published: 16 /
In 'Ten Songs That Made Me Love...' Dave Goodwin reflects on ten of his favourite songs by influential 80's electronic act Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
When I was younger my musical taste was a little weird, to say the least. I opted to listen to the likes of Gilbert O'Sullivan, Alvin Stardust and Roger Whitaker of all people, but then began to take an avid interest in my dad's record box, which housed a great collection of black music and assorted 60’s oddities which were mixed up with some Beatles and Frank Sinatra stuff. As my tastes grew, I got into New Wave just before the start of the 1980’s and started buying my own records. It was then in 1980 that I heard a style of music coming out of my step-brother’s record shop in the West End Arcade in Nottingham and it blew me away. It was sharp, had a beat and had melody. It had pop written all over it but at that time was quite obscure. And the band that was making the noise had a strange but brilliantly even more obscure name.
I immediately bought the album that the song came from which was called ‘Organisation’. It was OMD's second offering, and the track that I heard kick started a love affair with a band that has lasted into my fifties. I went back to buy their self-titled first album and then went on to buy every one afterwards. It was a massive task to pick out just ten of the best tracks, but I have had a go and begin with that track I heard in the West End Arcade...
1. ‘Enola Gay’ (Organisation, 1980)
‘Enola Gay’ was an anti-war song and the only single from ‘Organisation’. I didn't know it at the time, but it accounted the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, during the final stages of World War II. I, of course was totally oblivious to this until my dad, who had at one point called it “a load of old twaddle”, told me the story. He must have given it a good listen to dismiss it as twaddle, but then I suppose it would have been hard at that time to get a moment’s peace with it constantly blasting out at all hours.
My discovery didn't stay an obscure find for long because it ended up being an international success, selling more than 5 million copies. I soon learned all the words and would sing for hours, "Is mother proud of Little Boy today?" Little Boy was the nickname of the uranium bomb they dropped from the plane and was named after the pilot’s mother. It detonated over the city at exactly 8.15 - "It’s 8.15, and that's the time that it's always been".
This track has remained in my heart all my life. It's the track I play first on any new bit of hi-fi I get, and no doubt it'll be played at my funeral. I consider this to be arguably the finest example of 80's synth pop ever created, and that was only Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s second album!
2. ‘Love and Violence‘ (Junk Culture, 1984)
If you ever want a track to dance to on your own and just let yourself, then go to this for it. Taken from their 1984 fifth album, this is just beyond excellence. The drum beat that starts the track is infectious, and the strange synth that warbles around and meanders through and around Andy McCluskey's vocal is way different to what was being done back then. There was a lot of experimenting going on back then, not just by OMD but other brilliant bands but for me the Scousers were way ahead. It doesn’t exactly focus on the best of subjects, conjuring up arguments and lovers’ tiffs but McCluskey screams his frustrations out which can be heard all the way down the street if you let it. Turn it up. Go on, trust me. I was lucky enough to interview Andy, and he admitted this was possibly his favourite track from the album.
3. ‘Souvenir’ (Architecture and Morality, 1981)
Consisting of slowed-down loops of a choir tuning up, this was again way ahead of its era and far beyond what the others were doing at the time. I bought the extended version of it which had an additional verse and was the second of their releases to be released as a 10" single, the first being the 10" single for ‘Messages’ in May 1980. ‘Souvenir’ was also different due to the fact that it was sung by keyboard player Paul Humphreys, but during an interview I was also lucky to have with Paul he admitted he was not a fan of the track.
Again this track is typical OMD with catchy rhythms, albeit slower than the previous two choices but the melody of the synth is totally special. it showcases for me how simple a melody can be to great effect and OMD were and are pure masters of it. It reached number 3 in the UK largely due to a timely appearance on ‘Top of the Pops’ where they sported the "classic" four members, Paul Humphreys (vocals and keyboards), Andy McCluskey (bass guitar), Malcolm Holmes (drums) and Martin Cooper (keyboards). I remember studying the artwork and the different size of the 10 inch format on the bus journey home. I studied it that hard I missed my stop and had to walk back the rest of the way.
4. ‘88 Seconds in Greensboro’ (Crush, 1985)
This next choice is controversial as it was written about the Greensboro’ Massacre which took place on November 3, 1979, when members of the Communist Workers' Party and others demonstrated in a "Death to the Klan" march in Greensboro, North Carolina, United States. To cut a long story short, the CWP engaged in a shootout with members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, and four members of the Communist Workers' Party and one other individual were killed and eleven other demonstrators and a Klansman were wounded.
For me this was a vast departure for the band. While it still had synth and keys, it had this almost Tarantino-esque thick guitar line from the start along with a definite marching style drum beat. McCluskey's booming vocals reach a new previously unheard of raucous state, while Humphreys' and Cooper's backing wraps the whole attitude-laden jaunt up for good measure.
5. 'Julia's Song' (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, 1980)
I love all the tracks on the first album, but the one that stuck out for me wasn't written by OMD at all but by a lady named Julia Kneale when they were all part of a previous band called The Id, hence the track being called ‘Julia's Song’. The final version is not far off the original, but sounds a little heavier and crisper. I actually talk with Julia now and again, and she divulged this little gem exclusively for this article that will put fans at ease as there has been, it seems, a lot of speculation as to what it is about:
“40 years ago I wrote a weird poem on a tiny scrap of paper at an Id band rehearsal (I was vocalist with Andy. There were eight of us originally in the band). I was always and still am writing stuff. ‘Julia’s Song’ is about the superficiality of looks and how we need to see beyond all that crap as we get older and develop a more altruistic spiritual side to ourselves.”
I asked her, “Did you ever envisage the poem as a song then?”
"No. It was Andy and Paul who turned it into a song and it was only ever me who sang it in those days. He took the song with him when the band became known as OMD and I had to get a contract for the lyrics.”
6. ‘2nd Thought’ (Organisation, 1980 )
My second choice from the ultra-brilliant ‘Organisation’ album. The start to this is arguably the best intro to a track ever. It begins with a kind of distorted bell sparsely chiming, and then kicks into a drum beat and choir synth and has an immense sound by the time McCluskey graces it with a laid-back vocal. This is just genius and when it came out in 1980 it just showed how far ahead of the game Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were. I find it hard to put into words how good this track is, so I'll just sit back and listen to it again and again and again…
7. ‘The New Stone Age’ (Architecture and Morality, 1981)
‘The New Stone Age’ starts like the intro to a spaghetti western, and shows again the diversity of the band. The entire ‘Architecture and Morality’ has an industrial sound, but this has guitars at first and is then accompanied by a searing synth that makes your ears bleed. he synth starts to get a mind of its own and flies all over the place, while McCluskey is joined by Humphreys’ backing and egging him on. The vocals of “Oh My God, what have we done this time?” repeat until the title is harmonised over at the end and it drifts off to random glockenspiel. Nice!
8. ‘Never Turn Away’ (Junk Culture, 1984)
Another Paul Humphreys-led winner from the top drawer album, ‘Junk Culture’. I have no idea what it is about and the lyrics are pretty simplistic, but the drumbeat-like distant thunder in places and the crescendo of keyboards makes this for me. I reckon we all have one of those songs that we just like for no real reason. Perhaps just one line is important or like the Phil Collins Gorilla drums in that advert it just shines through.
9. ‘Big Town’ (Sugar Tax, 1991)
10. ‘Neon Lights’ (Sugar Tax, 1991)
The next two choices come from the ‘Sugar Tax' album of 1991, which charted at No. 3 in the UK Albums Chart and spawned two UK Top 10 hit singles, ‘Sailing on the Seven Seas’ and ‘Pandora's Box’ and sold over three million copies by the mid noughties. There isn't a bad song on that album but I have to admit to it missing the influence of Paul Humphreys. This is the first album to be recorded after he left the band for sixteen years in 1989, and OMD went in a more pop direction instead of remaining the experimental synth pioneers we had come to know.
‘Big Town’ is another of those tracks that doesn't mean much but musically I'm drawn to it. I'm guessing it's about places like the Big Apple and London and the comparisons they draw with where McCluskey grew up in Liverpool. ‘Neon Lights’ is a cover of Kraftwerk’s song from their 1978 album, ‘The Man Machine'. I'm not a big lover of covers because I think that covers are rarely done better or equally as the original, but this is one of them. It was actually my favourite from ‘The Man Machine’ album, so it had to be good to beat that and it is. With a slightly more up-tempo and pronounced beat than the original, this bounces along nicely and is typical of OMD’s output post Humphreys, but it still keeps them to their original lines.
Photos by Dave Goodwi