Messages - Greatest Hits
, September 25th, 2008 14:24
OMD are the only Liverpool band to come near to living up to the monolithic standards of productivity and creativity set in place by the Beatles. Frankie Goes To Hollywood captured the hysteria and the record sales for a single year; Echo and the Bunnymen certainly had the vaulting ambition - and a singer easily the match for Lennon and McCartney stuck together; Teardrop Explodes had the same homespun psychedelia and experimentation with rock's standards, while Michael Head (Shack, Pale Fountains) is certainly a match lyrically. But if you want to chose one Merseyside band who combined an industrious ethic, a combination of the pop and the avant-garde and an undeniable gift for melody and emotional evocation, then OMD are your band.
They were one of many, many bands to be spurred into action by the shock waves caused by punk, but even during the extremely fertile period of post punk they managed to stand head and shoulders above most. Coming out of the Eric's scene, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys bonded over a love of German experimental music like early Tangerine Dream and Can and used synthesizers and DIY equipment made from salvaged radios. Add this to their early association with Factory and Peter Saville and it must have been annoying to the band that their postcode painted them as a Merseyside band (Catholic, Celtic, frivolous, backwards-looking) rather than a Greater Manchester band (Protestant, Anglo Saxon, industrious, futurist).
Whatever posterity had in mind for them, they emerge here as the fully formed real deal. 'Messages' and 'Electricity' pull soulfulness out of the machine, like Vince Clarke era Depeche Mode meets pawn shop Kraftwerk. They showcase both of their early concerns: McCluskey's awkward but awesome voice cracks with strain and emotion and the 'Message' is clear: how will love survive in the modern age of disconnect? And the pristine tones and energy of 'Electricity' also conveys a very clear (and pertinent) message: "The chance to change has nearly gone / The alternative is only one / The final source of energy / Solar electricity." They idolised Kraftwerk but also saw the problems with their Utopianism on albums such as Radiation. This is clear on one of their finest singles: 'Enola Gay' a concise and powerful suggestion of all the destructive contradictions at the heart of nuclear energy. The redoubtable writer David Stubbs once told me that perhaps if one were trying to capture the sense of Little Boy dropping on Hiroshima, then perhaps this song didn't quite have enough impact. This is a fair observation but I feel that it has even more impact to me, delivered, as it is, in the style of love song and from the perspective of someone receiving radio messages from the plane hundreds of miles away - rather than sounding like Godflesh.
One of the most important songs in the context of this compilation is 'Souvenir'. If, roughly speaking, McCluskey is the intellect and inquisitive nature in the group, then Humphreys is the heart - when OMD were balanced out between these two components they were superb. From this direct, engaging, emotionally literate song we go straight to the conceptual edge of the group. At the height of their commercial powers they recorded two stone cold classic songs about France's premier Catholic martyr, Jean D'Arc. (It was only cold feet and then subterfuge by Virgin that prevented the group from having two consecutive - totally different - top ten songs with the same title!)
The first, 'Joan Of Arc' comes from the peculiarly Catholic obsessiveness with martyrs and saints such as Padre Pio or Francis of Assissi. Such is the fervour felt towards her that it has to be expressed in a pre-teen - therefore asexual - way. He sings from the perspective of a schoolchild wishing to travel backwards in time to rescue her through the pages of a text book. Like the Manic Street Preachers' 'She Is Suffering' this is a knowingly gauche perspective borne out of frustration. Sonically this is all processed through the prism of childhood as well, the angelic choir, the chiming church bells . . . The second, 'Maid Of Orleans', is the view from the head not the heart. A retro-futurist marching song in an insistent 6/8 time. This time, the feeling is of serenity in surrender.
There are two tracks here from their finest moment, the Dazzle Ships album. It is easy to see why songs like 'Genetic Engineering' didn't go over well commercially or critically, but at the heart of this is pure pop sensibility produced with the stuttering rhythms of fax machines and printers. 'Telegram' was perhaps the apex of their achievements in painting vignettes of love and yearning in an age where society dictates that lovers are often apart.
It's quite popular to see OMD as nose-diving into the effluence after Dazzle Ships but the truth is there is still much to recommend this compilation. There's the sun-dappled and supine 'Talking Loud and Clear' and 'If You Leave', the single that broke them in America after featuring in Pretty In Pink.
By the end, though, this dissolves part way into ridiculousness. The fact that 'Dreaming' and 'Walking On The Milky Way' were included here instead of awesome early single 'Red Frame/White Light' is criminal but this compilation is a reminder that Orchestral Manouevres In the Dark are not one of the best synth bands ever: they are one of the best bands ever. Or at least they were. With recent renewed interest in them, especially because of the reissues of their jaw-dropping Dazzle Ships and imperial moment in the sun Architecture and Morality as well as new art installation projects with Peter Saville, it's hard not to wish for an encore. Artists like Gary Numan and Killing Joke have successfully seized back control of their own careers, refusing to bow down to label or market pressure or to second guess what their audiences want. Both have ruthlessly pinpointed where and why they went wrong and have created a new second act for themselves, carving a new future based on their own innate sense of progressiveness. One can only hope that OMD have the same desire: there is certainly enough love and willingness for them to do this.