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

 

Elbow, Any Day Now (2001)

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Artist: Elbow
Title: Any Day Now
Description: EP track, The Any Day Now EP; album track, Asleep In The Back
Label: Ugly Man; V2
Release date: 2001
First heard: 2001

Guy, Craig, Mark, Pete, Jupp: the five of them had been a band since 1990 when four of them were 16, one of them 14, and Elbow by name since 1997. By 2001, when their debut album was released, they’d already recorded another one, for Island, which had been canned when the band were dropped, although half a dozen of its songs were re-recorded for Asleep In The Back. This long-player was, then, a long time coming. Perhaps that’s why it’s so solid, so thought-through, so cohesive, and why the band sound like they’ve been playing together for ten years.

They had me at the opening track. In fact, they had me at Craig’s opening church chord on the opening track. Once drummer Richard Jupp and bassist Pete Turner unite for that unsettling riff of spellbinding rimshot and seismic grumble, I’m Elbow’s for the taking, and Guy hasn’t even started cooing like a choirboy yet. Any Day Now is among my favourite Track 1, Side 1’s of all time. It set out a stall that I wanted to browse, and for all of Elbow’s achievements artistic, commercial and headlining in the glory years since, it’s the supplier I return to when in need of a restock.

“What’s got into me?” he asks. “Can’t believe myself. Must be someone else. Must be somewhere else.”

Garvey is a man at sea. He hangs suspended. Cold limbo. He’s a man alive but a man alone. And yet … from this slough of despond, the plaintive innocence of his soprano fills the sky with hope. The hope of “getting out of this place.” Any day now, in fact. The phrase “How’s about” may have taken on uninvited echoes of Savile, but we couldn’t be in safer hands. Isolated our protagonist may be, but he’s soon enveloped in sympathetic voices as what we used to call a “round” starts to make the room revolve, until the mantra becomes his safehouse:

Any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive, any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive …

First tracks of first albums often sounds like something a band have been building up to and rehearsing for all of their lives, but rarely do they sound as boldly understated, as casually assured and as sparingly worded as Any Day Now, and rarely are they six minutes in length. (That’s more a last track, isn’t it?) If it is a manifesto at all, it is equally a stab in the dark. And dark it was at the beginning of this benighted century, when the world was in turmoil and British music was hanging on for dear life. Elbow, who’d planned to emerge in the previous millennium but were thwarted from doing so, sound ready to save the world, or at least anyone who had a heart.

When I interviewed Elbow for Word in 2008, post-Mercury, Jupp had this to tell me about the band’s inability to assess their own work: “We can’t be objective about it. This is the only thing we’ve done in our adult lives. We cannot analyse it. You can’t step back from it.”

I can, and while Asleep In The Back is – with the benefit of hindsight – markedly more Gothic than its successors and pre-anthemic, it was not willfully difficult or awkward (except perhaps Bitten By The Tailfly, their taproom Tom Waits wonk-out). It’s distinctly lovely, in fact. Spooky, dusky, melancholy and regally slow for the most part (got a lot of spare time), with Garvey’s voice sealed in the amber of echo; as much piano- as guitar-led, and swathed in Northern English ennui, it it unafraid of tipping the five-minute mark. And it begins with Any Day Now.

Any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive, any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive …

He was wrong when he called for one day like this a year to see him right. One day is not enough. With Elbow’s back catalogue, you get a whole calender. Starting with a church chord.

 

Prefab Sprout, When Love Breaks Down (1984)

 

PrefabSproutWhenLoveBreaksDown

Artist: Prefab Sprout
Title: When Love Breaks Down
Description: single; album track, Steve McQueen
Label: Kitchenware
Release date: 1984, 1985
First heard: 1984

I’m not even sure why, but it was a standing joke that Prefab Sprout, critical darlings clearly capable of mainstream commercial embrace, kept on re-releasing When Love Breaks Down until it was a hit. In fact, they released it once, prior to its parent album Steve McQueen, in 1984 – when it failed to make the Top 75 – and again, in 1985, when it scaled to number 25 and made Top Of The Pops. I’m not sure the embellished version of events was even meant to denigrate the band, or their doughty label Kitchenware, merely to underline their determination to break on through to the other side. Which they surely did. (Come the next album, they were a Top 10 certainty, and shampooed their hair accordingly.)

Prefab Sprout shone for all the bands forged on the anvil of post-post-punk, who appreciated the here’s-three-chords-now-form-a-band ethic, but had broader musical aspirations and tended toward the windswept and interesting: Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, The Associates (all Scottish, so far), Win, Deacon Blue (still Scottish), ABC, The Christians, Danny Wilson, Wet Wet Wet (and we’re back in Scotland). Not all as cool as each other, but all willing to admit to an appreciation of Steely Dan, the collective sense of ambition was palpable, but there was further to fall. Once you’ve cracked the actual charts and become what used to be called a “housewives’ favourite”, the only way is down or Las Vegas. (Or a comfortable dotage on Radio 2, which is less of a comedown these days, of course.)

Paddy McAloon never aimed low in his life, and continues to defy a string of crueler-than-cruel medical jokes by finding new ways around his disabilities, a spirit undimmed. His songs have always been intricate, opaque and one step ahead of you. I bought Steve McQueen and Swoon in the wrong order during college, and thus experienced them getting less accessible, and thus more intriguing. Swoon beguiled me before I knew the meaning of the word. It was terrible background music, as it demanded you pay attention to its curling lyrics and unpredictable tempo changes. Steve McQueen was a more approachable affair, full of potential singles, not least the locomotive country opener Faron Young, and this one.

Torrid and aching in arrangement and thrust, after some of the cryptic crossword clues on Swoon, it’s pretty straightforward: McAloon’s love and he “work well together”, but are “often apart”. Nothing too melodramatic, just a couple separated by distance. Instead of fonder, “absence makes the heart lose weight” (even when he’s playing a straight bat, McAloon still hits a six). When love breaks down, we tell lies, we fool ourselves, we do all sorts of stuff to “stop the truth from hurting”, but soon, we’ll be as “free as old confetti.” More given to Sondheim than Strummer, Paddy brings a great gift to the masses: eloquence with wit. Prefab Sprout are like punk never happened.

It’s hard not to swoon to the desaturated Hollwood pose on the sleeve of the album (I don’t know about you, but I never imagined McAloon could ride that Triumph), and the clean lines of the production from either Thomas Dolby (the longer, album version) or Phil Thornalley (the single). But most of all, I admire the daring Americanisation of the imagery, building from Swoon‘s basketball, cornball, Bobby Fischer and “Chicago urban blues” (carefully tempered by tea-rooms, A-Levels and Jodrell Bank), to take transatlantic flight with blueberry pies, bubblegum, “the songs of Georgie Gershwin” and Pearl Harbor. McAloon imagines and interprets like a novelist, of course. He was sort of leapfrogged by Lloyd Cole in this department, who made America his lyrical, then spiritual, then actual home. All roads lead back to Tyne and Wear for McAloon.

Let us praise his bandmates, for this was a band, whose lineup remained steady until after Andromeda Heights in 1997, and a one that was fleet of finger and foot. McAloon and Wendy Smith’s vocals work well together, her angelic hosts, treated in the manner of I’m Not In Love, a constant, breathy presence. Brother Martin McAloon’s air-conditioned bass never falters. The exactitude of Neil Conti’s clockwork rimshot and feathery snare fills were good enough to get him recruited for Bowie’s band at Live Aid.

Even the LP take, at just over four minutes, ends too soon. But Prefab Sprout make alchemical pop at all lengths (on Steve McQueen alone there’s Blueberry Pies at two-and-a-half, and Desire At over five), and in any case, the lyric has quietly come to a conclusion. You may have missed it. Here’s where the story ends: with the protagonist and his former love joining “the wrecks who lose their hearts for easy sex.” His work here is done; he’s ridden that triumph.

I realise now that Prefab Sprout are wasted on the young. They age like port.

By the way, Stuart Maconie and I subsequently spent the back end of a boozy evening in Newcastle in 1992 sitting round a grand piano in a hotel bar singing along as Paddy McAloon pounded out requests from the Sprout catalogue. It was one of the greatest back ends of a boozy evening of my life.

The Fall, L.A. (1985)

TheFallTNSG

Artist: The Fall
Title: L.A.
Description: B-side, Cruiser’s Creek; album track, This Nation’s Saving Grace
Label: Beggars Banquet
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

To put this choice into context, here are 32 other songs by The Fall which might equally occupy this hallowed seat, and in fact, do:

Cruiser’s Creek
Muzorewi’s Daughter
Totally Wired
Living Too Long
Lucifer Over Lancashire
C.R.E.E.P.
Australians In Europe
Hit The North Pt 2
Guest Informant
The Container Drivers
Black Monk Theme Pt 1
Hilary
British People In Hot Weather
Ride Away
What About Us
I Can Hear The Grass Grow
Early Days Of Channel Fuhrer
Mere Pseud Mag Ed
Who Makes The Nazis?
New Big Prinz
Bad News Girl
Cab It Up
Glam Racket
I’m Going To Spain
A Past Gone Mad
Garden
Barmy
Spoilt Victorian Child
Couldn’t Get Ahead
Gut Of The Quantifier
My New House
There’s A Ghost In My House

And even that’s not a definitive list. I could draw up another 32 right now. I don’t think I need state which late-nite DJ introduced me to The Fall. I am certain it was in 1980, when I had just turned 15, and lived the cliché of the kid listening to a transistor radio after dark, under the bedsheets, with a single waxy earpiece in. (Within a few years, I would be listening with parental permission, with my finger hovering over the pause button on a tape recorder. I wish I still had those cassettes, with their occasional disembodied intro or outro from Peel, although the songs on them are forever burned into my brain’s own internal hard drive.)

I don’t know it if was the screeching, dual-speed Musorewi’s Daughter from 1979’s Dragnet, or the stuttering, beguiling The Container Drivers from 1980’s Grotesque, or whether it was the original or a Peel Session version, but whichever song came first floored me at once. I was Mark E Smith’s forever. The more beaty Totally Wired, in its scribbly sleeve, was my first Fall purchase, in 1980, and it led to a lifetime of future purchases. I believe my Fall collection is the largest of any artist. They must be my favourite band.

Why L.A.? Well, This Nation’s Saving Grace abides as my favourite album, maybe because it was the first one I’d purchased the week it was released, like a real fan. My friends at the time were not Fall fans. My devotion was one that defied peer pressure. Some nights I felt it was between me and John Peel. And then I arrived at the NME in 1988 and found a modest but passionate support group. When features editor James Brown whisked Mark E Smith through the art room where I worked and I was suddenly breathing his Rothmans air, I was dumbstruck. He asked, out loud, “How do you spell ‘appalling’?” and I opened my mouth and something came out. It was this: “A.P.P.A.L.L.I.N.G.”

Why L.A.? Because it’s driven by a chuffing synthesised sound and a keyboard pulse, and some of Karl Burns’ heaviest but metronomically tumbling drums, and most of it feels like an instrumental, with that dirty twanging guitar and guttural bass, the vocals more of a wash than a foregrounded detail: Mark E Smith sort of coughing along and occasionally spelling out the title: “L – L – L – L – A – A – A – A – A- A …” He squeals in the distance, then intones words and phrases that add up to little more than “Odeon … sky … canny … bushes … something something … heat”, after which Brix drawls something garbled about a “happening” that “freaks me out“. And yet, for all its confusion and smoke and blurgh, it says Los and it says Angeles. It’s certainly a long way from Salford and the dark, satanic mills on the sleeve illustration. This is a cool group.

I’ve always defined Mark E Smith as a beat poet, but with a trucker’s beat (a trucker’s beat poet), and one who knows the value of a good riff.

Why L.A., above all others? Why the fuck not? It is my happening, and it freaks me out.

 

P.S.: It has been pointed out to me that L.A. was Peel’s least favourite Fall track. That’s rather poetic.

ABC, Unzip (1983)

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Artist: ABC
Title: Unzip
Description: album track, from Beauty Stab
Label: Mercury
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1984

Know this: The 143 will be catalogued in no particular order. Each is as vital as the other. We begin with ABC because we do. Having trained myself to love only punk and post-punk music in my early-to-mid teens, it took the more electronic/cinematic sweep of what we called New Romantic music to break my self-imposed spell circa 1980-81. Into the strict buzz of punk rock electric guitar I allowed synthetic beats and beeps, and via the “white funk” of bands like Pigbag, A Certain Ratio, and ABC, and Spandau Ballet’s Chant No. 1, bongos, brass and strings.

We all fell hard for The Lexicon Of Love didn’t we, in that summer of Smash Hits, 1982? It felt like it. To say that ABC injected some glamour back into the people’s music was an understatement. It almost felt like contraband in my record collection, which remained mostly dark and dirty with Bauhaus, B-Movie and the Bunnymen still dominant. I don’t know how I missed Beauty Stab, the gleefully arrogant follow-up, in 1983, but I must have, as it only crossed my radar when I arrived at Ralph West Halls of Residence in Battersea, London, in September 1984. My new neighbour, Stephen Clasper from Morpeth, lent me it, and it knocked me sideways.

It was big and bold, and it had guitars. And where Lexicon swooned, Beauty Stab, well, stabbed. It wasn’t as great a leap sideways as it felt – both LPs were overstated and epic – but this one had blood rushing through it. And although I was taken by the singles That Was Then And This Is Now, and the appeasing S.O.S. (neither of which went Top 10: a mark of its chilly reception), it’s this track that got under my skin and has stayed there all these years. To the point where I have chosen it over ABC’s fireside favourites.

Moving from one founder of ZTT, Trevor Horn, to another, Gary Langan, the sound on Beauty Stab is spare and graphic. Unzip opens with a guitar riff that sounds synthesised, even if it isn’t, and the drums sound triggered, even if they aren’t. It may simply be precision playing (Andy Newmark had George Benson, John Lennon and Pink Floyd under his belt), but it raises the tension for what is clearly an ode to sex. When Fry growls, “Love’s just a gimmick, a mime or a mimic,” he seems to be making a bonfire of his own recent pop past. The sax sounds predatory, the bass is around Joe Cocker bassist Alan Spenner’s knees, and the tom toms are tribal. It’s a new lexicon of lust.

Fry’s sap is certainly rising (“Why take pleasure in censorship?”) and when he delivers the killer line in the second verse, “She’s vegetarian except when it comes to sex,” I blush every time.

It’s all over in under three minutes. As well it might be. I am proud in adult life to have played this song on national radio with Martin Fry in attendance. And I remain grateful to Stephen Clasper for the tip-off. We both leapt on the stuttering cartoon-pop third album How To Be A Zillionaire the week it came out in January ’85, which was another leap again.