A-HA, OMD & TOM BAILEY Live

The opening night of a-ha’s 31-date Electric Summer tour yielded plenty of surprises, as Barry Page discovered…

The home of Kent County Cricket Club, the Spitfire ground has been doubling up as a music venue since Elton John brought his Red Piano tour to the beautiful, historic city of Canterbury in June 2006. Twelve years later, three acts synonymous with pop music’s greatest decade – the 1980s – played to a largely enthusiastic crowd on a balmy spring day.

Since his return to the pop music fray in 2014, following a lengthy absence, 62-year old Tom Bailey has become something of a permanent fixture on the festival circuit, delighting fans and nostalgia-hungry crowds with a selection of hits culled from the back catalogue of his former band, the Thompson Twins. A warm-up concert at SUB89 in Reading in August 2014 – which this writer was lucky enough to be present at – marked the start of a journey that will culminate with the release of his first ever solo album, Science Fiction, next month. “It’s exciting,” he says, “because rediscovering the ability to play live and write pop music has been part of a personal transformation. I started off full of fear and all sorts of ‘oh no I can’t do that, and I can’t do that’. But, little by little, I’ve rediscovered that it’s okay. It’s fun and it’s really interesting.”

Boasting outstanding cuts such as ‘Ship Of Fools’, ‘If You Need Someone’ and 2016’s comeback single, ‘Come So Far’, Science Fiction is a fine album that fans of his former band will undoubtedly be pleased with. Also included on the PledgeMusic-funded new album is a track titled, somewhat prophetically, ‘Bring Back Yesterday’, a title that seems to perfectly encapsulate the nostalgic mood of the Kent crowd who, rightly or wrongly, expect to hear the hits. As Bailey told The Guide in 2016, “You’re known for your best work so it would be foolish for me to walk out to a crowd and say, ‘Here are ten songs I wrote last week’. You have to earn permission for that.”

During their mid-80s heyday, which included a memorable performance at Live Aid with Madonna on backing vocals, the Thompson Twins racked up a slew of hit singles. Sadly, the lowly 45-minute slot ensures that Bailey and his fabulous all-female band – which includes Emily Dolan Davies, a former member of The Darkness – can’t play them all. But the allocation is lengthy enough to remind the crowd that the Thompson Twins produced some truly classic pop singles in their pomp, including ‘Hold Me Now’, ‘Doctor! Doctor!’, ‘You Take Me Up’ and their first Top 10 hit, ‘Love On Your Side’, which still raises a smile with its clever interpolation of 1982’s ‘In The Name Of Love’. The arrangements are largely true to the studio recordings, but US hit ‘King For A Day’ is presented in a slightly slower, bossa nova style; replete with lyrical tweaks (“Diamond rings/ And all that bling”). The visuals feature a combination of graphics and lyrics, and the band also daringly throw in the Latin America-inspired current single, ‘What Kind Of World’, which includes some infectious Cuban vocal samples. The band endure some software problems which results in some occasionally off-key vocals, but overall it’s a very enjoyable set that is well received by the sun-baked crowd.

Equally adept on both the festival circuit and indoor venues are synth-pop pioneers Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, who had actually once supported the Thompson Twins on a lengthy US jaunt – The Tour Of Future Days – in late 1985/early 1986.

Since the band’s official reformation in 2005, OMD have enjoyed something of a career renaissance; rivalled only by that of Gary Numan’s. As the social media reaction will later attest, the band win a plethora of new admirers after an outstanding 70-minute, hits-packed set.

“Tonight, Matthew, we’re gonna be a Blues Brothers tribute band,” declares singer and bassist Andy McCluskey, before launching into their first Top 10 hit, ‘Enola Gay’. By the time of the band’s arrival on stage – which is still facing the glare of a powerful early evening sun – the throng has significantly swelled, and the well-rehearsed band feed off the energy and enthusiasm of the audience. Some early sound problems are eradicated once a fresh microphone has been installed for set perennial ‘Tesla Girls’, but a confident and jovial McCluskey is undeterred as he cajoles the crowd into pogoing along to ‘History Of Modern (Part One)’, a highly energetic live favourite that’s essentially about the end of mankind (“Everyone you love/ Everyone you hate/ All will be erased and replaced”).

Whilst it’s a sprightly McCluskey who largely provides OMD’s focal point, keyboardist Paul Humphreys is also afforded a turn in the spotlight as he arrives centre stage for a run-through of the band’s final UK hit of the 1980s, ‘(Forever) Live And Die’.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played at a cricket pitch before… with or without pads,” announces McCluskey, before launching into ‘If You Leave’, the huge US hit that formed part of the soundtrack for the classic Pretty In Pink movie. It’s become something of a divisive song amongst OMD’s fans since its release in 1986, but there’s no denying the quality of 58-year old McCluskey’s vocal and Martin Cooper’s saxophone solo on this mid-set number. Such is the band’s proficiency, one concert-goer flippantly suggests that the band are miming!

A longstanding part of OMD’s live set over the years has been what McCluskey has termed the ‘pastoral section’, frontloaded with a triple header of Top 5 hits from 1981’s classic album, Architecture And Morality, which still remains the pinnacle of their career. On the Humphreys-sung ‘Souvenir’, McCluskey takes a now-customary wander around the stage as he picks out the simple bass notes, while ‘Joan Of Arc’ and ‘Maid Of Orleans’ showcase the considerable talents of drummer Stuart Kershaw, an often overlooked figure in the history of OMD, despite having co-written some fabulous songs over the years. Since stepping into the breach following the unfortunate departure of original drummer, Malcolm Holmes, Kershaw has added a fresh dynamic and, with his powerful drumming, has become an integral part of the band’s live set-up.

‘Talking Loud And Clear’, which Duran Duran’s John Taylor once described as having a ‘nursery rhyme’ feel, gives McCluskey something of a breather after a typically frenetic workout during the climax of ‘Maid Of Orleans’. There’s a slightly clumsy end to the track and a few quizzical looks between members, but no-one seems to notice. “We must be doing something right,” announces McCluskey. “There’s no queue at the Prosecco tent!”

When the band’s original line-up disbanded at the end of the 80s, McCluskey embarked on a solo journey; utilizing the OMD moniker, but with mixed results. The excellent Universal album proved to be that particular era’s swansong, but it produced one bona fide classic single in ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, which the Canterbury crowd are treated to. In concert the band haven’t quite been able to replicate the magic of the studio recording and the lack of the Hannah Clive backing vocal sample further exposes its frailties, but it’s well received by a crowd who are clearly receptive to the song’s nostalgic tones.

Whilst the set leans heavily on the hits, the band indulge the crowd with the title track of last year’s critically-acclaimed 13th studio album, The Punishment Of Luxury. Whilst some of the lyrics are questionable (“Can I have my cheque please, Sir?”), the track boasts a memorable Kraftwerkian melody, and the “hey! hey! hey!”s provide another opportunity for the audience to interact.

There’s a return to the hits with the Caribbean-flavoured ‘Locomotion’ and a double-header of singles from 1991’s Sugar Tax album, ‘Pandora’s Box’ and ‘Sailing On The Seven Seas’, while the band’s oldest song, ‘Electricity’, rounds the set off in style.

It’s now almost 40 years since Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark formed – something the band will commemorate with some special shows in the autumn – and this rapturously received set certainly consolidated their reputation as one of the finest live acts around at the moment.

“It’s a huge privilege to be able to go out and play in front of enthusiastic audiences 30 years down the line – not a lot of artists get that opportunity” – Magne Furuholmen


It’s been almost four months since a-ha completed their MTV Unplugged tour at the O2 arena. The process of reimagining key songs from their vast back catalogue has clearly reenergised the Norwegian trio, and much of the new set list on the opening night of the Electric Summer tour expands on this approach. “You have to reinvent things,” Pål Waaktaar recently told The Yorkshire Post. “It has to feel fresh, so even the ones we always play, you try to give them a different spin or really bring it back to the way it was at the core.” Certainly, it would be so easy for the band at this stage in their career to run through perfunctory versions of their hits, but they deserve credit for continuing to challenge themselves musically. Sections of the Canterbury crowd are not so receptive to some of the new arrangements, and the band are understandably rusty after a four-month break away from the live stage, but it’s nevertheless a fine set, with some intriguing twists and turns.

By the time the band appear at 8:30, the temperature has noticeably dipped. Featuring the same line-up as the MTV Unplugged tour – sans multi-instrumentalist Lars Horntveth – the band launch into ‘Cry Wolf’. Morten Harket endures some problems with his in-ear monitors, a sight that his audiences are well used to witnessing. “It’s about trying to hear what I’m doing myself,” he once told the Norwegian journalist, Jan Omdahl. “And because I use the voice over such a large spectrum – not only high and low – but also in intonation and levels of sensitivity, it demands a lot. It’s a shitty job for the soundman to work with me.”

Whilst the set leans heavily on the band’s singles, deep cuts such as ‘The Weight Of The Wind’ get a much welcome airing, as does Magne Furuholmen’s ‘This Is Our Home’, a beautiful new song which was debuted during last summer’s shows in Giske.

Other tracks that haven’t been played for several years include ‘The Blood That Moves The Body’ and ‘Minor Earth Major Sky’, which boasts a more electronic foundation than its studio counterpart. But perhaps the biggest surprise of the set is the inclusion of ‘Train Of Thought’. Not the version of the band’s third Top 10 hit that most people are used to, but an arrangement that’s closer to the original demo recorded at John Ratcliff’s Rendezvous studio circa 1983; replete with alternative lyrics and a distinctive guitar riff that was later used on ‘Cold River’ (see 1990’s East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon).

Elsewhere, ‘Manhattan Skyline’ is presented in a more stripped-back arrangement and boasts a more ambient introduction. Towards the end of the song, as Harket gazes admiringly at Waaktaar’s guitar playing – which is excellent throughout – he misses his vocal cue; a sign perhaps of some opening show nerves.

Set mainstay, ‘Stay On These Roads’, features a lovely cello solo and some fabulous organ flourishes, while ‘I’ve Been Losing You’ includes a sneaky snatch of The Doors’ ‘Riders On The Storm’ in the song’s dramatic climax.

The crowd are a little subdued throughout, and there are some audible moans and groans about Harket’s apparent failure to interact with the crowd in the same way as OMD’s loquacious singer had done in the previous set – it’s a criticism that has followed him around for years. “I’ve never been uncomfortable being a frontman,” he told The Guardian in 2016. “I’ve always known that to be my position, but I’m not a showman. I’m not an entertainer, I’m an engager.” Furuholmen remains the band’s onstage spokesman, and he manages to rouse the crowd for a finale that includes the band’s only UK No.1 hit, ‘The Sun Always Shines On T.V.’, and James Bond theme, ‘The Living Daylights’.

Since its inception in a Manglerud nursery school basement in 1981, transatlantic hit ‘Take On Me’ has seen many changes, culminating in a beautiful ballad arrangement premiered last year. This time round, the band return to the version most people are familiar with, but with some funkier guitar elements. It’s the final number of the evening and, despite some of the criticisms – with one disgruntled fan even claiming that they have lost the plot – the band have delivered once again.


Tom Bailey set list: Love On Your Side / What Kind Of World / You Take Me Up / King For A Day / Lies / Lay Your Hands On Me / Doctor! Doctor! / Hold Me Now

OMD set list: Enola Gay / Messages / Tesla Girls / History Of Modern (Part One) / (Forever) Live And Die / If You Leave / Souvenir / Joan Of Arc / Maid Of Orleans (The Waltz Joan Of Arc) / Talking Loud And Clear / Walking On The Milky Way / The Punishment Of Luxury / Locomotion / Pandora’s Box / Sailing On The Seven Seas / Electricity

a-ha set list: Cry Wolf / The Blood That Moves The Body / Minor Earth Major Sky / Lifelines / The Weight Of The Wind / Crying In The Rain / Foot Of The Mountain / Analogue (All I Want) / Train Of Thought / Stay On These Roads / This Is Our Home / Manhattan Skyline / Hunting High And Low / I’ve Been Losing You / The Sun Always Shines On T.V. / Scoundrel Days / The Living Daylights / Take On Me


All photographs by Barry Page

Special thanks to Sara Page


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OMD – ON A SHIP TO NOWHERE – UNIVERSAL REVISITED

An in-depth look at OMD’s tenth studio album

With rave reviews – and a top five placing – for their latest album The Punishment Of Luxury, a near sell-out UK tour, plus long-overdue recognition for their pioneering synth-pop work, it’s been an incredible turnaround in fortunes for Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, who reformed in 2005.

Back in the summer of 1996, it was a vastly different story, as singer Andy McCluskey prepared to release Universal, his third – and final – solo album under the OMD banner. Both McCluskey and Virgin Records had shifted the bulk of their chips in the direction of the album’s first single ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ but, by the time of its release, OMD were deemed to be past their sell-by date and Radio 1 passed on adding it to their playlist; causing a knock-on effect that would effectively sink its parent album. Shortly afterwards, a depressed McCluskey would slip into the shadows, before officially ending OMD in 1998.

Like the band’s previous album Liberator, it’s an album that has divided fan opinion over the years; whilst its lack of commercial success has somewhat coloured McCluskey’s own opinion of it. But this lyrically focused and well-produced collection has actually aged very well, and stands up against the best of the band’s back catalogue.

In this article we take an in-depth look at the making of OMD’s often overlooked tenth studio album, using archived material and some exclusive new reminiscences from Andy McCluskey and some of the album’s key personnel.


THAT WAS THEN

The critical and commercial failure of the Liberator album meant that, by the spring of 1994, OMD’s Andy McCluskey had reached the third crisis of his music career; following the commercial failure of Dazzle Ships in 1983 and the acrimonious split of the classic 4-piece line-up in 1989.

The beginning of the year had started well with the band bringing the Liberator tour to a close with some well received shows in South Africa, but little did McCluskey know that the show in Pretoria on the 15th January 1994 would be OMD’s last show for over 22 years. In an interview for the Messages magazine in 2002, McCluskey reflected on this show, as well as his decision to end the band: “I didn’t know that Pretoria in South Africa was going to be the last OMD gig. It was like, did The Beatles know that Candlestick Park was going to be their last ever gig? At the time, you’re not planning to stop, but when you do stop that’s it, you bring down the curtain.”

Whilst McCluskey had plans to utilise the services of the members of OMD’s touring band for his next album, Nigel Ipinson, Phil Coxon and Stuart Kershaw drifted into other projects once they’d returned to Liverpool. Kershaw hooked up with bass player – and college friend – Keith Small, while Phil Coxon formed Isha-D with Beverley Reppion (who’d sang backing vocals on OMD’s hit ‘Pandora’s Box’ in 1991). But it was Ipinson who would eventually land the highest profile job, playing keyboards for The Stone Roses in a new line-up that reunited him with his old Rebel MC bandmates Robbie Maddix and Aziz Ibrahim (the trio had previously played on the rapper’s 1991 album Black Meaning Good).

By and large the tour had been a success, but its fortunes contrasted sharply with that of the Liberator album itself – attracting criticism from both fans and journalists, one reviewer described it as a “collection of featherweight pop doodles”. Whilst the success of 1991’s Sugar Tax and its attendant singles had reinvigorated the OMD brand, it’s somewhat rushed successor was unable to replicate its success, with much of the blame laying at the feet of its techno-styled production. McCluskey recently explained to The Electricity Club: “The problem with Liberator was that I invited Phil Coxon to work on the production but wouldn’t relinquish my own programming, so we basically ended up with an album full of songs with two sets of often conflicted programming. Also, whilst Phil programmed I was bored so I played video games instead of keeping an eye on things! It was then too late to steer him in a different direction when he had done a couple of days work on a song.”

By this stage, the musical landscape was changing, and a new breed of guitar-based acts (Blur, Oasis, Suede, Pulp, et al) were spearheading a new movement that would eventually become known as Britpop. Fearing that OMD’s brand of synth-pop was becoming dated, McCluskey made a conscious decision to adapt to the changing climate and freshen up the act’s sound. “It was important for me to abandon some of the electronic stuff,” he confirmed. “Nobody in the mid-1990s really wanted ’80s synth-pop any more, which is essentially how OMD were perceived, whether correctly or not.”

And there was to be a further change as McCluskey decided to shake up his songwriting routine, abandoning his usual rehearsal space at The Ministry in Preston Street, Liverpool. “I’ve worked in the same room now for four and a half years,” he told the Telegraph fanzine that year. “I’ll be living in Dublin – admittedly not far from home, but far enough to break my usual habits.” McCluskey rented a house in Dublin and transferred his mixing desk, computer, speakers and rig to a room in a studio named The Factory.


THE DEMOS

Whilst work on the new demos was largely done independently, he was occasionally joined by Stuart Kershaw – tracks such as ‘Too Late’ stemmed from these sessions. Kershaw also accompanied McCluskey on a 3-week road trip across the USA; hiring a car in Washington D.C. and clocking up 6,500 miles on an indirect journey to Los Angeles. “We went north to Gettysburg,” McCluskey told The Travel Almanac in 2011. “Then back down all the way to New Orleans, then to NASA and to Tucson, Arizona…it was fantastic. When we got to Las Vegas we’d already done 5,500 miles and the valet guy wanted to take the car away: ‘I’ll get this washed for you, Sir!,’ he said. We asked him not to, of course, as we wanted to take a picture of the dirty car once we had made it to L.A.!”

By mid-1994, ‘The New Dark Age’, ‘Too Late’, ‘Universal’ and ‘That Was Then’ had been demoed, and the band’s information service also reported that the new album would include an updated version of ‘Resist The Sex Act’. This was a track that had been heavily influenced by Lil Louis’ club classic ‘French Kiss’, and originally considered for inclusion on 1991’s Sugar Tax album. “It’s now like a slowed-down house song built around a repeated bass riff which continues for six minutes with ambient choral sections floating in and out,” explained McCluskey. Whilst it was reported that the track would ‘definitely’ be on the album, it was eventually consigned to the archives.

Work on the album ceased as McCluskey convalesced following a collar bone break sustained whilst playing 5-a-side football. OMD’s peripatetic frontman also set off on holiday again; this time journeying with his then 70-year old father, Jimmy. “I flew with him into Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, and spent a couple of days with him there and in Samarkand,” McCluskey told The Travel Almanac. “Then we took a train across the border into China, through China and all the way to Singapore.” McCluskey added: “When I was young, I didn’t see my father that much. He was always working. And when he wasn’t working, he was out wasting his money on greyhound racing. When you become an adult, you reassess your relationship with your parents. This was my opportunity to go away with my father as an adult, one on one, and talk to him about us, about his history, to learn something about him. I’m glad I did it.”

By the end of the year the new album, provisionally titled Universal, was making good progress and Virgin Records were reportedly pleased with the demos that McCluskey had sent them. “I’m increasingly excited about the way this album is progressing,” said McCluskey. “It really is going to sound different.” The singer later told Sound On Sound that he was concerned about “getting a bit laid-back in Ireland”, and he relocated to Los Angeles for several months. After renting a house in Hollywood Hills West and a studio room at J.E. Sound, McCluskey was able to complete the album’s demos, which now included ‘If You’re Still In Love With Me’, ‘The Chosen One’ – not to be confused with ‘Sister Marie Says’ – and ‘Oboe Song’.

But there was one particular song that really excited OMD fans, after it was reported in mid-1995 that McCluskey had been working with his old bandmate Paul Humphreys in Los Angeles. Although Humphreys was committed to both The Listening Pool (who were working on a follow-up to debut album Still Life, provisionally titled Natural) and his Telegraph Records venture, the pair had remained good friends and seized the opportunity to work together again. “We wrote three or four pieces, but this one piece – ‘Very Close To Far Away’ – was by far the most exciting of the ones we’d written,” said an enthused McCluskey. “We specially set out to write a psychedelic pop song – it was quite interesting.”

PRODUCTION AND RECORDING

“The songs were 80 to 90 percent there – it was the last 15 to 20 percent, which is always the best bit, converting the good-sounding demo into the great-sounding finished record.” – Andy McCluskey

With the demos now completed, McCluskey was finally ready to begin recording the new album. Whilst the Sugar Tax and Liberator albums had largely been recorded at his co-owned Pink Museum studio in Liverpool, McCluskey was keen for a further change to his routine, and opted to record Universal at the then EMI-owned Townhouse Studios in London (the Shepherd’s Bush studio had been a popular facility with many high profile artists over the years, including Kate Bush, XTC, Simple Minds, Queen and The Jam). A change of recording environment had certainly paid off in the previous decade as the original OMD line-up sought to put the commercial failure of the Dazzle Ships album behind them. Switching from the confines of their self-built Gramophone Suite studio to Highland Studios in Inverness – and, later, the more exotic climes of Air Studios in Montserrat – the band returned in 1984 with a glossier pop sound and the reward of a successful album, Junk Culture, plus three hit singles.

With a change of studio there also came a change in production team, with McCluskey employing the services of both David Nicholas and Matthew Vaughan to co-produce with him. “When I got back from America, I had everything pretty much demoed,” McCluskey told Sound On Sound, “and having changed the way I wrote the album, I wanted to change the way I was going to record the album; it was quite important for me to find the right people to work with.” ARIA award winner David Nicholas was an experienced producer and recording engineer who had worked on landmark albums by Midnight Oil and INXS (notably 1987’s multi-platinum Kick) in his home country of Australia. Prior to his work on Universal he had also worked on albums by Elton John, Ash and Marcella Detroit, as well as Liverpool-based River City People, who had supported OMD on the second wave of the Sugar Tax tour in 1991.

Also boasting an impressive CV was Matthew Vaughan, an experienced musician and programmer who had featured on albums by Elton John, The Christians and Terence Trent D’Arby. In the early 1990s Vaughan had also co-written tracks and played on two albums by Bassomatic (a project masterminded by William Orbit, who had remixed OMD’s 1988 single ‘Dreaming’ for the 10″ format) and, in 1993, was credited with additional programming on two remixes of Depeche Mode’s ‘I Feel You’ single. His versatile musicianship would be called upon during the making of OMD’s new album, as he added guitar and keyboard parts to several tracks.

Prior to Universal, both Vaughan and Nicholas had completed programming and engineering duties, respectively, on Marcella Detroit’s Jewel album, and they had also commenced work on Pulp’s fifth studio album Different Class (by Christmas 1994, future smash hit ‘Common People’ was already in the can). “They were the right and left-hand men for that record, with [producer] Chris Thomas sitting on the couch doing the crossword and I thought, that’s the way I want to do it!” McCluskey told Sound On Sound. “So I spent three months in The Town House doing the crossword on the couch! It took a bit of the pressure off me, because I could delegate things to them and trust that they would do things I would be happy with – they were very much on my wavelength.” Whilst Nicholas and Vaughan were committed to working on the Sheffield band’s breakthrough opus, they were able to put in some preliminary work on the Universal album, picking two songs – ‘Very Close To Far Away’ and ‘The Chosen One’ – from McCluskey’s demos that they were particularly impressed with.

“I think it was my (and Dave’s) manager Barbara Jeffries who got us introduced to the gig,” Matthew Vaughan told The Electricity Club. “I remember going to the [Virgin] record company offices in Kensal Rise for a meeting, and we got the gig. What I knew of OMD’s catalogue extended not much further than ‘Enola Gay’, ‘Messages’, ‘Joan Of Arc’ and ‘Maid Of Orleans’ at the time, to be honest. I do remember that, between me and David, we thought there wouldn’t be much point in trying to recreate the sound of those records, given that that particular zeitgeist had passed (little did we know it was soon about to rush past us on its return journey). So we opted for live drums and bass and very little use of the old synthesisers that had characterised the OMD sound – this proved critically unpopular at the time as I recall. Andy had quite meticulously constructed demos already that we were keen to keep to the spirit of – the demos were what attracted us to the project really. So we went into a few weeks of pre-production in one of the basement rooms at the Town House studios in Goldhawk Road W14. We tarted up the sounds and some of the parts using various synth modules, and then started recording in the main studios upstairs – I think it was Studio 4 mainly. I remember doing the first track, ‘The Chosen One’ (which was a bit Roy Orbison), in Studio 1 and it going down well with members of staff. You should know that Studio 2 did not exist in the same building – that was the old Ramport Studios in Battersea, formerly owned by The Who. Studio 3 was the legendary ‘drum room’ at Townhouse used to record Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’.

“It was the first time Matt and I had teamed up as co-producers,” explained David Nicholas to The Electricity Club. “Before that we had worked together many times for producer Chris Thomas as engineer (me) and programmer (Matt). To be honest, I had not heard any of [OMD’s] music other than singles I had heard on the radio back in the ’80s when they were quite big in Australia. I loved working on the record. Matt, Andy and I made a good team and it was also the first time I/we had attempted to do a tapeless album (which in those days was very new). We decided to work from Andy’s demos which were well advanced and all on Logic [Audio], which Matt was very familiar with. So we decided to just add live drums, bass and strings, and the odd guitar to the files that already existed in Logic using the first generation of digital audio computer hardware. It was very scary as that technology was very new and quite unstable. But we persevered and almost the entire album was done without using any tape. Now it’s the norm, but back then it was almost unheard of… and not without some major crashes and some very late nights! But a great learning curve and an achievement I’m proud of. I have very fond memories of the recording sessions, too. It was a very creative, happy and fulfilling record to work on as we all got on very well, both personally and creatively – which always make the music better, from my experience.”

Vaughan adds: “I remember Andy raising an eyebrow at me and Dave’s consumption of the classic Town House full English breakfast every morning, saying something like: ‘It’s all very well if you’re going out for a day’s worth of honest physical toil, less appropriate if you’re going to sit on your arse all day fiddling with a piano part’. I can’t swear that’s verbatim, but that’s the gist!”

The use of session players – particularly the rhythm section – marks Universal out as a unique album in OMD’s back catalogue. Bassist Phil Spalding was a vastly experienced musician who had worked with artists including Toyah and Mike Oldfield during the 1980s, and he’d also been a member of Original Mirrors, along with Ian Broudie (a former member of the legendary Liverpudlian ensemble Big In Japan who would later form Care with Paul Simpson and, more successfully, The Lightning Seeds). Spalding had played on Original Mirrors’ self-titled debut album, and performed live with the band (notably as support for Roxy Music on their Flesh And Blood tour), before being sacked for reasons he explains on his website: “I was too loud, too opinionated, too arrogant, too paranoid, too high (definitely!), and just too much of a pain in the arse, no matter how good I was!”

In the lead-up to his work on Universal, Spalding had completed a plethora of sessions for acts such as Chris de Burgh, Elton John, Right Said Fred, Jimmy Somerville and Dubstar, and was well acquainted with producers David Nicholas and Matthew Vaughan, having played on Marcella Detroit’s Jewel album. In a very honest account about his contribution to Universal, he told The Electricity Club: “My part in the making of this album – whilst there are a couple of incidents that are quite clear to me – is largely very foggy as I was deeply entrenched in heroin and crack addiction at the time. My friends Dave ‘Chipper’ Nicholas and Matt Vaughan, who were producing the album, had asked me to play bass for them and I ended up doing some backing vocals and playing some guitar – some of which is on ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, but has gone uncredited for some reason.

“I’d got myself into such a muddle as I was, at the same time as this album was recorded, also on tour with Alison Moyet, supporting her greatest hits release [Singles – TEC]. I was trying to do sessions at the Town House, in between coming and going for Alison; which in itself turned out to be a nightmare of scoring loads of drugs, running out of drugs, leaving the tour in way-off parts of the UK to get back and score, going into heavy withdrawals on the road and having to do gigs in that terrible condition. You see, when you’re drug-dependant you can’t take your dealers on the road with you! I really should never have committed to going on tour with Alison but I really didn’t know what I was doing. It would have been much safer to stay at home and do OMD’s album and stay close to my drug source and at least stay ‘well’ whilst recording.

“I remember one incident when I’d played a couple of nights in Glasgow with Alison, which were recorded for her live album [included as part of the 1996 reissue of Singles – TEC]. I was in such a state of panic, having been sick since Dublin a few days before, that I left the Glasgow hotel first thing the morning after the gigs, got a cab to the airport and took a plane to Heathrow. I landed at Heathrow and went straight to Twickenham to score heroin and then went straight to the Town House for an OMD session. That’s how I was living during the recording of Universal – I was completely mad!

“The album itself is, for my part, a miracle. I love this album, particularly the title track… Everything was usually done in a very short space of time, once I’d got the part, feel and sound right. Chipper and Matt were great, too – very supportive, even knowing the state I was in. I wondered why Andy wasn’t playing bass, but didn’t ask too many questions. I think Andy wanted someone who could approach the songs a bit more technically and, for all my faults, I could at least still play great.”

Drummer Chuck Sabo was an American-born musician, who had previously played in an unsuccessful band named Sonny Lucas with then-wife Jeanette Landray (best remembered for her brief stint in The Glove, a side project of The Cure’s Robert Smith). Sabo gained his first big break when he played on British Electric Foundation’s Music Of Quality And Distinction, Volume Two album in 1991. “Very much a soul record,” Sabo told XTC fan site Chalkhills. “He [Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware] gathered up a bunch of artists and did cover songs with them. So, just within that one album, I played with Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, Terence Trent D’Arby, Billy Preston and more… An artist named Tashan also sang on that album, and I later went on to do an album by him [For The Sake Of Love], which Martyn Ware also produced.”

“I met the producers of the OMD Universal LP, Dave Nicholas and Matt Vaughan, when I was recording drums on Marcella Detroit’s LP,” Sabo told The Electricity Club. “Chris Thomas was producing, Dave was engineering and Matt was programming. After that we did The Lion King with Elton John as well. Then Dave and Matt got the production job for Andy’s next OMD LP and called me in to record drums. I was familiar with the OMD hits, but not too familiar with the whole back catalogue. The bass player Phil Spalding and I were working on lots of records together at that time, so we all knew each other very well, and enjoyed working together.”

The bulk of the album was recorded during a 3-month period at the end of 1995, with McCluskey renting an apartment in Chelsea by the River Thames during its making. There would be one further delay, though, as McCluskey explained to The Electricity Club: “I made that album just after James was born in San Diego [in September]. He was almost four weeks early and I had to cancel pre-production in London and fly to the US – I missed his birth by four hours!” He added: “When recording the album I would take the train home every weekend to paint and work on the new house that I had bought for the family to move into when [partner] Toni and James finally came back to the UK. It was exhausting!”

Sixteen songs had been recorded during the Universal sessions but, as the album approached the mixing stage, McCluskey ended up tagging on a pair of self-produced tracks. ‘Too Late’ was one of the first songs I wrote in Ireland,” McCluskey explained to Sound On Sound, “and Chip [David Nicholas] and Matt ganged up on me and said they didn’t want to record that – neither of them happened to get off on that song. Once we finished the album, though, I was adamant that something was missing, and that that track needed to be on too.” The other addition was ‘The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You’, which McCluskey wrote in December 1995 and recorded the following month. “I just fancied doing another uptempo one,” explained McCluskey. “Strangely, of all the songs, it’s the one that sounds the most analogue and old-fashioned OMD.”

An early, provisional 13-track listing for Universal also included an experimental track titled ‘GTR 9’ that was built around a sampled guitar riff of Stuart Kershaw’s. “It was pretty good really,” Vaughan recalls. “A bit like ‘Song 2’ by Blur”. This was eventually dropped, while there were some tracks that didn’t make it beyond the demo stage. ‘Sister Maria Gabriel’ had, bizarrely, been rejected by McCluskey for sounding ‘too much like OMD’ as he sought a grander, more organic sound. McCluskey recalled the writing of the song years later in an interview with The Arts Desk: “When I was living in Ireland there was a Polish nun called Sister Marie Gabriel who was taking out full-page adverts in The Times and The Independent – which can’t have been cheap – saying that the Hale Bopp Comet was a harbinger of the end of the world, that we should all be repenting and turning to Jesus, that she’d had revelations and knew what the third revelation of Fatima of Lourdes was, that the Catholic Church had tried to suppress this. I’d written songs about Joan of Arc and this just hooked me.” The track eventually received a well received airing at a fan convention in 2005, and had even been considered for a single release to promote an album of unreleased material. The project was abandoned, but eventually morphed into 2010’s History Of Modern album, which included a revamped version of the track (retitled ‘Sister Marie Says’). Other tracks considered for inclusion on Universal included ‘Yellow Press’ and ‘Thank You’.


TRACK-BY-TRACK
Universal

One of the first songs McCluskey worked on in his Dublin rehearsal room was Universal’s title track, which represented something of a return to the sound of some of the band’s longer, more epic tracks. “I like the idea of songs like ‘Sealand’ and ‘Stanlow’, where there is an intro, a sung section, and an outro,” he confirmed in 1994. “I feel it’s been missing from the last two albums – the bigger songs with more complex arrangements.” Originally described as “a cross between Architecture & Morality and Pink Floyd”, the track originally sprawled to over nine minutes, but its original five-minute intro was eventually edited down to two minutes – the production team were also presented with the challenge of segueing the song’s stunning industrial-tinged, prog rock intro (in D sharp) into the actual song, which was in McCluskey’s favoured key of C. “You can imagine Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson playing it in a stadium,” he told Sound On Sound. “I was having fun, basically, and trying to knock down some of my own personally-imposed boundaries with a prog-rock intro.” Lyrically, the track saw McCluskey brazenly airing his atheist views (“When we die there’s no heaven above”), but with a defiant “We all bleed the same blood/ We all need the same love” message that transcended colour and creed.

Walking On The Milky Way

The opening lines of OMD’s first single in three years – “When I was only seventeen/ My head was full of brilliant dreams” – were a good indicator of Universal’s generally autobiographical and reflective lyrics. “[It’s] about growing up,” said McCluskey, “having confidence and energy but, as you get older, the reality of life grinds you down.” Its huge production, meanwhile, showcased a fuller and rockier sound that harked back to albums such as Crush (see ‘The Native Daughters Of The Golden West’). However, whilst there was certainly more of a ‘live’ feel to the recording, with its live drums and vintage keyboard sounds – a million miles away from the busy, techno-stylings of Liberator – McCluskey was still determined to make use of more up-to-date technology. “CD-ROMs are great – you can now get things like a choir of nuns singing block chords, which we used on the middle eight of ‘Walking On The Milky Way’,” he told Sound On Sound. “You’re using real organic sounds, but you’re using technology to access them. I think we struck a really effective balance.” In terms of its melody, it subtly borrowed from the David Bowie-penned ‘All The Young Dudes’ (popularised by Mott The Hoople’ in 1972), a song that Noel Gallagher would later admit to plagiarising for the Oasis hits ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ and, more obviously, ‘Stand By Me’. “He’s still not sued me yet!” the musician joked to Q magazine in 1997.

Aside from his competent keyboard work on tour, Nigel Ipinson had also contributed the impressive glockenspiel arrangement of ‘Sunday Morning’ to Liberator. It was a chance visit to McCluskey’s Hesketh Street studio that resulted in his contribution to the writing of ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, as he recently told The Electricity Club: “After the Liberator tour, I moved house and was living pretty close to the Pink Museum recording studio. I was playing session keyboards on a variety of different albums, and I actually got to do a brief tour with Hot Chocolate. When I returned, I started to think about what I was going to do next, and it was actually on the advice of Errol Brown (the lead singer of Hot Chocolate) that I got heavily involved in songwriting and production. I had a small home studio set up, and I was pretty much doing that every day. One day, I decided to pop in to the Pink Museum and Andy was in there working on the next album and I hung around just catching up on what we had both been up to. The song that is now ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ was on cycle on the software, and we started talking about it. And, if I recall correctly, Andy was working on the verse section. The idea at the time was to develop a section that would link the verse to the chorus. Andy asked me what I would do, and the way that I tend to work means that I like to provide options. So I played a few options that would provide the link and the option he went for is the musical sequence that sits under the lyrics “I don’t believe in destiny/ I don’t believe in love/ I don’t believe that anything will ever be enough”. We then proceeded to work on the bridge, and the process was exactly the same. I looped different options and Andy made the choice of the musical sequence he liked best and what we now hear – I loved the final version; in particular, the sound that was selected for the solo in the bridge.”

“‘Walking On The Milky Way was a very hard song to write,” McCluskey told The Electricity Club. “I had the verse, but just could not get the chorus. I was planning to save the song as it had no chorus, until one day I was driving from my home to the supermarket and totally out of the blue I sang “Man you should have seen us on the way to Venus, walking on the Milky Way”, and realised that it fit the chorus chords! It had come to me when I least expected. I rushed to my rehearsal room and cut a quick guide vocal so I didn’t forget it.”

The recording also featured young singer Hannah Clive on backing vocals. Prior to her work on the track, the daughter of film and TV actor John Clive (who sadly died in 2012), had completed session work for a number of artists whilst still in her teens; including Right Said Fred (1993’s Sex And Travel), Chris de Burgh (1994’s This Way Up) and Ray Charles (1996’s Strong Love Affair). “Hannah Clive was Phil Spalding’s girlfriend and always came with him when he played bass at the studio,” McCluskey told us. “She just piped up one day, ‘I have a crazy idea of the end of ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ – can I try it?’. So we set up a mic and told her to do it. It was the fantastic countermelody vocal at the end of the song – I loved it and kept it!”

The Moon And The Sun

Completing a triumvirate of epic, guitar-based tracks was ‘The Moon And The Sun’, which – both musically and thematically – wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Tears For Fears’ similarly ’60s-flavoured album, The Seeds Of Love. Embroidered with some effective slide guitar and choral sounds, the track saw McCluskey continuing the album’s reflective theme (“It always seemed so easy/ When we watched it while we’re young”), whilst also throwing in some Wildean paraphrasing (“The energy of arrogance/ Is wasted on the young”).

The track was co-written with former Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos, who he’d previously collaborated with on both ‘Kissing The Machine’ and ‘Show Business’ for 1993’s excellent Elektric Music album Esperanto. “I always find it intimidating working with other people, especially ones I don’t know very well,” admitted McCluskey. “I’m not a very competent musician so if I work with people who are really good musicians, it frightens me! I was very nervous working with Karl but everything turned out fine.” The track saw Bartos continuing a guitar-influenced journey that had begun with Electronic’s Raise The Pressure album. Released just weeks prior to Universal, in July 1996, Bartos had contributed six co-written songs – including the memorable singles ‘Forbidden City’ and ‘For You’ – to Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s second album. (Two years later, Bartos’ second album under the Elektric Music banner – though confusingly rebranded as Electric Music – saw the German musician continuing his flirtation with ’60s-influenced music).

The Black Sea

There was a change of pace and mood on ‘The Black Sea’, a more introspective – and simpler – piece. One of the first tracks to be written for the album, it was based on an oboe riff that Stuart Kershaw had written, hence its original title of ‘Oboe Song’. “I thought that it sounded like the swell of the sea,” recalled McCluskey. “So that’s where the idea for the aquatic content came from.” Like The Beach Boys’ stunning ”Til I Die’, which saw Brian Wilson using metaphorical phrasing (“I’m a cork on the ocean/ Floating over the raging sea”) to highlight his inner turmoil, McCluskey utilised similar vignettes (“On a ship to nowhere/ On a dark and tranquil sea/ I’m sinking with a cargo”) to convey emotional struggle. Structurally, this was a classic major-minor chord progression, and the track included some effective mellotron sounds to give it something of a late-period Beatles feel.

Very Close To Far Away

McCluskey’s collaboration with Paul Humphreys on ‘Very Close To Far Away’ marked the first time the duo had worked together since the late 1980s. “The idea developed from a sample drum loop,” explained McCluskey. “Paul wrote the bass line and I put in some chords. Then we just started throwing in weird noises and samples to create this ambient texture. At the end of the day I gave the song its title which I had seen as part of a TV advert. I continued to arrange the song after Paul left so that I could sing on it.” McCluskey added: “It’s hard to say what it’s about – just an abstract train of thought about trying to communicate with someone who won’t listen. Even though they’re with you, they’re far away because they don’t understand what you’re trying to say to them.” The psychedelic track’s distinctive backing vocals were provided by renowned session singer Carol Kenyon, whose numerous credits included recordings by Pet Shop Boys, Ultravox, Mike Oldfield, Tears For Fears, Simple Minds, Duran Duran, Pink Floyd and many others. But it’s perhaps her performance on Heaven 17’s biggest hit, ‘Temptation’, that she’s best remembered for. In an interview with The Guardian, Glenn Gregory described her style as “stratospheric”.

The Gospel Of St Jude

Boasting something of an ‘Amazing Grace’ feel to it was ‘The Gospel Of St Jude’ (formerly titled ‘Gospel Song’), which saw McCluskey continuing his fascination with religion, and turning in perhaps the most spiritual track in the OMD catalogue. The track contained a sample of the Richard Allen Singers’ interpretation of Isaac Watts’ 18th century hymn, ‘Early, My God, Without Delay’ (available on the 1994 album Wade In The Water, Volume II: African American Congregational Singing), with McCluskey overlaying it with his own introspective ruminations. “[It’s] about searching but not finding what you’re looking for,” he said. “It’s about the struggle to achieve happiness but no matter what you do and what you change, you can never attain it.” (The song’s title was derived from St Jude, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, who has often been referred to as the patron saint of lost causes). Like ‘Pulse’ – from 2010’s History Of Modern album – it’s a track that has divided fan opinion over the years; one that the NME described at the time, somewhat cruelly, as “piss awful”.

That Was Then

Utilising a simple four-chord progression (G-F-C-D), ‘That Was Then’ saw McCluskey in soul-searching mood, reflecting on his journey throughout adulthood, with a suitably powerful vocal to match the intensity of the lyrics. “It echoes how your life and attitude towards it change as you grow older,” explained McCluskey. “Just through the pressure of living.” With hindsight we can see portents of the future within the lyrics, as McCluskey bared his soul (“And only memories are left with me/ This shallow history becomes my destiny”). Indeed, during a Q&A at the Pink Museum in 1997 he admitted that the album was almost the epitaph of OMD: “There are a lot of lyrics on the Universal album that are very specifically me talking about the possible end,” he said. “It’s kind of about the end of a journey, if you like. I was really thinking a lot about how long it had been, and the journey I’ve travelled down to get to where I have.”

Too Late

Once touted as a potential single, ‘Too Late’ dated back to McCluskey’s writing sessions in Dublin, but was added to the album almost at the last minute. “It’s about regretting the end of a relationship,” he explained. “But, no matter how much you regret it, it’s too late to start it again.” Something of an internal monologue, the track fitted in with the album’s generally reflective theme, but its all-too-familiar chord progression (G-Em-C-D) was more synonymous with the rock ‘n’ roll era, and co-producers David Nicholas and Matthew Vaughan were arguably correct in recommending its exclusion.

The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You

The final track to be written for Universal, ‘The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You’, was inspired by one of McCluskey’s art gallery visits. “It came from seeing a sculpture which shows a Barnardo’s collecting box of a handicapped boy positioned behind a frosted glass door,” he confirmed. “I thought of an inanimate object arriving at someone’s house from outside the chemist shop where he’d been positioned and asking why they hadn’t given him a penny. I carried the image on to apply to all sorts of people you may have upset in your life coming back to get their revenge on you.” Whilst the lyrical theme was somewhat unusual, there was certainly some familiarity in the music itself, as McCluskey reverted to a more synth-pop based sound. Whilst it took its obvious cue from Pulp, who had just enjoyed huge success with the Different Class album and its attendant singles (notably ‘Common People’ and ‘Disco 2000’), a somewhat defensive McCluskey was keen to dismiss the comparison: “I’m returning the compliment, quite frankly,” he told Sound On Sound. “Because as far as I’m concerned, some of Pulp’s stuff sounds like late Pulp playing OMD doing early Roxy Music. So this is late OMD, doing late Pulp, doing early Roxy Music! ‘The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You’ – and a lot of Pulp stuff – has that two-chord piano, much the same as Roxy’s ‘Virginia Plain’.” Listening to Pulp cuts such as ‘Babies’ and ‘Inside Susan’, McCluskey certainly had a point, but the song still sounded out of place on Universal.

If You’re Still In Love With Me

The stunning, Beatles-esque ‘If You’re Still In Love With Me’ had originally been written with Paul Humphreys in 1987. “[It] was originally a reggae song,” McCluskey revealed. “It’s essentially about trying to escape from a relationship someone won’t let you out of.” According to the official information service, OMD had recorded a version of the track following the German leg of the Liberator tour in 1993, and presented it to Virgin as a potential single (they declined). During his sojourn to Los Angeles the following year, McCluskey worked on a new string arrangement of the track with Stuart Kershaw, which Anne Dudley eventually scored for a 12-piece string section. Dudley was a classically trained musician – and a founder member of The Art Of Noise – who was renowned for her pop-classical crossover work. The multi-award winner (who was recently presented with an Ivor Novello award for her outstanding contribution to music) had worked on albums such as ABC’s The Lexicon Of Love and orchestrated the intro on Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s huge hit ‘Two Tribes’.

“Andy introduced us to Anne Dudley,” recalled David Nicholas. “As a result of that session, I put her forward to do the orchestral arrangements for the Pulp album Different Class – both sessions were amazing! She then went on to win an Oscar for a film score – the name of which escapes me [The Full Monty – TEC] – but suffice it to say, after the Oscar I could no longer afford her… or even get her on the phone anymore!”

New Head

The most abstract and experimental track on Universal was conceived ten minutes prior to leaving the studio one evening. “I got the loop… and I just thought, ‘I’ll put this on tape’,” explained McCluskey in 1997. “And I plugged the mic in and I just sang something… When I came in the next day I thought, ‘this is great’. I actually sat down and tried to work out what it was I might have been singing, phonetically sort of… that’s why the words make no sense at all!” Co-credited to multi-instrumentalist Simon Fung (a member of the duo China Black, who had a big hit with ‘Searching’ in 1994), the track’s use of oriental sounds added a psychedelic dimension to the track.

Victory Waltz

Closing the album in style was the beautiful ‘Victory Waltz’, a plaintive 3-chord ballad, featuring just piano and choral presets in a simple arrangement. “It’s about the last day of a relationship that’s ending and the thoughts that are running through your head at the time,” said McCluskey. Whilst Universal has often been described as the ‘anti-OMD’ album, tracks such as ‘New Head’ and ‘Victory Waltz’ still managed to showcase the band’s experimental side, as well as their undoubted gift for fusing melody with melancholia.


WALKING ON THE MILKY WAY Single, August 1996

“I thought that was quite a good record, actually” – Paul Humphreys, 2005

The album’s first single had originally been scheduled for release in March 1996 but wasn’t released until August. The video, filmed in July, echoed the song’s lyrics, as McCluskey confirmed: “The images show a combination of performances and surreal landscape. It also has close-ups and character studies of people of different ages to reflect the passage of time”. It was filmed at Canvey Island, near Southend-on-Sea, and directed by Howard Greenhalgh (who had also worked on promos for Pet Shop Boys, a-ha, George Michael, Suede and many others).

‘Walking On The Milky Way’ has the distinction of being the first OMD release not to be released on 7″. As per previous OMD releases (from the Sugar Tax album), there was a pair of CD singles and a cassette single (often referred to as a ‘cassingle’) that featured a brace of non-album tracks. Nestling in neatly with the lead track’s nostalgic sentiments was b-side ‘Mathew Street’. “It parallels the history of The Beatles and OMD on the two sides of the street,” explained McCluskey. “On the left is the Cavern, on the right is Eric’s and The Gramophone Suite.” The recording featured Keith Small (who had co-written ‘Walking On The Milky Way’) on bass and Stuart Kershaw on drums, and was an obvious Beatles pastiche, heavily weighted towards the melody of 1967’s ‘I Am The Walrus’. Whilst, ultimately, it was the music of acts such as Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno that would influence the aspiring musician during his formative years, McCluskey had grown up listening to The Beatles. “I knew their music because most of the singles in the house were Beatles records,” he recalled in 1987’s Messages biography. “But I was only ten or eleven when they split up – I can just about remember them doing ‘All You Need Is Love’ on Top Of The Pops.” Years later, in July 2008, OMD would perform a version of ‘Across The Universe’ for Beatles Day at the Liverpool Echo.

Second b-side – and former album contender – ‘The New Dark Age’, meanwhile, was a more abstract, experimental piece, and something of a throwback to the band’s imperial phase in the early 1980s. “[It] sounds a bit like the old song ‘Statues’,” confirmed McCluskey in 1994. “For those people who know The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, it’s a cabaret-type song about the end of Western Society – just the song to be played at Milliways!”

Whilst one reviewer described the single as “middle-of-the-road Beatles-flavoured nostalgia pop”, there was very little coverage in the music press about ‘Walking On The Milky Way’. The biggest problem, though, was that the UK’s biggest station, Radio 1 – who in those days could effectively make or break a single – refused to play the song. A change of playlist policy in the mid-1990s had seen the popular station phasing out ‘heritage’ artists; instead favouring the guitar-based music that was heavily in vogue at the time. Earlier in 1996 there had been a well-publicised court action by rock veterans Status Quo, following Radio 1’s decision not to add ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ – a collaboration with The Beach Boys – to their playlist. The action was virtually laughed off by the station, who described the band as ‘too dull’. “There have been a number of occasions in the past two years where we have not playlisted records in the charts, including Mr Blobby, Michael Barrymore, Michael Ball, Robson & Jerome and Cliff Richard,” a Radio 1 spokeswoman said. “Unlike everyone else, Status Quo don’t seem to have noticed that there have been a few changes at Radio 1…We do not slavishly follow the Top 40.”

Whilst OMD were obvious victims of Radio 1’s new playlist policy, fortunately, local radio stations were more enthused about the song and the band were rewarded with their 12th Top 20 single. “I thought [it] was about as good a song as I could write, ” McCluskey reflected to The Guardian in 2001. “Radio 1 wouldn’t play it, because it wasn’t perceived as trendy by their target audience. Because Radio 1 wouldn’t play it, Woolworths wouldn’t stock it. The upshot of it was that one of the best songs I’d ever written struggled to get to number 17 in the charts.” The song did, however, receive some welcome exposure via Top Of The Pops, and an assortment of players duly mimed to the track – these included a hirsute Stuart Kershaw on drums and Carlo Bowry on keyboards (Nigel Ipinson was unavailable due to his touring commitments with The Stone Roses). The chart that particular week included an eclectic mix of tracks from artists such as Robbie Williams, Eternal, Underworld, Suede and chart-toppers, the Spice Girls (the manufactured girl group that would heavily influence McCluskey in his post-OMD career). But there was one particular act in that chart that stood out, albeit for the wrong reasons. Whilst, in his own words, McCluskey had “sweated blood” to write ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ and re-establish the OMD brand, it probably didn’t help that there was an act named OMC climbing the charts during this period with the song ‘How Bizarre’. And the team behind the popular Now That’s What I Call Music series also thought that it might be funny to place OMC and OMD side-by-side on that summer’s Now 34 compilation! In the end, OMC’s sleeper hit ‘How Bizarre’ peaked at number 5, whilst ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ slipped to number 23 in its second week, soon disappearing from the charts altogether. Not the start McCluskey was looking for as he prepared to release his new album that had been two years in the making…

UNIVERSAL Album, September 1996

“The mood is more ethereal than electronic, favouring strings and choirs to synths and sampled voices. Lyrically, this is a collection of songs about lost youth, doomed love and broken dreams…and yet the music is wonderfully uplifting.” – Q

“Bears all the hallmarks of the classic OMD sound with trademark downbeat lyrics and soaring pop melodies… Probably won’t take the charts by storm but it should prove to be a steady seller.” – Music Week

“Crispy, clear, serenely syrupy, occasionally spiritual, frequently lovelorn, comically old fashioned and extremely expensive-sounding.” – NME

The much-delayed Universal album was finally released in the first week of September 1996; on the same day as Pet Shop Boys’ Bilingual album. The rather uninspiring artwork, featuring computer generated water molecules, was based on a concept by Peter Saville (who had worked on several OMD designs in the previous decade). “Instead of going huge and galactic for Universal, I decided to go microscopic and find something small that has universal implications,” explained McCluskey. “Water is the most important molecule for life.”

BUY NOW

Promotional items included a 5-track sampler on CD and cassette (featuring ‘Universal’, ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, ‘New Head’, ‘Too Late’ and ‘The Black Sea’), and a 10-track compilation – unimaginatively titled The Collection – that rounded up hits from both the ’80s and ’90s. The album was released on CD, cassette and vinyl, though there was a very limited number of copies pressed for the latter (today it’s a highly sought-after collector’s item).

Somewhat bizarrely, one of the press advertisements bore the Woolworths logo, and the now-defunct retailer – who had refused to stock the single – used a tag line that declared ‘The new album from OMD is Universal. (So you should all like it.)’. Sadly, whilst the album was well received by both fans and critics, the failure of the single to crack the Top Ten effectively buried the album, and it limped to a first week position of number 24, plummeting to number 52 the following week. Whilst there were some big hitters in the album chart at the time, including Oasis, Suede, Celine Dion and Manic Street Preachers, when your album is being outsold by titles such as Smurfs Go Pop!, you know you’re in trouble! “I think if ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ had been a top 3 hit you would have seen the album sell very well,” lamented McCluskey to Messages magazine in 2002. “I mean, I’ve said before, if Oasis had released ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, it would have sold all over the world… I just think that OMD was out of fashion and nothing I could have done – I could have gone techno, I could have gone hip-hop – nothing I could have done would have actually made Universal sell more.”

UNIVERSAL Single, October 1996

“The title track from the latest OMD album is a big unrestrained anthemic pop song befitting the title…its bright guitar and huge drums make it a potential chart hit.” – Music Week review

Until the release of ‘If You Want It’ in 2010, the title track from Universal would be the last single by OMD to feature original material. Released in a heavily edited version that featured Dublin singer Breda Dunne’s backing vocals in the intro, the single – like ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ – was released on CD (x2) and cassette only.

There were no exclusive tracks to entice potential buyers; just a handful of live tracks culled from a Liberator tour show at the Birmingham NEC. Once again there was a Howard Greenhalgh-directed video, but the song lacked the commercial appeal of its predecessor and it peaked at a lowly number 55.
 


FINAL SUNSETS FALL The Solo Era Ends

The failure of the ‘Universal’ single to hit the upper echelons of the charts effectively brought the album campaign to a conclusion – an appearance by McCluskey at the end of November on TV show Never Mind The Buzzcocks was largely a futile exercise as there was nothing to promote. A tour – which had largely been dependant on the success of the album – had long since been abandoned. “In Britain at least there has always been a resistance to the band in much of the media,” bemoaned McCluskey at the end of the year. “It seems that finally even the quality of the music was unable to overcome the problems.” McCluskey did consider a tour in 1998 to celebrate 20 years of OMD, and there was even talk of including a brand new song on The OMD Singles (a second retrospective that included hits old and new), but in the end the band – which saw him briefly reunited with Paul Humphreys – limped over the finishing line with an EP of remixes. By this stage, McCluskey was already committed to the idea of writing for other acts. There was something of a false start with the group Honeyhead, but he and Stuart Kershaw eventually found the perfect vehicle for their songwriting with girl group Atomic Kitten. He later told Paul du Noyer, the author of Liverpool – Wondrous Place: From the Cavern to the Capital of Culture: “I was still conceited enough to believe that I could write songs, and that it was just the OMD vehicle that was dated. So I thought, screw it. I’m gonna get someone who will be well-received because they’re young and good-looking. And I’m gonna write songs and prove, if only to myself, that I can still do it, and fuck Radio 1 and all the rest!” McCluskey added: “Atomic Kitten had been my knee-jerk response. I’d felt jilted by the music industry when OMD came to an end, so I went off and found another lover.”

In a frank interview for an OMD fan event magazine in 2005, McCluskey told Paul Browne: “I think I made a mistake. I consciously tried to sound organic, using traditional instruments because I was worrying about sounding too ’80s electro in the mid-90s. And I think the album suffered for it. I think a lot of people like the feeling of the tracks, but I listen to them now and I just think I was thinking in a way that I wish I hadn’t been. I think tracks like ‘The Moon And The Sun’ don’t work; doesn’t do anything for me anymore. I like ‘New Head’. I like some of the other songs. I think ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ is one of the best songs I ever wrote in my life. But there’d be other tracks in there now that just remind me of the difficult time and the confusion, so I cannot dissociate the recording of the songs from the memories which may not be the most positive for me.”

THIS IS NOW

The Town House (where the bulk of Universal was recorded) sadly closed in 2008. The studios, where Elton John recorded one of the UK’s best selling singles (the re-recorded ‘Candle In The Wind’), were eventually converted into luxury houses.

One particular demo from 1994 – titled ‘Green’ – was given a new lease of life by Paul Humphreys, who transformed the McCluskey/Kershaw composition into one of the best tracks on 2010’s History Of Modern. From the same album, comeback single ‘If You Want It’ has more than faint echoes of ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, while more recently, on the band’s latest album, The Punishment Of Luxury, the track ‘Kiss Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Bang’ recycles part of the melody from ‘The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You’.

Since their comeback shows in 2007, OMD have regularly included ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ in their hit-packed sets which, up until recently, had included a sample of Hannah Clive’s original backing vocal part. Clive herself retreated from session work in the late ’90s as she focused on becoming a singer-songwriter. In recent years she has been working with Brian Tench, who co-produced OMD’s Junk Culture. She released a critically acclaimed single, ‘Remember To Breathe’, in November 2017, and also manages electro-rock band (I Am) Warface, who are planning to release their debut album Atomic White Gold in the summer.

Nigel Ipinson (now Ipinson-Fleming), the co-writer of ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, played on Stone Roses singer Ian Brown’s debut solo album Unfinished Monkey Business in 1998, also contributing the songs ‘Nah Nah’ and ‘What Happened To Ya (Parts 1 and 2)’. He has continued writing and producing music, though mainly via the gospel community. Aside from running web design service UKChurches, he also presents gospel radio show ‘Soul Food’, and is the Senior Pastor at Bethlehem Church Life Centre in Mid Glamorgan. He is proud of his contribution to Universal: “One of the challenges of a band like OMD is translating the band’s natural sound through the technology of the day, and that is something that the guys have done successfully from decade to decade. I really liked the final sound of the album, and ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ is my favourite for obvious reasons.”

David Nicholas, who co-produced, engineered and mixed a large percentage of the Universal album, returned to his native Australia in 2000. He worked on Delta Goodrem’s successful debut album Innocent Eyes, and a plethora of recordings for other Australian acts; including Drag, whose second album The Way Out gained him his third ARIA award. In recent years he has launched independent record label and publishing company, Rhinoceros; and, in addition to producing, mixing and engineering, has been helping to develop studio hardware. He still looks fondly back on his time making Universal: “I have revisited the record a few time over the years and it always makes me feel good,” he told The Electricity Club. “[It] brings back a flood of nice memories. I’m proud of what we achieved and the songs still resonate with me as much now as they did then. And, as one of my first gigs as a producer, a pretty pleasing result.”

“It’s always difficult to listen to something for a while after you’ve finished working on it, having listened to the same songs over and over again,” recalls the album’s co-producer and musician, Matthew Vaughan. “But I’ve often revisited this record, and I’m very, very proud of it. I remember it as a wonderful time; we all got on like a house on fire as I remember, and I thoroughly enjoyed it and still enjoy listening to the result of our efforts now.” Following the Universal album, Vaughan worked on Marcella Detroit’s Feeler album (1996), as well as Pulp’s This Is Hardcore (1998). He has since contributed to recordings by Monaco, Mike + The Mechanics, Texas, XTC, Delta Goodrem and many others. More recently, as a member of the band Wild Honey, he released a charity single (‘Love All The People’), with proceeds going towards Aleppo.

“Andy was great to work with,” adds drummer Chuck Sabo. “And the Town House in Shepherd’s Bush was a great studio to work in, so the whole LP was very enjoyable to record. I liked the songs, and the vibe of what was going down on to tape. I’m now doing a lot of online drumming, mixing and mastering sessions from my studio, Big Sound; meeting lots of great songwriters from around the world. I’m also writing music for other artists, and sync music for film and TV.” Sabo’s numerous credits include Natalie Imbruglia’s hugely successful debut Left Of The Middle and XTC’s final album, Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Volume 2).

Andy McCluskey was less enamoured with the studio, as he told The Electricity Club. “I really disliked working in the Town House. I never felt comfortable with the atmosphere in there but we couldn’t record in a residential country studio because Matt Vaughan was married with young child and needed to go home at nights and weekends.” He adds: “I had never worked before in the way that I did on Universal. Using session musicians and just sitting at the back on the sofa reading the paper and smoking small cigars (which totally stank the place out) whilst the programmer and production engineer did all the work trying to translate my demos into a new recording. In hindsight it was very alienating. Even though I recognise that Matt and Chipper were doing a great job in their way – and in the way that they knew – I had decided to shake things up and work with others as I was losing my self-confidence.”

Phil Spalding has consolidated his reputation as a highly skilled musician, playing on a huge number of recordings since Universal; including albums by Electronic, Dubstar, Kylie Minogue, Mick Jagger and many others. In addition to his session work, he also teaches and lectures. “After all this time I still listen to Universal in my own time for fun,” he says. “I shudder when I think of what I was putting myself through at the time, but I had to learn the hard way like most addicts. I’ll be forever grateful to Andy, Matt and Chipper for having faith in me and letting me do this album. ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ is still played a lot on the radio, so I’m still getting paid after over 20 years – can’t be bad!”


Suggested alternative tracklisting: Universal / Walking On The Milky Way / The Moon And The Sun / The Black Sea / That Was Then / If You’re Still In Love With Me / Very Close To Far Away / New Head / Victory Waltz


The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Andy McCluskey, Nigel Ipinson-Fleming, David Nicholas, Matthew Vaughan, Chuck Sabo and Phil Spalding for their contributions to this feature

Thanks also to Hannah Clive, Paul Browne, Sara Page and Imogen Bebb.

An unedited version of Phil Spalding’s account of the Universal sessions can be located via http://www.philspalding.com/music-and-mayhem/story/omd-universal-1995

www.omd.uk.com
www.omd-messages.co.uk/
www.nigelipinsonfleming.com
www.rhinocerosmusic.com
www.philspalding.com
www.chucksabo.com
www.hannahclive.com


2017 – The Year In Review

2017 has been an eventful year in the world of electronic music, particularly here in the UK which saw some of the classic acts back in action. But it also saw the emergence of some talented contemporary electronic acts as well. Here’s TEC’s review of the year along with our contributor’s lists of songs and albums that they rated in 2017…


2017 started off in a strange place for The Electricity Club as it found itself in a position to discard the accumulated baggage of many years and give the site a ‘soft reboot’. With an agenda that was focussed purely on music, it was a foundation that provided a sturdy structure for the months ahead.

January saw Austra make a triumphant return with their third studio album Future Politics. Along with lead single ‘Utopia’, the album was a reflection of our times as we entered into a turbulent period in global politics. TEC’s review summed up the album as “…a more intimate and personal approach than previous outings”.

TEC favourites Lola Dutronic also made a welcome return, first with a sequel to their classic ‘Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead’ (now updated to reflect some of the losses music suffered in 2016 such as Lemmy, David Bowie and Prince). We interviewed Lola Dutronic to get some gain some insight into how the globally distant pair produce their music. The duo also managed to bookend the year with a further release when they released the wonderful ‘My Name Is Lola’.

Vitalic came back with the stunning Voyager album. Pascal Arbez’s crunchy flavour of muscular beats and hook-laden melodies was present and correct on his new outing. Tracks such as ‘Waiting For The Stars’ suggested an unabashed nod to Arbez’s favourite ’70s and ’80s songs with a Moroder-esque beat driving this squelchy and engaging electropop wonder. Meanwhile, ‘Sweet Cigarette’ offered up a homage to The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’.

TEC’s Lost Album series delivered some eclectic choices from the vaults for consideration. This included U96’s Replugged, Kon Kan’s Syntonic and Gary Numan’s 1994 album Sacrifice, a release which Barry Page suggested held the keys to the future: “Whilst the album often suffers from its use of some rather unimaginative and repetitive drum loops, the album put Numan firmly back on track.”

Sweden’s Sailor And I, meanwhile, offered up brooding, glacial pop on debut album The Invention Of Loneliness. TEC also spoke to musician Alexander Sjödin, the brains behind the outfit, who summed up his methods thus: “I use music as a kind of meditation. I get into this mood where I turn everything else off and just run as far as I can every time”.

In March, Goldfrapp returned to the fold with new album Silver Eye. While it was a serviceable outing of the glam synth workings that the duo had traded on previously, it was also bereft of many surprises or challenges. A return to Felt Mountain glories seems overdue.

Throughout the year, we were won over by a whole host of emerging electronic acts that caught our attention. This included the “ruptured melodies” of Jupiter-C (a duo championed by the likes of Clint Mansell). The “multi-utility music” of Liverpool’s Lo Five drew our focus to the wonders of the Patterned Air label. Elsewhere, the electro-acoustic sounds of Autorotation provided their own charm while the crunchy qualities of Cotton Wolf also suggested an act worth keeping an eye on.

With the 8th March traditionally being International Women’s Day, we thought it was time to add a twist to it by suggesting an International Women In Electronic Music Day. While the commentary of the likes of Lauren Mayberry (Chvrches) and Claire Boucher (Grimes) had blazed the trail for a level playing field for women, it was still depressing to see tone-deaf blog articles that were essentially ‘Birds With Synths’ being offered up as support.

One of our choices for that esteemed list, Hannah Peel, managed to deliver two albums of note in 2017. The personal journey of Awake But Always Dreaming (inspired by her family’s encounter with dementia) and also the magical world of Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia – an album which our review summed up as “a testament to Hannah Peel’s seemingly endless abilities to craft new and intriguing ideas out of the ether. It’s a cosmic journey that delivers.”

Hopes were high that Basildon’s finest could deliver a solid return to form with their 14th studio album Spirit. But the album divided critics and fans alike on a release which TEC’s review summed up succinctly: “…as impressive as it is lyrically, it’s an often challenging and unsettling listen that doesn’t quite meet up to its billing as “the most energized Depeche Mode album in years.””

Despite the controversy, Depeche Mode still managed to put on their biggest ever UK show, with over 80,000 attendees at London Stadium in June this year.

Elsewhere, another of the old guard was also facing a productive year. Marc Almond released new compilation album Hits And Pieces, which spanned his extensive career from Soft Cell through to his more recent solo work. Although not as comprehensive as 2016’s Trials Of Eyeliner, TEC’s review suggested “…the new compilation offers a more concise selection of music that still manages to cover Almond’s extensive musical career in fine style”.

April saw TEC looking at the dark wave delights of Dicepeople, whose ‘Synthetic’ offered up “brooding gothic synth melodies against a burbling electronic background”. But their cover of Depeche Mode’s ‘Strangelove’ showed the outfit could also deliver muscular electropop that still retained their own unique style. Speaking to Dicepeople’s Matt Brock in an exclusive interview, TEC discovered the band’s strong cinematic touchstone. “Cronenberg’s Videodrome is another huge influence for us with its exploration of very dark themes involving control, voyeurism and the nature of reality as shown via layers of screens (a recurring theme in Dicepeople).”

Marnie released her follow-up to 2013’s Crystal World in the form of Strange Words And Weird Wars. The album demonstrated the Ladytron member’s knack for tunes, which our review summed up as “…a solid album of contemporary electropop that listeners will find intelligent, engaging and yet also fun. Strange Words And Weird Wars is a continuing demonstration on why Marnie is one of electronic music’s most precious assets”.

The emerging generation of electronic artists kept producing new acts of interest throughout 2017. Pixx (who cropped up on our radar after supporting Austra) released The Age Of Anxiety, which our review described as “an album that offers up a combination of smart pop tunes married with thoughtful lyrics”. Hannah Rodgers, the talent behind Pixx, also addressed the surge of nostalgia and retro acts with a philosophical quote: “There are a lot of people who are just trying to recreate things that have already been done, because they’re almost scared of the way modern music sounds, but we do have technology now that allows us to make quite insane-sounding music. And… we are in 2017”.

Kelly Lee Owens was another emerging artist who released her eponymous debut this year. The TEC review summed it up: “At heart an electronic album, the tracks contained within dart between ambient soundscapes and beat-driven compositions”.

AIVIS, a new act that had come to TEC’s attention via The Pansentient League’s Jer White, delivered their debut album Constellate. As with acts such as Lola Dutronic, AIVIS consists of a duo located in separate countries – in this case Aidan from Scotland and Travis based in Ohio. Their use of harmonies and warm synths led us to conclude that “Constellate is a smooth collection of subtle electropop”.

Irish outfit Tiny Magnetic Pets had a good year in which they released a new album and went on to support OMD. The 3-piece unit had made their UK and European live debut back in 2015 championed by Johnny Normal. Now in 2017 they brought new release Deluxe/Debris to bear. TEC’s review gave the album an honest appraisal: “They’ve got the chops to push the envelope, but there are times on this album where, arguably, the band appear happier playing from a safe position. When they introduce their more experimental side, or opt for a more dynamic approach, Tiny Magnetic Pets shine brightest”.

Voi Vang’s powerful voice and dancepop sensibilities made her one of the star turns of 2017. Meanwhile, Twist Helix woke us up with their “dramatic tunes and big, euphoric vocal melodies”. Our Teclist reviews also had good things to say about Elektrisk Gønner, OSHH and Russian outfit Oddity.

Elsewhere, the classic synthpop acts still had a strong showing this year. Erasure released the downbeat World Be Gone, a more reflective album that was heavily influenced by the troubling political climate (a persistent theme for many other releases this year). OMD returned with the follow-up to 2013’s English Electric with The Punishment Of Luxury. The album wore its Kraftwerk influences on its sleeve for a lot of the tracks, while the title number offered a commentary on commercial culture.

German pioneers Kraftwerk brought their 3D experience back to the UK and TEC’s Rob Rumbell offered his thoughts on their Nottingham concert: “…sensory overload… which left you awe-inspired and breathless”.

Blancmange presented a superb compilation of their first three albums titled The Blanc Tapes which we summed up as “the perfect archive for Blancmange’s often-overlooked musical legacy.” Neil Arthur also delivered new studio album Unfurnished Rooms, which prompted an honest critique from TEC’s Imogen Bebb: “whilst as an album it isn’t always easy to listen to, it makes for a welcome new chapter in Blancmange’s ongoing story”.

Howard Jones also went down the compilation route with the comprehensive Best 1983-2017 which the TEC review suggested: “this 3-CD set will have a special appeal not only to loyal Howard Jones fans, but also perhaps a new audience keen to experience the appeal of this pioneering electronic musician”.

While there were bright moments in the year, the music scene also saw tragedy in 2017 with the loss of Can’s Holger Czukay, trance DJ Robert Miles and Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi.

Barry Page provided some long-form features which took the focus to Norway’s a-ha, particularly the side projects that the likes of Morten Harket and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy have embarked on.

Speaking of a-ha, although the idea of an acoustic album by an electronic act seemed absurd, it was a concept that the Norwegian outfit embraced for Summer Solstice. The breath-taking arrangements for classics such as ‘Take On Me’ and ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’ proved that a-ha still had the chops to surprise people.

Meanwhile, Midge Ure’s own orchestral-inspired approach for Ultravox and his solo numbers resulted in the release of Orchestrated later in the year. TEC’s Jus Forrest summed things up: “As an album, Orchestrated is diverse enough to pique interest. It’s contemporary enough to be relevant, and there’s enough classic tracks to reach out to fans”.

The soulful tones of Fifi Rong returned, this time with a bolder electronic sound on ‘The Same Road’. TEC’s review concluded that the new song “…demonstrates that Fifi Rong is capable of adding plenty more colours to her musical palette”.

Kasson Crooker, formerly of Freezepop, also provided some gems throughout 2017. There was the Gishiki album released under his Symbion Project banner – a release that we summed up as “one of the standout electronica releases of the year.” Meanwhile, he launched new outing ELYXR which was designed to be a collaborative project introducing different singers for each subsequent release. This included the warmth of ‘Engine’ as well as the punchier (and lyrically timely!) ‘Godspeed’.

2017 also delivered a diverse selection of electronic music events that showcased a multi-line-up of diverse acts. May saw Synth Club Presents, which included the ever-excellent Vile Electrodes as well as the sultry delights of The Frixion and the energetic pop of Knight$.

Culled from their 2016 album Ath.Lon, in June Greek duo Marsheaux unveiled a new video for ‘Now You Are Mine’.

Meanwhile, July delivered one of the bigger events of the year with Liverpool’s Silicon Dreams. Combining established artists with newer acts, this year’s event pulled together an all-star schedule featuring Parralox, Avec Sans, Future Perfect, Berlyn Trilogy, Caroline McLavy and Voi Vang. As TEC’s review stated: “The 2017 incarnation of Silicon Dreams serves not only as an evening of entertainment, but also as an example of the importance of grassroots electronic music events. By showcasing both up-and-coming talents alongside more established acts, it’s an event which demonstrates a legacy in action”.

August presented the Electro Punk Party which offered up some of the more alternative acts on the scene. This included Dicepeople, Microchip Junky, Hot Gothic, the dark surf guitar of Pink Diamond Revue and the anarchistic LegPuppy. In fact, LegPuppy demonstrated an impressive schedule of live performances throughout the year as well as releasing songs such as the wry observations of ‘Selfie Stick’ and dance-orientated ‘Running Through A Field Of Wheat’.

The regular Synthetic City event returned, this time at Water Rats in King’s Cross. The evening brought with it some superb performances from the likes of Hot Pink Abuse, Eden, The Lunchbox Surrender, Train To Spain and Parralox (marking their second UK live show this year). The weird and wonderful Mr Vast topped things off and the whole affair was superbly organised by Johnny Normal.

Susanne Sundfør, who released the superb Ten Love Songs album back in 2015, brought a much more challenging release in the form of Music For People In Trouble. The album weaved in acoustic touches, spoken word segments and often unsettling soundscapes. But the epic ‘Mountaineers’, featuring the distinctive voice of John Grant, had an almost physical presence with its hypnotic tones.

The mighty Sparks returned with new album Hippopotamus and delivered a superb live performance in London back in October. The same month, the 22rpm electronic music festival took place. Showcased by record label Bit Phalanx, the event featured the likes of Scanner, Derek Piotr, Digitonal, Coppe and a truly stunning performance from Valgeir Sigurðsson.

The Sound Of Arrows brought out their newest album since 2011’s Voyage. Stay Free offered a much more grounded approach to electropop than the dreamy moods of their previous release, but still managed to deliver some cinematic pop moments. Their pop-up shop to promote the album was also a nice touch!

PledgeMusic has proved to be a vital lifeline for many artists in recent years. It’s a funding option which delivered for everyone from Ultravox to OMD. Gary Numan used the platform to fund his 21st studio album Savage (Songs From A Broken World) which provoked critical praise and which Jus Forrest suggested delivered “a flawless production of intrigue; a soundtrack that brings together the atmospheric, the lonely, the eerie and, in places, the added drama of colourful crescendo”.

Empathy Test, an electronic duo from London, also chose the PledgeMusic route and achieved such success that they decided to release not just one, but two albums together. The stunning Losing Touch and Safe From Harm revealed a band that could combine mood and melancholy in an impressive collection of songs. TEC’s conclusion that compositions such as ‘Bare My Soul’ demonstrated a band capable of delivery that was both “mythical and melodious”, also showed the heights that contemporary electropop can ascend to.

As the year drew to its conclusion, there were still some gems to pop up on the radar. Canadian sleazy synth specialist TR/ST teased us with ‘Destroyer’, a nocturnal affair that (along with the year’s earlier release ‘Bicep’) paved the way for a new album due in 2018.

Scanner, who had delivered a stunning performance at the 22rpm event, also unleashed The Great Crater, an album of mood and often brooding unease. Our review’s final conclusion was that “The end result is less listening to a body of work and more being immersed into a physical experience”.

Curxes brought us the hypnotic delights of ‘In Your Neighbourhood’, which paved the way for new album Gilded Cage.

As the winter months drew to a close, we took a look at Parralox’s latest release ‘Electric Nights’, which proved to be a euphoric floor-stomper. Meanwhile, Norway served up Take All The Land, the debut solo album by Simen Lyngroth which TEC’s review summed up as a “beautifully well-crafted and intimate album”.

Perhaps one theme that 2017 demonstrated time and time again is that electronic music continues to evolve and thrive, particularly at the grassroots level where emerging acts are less focused on being a pastiche of the bands of 40 years ago. Instead, there’s a fresh and dynamic scene which has seen a genre looking to the future rather than the past.

This doesn’t scribble over the achievements of decades of previous electronic acts. That history and legacy continues to exist, but perhaps the idea that acts don’t need to be beholden to the classic acts is a concept that younger artists are more willing to entertain.


CONTRIBUTOR’S LISTS

IMOGEN BEBB

Top 5 Songs Of 2017

OMD – The Punishment of Luxury
Gary Numan – My Name Is Ruin
Sparks – What The Hell Is It This Time?
Alphaville – Heartbreak City
Tiny Magnetic Pets – Never Alone

Top 5 Albums Of 2017

OMD – The Punishment of Luxury
Tiny Magnetic Pets – Deluxe/Debris
Blancmange – Unfurnished Rooms
Superdivorce – Action Figures
Brian Eno – Reflection

Favourite Event of 2017

OMD at Liverpool Empire in October.

Most Promising New Act

Superdivorce


JUS FORREST

Top 5 Songs Of 2017

Among the Echoes – Breathe
Tiny Magnetic Pets – Control Me
John Foxx and the Maths – Orphan Waltz
Gary Numan – My Name is Ruin
Gary Numan – Bed of Thorns

Top 5 Albums Of 2017

Jori Hulkkonen – Don’t Believe in Happiness
Gary Numan – Savage (Songs from a Broken World)
Tiny Magnetic Pets – Deluxe/Debris
Hannah Peel – Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia
Richard Barbieri – Planets + Persona

Most Promising New Act

Spaceprodigi


BARRY PAGE

Top 5 Songs Of 2017

OMD – Ghost Star
Waaktaar and Zoe – Mammoth
Depeche Mode – Cover Me
Simen Lyngroth – The Waves
Alexis Georgopoulos and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – The Marble Sky

Top 5 Albums Of 2017

Waaktaar and Zoe – World Of Trouble
Simen Lyngroth – Take All The Land
a-ha – MTV Unplugged Summer Solstice
Empathy Test – Losing Touch
Sparks – Hippopotamus

Favourite Event of 2017

Depeche Mode at London Stadium, June 2017

Most Promising New Act

Simen Lyngroth

Best reissue

China Crisis – Working With Fire and Steel


JER WHITE

Top 5 Songs Of 2017

Tiny Magnetic Pets – Semaphore
2raumwohnung – Lucky Lobster (Night Version)
Sylvan Esso – Die Young
Pixx – I Bow Down
Vitalic (ft. David Shaw and The Beat) – Waiting for the Stars

Top 5 Albums Of 2017

2raumwohnung – Nacht und Tag
The Moonlandingz – Interplanetary Class Classics
AIVIS – Constellate
Jupe Jupe – Lonely Creatures
Vitalic – Voyager

Favourite Event of 2017

Kraftwerk in 3D at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh.

Most Promising New Act

AIVIS


PAUL BROWNE

Top 5 Songs Of 2017

Susanne Sundfør – Mountaineers
Empathy Test – Bare My Soul
Austra – Utopia
TR/ST – Bicep
Curxes – In Your Neighbourhood

Top 5 Albums Of 2017

Empathy Test – Safe From Harm/Losing Touch
Hannah Peel – Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia
Austra – Future Politics
Susanne Sundfør – Music For People In Trouble
Sailor & I – The Invention Of Loneliness

Favourite Event of 2017

Synthetic City 2017

Most Promising New Act

Empathy Test


2017 – Songs Of The Year

Electronic music in 2017…

If 2017 proved anything it was that the field of electronic music is a broad one. A lot of songs grabbed our attention across 12 months of intriguing, captivating and often challenging music. While many classic synthpop acts proved that they could still hold their own, the next generation of electronic artists also demonstrated that they could craft unique tunes that didn’t rely on the past.

Here are 25 songs that are not presented in any particular order, but as whole were the standout tunes for The Electricity Club in 2017.


GARY NUMAN – My Name Is Ruin

The release of Gary Numan’s 21st studio album Savage (Songs From A Broken World) marked the synthpop pioneer’s highest charting album since Telekon back in 1980. This latest body of work transmited a thoughtful concept, centred around the modern-day issues that would seemingly put into question the survival of the planet.

‘My Name Is Ruin’ was the first single to emerge from the album. It gives Numan himself something to be especially proud of, given his daughter, Persia, provides the unique backing vocals on the track. The results – an eclectic mix of the angelic-like choral tapestry set against robust dance-driven beats.

Further reading: Savage (Songs From A Broken World)
http://garynuman.com/


VITALIC (ft. David Shaw and The Beat) – Waiting for the Stars

There’s a robust quality about the electronic tunes contained on this latest release by Vitalic, which appeared to signal a strong start for electronic music in 2017.

Vitalic, aka Pascal Arbez, had been operating since the late 1990s as an underground artist, but achieved a larger profile with the release of his debut album OK Cowboy in 2005. New album Voyager draws from a wealth of influences, including nods to the likes of Giorgio Moroder and Cerrone. Certainly, standout track ‘Waiting For The Stars’ is an unabashed nod to Arbez’s favourite ’70s and ’80s songs, which in places is deliberately out of tune. Featuring vocals from David Shaw, there’s a Moroder-esque beat driving this squelchy and engaging electropop wonder.

Further reading: Voyager
http://www.vitalic.org/


AUSTRA – Utopia

Many of the releases of 2017 seemed to reflect a troubling period in contemporary culture, particularly with politics providing a turbulent backdrop. Austra were one of those outfits and the release of their album Future Politics offered up some thoughtful insight into troubled times.

The familiar bassy synth tones that Austra’s Katie Stelmanis has crafted as part of the classic Austra sound provided the foundations for ‘Utopia’. This rumination on the “collective depression”, that Stelmanis suggests is a result of city living, has strong hooks and melodies as some smart percussive frills keep the song moving along.

Further reading: Future Politics
http://www.austramusic.com/


EMPATHY TEST – Bare My Soul

London-based duo Empathy Test took us by surprise this year with each successive song. On ‘Bare My Soul’, the soaring melodies and heartfelt lyrics have a particular power that manages to undo all those tired old tropes about synthpop being cold and unemotional in one song.

The lyrics offer up brief vignettes, each of which manage to elicit the idea of something being both “tragic and beautiful”. At the same time, there’s a subtle building up of layers of electronic elements that culminates in a powerful delivery that’s both mythical and melodious.

Further reading: Bare My Soul
EmpathyTest.com


TR/ST – Destroyer

One of Canada’s electronic music gems re-emerged earlier this year with a new song and talk of a new album. ‘Bicep’ delivered the trademark sleazy synths and unsettling sounds that made TR/ST (aka Robert Alfons) such a captivating act over the course of 2 previous albums.

‘Destroyer’ shows a departure of sorts here for Alfons, with a much more restrained composition. It’s a more nocturnal affair peppered with reedy intermissions, although Alfons’ grimy vocals are present and correct. The video itself is produced by, and stars, choreographer Ryan Heffington (Sia, Lykke Li, Florence and the Machine, Arcade Fire). It charts a journey through a late night streetscape which is interspersed with oddly unsettling choreography.

Further reading: Destroyer
https://www.facebook.com/dressedforspace


OMD – La Mitrailleuse

Culled from their 2017 album The Punishment Of Luxury, ‘La Mitrailleuse’ takes its inspiration from a painting by the artist CRW Nevinson (regarded as one of the most famous war artists of World War I). Nevinson was deeply affected by what he saw in France during World War I, which had a profound effect on the paintings that he produced at the time. This included the 1915 work La Mitrailleuse, which translates from the French as “the machine gun”.

In the hands of OMD, ‘La Mitrailleuse’ is composed of a mesmerising droning intro which leads to a rhythm track designed to emulate explosions and, in particular, machine-gun fire. Meanwhile, Andy McCluskey intones “Bend your body to the will of the machine”. It’s the perfect companion to Nevinson’s work which sees the style of the soliders rendered in angular shapes, suggesting a merging of man and machine – a theme carried over in the video, which again features the distinctive style of Henning M. Lederer, who previously worked on videos for OMD’s English Electric album.

Further reading: La Mitrailleuse
http://www.omd.uk.com
www.omd-messages.co.uk


SUSANNE SUNDFØR (feat John Grant) – Mountaineers

While the success of her 2015 album Ten Love Songs managed to raise the profile of Norwegian musician Susanne Sundfør, new album Music For People In Trouble took Sundfør back to her singer-songwriter roots. Although the album boasts some fine electronic flourishes, there’s also more nods to jazz and traditional instrumentation.

The album’s crowning achievement is clearly the epic ‘Mountaineers’ which starts with the basso profundo voice of John Grant. Here, Grant’s sonorous delivery echoes from the depths with its lines about “Jumbo jets spiralling down like vultures of the stars”. It’s suggestive of the type of composition that This Mortal Coil were noted for with the emphasis on the voice to provide an compelling hypnotic effect.

When Sundfør comes in, the song suggests a coming to the light from a great darkness, a sudden revelation (“What it means/Now I know”) and builds to a choral symphony that takes the breath away.

Further reading: Music For People In Trouble
http://susannesundfor.com/


DEPECHE MODE – Cover Me

Released in March this year, Depeche Mode’s 14th studio album Spirit has proven to be one of the most divisive collections of new songs in their 37-year career. A sonically-challenging (and often unsettling) listen, the album has certainly divided fans; many of whom haven’t gotten over the fact that Alan Wilder left the band 22 years ago. By contrast, most music critics were united in their affection for the new album, praising the band for their aggressive and new approach, and also for Martin Gore’s politically-charged wordplay.

Like ‘Broken’ on Depeche Mode’s previous album Delta Machine, singer Dave Gahan once again provided the album’s best track in ‘Cover Me’, a slow-building, other-worldly electro-ballad with a Bowie-inspired lyric: “It’s about a person who travels to another planet only to find that, much to his dismay, it’s exactly the same as earth” Gahan explained to Rolling Stone magazine. Featuring some sinister electronics and a beautiful coda that recalled ‘Clean’ from 1990’s career peak Violator, this was space-aged synth rock at its finest.

Further reading: Spirit
http://www.depechemode.com/


LOLA DUTRONIC – My Name Is Lola

As Lola Dutronic, the Toronto/Düsseldorf electronic duo of Richard Citroen and Stephanie B have carved out an impressive career of engaging pop tunes. They jumped back in earlier in the year with a sequel to one of their best known tunes ‘Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead, but it was their love letter to Berlin later in 2017 that stood out for us.

Continuing the duo’s talents for crafting accessible electronic pop with engaging melodies, ‘My Name Is Lola’ is a track that Richard Citroen describes as “a bit of a departure from our usual ‘Wall Of Sound’ approach, we’ve taken on some of Alle Farben & Robin Schulz’s colours”. It’s a quirky pop tune that’s a lot of fun and includes shout-outs to all of the duo’s favourite Berlin haunts.

Further reading: An Interview With Lola Dutronic
https://www.facebook.com/lola.dutronic


DICEPEOPLE – Synthetic

Dicepeople, an electronic outfit from London, had a very busy year with several live performances and also a muscular cover version of Depeche Mode’s ‘Strangelove’. The group have an emphasis on strong visuals as part of their live shows and they draw inspiration from the likes of Depeche Mode, John Carpenter, Siouxsie Sioux, Front 242 and all points inbetween.

‘Synthetic’ is pretty much on-point with its brooding gothic synth melodies against a burbling electronic background. Atashi Tada’s vocal lead is tweaked and distorted and lends the whole affair a cyberpunk aesthetic.

Further reading: Synthetic
An Interview With Dicepeople
http://dicepeople.com/


LEGPUPPY – #Selfie Stick – Narcissistic Prick

Electro punk outfit LegPuppy have a knack for cultural commentary. Take ‘Selfie Stick’, which the 4-piece outfit released earlier this year. There’s a brooding quality to the song; a prowling tonal mood with cynical synths that provides the foundation for a lyrical dragging on Instagram culture (“Instagram that pic/Snapchat me a vid/I’ll show you my dick”). It’s a timely theme in a world where people are measured on the number of followers they have on Twitter or the belief that 17,000 ‘Likes’ can provide a fig-leaf of sorts for an empty, shallow soul.

Or as LegPuppy themselves put it: “Welcome to the Age of Narcissism where our future leaders are more interested in how many likes their stupid selfie gets on social media. Where their heroes and inspirations are Reality TV stars.”

Further reading: Selfie Stick
http://legpuppy.net/


ELYXR (feat Naoko of Princess Problems) – Godspeed

Seattle-based electronic musician/producer Kasson Crooker put together a new project for 2017 which sought to include his particular take on electronic music with a diverse range of singers.

‘Godspeed’ marked one of these releases, with the vocals coming care of Naoko Takamoto (Princess Problems). There’s a raw energy at work on a busy composition that also seems to elicit a sense of unease. Despite this, there’s a kinetic quality to the electronic melodies threaded through the piece. Conceived before Trump’s US victory, ‘Godspeed’ was penned as a reverie on the concerns such a presidency would bring. Lyrics such as “gather up your belongings/’cause he’s coming” pretty much seals the deal.

Further reading: Godspeed
http://www.symbionproject.com/


CURXES – In Your Neighbourhood

When Curxes first made their presence known several years back, they brought with them a very different approach to electronic music that presented one of the more captivating acts on the scene. Pulling from a variety of influences, the Curxes unique sound of stark pop ran through songs such as ‘The Constructor’ and ’Creatures’.

Describing themselves as “a decorative set of bones, channeling the ghosts of Discothéques past”, Curxes were a perfect fit for the first Electricity Club event staged in 2011. But it was a journey that also saw them later remixing the likes of Chvrches on the Scottish trio’s 2013 Recover EP.

‘In Your Neighbourhood’ (taken from new album Gilded Cage) shows Roberta Fidora opting for a much more languid style of singing combined with a warm, engaging layer of electronics. Meanwhile, the video is a strange amalgamation of a lost children’s puppet show and a TV repair shop.

Further reading: In Your Neighbourhood
www.curxes.com
www.robertafidora.com


THE SOUND OF ARROWS – Beautiful Life

‘Beautiful Life’ marked the welcome return of Swedish synthpop outfit The Sound Of Arrows in 2017. It’s a composition that continues the electronic duo’s talent for cinematic pop, but there’s also a more organic element with big string arrangements prominent in the mix. “Turn up the music and bring down the rain” suggests the dreampop lyrics atop subtle synth rhythms. Meanwhile, the track is given plenty of epic sweeps courtesy of the strings section.

The band later released new album Stay Free, presenting a more grounded take on the classic Sound Of Arrows formula.

Further reading: Stay Free
http://www.thesoundofarrows.com/


PIXX – I Bow Down

Taking her name from a nickname associated with her grandmother, Hannah Rodgers embarked on her musical career as Pixx in 2015. A former Brit School student (where the likes of Adele and Amy Winehouse had their roots), Rodgers signed to the 4AD label at the impossibly young age of 19.

Debut album The Age Of Anxiety, presented a collection of songs that offer up electronic music that’s both accessible, yet also has a sense of quirkiness and charm. ‘I Bow Down’, for instance, starts from simple foundations before building an insistent beat that works its magic. The video, with its strange visuals, also keeps things interesting.

Further reading: The Age Of Anxiety
http://pixxmusic.com


FIFI RONG – The Same Road

The soulful, beguiling style of Fifi Rong has been winning over both the press and the public for many years via releases such as Next Pursuit and Future Never Comes. It’s an impressive catalogue that also suggested that the London-based musician had carved out her niche and was happy with heading in that particular musical direction.

However, her new release ‘The Same Road’ sees Fifi do a left turn with a tune that’s distinctly more electropop-orientated than previous outings. Here, the lush soundscapes are put to one side for a cleaner, sharper approach to song arrangement. Electronic melodies echo through the song, augmented by Fifi’s familiar mesmerising vocals. At the same time, this is a tune crafted in the form of contemporary electronic music, rather than as a pastiche of ‘80s synthpop, which is always a bonus.

By bringing onboard the mixing talents of Max Dingel, who previously worked with the likes of Goldfrapp (as well as White Lies and Muse), the dynamic qualities of ‘The Same Road’ presents an engaging number that’s likely to surprise long-term Fifi Rong enthusiasts.

Further reading: The Same Road
http://www.fifirong.com


WAAKTAR & ZOE – Open Face

With much of the attention this year centred around a-ha’s new acoustic project, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy’s collaborative album with singer Zoe Gnecco, World Of Trouble, passed by almost unnoticed earlier this year. Which was a shame because this was as good as – if not better than – a-ha’s last studio album Cast In Steel. In fact, one such track, ‘Open Face’, almost made it on to a-ha’s 2015 comeback album, but was overlooked in favour of inferior cuts such as ‘Door Ajar’.

Released as a single in April this year ‘Open Face’ is certainly the most electronic track on the New York-based duo’s album, and boasts some fine Kraftwerkian synth work from Kurt Uenela, who has also collaborated with Dave Gahan on some of Depeche Mode’s recent releases (including this year’s Spirit).

Further reading: Lifelines: The Side Projects of a-ha
http://waaktaar.com/


THE RUDE AWAKENING (feat Brooke Calder) – Let Nothing Take Your Pride

When he’s not promoting the likes of the Synth City event electronic music event, Johnny Normal also spends time on writing and composing under his own steam.

Under the banner of The Rude Awakening, which sees Johnny bringing onboard the talents of Brooke Calder (Lolly Pop, A*O*A, POP INC), new release ‘Let Nothing Take Your Pride’ offers a reflection of our times in its themes. There’s a defiant tone to the track which deals with anyone who’s come under fire from life: “Struggling with your conscience I try to make you see/but all around your friends surround taking a piece of me”. Revolving around themes of resilience and fighting your corner, the song could be said to be a rallying call for those that have been beaten down.

The track (which also saw its live premiere at September’s Synth City event) draws from the classic synthpop template with an anthemic pop approach peppered with synthetic brass stabs. With some polished backing vocals by long-time friend and collaborator Brooke Calder, ‘Let Nothing Take Your Pride’ presents an electropop tune with some whack.

Further reading: Let Nothing Take Your Pride
www.abnormalproductions.rocks


PARRALOX – Electric Nights

Johanna Gervin once again demonstrates that she’s one of the finest voices in the world of electropop with her vital vocals on ‘Electric Nights’.

It’s a euphoric floor-stomper crafted in the style that only Parralox can pull off. ‘Electric Nights’ also comes with a suitably dynamic video packed with visual delights. It’s an explosion of primary colours and effects that lends the whole affair a dayglo sheen. The composition actually dates back to 2002, back when Roxy was part of the Parralox line-up (she also co-wrote the song). The tune was submitted to the Australian Independent Music Awards – and apparently won Best Dance song in 2003, but plans to release it seemed to get delayed due to Parralox’s hectic schedule.

Further reading: Electric Nights
www.parralox.com


BRUCE WOOLLEY & POLLY SCATTERGOOD (with The Radio Science Orchestra) – Video Killed the Radio Star

When it comes to pop tunes, there’s a select few that manage to be immediately recognisable regardless of whatever decade they were recorded in. So the iconic opening bars of The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ have been so impressed on popular culture that it’s difficult to imagine that there’s anyone unfamiliar with the tune anywhere on the planet.

The song was reimagined earlier this year care of one of the tune’s original composers – Bruce Wooley – in collaboration with dark pop chanteuse Polly Scattergood. The new version (which carries the subtitle of ‘Dark Star’) opts for a radical deconstructed adaptation of the song in conjunction with the Radio Science Orchestra (a project established by Bruce Wooley). As a result, Polly Scattergood’s laconic vocals in tandem with the orchestral arrangement lend the song an intriguingly evocative sound that still manages to lose none of the original composition’s power.

Further reading: Video Killed the Radio Star
www.radioscience.com


MARNIE – G.I.R.L.S

The release of 2013’s Crystal World album demonstrated that Helen Marnie continued to display a talent for good electronic music, even while Ladytron were on an extended hiatus.

Drawing comparisons with the likes of Ladyhawke and Goldfrapp, Marnie’s latest album Strange Words And Weird Wars has opted for a much more electronic palette on this release, which also throws a nod or two to synthwave. ‘G.I.R.L.S’, with its cheerleading chants, offers up one of the strongest tracks on the album. It’s Pop with a capital ‘P’.

Further reading: Strange Words And Weird Wars
http://www.helenmarnie.com/


TWIST HELIX – Little Buildings

There’s an energy to Twist Helix that definitely leaves an impression. Hailing from Newcastle, Twist Helix consists of singer and synth player Bea, bassist Michael and drummer James.

New release ‘Little Buildings’ (taken from forthcoming album Ouseburn) has a solid sound to it which is helped by their willingness to embrace a variety of instrumentation, including guitar and live drums. The result is a robust tune which is topped off with Bea’s powerful vocals.

Further reading: Twist Helix
https://www.twisthelix.com/


SIMEN LYNGROTH – The Waves

Simen Lyngroth is a Norwegian singer-songwriter with a distinctively soft and crystalline voice, who is currently enjoying a dual career; as both a member of folk-pop trio Ask and as a solo artist exhibiting more electronic influences.

Awash with snowcapped melancholia, debut solo album Take All The Land is strongly influenced by Radiohead and features a number of fine jazz-infused electro-ballads. Arguably, one of the album’s most immediate and commercial cuts was ‘The Waves’, and it was duly released as a single in October. Deviating from the formula slightly with its use of programmed electronics, this was a standout track from one of this year’s most exciting new releases.

Further reading: Take All The Land
http://www.simenlyngroth.com/


SAILOR & I – Chameleon

Swedish electronic musician Alexander Sjödin caught everyone’s attention in 2017 under the moniker Sailor & I. Debut album The Invention Of Loneliness bounced between icy pop and beats-driven electronica…

Nestling among the tracks on the album, ‘Chameleon’ has a subtle power to it that can take a few spins to appreciate. There’s a dark piano melody over which Sjödin’s yearning vocal offers hints of change or transformation. Meanwhile, a gradually-building slab of stark electronics gives the track a dark pop appeal.

Further reading: The Invention Of Loneliness
http://sailorandi.se/


VOI VANG – Mirror


As one of the artists performing at last summer’s Silicon Dreams event, Voi Vang made an impression as someone to watch.

‘Mirror’ demonstrates her knack for dancepop with an electronic flavour. The track starts out with a plaintive piano melody before transforming into a much more dynamic outing. Bouncing between pop and EDM elements, there’s a captivating use of rhythms and melodies to produce a powerful dance floor filler. It’s also a track that reveals Voi Vang’s impressive vocal range, which has a punchy, direct power that sits in tandem with the driving electronic beats.

Further reading: Voi Vang
https://voivang.bandcamp.com/releases


Text by Paul Browne and Barry Page.


OMD + TINY MAGNETIC PETS Live at Guildford

OMD return to Guildford after a lengthy absence

The last time Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark performed in Guildford was in June 1985 at the Civic Hall, prior to the release of their sixth studio album. In fact, this particular stop on the Crush tour was only the third time they had played in the large Surrey town; the first time as support to Gary Numan back in October 1979. The Civic Hall has since been demolished, and replaced on the same site by the impressive G Live venue; the scene of a largely triumphant 11th stop on the band’s 18-date UK tour.

Tiny Magnetic Pets

Support arrives courtesy of three-piece electronic act Tiny Magnetic Pets who deliver an impressive half-hour set that exhibits their array of electronic influences; largely pitched between David Bowie’s experimental late ’70s period and the more melodic inflections of acts such as Kraftwerk. Indeed, the Dublin-based trio have been picking up some very favourable attentions in Germany, with former Kling Klang resident Wolfgang Flür featuring on their second full-length album Deluxe/Debris. But it’s OMD’s Andy McCluskey who can be credited with adding the Irish band to the bill; a further endorsement of the band’s proliferating synth-pop credentials.

The Pets’ 7-track set largely draws from this well-received album, with their attractive singer Paula Gilmer providing the primary focal point; confidently straddling the stage as keyboardist Sean Quinn studiously unravels a broad palette of electronics. Percussionist Eugene Somers, meanwhile, cuts an equally engaging figure; providing some impressively taut rhythms. Gilmer possesses both an engaging personality and an appealingly pure voice, and the relaxed Saturday night crowd respond positively.

Highlights include the captivating ‘We Shine’ (from 2015’s Stalingrad EP) which, pleasingly, sounds like a Yazoo/Visage mash-up. And then there’s the epic set-closer ‘Semaphore’. The band recently told The Irish Times: “We hit the stage like a rock band. People expect politeness, but that isn’t us – you have to rock it out when you go on stage.” The performance of ‘Semaphore’ certainly displays an exciting degree of showmanship, as well as acting as a summary of the band’s multitude of influences; bristling with Die Mensch-Maschine electronics, the foreboding noir of early Human League, and the more abstract leanings of Neu! It’s an enjoyable set and 30 minutes soon pass… as good a sign as any of a decent support act.


Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark

“As a band we still have a lot of energy to tour the world, but for obvious reasons we can’t play everything, so what we choose to play each night is always a constant dilemma” – Paul Humphreys

With such a rich and varied back catalogue to choose from, the dilemma of putting together an OMD set list must get increasingly difficult; particularly in view of the fact that some of their more recent output has being favourably compared with the best of their earlier work. Tonight’s set list features a deft selection of hit singles, deep cuts and newer songs.

By the time OMD’s set is announced with an ephemeral, yet effective, introductory track (a hybrid of two of their latest album’s more abstract pieces, ‘Art Eats Art’ and ‘La Mitrailleuse’), capacity in the standing area has swelled to near-capacity. There’s a relaxed vibe amongst the audience, who can almost sense that something special is going to happen.

Whilst The Punishment Of Luxury doesn’t quite tick all the boxes in the same way that its predecessor English Electric did in 2013, the album has given the band their highest chart placing since 1991’s Sugar Tax, and attracted some of the best reviews of their career. So it’s not a great surprise that the band possess the confidence to kick the set off with two six-minute-plus numbers. Singer Andy McCluskey stands with his back to the audience as the brooding melancholia of ‘Ghost Star’ begins proceedings, slowly building from its La Düsseldorf-meets-‘Stanlow’ foundations. It’s an unusual starting point, but it works. It’s followed by the more uptempo – and playful – ‘Isotype’. Bursting with Kraftwerkian melody, it offers a welcome contrast to the set opener’s more melancholic tones.

McCluskey straps on his bass guitar for a double-header of set staples ‘Messages’ and ‘Tesla Girls’, the latter the source of much amusement – both on and off stage – as keyboardist Paul Humphreys fluffs some of his backing vocals (“He started singing different words at the end!” a bemused McCluskey tells the crowd). The band recover for the 3-chord (C-G-F) tour-de-force that is ‘History Of Modern (Part One)’, and McCluskey invites the crowd to pogo along to a song that’s essentially about the end of the world. One of the highlights from the band’s 2010 comeback album of the same name, it’s no surprise that it’s become something of a regular set fixture in recent years.

‘One More Time’ is another 3-chord affair (G-C-D) that offers the band another opportunity to showcase their new album (thankfully we’re spared the rather gimmicky ‘Robot Man’). On record it’s somewhat stilted and formulaic – like Arcade Fire at their most pedestrian – but it works brilliantly in a live setting, with Humphreys’ glistening synth work particularly impressing.

One of the interesting facets of this tour is the set list vote, which offers fans the opportunity to vote for a song to be played from a choice of three. Tonight we’re offered ‘The New Stone Age’ and ‘She’s Leaving’ from Architecture & Morality and ‘Pandora’s Box’, the band’s last Top Ten hit (in 1991). McCluskey tells us it’s a close vote, with 8 points separating third from first place… but it’s ‘She’s Leaving’ that wins through (by a single vote).

A brace of lead vocals from Humphreys (on ‘(Forever) Live And Die’ and ‘Souvenir’) allows McCluskey some respite before the show’s “pastoral” section, which features both ‘Joan Of Arc’ singles and some excellent drumming from Stuart Kershaw on both tracks. McCluskey may not quite dance like an “electrocuted aardvark” these days, but his seemingly boundless energy is impressive as he cavorts the stage during the finale of ‘Maid Of Orleans’. “Just a little tip for you,” he tells the crowd. “Don’t try that in front of your teenage kids!”

As a contemporary version of ‘Time Zones’ blasts through the sound system, the four members of the band venture front of stage for a special version of the classic b-side ‘Of All The Things We’ve Made’ (later revamped on 1983’s Dazzle Ships), with Kershaw pounding a single drum. For the purists in the audience, who favour the band’s pre-Junk Culture output, it’s a moment to savour.

Somewhat disappointingly, previous album English Electric doesn’t get a look in as the band integrate newer songs into the set. We get the band’s rather bland new single ‘What Have We Done’ (Humphreys’ touching lament about putting his dog to sleep) and, later in the set, there’s the Kraftwerk-fuelled title track, ‘The Punishment Of Luxury’, featuring some slightly clumsy observations about modern consumerism. The crowd love it, though, and gleefully join in with the “hey! hey! hey!”s.

It’s a crowd-pleasing array of hits that close the main set, including the Caribbean-flavoured ‘Locomotion’ (a single that has divided fan opinion over the years). Martin Cooper, always a steady and reliable presence on stage, performs note-perfect saxophone parts on ‘So In Love’, as well as a wonderful keyboard solo on ‘Sailing On The Seven Seas’, the song that kick-started OMD’s ‘solo years’ in the 1990s. The set ends with a rapturously-received ‘Enola Gay’.

The band soon return for a decidedly curious encore. On record, ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ is a wonderfully produced slice of Beatles-flavoured meditation on growing up, but it doesn’t quite work in a live capacity, and the absence of the Hannah Clive vocal sample doesn’t help. But, the run-through of OMD’s last significant hit receives an enthusiastic response as McCluskey stoops to a recumbent position on the stage. “I’m still twenty-four in my head,” he reassures the crowd. “But my knees are telling me I’m fifty-bloody-eight!” Fortunately there’s some respite as McCluskey reverts to bass-playing duties for ‘Secret’ and Humphreys’ fourth lead vocal of the night. And there’s just enough fuel in the tank for a typically energetic version of ‘Electricity’, the band’s “oldest and fastest” song.

I’ve seen OMD perform many times over the years, but rarely have I seen them so relaxed and confident on stage. Whilst the absence of charismatic drummer Mal Holmes – due to health issues – is still felt amongst many fans, in Stuart Kershaw they have a more-than-able deputy who adds a fresh (and powerful) dynamic to the band’s live sound. It’s the sight of a reenergised band enjoying a well-deserved career renaissance, and long may it continue.


OMD set list: Ghost Star / Isotype / Messages / Tesla Girls / History Of Modern (Part One) / One More Time / She’s Leaving / (Forever) Live And Die / Souvenir /Joan Of Arc / Maid Of Orleans (The Waltz Joan Of Arc) / Time Zones/Of All The Things We’ve Made / What Have We Done / So In Love / Locomotion / The Punishment Of Luxury / Sailing On The Seven Seas / Enola Gay / Walking On The Milky Way / Secret / Electricity

Tiny Magnetic Pets set list: All Yesterday’s Tomorrows / Shortwaves / Not Giving In / Never Alone / We Shine / Here Comes The Noise / Semaphore


OMD are currently on a UK and European tour. Dates as follows:

UK
Nov 15 Bexhill – De La Warr Pavillion, Nov 17 Manchester – Acacdemy, Nov 18 York – Barbican, Nov 19 Glasgow – Royal Concert Hall, Nov 21 Birmingham – Symphony Hall, Nov 22 Gateshead – Sage.

EUROPE
Nov 25 Erfut – Traum Hits Festival, Nov 26 Hamburg – Grosse Freoheit, Nov 28 Berlin – Huxleys, Nov 29 Leipzig – Haus Auenesse, Nov 30 Munich – Tonhalle, Dec 02 Offenback – Stadhalle, Dec 03 Dusseldorf – Mitsuibishi Electric Hall, Dec 05 Tilburg 013, Dec 06 Antwerp – De Roma, Dec 08 Lausanne – Les Docks.

http://www.omd.uk.com
http://www.omd-messages.co.uk

All photographs, courtesy of Marija Buljeta Photography

www.marijabuljeta.com
www.altvenger.com

Many thanks to Marija Buljeta and Sara Page.


OMD – The Punishment Of Luxury

Consumerist culture receives some harsh introspection on OMD’s latest outing…

Following on from previous releases ‘La Mitrailleuse’ and ‘Isotype’, ‘The Punishment Of Luxury’ represents the title track culled from OMD’s forthcoming 13th studio album.

Musically, the new song (which had only been glimpsed in snippets previously) has strident electronic rhythms and a powerful percussive foundation. It’s a good indicator that the “crunchy industrial sound” that Andy McCluskey had hinted the album was aiming for is present and correct on this particular outing. There’s also a euphoric element married to a classic electropop melody, which shows OMD wearing their German influences on their sleeve.

As with many OMD songs in the past, ‘The Punishment Of Luxury’ also presents an opportunity for the band to make pointed comments – in this case taking aim at consumerism. Lyrics such as “surrounded by your broken toys/you don’t know how to make the pain just go away” and “think you’re right think you’re free/floating in your purgatory” are pretty unambiguous in their message.

As Andy himself put it in a recent interview: “All of the shit we have to deal with is only a problem that’s created for you by some suggestion that came from a marketing man or a PR job that’s been done on you. Everything you think you know was placed there by a marketing man… Everything you think you want, you don’t”.

Meanwhile, the video has a combination of neon colours and rotoscoped animation (which bring to mind the video for English Electric’s ‘Dresden’). The nods to synthwave/vaporwave are very strong, while the visuals also weave in satirical imagery aimed at social network culture. There’s also some elements of political commentary with the barely disguised animations of Donald Trump sporting buzzwords that could have come directly from John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live (a film which also satirised consumerist culture).

The title for the lead track had originally been inspired by the painting by 19th Century artist Giovanni Segantini. The Punishment Of Luxury was part of a series that Segantini had crafted on a loose theme of ‘bad mothers’. Segantini had a strong belief in the traditional role of women and the works in this series were a commentary on women he believed had failed in that role. In fact the painting’s original title of The Punishment Of Lust suggests a much more contentious approach (and explains why Victorian audiences were subject to a more genteel name change).

It would have been perhaps a more intriguing direction for the song to head in if it had tacked closer to the themes that Segantini had illustrated. Yet at the same time turning them on their head to address the bizarre slide backwards that the modern world has experienced with issues revolving around gender. But there’s perhaps enough commentary on modern culture in both the video and lyrics here to keep things contemporary.

The Punishment Of Luxury represents the third album in OMD’s post-reformation trilogy, which had been kick-started by 2010’s History Of Modern and followed up by English Electric in 2013. In terms of sound, Andy McCluskey has stated that the band are drawing from the palette established by English Electric. “We have tried to take the EE template and go forward with it. Obviously, we write melodies and I sing so there will always be ‘OMD’ elements. We have adopted a more electronic rather than rock drum sound and some glitch sounds”.

With ‘The Punishment Of Luxury’ it’s clear that OMD have, as Andy has commented, drawn from English Electric’s electropop approach and clean production style. Whether the forthcoming album can eclipse their 2013 release remains to be seen, but there’s still plenty of material for OMD fans to discuss and debate until the new album arrives in September.


‘The Punishment Of Luxury’ will be released as an exclusive 12″ vinyl on 13th October 2017. The 12″ vinyl is limited to 1,000 copies worldwide and includes a 12″ extended mix of the single (remixed by OMD) and an exclusive B-side track entitled ‘Lampe Licht’.

PledgeMusic: https://omd.pmstores.co/
Rough Trade: http://found.ee/TPOL_RoughTrade

The new album The Punishment Of Luxury is released 1st September 2017. The album is available to pre-order now.

OMD will also be embarking on a UK and European tour later this year. Dates as follows:

IRELAND
Oct 23 Dubin Vicar Street, Oct 24 Belfast Mandella Hall.

UK
Oct 29 Liverpool – Empire, Oct 30 Bristol – Colston Hall, Nov 01 Southend – Cliffs Pavillion, Nov 02 Ipswich – Regent, Nov 03 Cambridge – Corn Exchange, Nov 05 Leicester – De Montfort Hall, Nov 06 Nottingham – Royal Concert Hall, Nov 07 Sheffield – City Hall, Nov 09 Reading – Hexagon, Nov 10 Southampton – Guild Hall, Nov 11 Guildford – G Live, Nov 13 London – Roundhouse, Nov 15 Bexhill – De La Warr Pavillion, Nov 17 Manchester – Acacdemy, Nov 18 York – Barbican, Nov 19 Glasgow – Royal Concert Hall, Nov 21 Birmingham – Symphony Hall, Nov 22 Gateshead – Sage.

EUROPE
Nov 25 Erfut – Traum Hits Festival, Nov 26 Hamburg – Grosse Freoheit, Nov 28 Berlin – Huxleys, Nov 29 Leipzig – Haus Auenesse, Nov 30 Munich – Tonhalle, Dec 02 Offenback – Stadhalle, Dec 03 Dusseldorf – Mitsuibishi Electric Hall, Dec 05 Tilburg 013, Dec 06 Antwerp – De Roma, Dec 08 Lausanne – Les Docks.

http://www.omd.uk.com
www.omd-messages.co.uk