Thursday, 14 February 2008

ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK: Genetic Engineering


Now what dynamo would have been stirred if Atomic Kitten had made number one with this? A delicately polite typewriter/music box introduction, a series of artificially friendly voices offering meaningless business-speak cliches ("Efficient! Logical! Effective! And practical!") and then the shocking jackhammer of demolition as a Speak and Spell machine delivers an eight-word precis of the decline and fall of man ("Creature...judgement...butcher...engineer"), over frantic banjo and screaming synths as McCluskey's pained Marty Wilde-collides-into-Bernard Sumner voice sings of the non-future to come.

Effectively a sequel to Architecture And Morality's "The New Stone Age," the single was backed by a semi-instrumental "4 Neu" which didn't sound much like Neu! but sounds as chilling a farewell to warm humanity as "Yuko And Hiro" did a dozen years later, the string of "you and me...eternally" the only thing now keeping man attached to gravity, or real reality. It heralded the deliberately awkward Dazzle Ships album, whose camouflaged warship cover (1919 vintage) seemed a veiled comment on the selling out of New Pop. OMD thus became the second of several key New Pop figures intent on testing the desires of their audience that year - the first having been Soft Cell, with the similarly uncompromising The Art Of Falling Apart - and as with ABC and others later that year discovered the flimsy facade; that all audiences seemed to want had simply been lots of colour and smiles fixed in adhesive rictus, bereft of any useful subtext. And yet this was also the year in which nearly all singles were outsold by "Blue Monday."

But even champions of the next step forward found Dazzle Ships problematic; critically it was dismissed as village green Kraftwerk, or as low-wattage Laurie Anderson. Yet, as its imminent 25th anniversary remastered reissue confirms, it sounds startlingly contemporary, with its radio and call sign cut-ups, and has clearly influenced everyone from Saint Etienne ("Radio Prague") through to Radiohead - the nursery rhyme chants of "ABC" quickly escalate into chaos, a jammed teleprinter and a loop of a commentator warning "Frankenstein's monster" and would have been entirely at home on OK Computer. Still, it was not a long album, even with the inclusion of two Architecture And Morality-era B-sides, and a degree of exhaustion was not out of the question.

Nonetheless its persuasive Modern World Gasp! ominosities have endured, and "Genetic Engineering" deserved far better than its number 20 singles chart peak; a cry masquerading as eager laughter, one of the first calling of the New Pop audience's bluff - thus the retreat to the disguised 1974 of Paul Young and Annie Lennox, and also OMD's own necessary switchback to comparatively straightforward (and thoroughly uninvolving) electropop in the following year's Junk Culture. I would imagine that both single and album would do substantially better now, which in its sternly green-grey way is quite reassuring.

1 comment:

Ian said...

Great timing, I've been listening a lot to OMD's first four albums recently, especially Dazzle Ships (my favourite, although Organisation is pretty close). I'm glad to hear it's being reissued, it's impossible to find any of them on CD here and I need to own all four. "Romance of the Telescope" may be my favourite OMD track.