Thursday, January 22, 2009

Some Thoughts on Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

WARNING: If you're not into lengthy dissertations on early '80s British electropop bands, STOP reading this post RIGHT NOW.

We take requests here at Feigned Outrage. We do it because it makes it all the more likely someone outside of the three of us is going to read a post. And — pow! — if a reader is actually going to request a post from the Some Thoughts On . . . Department, I have to deliver. And so, some thoughts on Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
First off: The Hardest Band Name To Type. Just brutal. Had to get that off my chest. Thank God for the acronym. On to substance:

OMD is the first band I ever really obsessed over. And putting aside the sundry Neil Diamond and Air Supply concerts I went to with my family, OMD is the first band I ever saw perform live. Depeche Mode was a close second, taking the stage just ninety minutes after OMD did, at the onetime Blossom Music Theater in Akron, Ohio, back in 1988. My Rock Snob destiny was foretold at this early age: this was my first concert, and my motivation in going was to see the opening act.

For my purposes here, I’m going to cover just a subset of the Manoeuvres’ oeuvre — the recordings from 1980’s self-titled debut through The Pacific Age, cuts from which era were selected for their 1988 Best of OMD compilation, which along with DM’s Speak & Spell were the first two albums I bought on compact disc. (Lots of firsts here for Phutatorius.)

This puts seven terrific albums in play, and when I think of them, my working thesis has to be that OMD’s gig (and probably its weakness, from a commercial standpoint) was its ability to swing wildly between extremes of avant-garde experimentalism and McCartney-esque pop artistry — and, at times, to strike a perfect balance between the two. It’s a bit of a short cut (though a useful one) to say the avant-garde came early and the pop songs came late, because early cuts were catchy (“Enola Gay,” “Telegraph”) and late-issue tracks downright weird (“Crush,” “The Dead Girls”). I tend to favor the albums in the middle — Architecture & Morality, Dazzle Ships, and Junk Culture, because their sound was more robust than on the pingy and minimalist earlier albums, and the later albums were inconsistent and at times just plain cheeseball.

(I’ll pause over Crush for a moment for nostalgia’s sake, and over The Pacific Age for the transcendent album cover (above) — rendered more than a few times in blue ink over pencil on my cut-from-grocery-bag textbook covers in 8th and 9th grade.)

Consider Dazzle Ships Track 2: “Genetic Engineering.” What was going on there? A typewriter sets the beat, leading in to a send-up of an ad jingle, two men and a woman, alternating touts: “Efficient — logical — effective — and practical! Using — our resources — to the best of — our ability!” This was Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” fourteen years earlier. Then came guitars — a rarity for Messrs. McCluskey and Humphrey (though not the first time we’d heard them: they’d sprung guitars on us in “The New Stone Age” — A&M’s stunning opening track, which carried every bit as much menace and unease as something Nine Inch Nails might have recorded at their peak. But I'm digressing.). Then a Speak & Spell steps in to counter the upbeat promo voices. Baby! Mother! Hospital! Scissors! Creature! Judgment! Butcher! Engineer!

By now the whole Speak & Spell business might seem stale: sort of like The Road Warrior’s aesthetic. You have to take six pills and forget the hundred awful knock-offs that followed, so you can remember how groundbreaking the original was. So it is here: an evocative, impressionistic sequence of these eight select words, and now we can hear marching footsteps. Boots. Hints of creeping fascism, clearly, and only now the first verse. There’s a brilliant, catchy pop song to follow over the next three minutes. Genius. The sentiment was a bit overwrought, but the song was genius.

OMD did so much of this, and I'm sorely tempted to go on at length. There’s the song suite about Joan of Arc on A&M. Why? Don’t ask; don’t question McCluskey’s earnest vocals. What the hell is “ABC Auto-Industry,” and why is it so beautiful? Ditto “Romance of the Telescope” — what are these people talking about? And just when you think you might be overmatched by the arcane subject matter, the music's layered complexity, the synthesized choral tracks, the audio samples (done before it was cool) — just then they serve up something simple and sublime like “She’s Leaving” or “Never Turn Away,” the latter of which screamed for inclusion in the final boy-gets-girl scene of some John Hughes movie. Never mind “If You Leave,” the song that made these guys briefly famous. The quintessential ’80s teen movie song is “Never Turn Away,” whether or not it ever landed on a soundtrack.

I could go on about this band’s early cramped, Continental, Cold War aesthetic, and how, while their punk/post-punk contemporaries continued to serve up the same humdrum images of fallen empire and urban decay, OMD’s recordings were evocative in such a distinct and interesting way. You played the albums and you thought of trench warfare, legacy telecommunications, radar blips, battleships, abstract art (contrast punk’s Dadaism), cathedrals, Catholic martyrdom, and BBC news. I could go on about spending an entire summer vacation playing and re-playing “Love and Violence” in my car, and only letting up occasionally on the rewind button, when I realized the next track, “Hard Day,” was just as good. Talking up these two songs could lead me into a hundred or more words about McCluskey’s extraordinary voice (never mind Humphreys’s clunker of a larynx). But I’m self-editing now, so this is all you get.

That all this should have culminated in the godawful video for “(Forever) Live and Die” — there will be no embed here — and the hamhanded digressions about the U.S. civil rights movement (I’m thinking Crush’s “88 Seconds in Greenboro,” “Southern” on The Pacific Age), is I think, cause for some regret. And remember: I’ve ruled the last three albums out of this analysis completely. All this notwithstanding, let’s give OMD their props. I don’t think there was a better band going between 1981 and 1983; if there was, it was Bow Wow Wow, and it’s not fair to compare humans to superhumans.


Mithridates said...

I'll have more to say later, but don't rip on the size of our readership. Googling "Feigned Outrage" finds our humble site on the second page - up from fourth a few weeks ago. Tens of people are reading this blog. Tens.

Mithridates said...

You had me until you last line of utter, unbearable blasphemy. Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity came out in that time span.

Now, ALL I knew about OMD before reading your above Rockument was form the Pretty in Pink soundtrack. Fair enough. But you have yet to convince me that any of their work was more relevant and real than Grandmother screaming at the wall, Mother faking suicides, Secretaries preening like cheap tarts, and Daddy packed liked a lemming in a shiny metal box, contesting a suicidal race.

Phutatorius said...

We need comment moderation.

Mithridates said...

Picked up Junk Culture at Reckless Records last night. Haven't played it yet. Have to get through Prince's 1999 first. I'm sure you can understand.

Anonymous said...

I was at that Blossom show! I actually danced during the OMD show. (You know me and know that's a big deal). I fell asleep at the end of the DM show. (Again you know me and how easily I fell asleep back then.)


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