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I remember the notion of an OMD Peel Sessions album first manifested around 1999. There was talk of it on the OMD website and it soon happened. The point in the bands developmental arc when they originally recorded these makes all of the difference in the world. The band had recorded four sessions and only the first two, and fourth albums were covered here; due to the across the board success of the third one making then unlikely subjects of John Peel’s largesse. Considering that 75% of the material dated from the first two albums, I found the decision to go with a “Dazzle Ships” pastiche cover a bit surprising, but since that cover was so powerful, I can sort of understand it overpowering the other two as a point of reference.
Session one was four songs recorded prior to the recording of the debut album. “Bunker Soldiers” was a more cleanly produced version, where some of McCluskey’s lyrics were more clearly discernible in the mix. I put that down to session producer Tony Wilson having a bit more experience at recording than the band and their manager, who handled production on the actual album. “Julia’s Song” sounded pretty much exactly like the track we all know. Since it was a song by The Id – the OMD precursor, I’m sure it had been locked down for long months prior to the August ’79 session.
Things got very different when it came to the first OMD hit single, “Messages.” The streamlined, modest production here was so radically different from the familiar hit version, which producer Mike Howlett had radically overhauled. The quirky and eccentric yet melodic song here would be turned into the pop juggernaut that conquered the UK top ten a few months later, but for now the modest charms of a jangling guitar, a sustained organ chord, the Korg preset, and some white noise patches for rhythm went a long way on very little. This could have been recorded on an 8-track system with three tracks left over!
Finally, the early version of “Red Frame/White Light” caught all of the abstract, Eno-inspired ideas that pop could be so much more… and less, than just “he/she loves me.” The version here was close to the eventually recorded album.single version, but one aspect of it jumped out at me. The backing vocal chant of “red frame/white light” on this version sounded exactly the same each time with no human variation. As if the vocal phrase had been sampled and looped. Maybe they did use a tape loop of the phrase. Or maybe, they used a noise gate to clip the vocal line to it’s bare minimum with no blurring of the sound.
The second session was recorded on April of 1980, shortly after their debut album had been released. Two more from that album were aired to good effect. “Pretending To See The Future” [mis-printed on the cover as “Pretending To See The Light” instead] emulated the live arrangement, based around a foreboding synth drone as showcased a year later on the Smash Hits flexidisc of “Pretending To See The Future [live]” which had long since lived in my Record Cell prior to this Peel Sessions CD. It was more interesting than the album version. Likewise, “Dancing” was the odd one out on “Orchestral Manœuvres In The Dark,” but here it was suffused with a Kraftwerk-in-dub quality that sounded like a dub mix of the “Radioactivity” album had been added to the [weird] song’s DNA. Strengthening it.
Two tracks that were not yet recorded, no doubt making UK OMD fans listening along on Auntie Beeb giddy with anticipation. “Enola Gay” transpired in an early version that showed that most, but not all of the infectious melody had been locked down by that time. The biggest difference was the different character to the iconic drumbox riff. It was not quite there, yet. Nor was it given center stage in the mix. “Motion + Heart” opened with a swing band sample [just like “Dancing”] and it quickly became apparent that McCluskey had not nailed down the lyrics to his satisfaction, as these quickly diverged from the song we are more familiar with.
The third session was recorded in September of 1980, after the album had been committed to wax but a month prior to its release. This time, one of their great B-sides figured with “Annex” surfacing here in a brief version, radically shorn of its dark coda. I loved how the entire complexion of the song shifted as the throbbbing bassline eventually subsumed the more genteel first two thirds of the song into the industrial hellscape that the single version ended with. Hearing the song without that here, sounds terribly unfinished.
One of my favorite OMD songs, “The Misunderstanding” played here without the altogether crucial slamdrum percussion that made the album version ultra compelling to these ears. With the milder production of Tony Wilson lading the way, the here song sounded eviscerated of its power. “The More I See You” being a cover, was a strange pick for the session. It’s not appreciably different to the album version.
As mentioned, nothing from “Architecture + Morality” got a session since it was all top ten singles at that point. That all changed when “Dazzle Ships” was released in 1983. Three tracks from that were featured in an earlier January 1983 session. Interesting in that the commercial failure of this album had not yet occurred, but Peel invited the band back following their imperial third album phase. “Genetic Engineering” here, was recorded a week prior to the single’s release. Given that much of the “Dazzle Ships” album was constructed on sampling keyboards, it allowed for much less variation than on the typical radio session [as we’ll soon see], but the big difference here was the arrival of Dale “Buffin” Griffin, ex-Mott The Hoople drummer in the production chair, taking over from early band supporter Tony Wilson. This man knew how to record a drum track! The song is largely similar, owing to the sampled nature of much of it, but the rhythm track was simply immense! The milquetoast album/single version in no way compares to what was recorded here. It sounded like the piston to the very world machine itself driving this song. A combination railroad chug/thundercrack that really got your attention. The Speak + Spell was a little down int he mix, but who cared? The sheer thunder in this one will rock your bones! The other two cuts from “Dazzle Ships” were diminishing returns following this. “Of All The Things We’ve Made” was still bettered by the original B-side version, and “ABC Auto Industry” might have been the band having a joke on the expense of the BBC. Since it was all samples arranged on the Emulator, there was virtually no difference to the album cut. Only the EQ differed slightly. Ironically, there was no Peel Session for “Electricity,” since Peel had played the single so much on his show. Instead, the compilers gave us the band-produced recording of the single. I’m led to believe that it was the original Factory 7″ A-side version. The Dindisc reissue was said to be remixes of the Martin Hannett versions of the songs. I still don’t have the plot clear on all of these versions of “Electricity,” and at three figures [and rising] I am unlikely to ever have a Factory 7″ of that song.
These Peel Sessions were mixed bag. Some were better than the album cuts. Some were not. A scant few were decidedly different from their vinyl counterparts. If it had a better mix of some of the deep cuts [think “Stanlow”] that made this band so great, as well as another B-side [or two], it also might have passed muster as an ideal entry point into the band for new ears. As a whole, the album almost makes the most sense as an alternative version of “Orchestral Manœuvres In The Dark,” with 80% of its songs [p]re-corded here in new recordings for those burnt out on listenings to that debut album. It was lovely to have this but I suspect it’s for OMD trainspotters like myself more than anyone else. Fortunately, the next dip into the OMD archives would result in an unequivocal success for fans of the band.
Next: …Besides The Point