Song of the Day, June 9: The Misunderstanding by Orchestral Manoeuvers In the Dark

OMDMisunderstandingToday’s song finds a pioneering band breathing new life into an old song. The Misunderstanding was written by Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey when they were part of a group called the Id. When recording their brilliant second album, Organisation, they dusted it off and gave it a new treatment.

The track opens with eerie, industrial noises, then kicks into high gear. Powerful drumming drives the urgent synth work while jarring, multi-tracked vocals chant a frustrated lyric. Angry, confused, and edgy, it’s a remarkable song, proving the emotion that can be packed in to synth-driven music.

Enjoy this amazing song today.

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Song of the Day, November 11: Sister Marie Says by Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark

OMDSisterMarieToday’s song waited 30 years and a band breakup and reunion to finally see the light of day. Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark composed early elements of Sister Marie Says during the productive days of their first three albums. With all the amazing music they were crafting, many interesting ideas got shelved, the good Sister among them. In 1996, with OMD functioning mostly as a solo project for Andy McCluskey, he dusted off the demos and considered them for the group’s seemingly final album, 1996’s Universal. It didn’t quite fit, so he set it aside again.

In 2010, McCluskey and Paul Humphreys reunited, bringing back long-time collaborators Martin Cooper and Malcolm Holmes. The reunited quartet crafted one of their finest outings, The History of Modern. As the teaser for the project, they released a finally finished version of Sister Marie Says. It was worth the wait.

It’s a smart look at where we put our faith — and where that faith will get us.

Life is full of sorrow you need a rest from pain, so call yourself believers and you’ll all get fooled again

With a classic synth-pop line and the kind of organic energy only OMD could generate, it’s a compelling song. It also features a magical vocal from McCluskey, letting us know that OMD were back in full force.

Enjoy this dark meditation today.

Song of the Day, June 16: Electricity by Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark

OMDElectricityToday’s song is one of the most appropriate debut singles of all time. Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey had just begun working together as Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark when they landed a gig supporting Joy Division. Inspired by the experience, they sent a demo of one of their songs, Electricity, to Joy Division’s label, Factory. While the label head didn’t care for it, his wife did, and the duo landed their first recording deal.

It’s a magical song about the power of power. OMD explore our dependence on energy and the ways it can improve our lives. That conundrum is perfectly captured in the smart, pioneering synth-dance groove that propels the lyrics. Sung in an endearing style that laces the challenges with a fundamental optimism, it’s a well-crafted balance that you can dance to.

OMD tinkered with the sound a few times, releasing three different versions of the single before they felt they got it just right. While it barely dented the charts (hitting #99), the song set a high standard for the emerging genre and announced OMD as a major breaking talent. Vince Clarke of Erasure, Yaz and Depeche Mode fame has credited this track with inspiring him to begin working in electronic music.

Enjoy this groundbreaking, fun song today.

Song of the Day, May 25: She’s Leaving by Orchestral Manouevres In the Dark

OMDLeavingToday’s song is She’s Leaving from Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark’s third album, Architecture and Morality. The band’s sonic experimentation continued on this disc as they pushed the boundaries of popular music and electronic soundscapes. Within that framework, however, they continued to craft wonderful songs, and this is a standout.

The song dates back to much earlier sessions, but the band couldn’t find the right sound and abandoned it. When they dusted it off, writers Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys made it slower and stripped down the lyrics. The result is amazing, a simple story told in brief lines over a gorgeous, aching musical backdrop. McCluskey turns in one of his best vocals, making the most of the smallest phrases, investing them with whole implied paragraphs of backstory. When he sings “she washed her hands of this whole affair,” you can hear the resignation, determination, and quiet frustration that led to the final decision.

Fittingly, the somewhat elliptical tale ends with the epigram “the more we learn, the less we know.” That may well be true, but this track proves how deeply we feel even as our experience makes us question our assumptions.

Enjoy this amazing song today.

Song of the Day, March 23: Genetic Engineering by Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark OMD - Genetic Engineering - FrontToday’s song is OMD’s brilliantly quirky single, Genetic Engineering. After three impressive albums that blended a growing mastery of electronic instruments with great pop smarts, the band took things in a much more experimental direction with 1983’s Dazzle Ships. The album featured much more fragmented tracks and a significant use of sampling and found sounds. The result is a mixed bag, a wonderful display of the musical powers of technology but not a wholly satisfying and cohesive listening experience. When it works well, however, it’s as strong as any OMD release, and it never works better than Genetic Engineering.

With a chiming toy piano sound and energetic teletype driving the action, the song features an anthemic vocal from Andy McCluskey. Mixed into the action are a number of samples, including a clever use of the Speak & Spell toy. It blurts out the words

Babies, mother, hospital, scissors
Creature, judgement, butcher, engineer

as a sort of disembodied chorus. The overall effect is an interesting statement on the ways technology intrudes into modern life. McCluskey has stated that he is not opposed to genetic engineering in principle, and the lyrics can support that view. The disjointed effect however, encourages the listener to think carefully before accepting any modern solution as a definite improvement.

Enjoy this amazing song today.

Song of the Day, January 19: Motion and Heart by Orchestral Manouvres In the Dark

OMDMotionHeartToday’s song is Motion and Heart from Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark’s magnificent sophomore release, Organisation. It’s the fourth track on the disc, providing a rare bright note in the darker meditations. Anchored by a poppy keyboard line, it features a nearly joyful vocal by Andy McCluskey. While celebrating the inevitability of love, it also ponders the cycle of joy and heartbreak that seems nearly as unavoidable. It’s a nice tension, carried effectively by the title line.

OMD considered releasing it as the album’s second single, but moved on to their next album instead. A new version of the song — which is fine but doesn’t add anything to the original splendor — was used as the B-side of Souvenir.

Enjoy this synth-pop gem today.

Song of the Day, November 13: Tesla Girls by Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark

OMDTeslaToday’s song is Tesla Girls by Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark. After their strikingly experimental fourth album, Dazzle Ships, received relatively poor commercial and critical reception, the quartet regrouped. Their next disc, Junk Culture, was not a self-consciously commercial over-reaction, however. Instead, OMD took everything they had learned about crafting smart, electronic music and blended it back into their origins. The result is a stunning synth-dance set that proves what a powerful unit they are at their best.

The standout track is the third single, Tesla Girls. Taking it’s title from the Serbian scientist who was one of the great pioneers of the electric age, the song is a nod to the band’s frequent look at our reliance on power. It also hints at Tesla’s fleeting celebrity as OMD dissect romantic politics. The Tesla Girls course with energy, inviting the listener in with both excitement and risk. It’s a wonderful lyrical conceit that is played out in a joyous dance-pop setting. One of the most energetic songs in the OMD catalog, it’s a great track in its own right and a clear statement that the band still had a lot of fascinating music to offer.

Enjoy this infectious track today.

Song of the Day, September 12: The New Stone Age by Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark

OMDA&MStoneToday’s song is The New Stone Age. When Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark entered the studio in late 1980, they were setting up for their third album in two years, following their successful eponymous debut and Top 10 sophomore masterpiece Organisation. Tired but inspired, they wanted to build on their distinctive mastery of electronic instrumentation. Now a quartet, they also wanted to continue their blending of live drumming and traditional rock instruments with that pioneering sound. The result was their lauded third album, Architecture and Morality, widely considered their most coherent set.

The opening track is a jarring surprise, the potent The New Stone Age. It opens with jagged guitar work, sounding nothing like earlier OMD. Writer Andy McCluskey has claimed — somewhat tongue in cheek — that he hoped some listeners would be convinced they had the wrong album in an OMD sleeve. Once the vocals kick in, however, it’s clear that this is a brilliant leap in OMD’s evolution, with McCluskey turning in a broken, anguished lead. Creaking samples and jittery synths join in, and by the end of just over three minutes, it’s clear that the band have found their perfect sonic balance. Anchored by a chorus cry of “Oh my God, what have we done this time?” it’s a flawless merger of sound and themes, making the most of a talented band at their creative best.

Enjoy this disturbing masterpiece today.

Song of the Day, July 22: Enola Gay by Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark

OMDEnolaToday’s song is Enola Gay by Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark. The lead track and only single from their sublime second album, Organisation, it remains one of their finest moments.

Perfectly capturing their blend of pioneering electronic music with true emotional resonance, it’s a rare danceable song about nuclear devastation. Enola Gay was the plane that dropped the nuclear bomb Little Boy on Hiroshima in 1945. Writer and singer Andy McCluskey did his research, weaving significant historical details into the compelling narrative. Showing off his trademark wit and wordplay — even in the face of such dark material — he poses the question:

Is mother proud of Little Boy today?

As with much of OMD’s early work, the track eschews the standard verse-chorus-verse structure, relying instead on lyrical cues, repetition, and musical changes to drive home its urgent message. Rightly regarded as a classic, it is one of the finest songs of the 80s and presents a strongly anti-war message that resonates nearly 40 years later.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Album of the Week, June 15: Organisation by Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark

OMD_OrganisationAndy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys met as school children on the Wirral in England (across the Mersey River from Liverpool). They formed a fast friendship and bonded over similar musical tastes, especially the pioneering electronic sounds of Kraftwerk. They were in a number of musical acts, both together and separately, before forming the locally successful band the Id. Concurrently, they launched the experimental electronic duo VCL XI, named for the label on the drawing of a valve on the back of Kraftwerk’s album Radio-Ackivität. The Id imploded over musical differences, and after a short stint in Dalek I Love You McCluskey reconnected with Humphreys. They renamed VCL XI, using a tentative song title they had written on McCluskey’s bedroom wall. Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark, while a bit unwieldy, clearly declared that they were something different than the bands in the burgeoning punk scene. Honing their distinctive synth-dance sound, they also performed live shows accompanied by a TEAC 4-track affectionately named Winston. They recorded a single, Electricity at Factory Records, released to little fanfare. After some work opening for Joy Division and Gary Numan, they recorded their eponymous debut. It was a solid success in the UK, peaking at #27 and featuring a new version of Electricity and two other singles, including the Top 20 hit Messages. Fresh off that success, they added percussionist Malcolm Holmes — who had worked with them in the Id — and went into the studio to record their second album. Titled Organisation after the band that eventually became Kraftwerk, that disc declared OMD to be masters in the pioneering world of synth-based pop music.

Title Organisation
Act Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark
Label DinDisc Release Date Oct. 24, 1980
Producer Andy McCluskey, Paul Humpreys, and Mike Howlett
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  6
Tracks
  1. Enola Gay
  2. 2nd Thought
  3. VCL XI
  4. Motion and Heart
  5. Statues
  6. The Misunderstanding
  7. The More I See You
  8. Promise
  9. Stanlow

In many ways, Organisation is a typical second album. It was recorded quickly to capitalize on initial success, it features some reworked early material, and it includes some experimental components. OMD neatly avoided the sophomore slump, however, brilliantly building on their demonstrated strengths and blazing stunning new trails. Every track is stellar and despite the rush and random origins the album is very cohesive, projecting a dark, brooding energy. It also hints neatly at their future directions, tantalizing listeners with the growth to come.

Things kick off with one of OMD’s finest songs, the richly layered Enola Gay. A tribute and warning, the song takes its name from the plane that bombed Hiroshima and is one of the most danceable songs about nuclear devastation ever recorded. A surging dance-pop anthem on the surface, it features amazing keyboard work propelled by Holmes’ great drumming. McCluskey turns in a stunning vocal, aching and dire but finely tuned to the energy of the music. The only single from the album, it broke OMD into the British Top 10 [#8] and welcomes listeners to Organisation‘s dark meditations.

2nd Thought is more typical of the material on the album, a stream-of-consciousness lyric over a quietly mechanical melody. A meditation on distance and loneliness, it has a quiet tension. Eschewing typical pop verse-chorus-verse structure, it moves in a straight line while feeling vaguely claustrophobic. That haunting quality pervades the rest of the disc. VCL XI is an homage to the band’s earlier incarnation and a clear tribute to their heroes in Kraftwerk. The musical framework conjures up sonic images of the valve it’s named for, propelled by a cheery keyboard line. McCluskey famously mumbled the near-nonsense lyrics, going for feel rather than meaning. It’s a great song that shows off the band’s growing confidence with everything their musical tools have to offer.

Motion and Heart was almost a second single and could have been big. It’s a lovely track with a chirpy organ-style keyboard figure, the most poppy song on the album. On one level it celebrates a romance, but there is an underlying tension that ties it to the rest of the disc nicely. Statues is a brooding number inspired by Ian Curtis, the recently deceased lead singer of Joy Division. Another tribute and warning, it ponders the powerful grip of depression. The dark ache of the synths is a nod to the sound of the other band, while McCluskey’s vocal is clear and quiet, anchoring the feelings of sorrow and loss.

The Misunderstanding brings the energy back into high gear. An old track from their days in the Id, it opens with quietly creepy, almost industrial noises. When the keyboard and drum kick in, however, things move fast. An angry, frustrated lyric surges along with the music, with McCluskey and Humphreys singing together in a tight, jarring harmony. It’s one of the best tracks and starts the original vinyl’s side two perfectly.

OMD almost never recorded covers, so the inclusion of the Mack Gordon / Harry Warren song The More I See You is a surprise. McCluskey found himself singing the lyrics he remembered from the Chris Montez hit over a keyboard riff they were working on, and it worked well enough that they kept it. Although the band remain skeptical, it actually works well, providing a strangely compelling bridge between the darker moments. Promise features Humphreys’ first full lead vocal on a song of broken love and distrust. It takes the somewhat tense celebration of the cover song and shatters it. The central musical figure is straightforward synth-pop, but the jagged electronic sounds that move in and out of the background tear the comfortable setting into dark tatters.

Stanlow is the perfect closer, remedying the sense of distance and loss introduced by 2nd Thought. Named for a local oil refinery where various family members worked, it’s an odd but poignant tribute. The lights from the structure served as a welcome home when the band returned from the road. Featuring nice samples of the industrial noise of the refinery, it’s a quietly noble song — featuring an oboe-like keyboard fanfare — that manages to brush up against irony while being truly celebratory. The calm strength of the track, while keeping the darker energy of the disc, ends things on a strong, positive note.

Early vinyl releases of Organisation came with a seven-inch disc featuring four live tracks performed by McCluskey and Humphreys with Winston. The 2003 reissue of the album includes these tracks and Annex, the B-side of the Enola Gay single. It also has one of the variant versions of Electricity. These tracks are nice as part of the historical record and solid electronic work, but don’t add anything in particular to the album itself.

FURTHER LISTENING: You really can’t go wrong with any of OMD’s first five albums. Clearly the work of a single, innovative unit, they are also very distinct entities.

  • Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark is a strong debut, with several great songs and a sense of fun and adventure. It’s clearly connected to their influences but shows strong hints of where the band are headed.
  • Architecture & Morality is their most critically lauded album and a close second-favorite of mine. It builds powerfully on the promise of Organisation, mixing solid off-kilter pop with musical innovation and sonic experimentation. Sax and keyboard player Martin Cooper, also from the Id days, joins the band here, creating the classic OMD quartet.
  • Dazzle Ships is the most challenging, alternating more unusual synth-pop with electronic samples and noises. It’s an important, innovative album but not one of my favorites, although it features a couple of wonderful songs.
  • Junk Culture finds the band retrenching after the commercial backlash against Dazzle Ships, presenting a straightforward set of danceable synth-pop songs. It has just enough experimentation and ingenuity to stand out from the pack.

After that, OMD became a much more pop-oriented act, recording some solid songs on fairly mediocre albums. After two more discs — and a notable contribution to the Pretty In Pink soundtrack — Humphreys, Holmes, and Cooper left. McCluskey recorded three more albums as OMD, all featuring serviceable dance pop tracks but no real inspiration. Casual listeners will find 1998’s The OMD Singles a good representation of all the band’s work.

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