Orchestral Manoeuvres In The DarkOrganisation
Released 1980 on DinDisc
Reviewed by flashbackcaruso, 30/10/2010ce
1. Enola Gay 3:33
2. 2nd Thought 4:15
3. VCL XI 3:50
4. Motion And Heart 3:16
5. Statues 4:30
1. The Misunderstanding 4:55
2. The More I See You 4:11
3. Promise 4:51
4. Stanlow 6:30
Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey did not originally set out with the intention of making hit records. If they did they wouldn't have chosen such an unwieldy and frankly ridiculous name as Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. Armed with a Korg Micropreset and a reel-to-reel tape recorder they named Winston, their aim was to produce experimental music in the style of their Krautrock heroes, although the results inevitably had a D.I.Y. new wave feel. Debut single 'Electricity', released on Factory records at the insistence of Tony Wilson's wife, still sounds like a thrilling cross between 'Radioactivity' and 'Teenage Kicks'. The self-titled debut album fulfilled this initial promise with a collection of songs that mixed twitchy electronic pop with eerie atmospherics and moments of plain weirdness. A reworked 'Messages' began the accidental but hugely successful assault on the UK singles chart, culminating in the million-selling 3rd album 'Architecture & Morality'. The fact that this LP contained large chunks of abstract experimentalism suggested to the band that they could push further in this direction and still sell by the bucketload, but the relative commercial failure of the ultra-weird 'Dazzle Ships' resulted in a loss of nerve that saw the band play safer for their remaining albums. 'Junk Culture', 'Crush' and 'The Pacific Age' all contain many fine moments, and the tendency to experiment with strange textures and samples is still there, but the early purism has gone, allowing some of the more unfortunate trends of the mid-to-late 1980s creep in.
But there is one album I have missed out, and it is all too easily overlooked. 'Organisation' came hot on the heels of the debut and although it contains one of OMD's most famous singles, it is a one-hit album due to the fact that much of the remainder of the music is deeply melancholy, a mood perfectly matched by the gloomy cover photograph. The band have said that the recent death of Ian Curtis cast a shadow over the recording sessions and one song supposedly features lyrical reference to him (OMD's early tour with Joy Division must have presented a unique opportunity to see the era's two worst dancers sharing the same bill). The casual fan is most likely to bypass 'Organisation' and opt instead for a singles compilation in order to add 'Enola Gay' to their collection. Considering that it is such a major song in their canon, it is interesting to note that it was the cause of disagreement within the OMD camp. Offered by Andy McCluskey as his first solo composition for the band, it met with resistance from Paul Humphreys who, clearly sticking to OMD's experimental agenda, complained that it was 'too poppy'. (Perhaps in retalliation, McCluskey initially disliked 'Souvenir', Humphreys' offering for the next album, on the grounds that it was 'too soft'). But it is one of the all time great examples of a massive pop record being based on an unpromising subject matter, namely the US plane that dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima. I knew nothing of this when the single came out, only being amazed that a band was allowed to use the word 'gay' in a song title, let alone have the lyrics published in 'Look-In' (I was 10 at the time). Despite Paul Humphreys' fears, 'Enola Gay' was never really going to harm their reputation, especially as the public and critics already seemed to have a different perception of OMD to the band themselves. It provides a neat contrast to the music that follows. Desolate bells introduce '2nd Thought', as perfect a title for a track two as you could wish for. And what a classic it is. Another solo McCluskey composition, it appears to have been built from the ground upwards with the melody, as simple but perfect as it is, added almost as an afterthought. The arrangement couldn't be simpler - sticking to one unchanging chord throughout, with the main notes of the chord played in descending order over and over, texture and mood are everything. The addition of Malcolm Holmes as a permanent band member meant that much of the album contains live drums, giving this wonderfully miserable song with no verse or chorus a real kick up the backside. 'VCL XI' was a name the band went under in their early days, taken from one of the valves (actually written as 'VCL 11') on the back of Kraftwerk's 'Radioactivity' LP (the title 'Organisation is a further tribute, a reference to Ralf & Florian's first band). But even when wearing their inspirations on their sleeves OMD always manage to transcend mere tribute, ending up with something that is very much their own, with Andy McCluskey's cheeky bassline and semi-whispered vocals being far removed from anything you'd find on a Kraftwerk record. Having said that, it is hard not to picture robots dancing solemnly to this particular track, the most fun moment on the album. Again, it isn't really a proper piece of songwriting, more layer upon layer of simple riffs and melodies all weaving together in an extremely satisfying way, and again all on one chord. But even the most tightly wound clockwork mechanism must eventually come to a stop and 'VCL XI' concludes by faltering and falling apart. 'Motion & Heart', an enjoyable futurist-retro ditty with a jazzy swing to it, was mooted as a second single off the album, with a new version actually recorded to that end. But it serves its purpose best as an eccentric album track, a lighter moment before the desperately sad song which closes side one. The third of McCluskey's solo compositions, 'Statues' seems to employ the bossa nova setting on a cheap Casio keyboard, but the emotional resonance is immense. The opening lyrics 'The way you moved/I can't explain/The mood subsides/And grows again' are said to be about Ian Curtis, and again the melody is minimal but extremely moving. A single, persistant, high-pitched note runs throughout and at one point thick synthesizer notes awkwardly work their way upwards, like the sun struggling to break through clouds. Andy's voice has never sounded so broken as he repeats the final line 'I can't imagine how this ever came to be'. I remember being bowled over when OMD played this song at the Roundhouse a couple of years ago. My friend, who had never really bothered with the first two albums, remained unmoved. Evidence that 'Organisation' is an album that takes a bit of time to fully appreciate.
Side two kicks off in a more forceful, but far from upbeat, style with 'The Misunderstanding'. Harsh synthesizer riffs are matched by an aggressive vocal, with everything sounding slightly out of tune as if being pushed a bit too hard. It is in some ways reminiscent of the more sour moments on the first album. The next song is an oddity, a cover version which came about by accident. An instrumental track the band were working on reminded them of the Chris Montez hit 'The More I See You' and, rather than fight it, they decided to actually use the piece as a backing track for that very song. The result is a bit awkward and OMD have admitted to being a tad embarrassed by it now, but there are some good sounds in there. 'Promise' is Paul Humphrey's first solo composition as well as his first lead vocal, but rather than singing in the soft voice familiar from later hits such as 'Souvenir' and 'Forever (Live & Die)', here he seems to be trying to sound like Gary Numan. It's not a bad song, but it sounds more like a generic synth band of the time, lacking the more distinctive style that OMD had already made their own. But the final song is a classic and the sort of thing that no other band would have attempted: a 6 minute 40 second ode to a local power station. 'Stanlow' begins with a field recording of the place itself, the rhythmic clanking making it possibly the largest percussion instrument on record. Long, cinematic synthesizer notes come sweeping in before making way for a single chord over which Andy, with a sense of awe that borders on the religious, begins his tribute: 'Eternally/This field remains/Stanlow/No heart or head or mind/No season could erase/We set you down/To care for us/Stanlow.' Then something magical seems to happen. The trusty Korg micropreset, an instrument which is about as basic a synthesizer as you can find, but which can do wonderful things in the right hands, comes in as a simple one-note pulse and then adds a rudimentary 4 note upward scale which somehow sounds terribly affecting. It's one of the best examples of OMD's understanding of the beauty of simplicity. From this point it is a matter of just adding or subtracting various ingredients which develop upon the theme, building to an emotional crescendo without getting too pompous, and concluding with a rudimentary fanfare as the clanking machinery returns, ending the whole album with one last echoing 'clack!'
Original pressings of 'Organisation' came with a free 'artifact', a bonus EP entitled 'The Unreleased '78 Tapes', documenting an early live performance. Four pieces of very primitive synthesizer music, the highlight is the gorgeous 'Distance Fades Between Us', which is little more than a series of heartbreaking chord changes. OMD had clearly studied their John Cage: the opening track 'Introducing Radios' is literally a random flick through some radio dials. This EP is thankfully included on the CD reissue.
'Organisation' is one of those albums that takes quite a few plays to get to love but is well worth the effort. Amazing to think that it made no.6 on the UK chart, but this was most likely on the strength of its opening track. 'Architecture & Morality' was just around the corner, with its mellotrons and Joan Of Arc obsession. And now that the long Unsung 'Dazzle Ships' has finally been given its due, maybe it's time for this oft-neglected second album to emerge from the shadows.