Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Organisation (1980) (Record Club)
Thought-provoking intelligent “dance” music. I’d challenge that the artwork for Organisation is singularly the most desolate, disillusioned and perfectly designed album cover ever. The reflection of a winter sun burns above the Red Cuillin hills on the Isle of Skye, threatening to break through. Despite the dark and murky landscape, the implication is that hope somehow exists, that opportunity prevails, and that some forgotten corner of Great Britain perhaps has some brighter future. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark formed in 1978 in the Wirral peninsula, consisting of electro-addicts Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, who were later joined by the startlingly off-kilter percussionist Malcolm Holmes. Their inspiration was their surrounding desolation; the broken northern cities, funnels, factories and pollution of Thatcher’s Britain, an inspiration that found expression in replicating the dystopian mechanical surges of Kraftwerk, combined with the tense and terse, epileptic frustrations of Joy Division. Bleak and industrial, the howling Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark sound was undoubtedly the product of their surroundings; early backing tracks were supplied by a Teac 4 track-tape-recorder named ‘Winston’, the Orwellian antihero of 1984.
Whilst being the defining group of the burgeoning cult of British New Wave electronic music, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark tread established ground; Gary Numan-esque nods littered their eponymous debut and Organisation owes almost too much to the pioneering electro-synth of Kraftwerk. Yet the record deserves to be recognised in itself, if only because, in a word, it is genius. Almost sparse and minimal, each track seemingly bears all the hallmarks of over-simplistic electronic music. But there are layers upon layers; beeps and whirrs complementing every ethereal chord and wearied wail. “2nd Thought” moodily pulses and allures, whilst “VCL XI” sees a more brash and expansive sound wrought from reverb and xylophonic clutter. “The Misunderstanding” is a kaleidoscopic blur of bitterness against the futility of modern life. The gorgeous progressions of “Stanlow” and “Annex” perfectly mirror that cover art; sunlight bursting through clouds, brilliance formed from the sweat and steel of northern cities.
The standout is “Enola Gay”, a synth-drenched narrative of the B29 bomber which delivered the first atomic bomb to Hiroshima, utilised as a protest to Thatcher’s atomic ambitions. Though not originally intended as an album track, its persisting influence throughout the record is unequivocal. Poetic and poignant lyricism sears and soars, uplifts and unsettles, and permanently legitimises British electronic music as something far more than simplistic. In a direct reference to the timing of the bombing, McCluskey half-drawls “It’s eight fifteen, and that’s a time that it’s always been” and clatters the listener with the unanswerable “are you proud of little boy today?” Few songs question society so brutally.
With Organisation, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark created a majestic record. Compelling, critical and quite beautiful, it redefines the boundaries of electronic music. Its continuing versatility as both an album for the dark intimacy of the headphone and as the distorted anti-disco last-track-of-the-night standout confirms its brilliance. Buy it and cherish it; it is utterly unique.
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