Rock GPA: Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark [part 33]

Orchestral Manœuvres In The Dark – Sugar Tax | 1991 – 1.5

[continued from last post]

I bought my copy of “Sugar Tax” as an import, which was the first time I’d bought the new OMD album on CD that way since 1985. I am trying to remember whether it was in-store at Alobar Books and Music [formerly Murmur Records, for those keeping track] or not. In 1991 I was buying a lot of my import CDs from a company who did mail order catalogs in Portland called Sound City 2000.

Another change was that the band were no longer on A+M Records, who had at least managed to sell a few OMD records during the band’s time on that label. By 1991, the band’s mother label had become well established in America so this album was released a bit later on Virgin Records in America for the first time. While Peter Saville did not design the cover [Area did the honors], the photography was by Trevor Key; Saville’s go-to photographer. The molten vinyl depicted is far more lush and intriguing than the contents within, sadly.

The leadoff single, “Sailing On The Seven Seas,” was a perky bit of Glitter-stomp with flimsy doggerel for lyrics. The lyrical reference to The Velvet Underground was gratuitous, given the bubblegum vibe to the song. The beat was everything there, and the only surprising bit of spark in the relentlessly upbeat [McCluskey noticed the rhythm while on a brisk walk one day] track was the screaming Farfisa patch in the middle eight that still managed to make me grin. Not OMD’s finest hour, but passable as a single, as simplistic as it was. Surprisingly, the tune managed to match the top five action of the sublime “Souvenir” in the UK charts with a number three charting.

“I loathe the track – I do. But it charted and it did the business.” – Former drummer OMD Malcolm Holmes on “Sailing On The Seven Seas”

“Pandora’s Box” is the one song that at least has an OMD feel to the lyrics as they examine the life and loves of Louise Brooks; the famed American actress from the dawn of cinema. The music bed was facile and one dimensional, like most of the music on “Sugar Tax,” but tackling a historical subject is nearly the only OMD trope used on this album, save for a choral patch used here and there. That didn’t stop this one from also going top 10 [at #7] in the UK with an #11 placing in the traditionally smitten German market. It looked like OMD was back with a vengeance… at least commercially. It’s worth noting that their last UK top 10 hit had been “Locomotion;” predating their “break America” phase. A solid seven years earlier.

The third single released was “Then You Turn Away.” A dreaded “4:20 mid-tempo ballad” of stultifying mundanity. The song only managed to scrape into the UK charts at #50, and it missed the German top 50 completely. It had been since 1981 when OMD could pull three top ten singles from an album and that time they had the zeitgeist and their finest material at their backs. The next song was a little better. “Speed Of Light” had a quicker tempo than anything else here and the science metaphor of the title was a glimpse of the old OMD. Speaking of the old OMD, the song sounded like McCluskey had recycled some of the Bruce Forest house mixes of “Dreaming” for this one. The tempos and fills sounded identical and the melodic refrain certainly had a lot of “Dreaming” DNA in it

 Someone remind me one day to write a venomous screed against the “4:20 mid-tempo ballad,” please? There’s almost nothing that I hate more.

“Was It Something I Said” was another of McCluskey’s frayed-edge songs of betrayal and rage, like “White Trash.” The music was inconsequential but he really raked his partner and even himself over the coals on this number. He tended to have more negative and embittered takes on love songs and when digging around on the official OMD discography, the “liner notes” claimed that “‘Was It Something I Said’ is rumoured to be about the splitting up of the original OMD line-up.” Okay then! I will say that I like how the song hits boiling at its midpoint with Andy spitting the lyrics out and the music bed fades away at the end as McCluskey was left alone; his rage returning to a simmer as he became numbed to what had just happened.

Next: …When All Else Fails…Kraftwerk!

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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7 Responses to Rock GPA: Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark [part 33]

  1. Echorich says:

    I own the 12 remix – vinyl. I listened to it, maybe, 5 times. It felt just wrong for and OMD track to be based around a Funky Dread drum beat.

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  2. Taffy says:

    I just LOVE Pandora’s Box. Great single, and always gets a good response when I play it at DJ gigs. I don’t know squat about Louise Brooks (other than her iconic haircut!), but however accurate they are the lyrics are just perfectly sad, wistful, and yearning. One song does not an album make, but I have much higher regard for Sugar Tax than your 1.5 score!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – This is getting ahead of myself, but at the time it was released, I liked it better than “Pacific Age.” Now I like that one and “Crush” more. I think I was just enthused to see OMD… any OMD, back in a “difficult” time for me, musically.

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  3. I’m with Taffy on “Pandora’s Box.” As a single intended for radio play, it was brilliant. The subject matter of the song was also intriguing enough to satisfy me. The rest of the album was, as you observe, pretty unsatisfying, but at this point I was still happy that “OMD” were getting airplay and commercial success …

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