30 Years On: OMD's Architecture & Morality Remembered
, November 29th, 2011 02:36
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark released one of the Quietus' favourite albums in 1981. John Doran reflects on the warmth of Architecture & Morality and talks to Andy McCluskey
A lazy but widespread criticism of the English synth pop scene of the early 80s was that it was soulless or lacking in human warmth. While there certainly were acts who came across as detached or alienated (Cabaret Voltaire, The Normal, John Foxx) if anything, the opposite was generally true. There is an almost baroque level of (exquisitely judged) romantic melodrama to Soft Cell's 'Say Hello Wave Goodbye'; despite Gary Numan's dead-eyed automaton image, Tubeway Army's 'Are "Friends" Electric?' is quite clearly a very fragile and keenly felt song about heartbreak; and the early releases of Blancmange, Depeche Mode and Eurythmics were torrid with the emotion expressed... no matter how affected the delivery was.
Of course some of this was down to that old chestnut about how real music containing real soul and real emotion was played on real instruments such as guitars and drums. But this is also a confusion between form and content. Sometimes when listening to synth pop I automatically think of a Mancunian friend with a pacemaker who has the demeanour that is common among many of us who are born in the North Western rain shadow area. Once when out with a much more demonstrative European girl from sunnier climes, she asked him: "Is this why you have no emotions - because you have a robot heart?"
One group more than any other managed to successfully combine yearning, lovelorn, romantic content within a futuristic, 'European', supposedly 'cold' form however and that was Liverpool's Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. Critics hold varying opinions on different stages of their career but OMD always made pop music of one kind or another. Look behind the austere design and photography (and the forbidding title) of Architecture & Morality and you will find a collection of three and a half minute long nuggets of pop gold. (Well, almost. The hypnotic, ambient wash of 'Sealand' written about the oil refinery on the banks of the Mersey, unfolds at a much slower, Eno-inspired pace.) It was no coincidence that John Hughes would go on to ask them to contribute to the Pretty In Pink soundtrack after hearing the album.
When you take this into account, they seem less like a geographical anomaly and more like another big-hearted Liverpool group with an ear for a timeless melody. Another bunch of Catholic lads with a Protestant work ethic in the extremely insular but creative musicscape of post-Beatles Merseyside. (The album track 'She's Leaving' is a subtle but knowing tip of the hat by the core duo of Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys to The Beatles, the band who had made their name in the Cavern on Mathew Street, just yards from Eric's, the club that spawned OMD.) This work ethic saw them release two albums in nine months and such startling early singles as 'Red Frame White Light', 'Electricity' and 'Enola Gay'. But it was their third album Architecture & Morality that really marked them out from the crowd. The duo had been signed briefly to the nascent Factory imprint in the late 70s, where they met feted designer, Peter Saville who created the austere artwork that still stands up (along with his sleeve for New Order’s 'Blue Monday') as one of the most iconic of the era.
The sheer arrogance of the title and artwork are met equally by the music contained within. This cockiness suggests McCluskey and Humphreys knew exactly what they were doing, and nothing reflects this more than the conceptual joke of having two songs dedicated to a 15th Century French martyr, which in turn led to them releasing two consecutive singles called 'Joan Of Arc' - both of which came out within months of each other. In fact it was only due to bosses at Virgin panicking that they were differentiated from each other by the first by having the moniker Maid of Orleans added in brackets. The second of them, 'Joan Of Arc (Maid Of Orleans)' highlights the utterly berserk weirdness of OMD. It is at once highly experimental for a 7" destined for the upper reaches of the pop charts (an electronica piece in waltz time about a Saint who died half a millennia beforehand, featuring a Mellotron) but soulful and almost sentimental in its warmth for the subject. This feeling of religious fervour permeates the rest of the album through the use of austere synthesized sounds, Gregorian chant, choral singing and perhaps adds to the sense of timelessness.
There isn't a note out of place on Architecture & Morality. From the panic-ridden, cold war paranoia and booming Numanesque synths of 'The New Stone Age' to the wistful 'The Beginning And The End' which sits somewhere between Japan and The Smiths (and is certainly more Hal Hartley than John Hughes), this is one of the finest 1980s pop albums. 'Souvenir' is perhaps the moment when they lay their cards on the table and say, 'Look, we're actually trying to break your heart.' It features Humphreys in only the second of his rare turns taking over vocals from McCluskey (the first being 'Promise' from Organisation). But even here, ethereal synths, tape loops of choral singing and the sound of distant war drums never let us forget the seriousness implied in the album's title. (This ominous nomenclature was suggested by Martha Ladley, of Martha and the Muffins, after reading David Watkins' Morality And Architecture textbook.) Perhaps the most progressive track on the album is 'Georgia' an eschatological bomb age hymn, utilizing tape loops of long wave radio synced perfectly with the music and berserk bursts of electronic noise. It certainly points the way forward to another astonishing album, 1983's Dazzle Ships.
What attracted you to the figure of Jean D’Arc?
Andy McCluskey: Well, it started innocuously enough. On the Organisation tour we were in France playing in places like Rouen and Orleans that were historically associated with Jean D’Arc. Our support band dubbed it the Joan of Arc tour. So I thought I’d learn about it when I got back home. I was terribly swotty and precious about my songs I’d read books on a subject before writing about it. I’m not sure if other people did that but I did. The more I read about her the more fascinated I became. She is a very politicized figure and she has been used by everyone. Anti-imperialist historians, feminist historians, Marxist historians, everybody has their own spin on her and what she means to them. For me I’m very fascinated by people who have the moral certainty that they are doing right because I’m not. I find it hard to commit to things. I was fascinated and wanted to write a song. Wrote one ('Maid Of Orleans') didn’t think it worked and thought bin that and write another ('Joan of Arc'). It was the guys in the band who said what about that 6/8 one why don’t we work on that before we go to the studio. We worked on it together and it really came together. So it was a case of two for the price of one really. You write these songs naively but you discover this stuff later.
How do you remember the song being received?
AM: There are plenty of mad women out there just like there are plenty of mad men. And in the same way that a lot of insane men think they’re Napoleon or Julius Caesar reincarnated. Top of the list with women is Cleopatra but Jean D’Arc is a very close second. The number of girls getting in touch with me saying thank you for writing that song about me... It was unbelievable.
I thought is was a conceptual masterstroke putting two songs with the same name together on the album and then releasing them one after another as singles just to have them both chart...
AM: I tried to get that one past Virgin. After the first one was a hit they said that they wanted to release the second one but could we change the name. I said ‘No. That’s the fun bit. That’ll really fuck people up.’ And they said ‘No, really, Andy people won’t get it. They’ll think you’ve released the same single twice.’ So I succumbed but I did quite like the mischievousness of it.
With Architecture, I think the balance between the avant garde and your own innate pop sense is the most finely balanced. Was that coincidence? Were you actually aiming for one thing over the other?
AM: I don’t think we had clearly defined aims. I’d imagine subconsciously they were finely balanced because we could write songs and knew we could. But really we’d done two albums where effectively we’d done whatever we wanted to do and had hits. The first one went gold and the second one had ‘Enola Gay’ on it and sold even more, so we’d developed this confidence which was like, ‘We do whatever we fucking want.’ So we carried on in the same direction. But the weird thing was that Architecture & Morality was so big we kind of blew ourselves out of the water. When you’re that young and you think that doing something radical with your music is the most important thing you can envisage and then you sell millions of records and at some point you sit down and think, ‘Have we changed the world? No? We were wrong.’ And what we chose to do was to go even more radical on Dazzle Ships. We abandoned a lot of the sweet melodic aspect of what we did and went specifically, lyrically radical. We fell off the cliff basically. We went too far for most people. You’re aren’t the only one who thinks we got the balance right with Architecture.
I think that Dazzle Ships is as good a record if not better but you can cut this a number of different ways. There are big differences between critical and commercial success...
AM: Well it had neither to be honest. It got panned and no one bought it. To be honest Architecture didn’t get rave reviews when it came out because it was a bit more ambient and gothic and God knows about Dazzle Ships. People who thought that we were supposed to be synth pop and all about 'Messages' and 'Enola Gay' stood back and went ‘What the fuck are you doing here lads; getting a bit too proggy eh?’ It’s kind of been reassessed a little bit now but quite a few of the journalists were not 100% keen on it.
Talking of which, you’ve still got a lot of these old men who wear cowboy boots running the 'respectable' music press. Do you think synthesizer music will ever be treated as seriously as rock?
AM: I think there are certain elements in the rock press – people of a certain age who were young enough in the late 70s and early 80s to be looking for something a bit different - who like ourselves saw the country and rock music as being old fashioned. Fuck off out of the way – there’s something new coming. And they were probably disappointed like we were in the 90s when the Britpop generation couldn’t find anywhere new to go so they went back and reinvented 60s guitar pop. For me it was gobsmacking. But you’re right there’s still that element there now: if it ain’t got a guitar it ain’t rock and roll and if it ain’t rock and roll it ain’t proper music.
Did you see yourself as a pop band or an experimental band in this period?
AM: I think during the first four albums we were a lot more weird and experimental than a lot of our contemporaries. We used to have arguments with Virgin all the time. They used to say ‘Will you make your minds up whether you want to be Can or Abba?’ But we wanted to be both.
When you first signed to Din Disc OMD were an extremely prodigious band – why was that?
AM: I think, more than anything else, it was because Paul and I had been writing songs together since we were sixteen so we’d built up a catalogue of ideas so when we finally got the opportunity to make albums and recordings it was like the flood gates opened. The first two albums were both released within nine months of each other. It was like, 'Bang!' Also just being given the opportunity to do it and enjoying doing it. There was nothing else more important to us than making music. When we weren’t in our own studio we were on tour and when we weren’t on tour we were back in the studio. And when you’re recording for the first time you haven’t exhausted all the possibilities. It’s all virgin territory.