Ah yes, OMD! The band who emerged from a Liverpool telephone box and essentially went on to invent the entirety of electronic music. Or so they’re fond of telling us in interviews, anyway. They’ve also been accused of taking heavy influence from a certain Teutonic four-piece, and have shed most of their original members at various points along the way.
Long before it all went to their heads – long, even, before they were obsessively writing songs about Joan of Arc every week or two, they were humbly starting their careers with the eponymous Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. This week sees the thirty-fifth anniversary of its release, which seems as good as an excuse as any to give it a listen.
The album opens with the slightly daft chanting of Bunker Soldiers before launching into the beautiful Almost. There’s a rawness, a youthfulness, which crops up right the way through this album, but it also captures a certain melancholy in a way that later OMD never did to quite this degree.
Another daft moment follows with Mystereality, in which singer Andy McCluskey seems determined to rattle off the silliest voices imaginable. There’s still something rather charming about it though.
The exquisite Electricity follows, more polished than the original version which turned up on Factory Records a year or so earlier. The Factory influence remained heavy on this album though, from the bouncing Peter Hook style bass patterns, to the slightly raw, unplanned electronic sound which was so different from what had been coming out of London and Germany over the preceding couple of years, right through to the truly iconic artwork.
Side A concludes with the largely pointless The Messerschmidt Twins, a heady and perhaps not entirely intentional homage to Kraftwerk‘s first couple of albums. It’s a low point, but not nearly as low as the one that characterised OMD in the mid-1980s.
The second half of the LP opens with the welcome synth rattle of Messages. The other main hit from this album, it’s entirely brilliant, and would be a welcome highlight of every singles compilation OMD would ever release. McCluskey’s vocal delivery may be a bit weird and often even a little out of tune, but on this track it works rather well. Despite my earlier reservations, it’s still fair to say that even if they had never recorded anything else, Messages and Electricity would have been enough combined to make a pretty strong stamp on the 1980s.
Julia’s Song is up next, and despite not having a proper title, it actually turns out – somewhat surprisingly – to be the best song on the whole album. The electronics are supplemented by a few guitar blings and a particularly punchy bass line, but more to the point, Julia Kneale, it turns out, was rather a better melody writer than most of OMD. Apart from the inexcusable but fortunately occasional slight lapse into scatting and wailing, Julia’s Song is truly fantastic.
The inexplicable single Red Frame/White Light follows, slightly improbably now recorded by history as their first hit, having scraped the bottom end of the singles chart. It’s actually a lot of fun, and it does have a great little melody, but it really shouldn’t have been a single. Having said that, I’m not sure how many other songs about telephone boxes have made the chart, so maybe there is something special about this one.
Weirdness is a bit of a theme here, as the warped and frankly dreadful sound of Dancing follows. Even the most ardent lover of it would probably have to admit it’s awful, and yet it does have a certain experimental charm. Hopefully they learnt their lesson and kept this kind of thing back for b-sides over the next couple of decades after this.
Finally, the closing track is Pretending to See the Future, which is an apt closing track. Like the album as a whole, it’s perhaps not as memorable as some, but it’s charming, raw, a little bit catchy, and very, very, young. For me, the debut Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark album is by far their best. The 35 years which followed have definitely had their moments, but they were definitely occasional hits rather than the consistent promise that this first album showed. You can keep your elaborate Architecture and Morality tour thanks – I’ll stick with this.
The 2003 reissue comes with bonus tracks including the original versions of Electricity and Messages and is still widely available. Incidentally, this article was initially intended for publication next week, so it’s actually a little ahead of schedule…