When I bought the CD, I played it at home and had absolutely zero pre-knowledgeof the album except for the fact that there was a single, “Stand Above Me,” that had been released in advance of it. The album thus far had been a tad uninspiring. Then track five began playing.
“Dream Of Me” was the craziest, least likely OMD song ever! I thought I was going mad, but no, the booklet for the album confirmed what I was hearing; an OMD song that had been built upon the plush, widescreen, proto-disco chassis of Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra song “Love’s Theme.” This high-calorie tune had been a number one single in America when I was eleven. The instrumental had layer upon layer of dense, kitschy strings sawing away while a disco rhythm section, complete with wah-wah rhythm guitar, gave it a touch of funk to mix satin sheets and gritty streets.
The fact that McCluskey had in essence made a cover version of it [albeit with his lyrics] sort of made my mind come to screeching halt. Apart from Andy’s song that sampled Van Halen’s “Running With The Devil,” [just kidding!] I could not have imagined a least likely creative bedfellow for the man now in charge of OMD. The result was a song where McCluskey was singing a song about how he was inspired to write a song based on “Love’s Theme!” You can’t get more meta-referential than that. It was so crazy… it just might work.
I liked the original as a kid. I even owned this record [see left] with the track crammed tightly into side two. Barry White was best known for recording the songs in the 70s that traced the development of disco from garden variety R+B and were possibly responsible for those of you under 45 reading this being born. Usually his work was graced with his steamy bedroom basso profundo, spoken word delivery. “Love’s Theme” was bigger than that. It was a disco,pop, and adult contemporary hit. For years ABC Sports in America used it as the theme to their golf tournament coverage. My dad liked to watch golf on tv [not the the playing… for the scenery] and I’d walk through the living room on a Sunday morning and hear “Love’s Theme” under the opening montage. So this track was as iconic a piece of source material could have possibly been.
Word had it Mr. White was not convinced that this should happen. Eventually an agreement was reached. The LP rack could contain the sample used but the single would have the sample ghosted [removed] leaving just the track McCluskey built around it, but White would still get a writing credit. Since McCluskey basically remade the track close to the original template, I can barely tell the differences in the single/LP mixes. The one x-factor that McCluskey threw into this song was pretty inspired. The title was sung, hauntingly, by backing vocalist Beverley Reppion who offered an attractive counterpoint to the husky whisper of McCluskey on the verses [giving Barry some competition]. The thing just make me scratch my head, but I can’t deny that it’s completely from left field and the fact that it worked, showed that OMD could still exhibit some inspiration. Even if you would have never expected it in a thousand years. The single reached #24 in the UK charts and netted Mr. White some further royalties.
After that amazing pseudo-cover it was time to have another of the real thing. “Sunday Morning” was the second Velvet Underground cover in the OMD canon, but it was not going to make me forget the triumphs of “Waiting For The Man.” [a joke] This time, the winsome number was given a thick coat of saccharin via the piano and arrangement courtesy of Nigel Ipinson, who would go onto join The Stone Roses. Stuart Boyle’s twangy, Duane Eddy-esque guitar solo marks a true low point in OMD’s devolution. The fact that notorious anti-rockist McCluskey greenlit this shows just how off kilter he was at this time.
“Side Two” picked up with the third cover tune in a row. “Agnus Dei,” was based on the 16th century Latin hit by Christopher Tye [who got a co-writing credit, if none of the royalties]. It followed in the furrow plowed by the hateful “O Fortuna” by Apotheosis; the blood-curdling techno hit from Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” that vexed me so intensely in clubs the previous year. The funny thing is… I sort of liked this track. It was not 10 minutes long and while it did not sound in the slightest like an OMD song, except for the choral samples, I liked how the tempo of the music bed played at double tempo to the sampled voices. Not one of OMD finest moments, assuredly, but within the context of this album… not terribly bad.
The relentlessly perky proto-handbag of “Love + Hate You” had cloying vocals and lyrics, with its only saving grace being the lead synth patch used on “Kissing The Machine” that McCluskey used again here. It would later occur throughout OMD’s future history, showing up like a Wilhelm Scream in many of their songs. After including a techno instrumental, why not also include a eurohouse track? “Heaven Is” had originally been written and played during the band’s 1984 showcase gigs prior to the recording of “Junk Culture” to gauge audience appeal of their new songs before recording them. It would eventually get released in 2013 on the DLX RM of “Junk Culture” in a version clearly indebted to the busy drum programming of New Order’s “Blue Monday.” All of this knowledge was not there in 1993. This was simply another contemporary dance track with an Ennio Morricone goes rave vibe that quickly wore out its nonexistent welcome. Minus 300 points for McCluskey’s name dropping of “Christy Canyon” in the obnoxious tune. As I was ignorant of her claim to fame in 1993, I had to look up that name on the internet, which told me she was a porn star. Just lovely. Could McCluskey possibly more lost or adrift than here? Why yes, he could. Try this last verse on for size.
“And heaven is easy as ABC,
And heaven is your eyes when they’re always blue,
And heaven is just right here with you,
Heaven is, heaven is, heaven is – Wa-HOOO!!!!” – “Heaven Is”
Then the album ended with not one, but three songs in a row with that damned early 90s shuffle beat! “Best Years Of Our lives” was as slow and methodical as watching paint dry. Layers of string patches over 30 BPM shuffle beats that seemed to last all afternoon. “Christine” was another wha…? moment with this tale of a stripper/prostitute [it’s hard to tell] who committed suicide by jumping into a river. You too might want to end it all after hearing the groovy bongo shuffle beat and yet more string patches taking the listener from boredom to contempt. I’m guessing that the preponderance of the shuffle beat in the 90s was all down to everyone wanting a piece of what Primal Scream got on Andy Weatherall’s remix of “Loaded.” I can’t say it ever offered me any pleasure. The knife got a final twist on the closing “Only Tears” wherein noted atheist McCluskey invoked god… over yet more string patches and that damned shuffle beat!!!
What a mess this album was. McCluskey admitted that after releasing “Sugar Tax” to enormous sales and chart success beyond his wildest imaginings, he was ill-prepared to crank out a follow-up, but he just dove into it and tried to make it happen. Was he not paying attention the first time that OMD had run aground in the ’85-’86 era? Where the endless write/tour/record cycle insured that they were too spent to scare up any real inspiration? Well, it happened again. And this time he didn’t have Paul Humphreys to lean on. Just a guy who was in the band that put this record out… six years earlier. Maybe the Barry White thing made sense in that context.
McCluskey also regrets the production by Phil Coxon, where he claimed that he had programmed the album one way, and Coxon had tried another tact, and in the end they tried to mix it all together; resulting in a very busy-sounding album. Well, the mixing is just the polish on a record’s surface. The songs themselves were the business end of the proposition. With three covers in a row, left over songs from 1984, and trance-rave filler padding this out, the end result was clearly OMD’s worst album ever. As the saying goes, there were some things you just couldn’t polish.
Next: …But What About Paul?