Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Electricity (1979)

OMDElectricity

Artist: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Title: Electricity
Description: single; track, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Label: Dindisc
Release date: 1979, 1980
First heard: 1979

It seemed so radical, appearing on TV with a TEAC reel-to-reel tape machine in place of a backing band, a stunt both Dadaist and practical that many of the modern bands pulled at the turn of the technological decade. The Musicians’ Union took a dim view of synthesisers and samplers, as well they might; these clever boxes signalled a march of industrial automation whose jackboots were already being heard around the corner. Indeed, the Rossini-scored Fiat advert that boasted about the Strada being “handbuilt by robots” debuted in the same year as Electricity’s first outing on – ha! – Factory records. (The pioneeringly callous ad was the first to occupy an entire ad break during News at Ten. Apparently the factory where the ad was shot in Turin by Hugh Hudson was being picketed by its own soon-to-be-redundant workers at the time.)

Elec-tricity
Nuclear and HEP
Carbon fuels from the sea
Wasted electricity

But Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys weren’t moving parts. They were flesh and blood in pleated trousers and tank tops; living, breathing musical maestros from the port city with the magic water who weren’t above using occasional drums and guest saxophone in the studio, and augmented the tape player (nicknamed “Winston” in Orwellian tribute) with an actual drummer and auxiliary second synth-player on tour, initially supporting Gary Numan, thereafter headlining. They were handbuilt for the top, playing pure pop of an almost educational bent, packaged with corporate sheen by Peter Saville, and advanced enough by Dindisc to build their own studio in Liverpool, thereby seizing the means of production.

Our one source of energy
Elec-tricity
All we need to live today
A gift for man to throw away

It’s the single beat between the second and third syllable of “electricity” – elec-tricity – that holds the secret to the debut single’s genius. Such control. Such command. To tame a synthesiser takes more than a soldering iron, and these two “geography teachers” as they were later thumbnailed in a Smash Hits world, not only brought the noise, they brought the expertise. Outfits like OMD, and the Human League, and Soft Cell – not to mention the second tier of Eyeless in Gaza and Naked Lunch and B-Movie and Modern Eon – were not slaves to their machines. These people could still organise a singsong in a power cut. They simply channelled electricity into more than jack-plug sockets, and their revolution would be synthesised.

The alternative is only one

There are four, if not five recorded versions of Electricity. The version I love, and which was enshrined on their first Best Of in 1988, as well as the debut album, starts with what sounds more like a giant marshmallow being struck twice – squoosh-squoosh – between alternate percussive bass notes – bom – and a presumably synthetic snare tap – crack. It’s like being counted in by a spaceship. That amorphous bass slinks into a secret melody while another, shriller riff chimes xylophonically over the top in tandem. If you’re not already dancing with your elbows, you never will be. (I’m secretly doing it right now, and I’m in a Caffe Nero.) This is one of the most infectious intros in post-analogue dancevision. Though McCluskey hogs the spotlight in formation, he and Humphreys share the vocal chores and forge a distant dual lament about mankind’s profligacy. A synth wash sustains the entire three-and-a-half minutes, and it mesmerises.

Electricity is elemental; somehow apocalyptic and yet also hopeful, ancient and modern. And from this short, sharp power surge a legend would emerge. It wasn’t a hit on its first, limited Factory release in 1979, nor its second, and nor its third in 1980. The honour of breakthrough would belong to a, yes, re-recorded Messages, after which the charts would find it hard to shake them for the next five years with their homework about the first atomic bomb, genetic engineering, Joan of Arc, Vorticism, telescopes, architecture and morality. Their LPs were still shifting silver, gold and platinum into the early 90s.

They made their Top of the Pops debut in 1980 on the same show as The Human League. Nice grouping. To love them is to love possibility. Conditions normal and you’re coming home.

The final source of energy
Solar electricity

 

Herbie Hancock, Rockit (1983)

Herbie_Hancock_-_Rockit

Artist: Herbie Hancock
Title: Rockit
Description: single; album track, Future Shock
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1983

Herbie Hancock may not even have been previously known by the generation that learned his name anew from Rockit, an out-of-the-blue instrumental hit that was so of its time, so cutting edge, so future-shocking, it would have seemed inconceivable that its creator had his roots in 1960s jazz. But Hancock – classically trained, something of a prodigy, but one who “learned” jazz with his ears – was no stranger to changing the game. As a pianist, he’d been sought out by Miles Davis for his egalitarian Second Great Quintet in 1963, where he was able to fuse elements of free jazz into something more structured.

It’s perhaps ironic that Davis’s interest in other music – soul, funk, even rock – led to the dissolution of the Quintet in the late 60s, because Hancock would prove just as open to other forms, expanding into soundtracks and experimentation with electronic instruments. Like a freeform shark, he kept moving – and still does. These days, aged 74, he’s indentured at UCLA and Harvard, lecturing on “the ethics of jazz”. Nice. And here, in the early 80s, when hip hop and electro ripped up the road map out of the ghetto, he was, Zelig-like, nailing a whole new hybrid sound to the gatepost along with fellow explorers bassist Bill Laswell and synth scientist Michael Beinhorn.

Scholars usually cite Rockit as the first hit to feature “scratching”, although Malcolm McLaren’s seminal Duck Rock album landed the same year, preceded by its early-adopting Buffalo Gals single, which as well as popularising synchronised skipping and South African sounds, also prominently showcased turntablism – a new, tactile artform unpacked by McLaren in the album’s sleeve notes as “a technique using record players like instruments, replacing the power chord of the guitar with the needle of a gramophone, moving it manually backwards and forwards across the surface of a record.”

No matter who beat whom to the North Pole of the patent office, Rockit was a hit in over a dozen countries, exploding like a rocket. There was no rapping or singing on it, just a galloping robot beat injected with sampled brass bursts, a side order of extraneous bongo, an almost atonal riff on bold, squelchy synthesiser and – dig it – a needle being moved manually across the surface of a gramophone record. Actually, to be pedantic, it’s the surface of a gramophone record being moved manually under a needle by New York’s Grandmixer DXT, the Bert Weedon of groove-wristing. It was science fiction that announced: greet the new dawn. The moreish Godley & Creme video, which featured android legs and torsos created by artist Jim Whiting, helped to make Rockit an event.

I remember hearing Afrika Bambaata’s Planet Rock for the first time and recognising a tectonic shift happening before my very ears, but Rockit was universally bought and loved. It crossed over, without, to my mind, losing a gram of its avant-gardist, underground veracity. Pretty soon, graffiti and baseball hats and rapping would be used to sell yogurts, but the subculture remained thrilling for a number of years. And Rockit does not lose its shine with the passage of time. The breaks where it’s just scratching and a vestige of the beat are pure circus.

There’s no lyric to unpack, beyond a punctuation-mark “Come on, y’all” towards the close. The music does the talking.

If it were just historic, it would be something. But to still induce dancing 30 years later is something else.

I know one thing: all this scratching is making me itch.