[continued from last post]
How appropriate that on the day following Martin Luther King Day that we turn our attention to “Southern.” This was another scarce OMD instrumental; or would have been had it not had excerpts from Martin Luther King’s final speech in Memphis on behalf of the striking sanitation workers in April of 1968. I can’t shake the feeling that Paul Hardcastle’s “19” set the stage for this track, though King’s speech was thankfully not scratched to the beat. The best thing about this track were the heraldic horns from the Weir Brothers. They had some of the heft that one could find in John Cale’s “Helen Of Troy.” I’d go as far as saying that they were the height of OMD dalliance with a horn section.
It was surprising to hear this track placed first on side two; normally the place for a hit single. This was nothing of the sort, and truth be told. It had the feel of a B-side rather than an LP deep cut. It really didn’t feel at home on the album to these ears. Of course, OMD being OMD, there was second, questioning narrative voice included on the end of the track as an announcer spoke words wondering if the history of black America was so awful, that casual prejudice instead of overt strife and despair was as good as it would ever be.
The next song actually was intended as B-side material, but in the recording of the demo, the band quickly realized that “Flame Of Hope” was too good to be lost to a B-side. I concur, and commenter Richard Anvil had yesterday mentioned that “This Town” was originally slated for the album with “Flame Of Hope” earmarked as the B-side for “[Forever] Live + Die.” Fortunately, saner heads prevailed and the more interesting and typical “Flame Of Hope” found it way on the album.
The track began with a revisit of the Japanese ad samples looped to make an abstract rhythm pattern while the sampled strings added dignity along with the sampled leads. The latter evoking those from the Gizmotron® used by Godley + Creme on 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love.” One of my all-time favorite sounds. “Flame Of Hope” was a brief but compelling song with some of the best McCluskey vocal leads on the whole album. His work there was right “in the zone” so the sometimes strident tone he’d adopt was unheard this time.
Then came a big uptick of energy with “Goddess Of Love,” the song originally written for “Pretty In Pink” before the re-write put the kibosh on that. This song was not without its weaknesses, but put next to “If You Leave” in the PPM comparator, it revealed a robust pop song miles better than what eventually became their calling card in America. Only the intro rubbed me the wrong way with the overly jaunty arrangement perhaps contributing to McCluskey’s decision to oversing in the intro [surfeit with emphatic reverb] like a Muppet version of himself. His overly boisterous mien being clearly fraudulent to anyone with a passing familiarity with Andy McCluskey.
Other than the clumsy intro, the tune did pop like a great single with the many repeats of the title reverberating in the choruses like a hall of mirrors. Though I had known that this was the original song intended for “Pretty In Pink,” I only discovered last week that OMD had still re-wrote the song for inclusion on “The Pacific Age.” The horns were used as a melodic counterpoint here instead of the full melody, which helped a lot. Made things less facile. It was disturbing to see this song used as the B-side of the third single, “Shame.” Not only should it have been the A-side to that particular single, but its usage suggested that OMD were very thin on ideas to have only one non-LP B-side for a campaign of three singles.
The second and final single from the album followed on from “Goddess Of Love” and like “Shame,” it also lacked a B-side. “We Love You” was also another recycled, unused soundtrack song. This time, it was a track that had been written for the film “Playing For Keeps.” This propulsive, slightly Moroderesque track too the energy level from “Goddess Of Love” and kept it up without respite. It’s hardly a definitive OMD song, but it sounds every inch a single. The charts did not agree, however. Following the success of “[Forever] Live + Die,” the best that the second single from “The Pacific Age” could go was number 54 in the UK. Two places lower than the third single would muster. Ouch. This one deserved a better fate than that.
The album wrapped up with “Watch Us Fall,” an insouciant ballad that reflected more of the sound of another Liverpudlian band; that of China Crisis. The smooth, measured delivery from McCluskey coupled with the lovely alto sax solos of Martin Cooper really hit those China Crisis marks. This one really had a lovely vibe to it but it hardly seemed redolent of the OMD sound.
This was where OMD found themselves in 1986. Dealing with a conundrum not unlike that of David Bowie concurrently. Struggling with the question of who their audience was and what they wanted. Their sales were down from a few years earlier with the band shifting their emphasis to try to triangulate to the whims of the capricious [and alien] US marketplace. They were on an endless treadmill of write/record/tour and had exhausted their infamous well of inspiration. The fact that only a single non-LP B-side [and not one of their proudest moments in that regard either] graced just one of the three singles released from “The Pacific Age” spoke large volumes on the writing difficulties that beset this particular album.
It was a unprecedented decision to once again work with Stephen Hague for the second album in a row. OMD had always moved from producer to producer no matter what their level of success each time out. It seemed that with Hague’s help in making tough inroads into the American market with some success that they were loath to jump ship. At this time, Hague was cementing his hitmaking reputation with a run of singles from Pet Shop Boys that would make their name and largely pick up from where OMD was leaving off.
The incipient professionalism of this album was a bit of a drag. The female vocals were an even bigger sign of capitulation than the horn section had been. The other big outlier of conventionality was bringing in session guitarist Kamil Rustam for the sort of slick guitar sounds that were alien to this band. It had been jarring when the in-your-face rhythm guitar was up front in the mix of “New Stone Age,” but the band were reflecting Brian Eno’s influence honestly even as they actually played said instrument themselves.
Fortunately, I found the overall caliber of the material to be a slight improvement to what greeted my ears on “Crush.” At least in hindsight. I recall that contemporaneously, I found this album even more watered down than the “Crush” album. I never had much enthusiasm for it and I had listened to it far less than I had with “Crush.” At least the former had been my first new OMD album on CD, which probably accounted for the higher level of playback for it at the time. Even so, OMD were obviously skating on this ice. The Mid-80s Malaise® had obviously struck them hard, as it had with most bands I had collected from the late 70s/early 80s.
Next: …Just A Temporary Stopgap Measure