Rock GPA: Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark [part 4]

OMD’s 1980 live lineup with Mike Douglas and Malcolm Holmes

[continued from this post]

After the Kraftwerk pastiche of “Electricity,” it followed with another dip into the Düsseldorf waters for “The Messerschmitt Twins.” This time, the template was side two of the “Autobahn” album. “Morgenspaizergang” in particular, from the days when Florian Schneider was still allowed to play the flute. The longish number began with random, flutelike synth tones drifting across the barren soundscape. White noise winds roared off in the distance of the horizon and the insistent chug of a rhythm box began setting the funereal pace.

The nagging plod of the rhythm coupled with the vague, deliberately flat melody painted a picture of bleak, anxiety over a decision already made, and about which absolutely nothing could be done.

“Your mind is made up
The time is taken
You reach decisions
We can’t avoid them
There’s no success, no matter what we do” – “The Messerschmitt Twins”

It was an arid landscape that investigated a thread that Kraftwerk had eliminated from their music completely by 1977. The detuned synths spoke of moral ambiguities and an angst that had no place in the machinelike confidence of modern Kraftwerk. This was one of the top pulls of OMD for these ears. Their work was obviously informed by Kraftwerk’s groundbreaking sound design, but the emotional tone of the work was the furthest thing from that of Kraftwerk. Andy McCluskey, in direct contrast, was a seething cauldron of doubt, fear and anxiety as compared to Ralf Hütter. At least on disc.

Their breakthrough single was “Messages,” but not in the form that the album contained. Here, the song was in its larval form with a simple sequencer loop, drumbeat, and sustained organ chords. McCluskey’s vocals examined the difficulty of communication over the soaring, tremolo synth leads on the Korg which pointed back to the seminal technopop of the “Telstar” single of The Tornadoes from eighteen years earlier. By this time the band’s penchant for writing songs with instrumental verses was very noticeable. This was a major signifier of the band’s naive period. The gently loping album version was considerably re-arranged and re-recorded for the band’s third single attempt. Virgin roped in producer Mike Howlett who invested the song with a dramatic new buildup that took it to the UK top 10, giving OMD a leg up for a very strong and long run on the UK charts.

The band reached once again back into their scrapbook for “Julia’s Song;” an old [ca. early ’77] song from their days in the OMD precursor The Id. The cut was so-named for co-writer Julia Kneale’s lyrics, which were far away from the usual OMD concerns. The darkly sensual poetry coupled with the least restrained vocals ever by McCluskey conspired to make this one stand out from the bulk of OMD material even as it was a touchstone to the band through the years; culminating in a re-recrding in 1984 for the B-side of the “Talking Loud + Clear” single.

Andy trilled. Andy bleated. Andy sang in a falsetto for the first time as he stepped far outside of his early comfort zone. The music here was equally differing with organ chords on top of an atypical mambo rhythm from former drummer for The Id Malcolm Holmes and the centerpiece was the bass line by McCluskey which lurched to and fro in a compulsive manner that was unusual for OMD. This was not a band known for strong bass lines. Dave Fairburn contributed his only addition to the OMD oeuvre with his barely perceptible guitar jangle. The Pianotron carried the melody rondo that eventually manifested even as the song’s coda dipped its toes into dub territory for the chord organ.

The band’s second single, following “Electricity,” had been “Red Frame/White Light.” It had not troubled the charts, but that didn’t mean that it had no pull with these ears. In fact, the passage of decades has only caused this one to take on new power with this listener. It’s the one song from “Orchestral Manœuvres In The Dark” that I would pay good money to hear live as I simply loved the abstract, New Wave bop value of this one.

The Roland CR78 intro beat was also used on “Gary Numan’s Remind Me To Smile,” Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass,” and Roxy Music’s “Same Old Scene.” I love every one of these songs and is it a coincidence that they all feature the same, slightly Morodoresque beat? I think not. That OMD would write a song about the most abstract of subject matter: the phone booth near their studios, marked them as arch-nerds of a rare stripe. The pull between the abstract and analytical and the dark emotions of anxiety that this band trafficked in pulled me in like an angler. It said everything that the B-side to this single was a song called “I Betray My Friends.” Most people would simply not write such a song! How I would love to hear an extended remix of this one, but alas, the 12” single is the straight LP cut.

The least typical song on this album was “Dancing,” pure B-side material if ever there were any conscripted to fill out a debut album. The use of recorded tapes collaged in the pre-sampler era looked back to nostalgia of the war-era while also pointing to the future via the unique lead lines here that found the band using a Kawai polysynth that had a tendency to wail like a cat in heat. Various vocal tapes were given what sounded like a ring modulator treatment. The title was vocoded and it all sounded random to these ears; one of the shabbiest OMD tracks from this era. It was one thing to dig out older but strong material from The Id to populate the album, but this really did sound like something created one afternoon because they were a song shy of an album.

Fortunately, the album ended on a much stronger note with “Beginning To See The Future.” This was gifted with a stuttering technopop beat and exceptionally cynical and self-referential lyrics from McCluskey bemoaning their newfound fate as cogs in the music industry machine. The sound was clean and technical but suffused with a defeatism that was edging into melancholy. That melancholy would blossom soon enough on the band’s next outing, but here, it was still below the surface, since the teenagers who wrote these tunes probably didn’t quite have the seasoning for such emotions.

I like “Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark” well enough, but for me it’s the weak sister in the first five albums. I liked hearing the full album following my exposure to the US compilation that had hooked me but bad, but of all of the five songs that were only on the original debut album, and not the Frankenstein’s monster that Virgin/Epic released, just “Red Frame/White Light” and “The Messerschmitt Twins” were to a similar high standard that compilation represented. “Dancing” was substandard any way I cared to slice it, making this an album of no small promise whose latent value was apparent in spades with the release of “Organisation” just nine months later.  The growth curve between albums one and two was definitely one for the books.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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2 Responses to Rock GPA: Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark [part 4]

  1. critterjams says:

    Glad to see “Messerschmitt Twins” get its due. This was the first OMD album I got and that song in particular convinced me that this band was worth pursuing.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      critterjams – While I think that the US “Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark” album was a perfect vector of infection for a lifetime of OMD fandom, I find that “The Messerschmitt Twins” was one of the most sophisticated tracks from the debut and had more in common with a prime deep cut like “Stanlow” that showed the furthest reaches of the band at that time. not getting it on the US OMITD album after hearing it on the radio was disappointing. Easily corrected by buying the import LPs from which it was compiled. Though it was always important for the [superior] Hannett versions of “Electricity” and “Almost.”


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