT, as far as I know they’d worked together for years. Maybe his family had made the same journey we had to find our way to South Wales from Leeds, I don’t know. (Maybe I should ask my Dad before I write these things). However in 1986 the Morgan family had met up with the Wood family a few times and every time we had ended up playing Trivial Pursuit. That’s how 1986 was.

The first time was in June. Andy had gone trainspotting and my parents were going over to visit the Woods in Whitchurch  (I may be wrong there) and I was looking forward to a night on my own, but then I changed my mind and went along. The Woods had two daughters, one about the same age as me and one slightly younger, both of whom had the initial of M. And of course I sort of crushed on the eldest daughter M1 as soon as I saw her. Fuck knows what she thought of the thin geeky idiot trying to impress her. So I looked through their record collection and spun their original mono copy of “Help!” and after a few drinks had loosened everyone up, Trivial Pursuit came out and Mum and I got thrashed at it. It was deemed so successful we did it again in July when my penfriend was over from Germany and again we played Trivial Pursuit and again I got beaten quite heavily, but boy was I crushing on M1. I even made an obscure reference to her in the sleeve note to my album from September 1986.

Trivial Pursuit was the big new game of the mid 80s and everyone was playing it. Admit it, you’ve played it at least once. Maybe on a phone or computer, a DVD game or maybe on a pub machine. You could even play it on a ZX Spectrum. It’s expanded out a bit, this one. You know the score – dash around a board answering questions across six categories to win six cheeses then back to the centre to win outright. Everyone was playing it, there were lots of expansion boxes of questions and frankly I can’t think of much more to say about it. It’s a game, we all played it. End of story.

Naturally Trivial Pursuit was under our Christmas tree, not just the game but an additional question pack on entertainment. This would make us all very welcome at any parties because we could add extra questions into the pot…. oh whatever. It did come in useful as we made another trip to the Woods household for New Years Eve and yet again I crushed on M1 and yet again lost badly at Trivial Pursuit. I blame my team mate, of course. (Note, I know who my team mate was thanks to my diary but I’m not telling). Then we stayed up til midnight, toasted the new year with champagne and I fell asleep on a camp bed around 1:30 am. And that was the last time I saw the Wood family. Anyway, this was all a distraction….

And other stuff…

According to my diary there was a red jumper and some chocolates and other stuff. I know someone was hoping the chocolates were Harlequin but they were After Eights which were (and still are) my favourite. There were probably blank tapes (I was fond of the silver BASF chrome c90s) and stuff like that. My diary doesn’t record what we actually did on Christmas Day itself, I was probably hiding in my bedroom playing records. Was this the year of Dirty Den dishing divorce on Angie? Well I remember watching that. The rest of the day? Probably fighting for the video recorder and the TV. Happy days.

(With thanks to Tim Worthington whose own post on Christmas 1986 inspired this post – have a look here , it’s very good, you could even buy his books too, the ones I’ve read are excellent)

Next time – we have fled from disaster…

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

Love and violence

(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”.[citation needed]”. 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

Romance of the Toppermosts

I love OMD. I think you probably knew that already, didn’t you? I love their pop songs, but I also love their darker side – the melancholy of “Statues”, the tone-poem of “Sealand”, the despair at the heart of “Crush”. So when those lovely folks at Toppermost asked if I’d pick a top ten OMD songs, it was those songs that I turned to. Then I wrote a few thousand words to justify my choices. If you are interested, my choices are here. Please take a look, and browse around the other articles on nearly 200 artists.

There will be another proper entry here soon. I just can’t decide what to write about next. I may do a little Twitter poll to see what others’ thoughts are. Or I may just ignore them anyway. Either way, there will be something new here by the end of next week. As ever, thanks for your patience and support.