ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK Peel Sessions 1979-1983 (Virgin)


The blight of the material issued under the Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark name during the 90s following the departure of original member Paul Humphries might cause rock history to remember the band merely as a lightweight commercial synth-pop outfit. Once upon a time, however, they were considered genuinely alternative, enjoying the patronage of leftfield luminaries such as John Peel and Tony Wilson, and "Peel Sessions 1979-1983" catalogues these happier, more experimental times.

Considering how precisely programmed their music must, necessarily, have been, there's something slightly and delightfully wonky about these session versions: the Bontempi organ-primitive synths, the escaping steam effects used on "Messages", the clunky drum machines, all comfily wrapped up in some of the most exquisite melodies of the immediately post-punk era and lyrics about war, telephone boxes, communication networks, power stations, genetic engineering and, on "Pretending To See The Future", their own cynicism with the music industry. It must be 20 years since I first heard that song, but never before noticed its tongue-in-cheek closing lines "See you the same place same time next year round/With the same kind of product and a very similar sound", almightily world-weary from a band who had released their first single barely a year earlier.

"Enola Gay" excepted, the songs presented here from their second long player "Organisation" reflect its status as the least inspired of their early works. "The Misunderstanding" is a limp Joy Division impersonation, and "The More I See You" had seen prior service as a 1966 hit for Chris Montez. No Peel sessions were recorded to support the band's mesmeric third album "Architecture And Morality", but they returned to the BBC's studios shortly before the release of their next long player, "Dazzle Ships". Almost universally derided at the time (Stereo magazine hailed it as the most unfairly treated album of the year) today it's recognised by enlightened listeners as an early classic of the sampling era. The band fed their Emulator synthesiser with such unlikely source material as a toy piano, short wave radio broadcasts, a Speak and Spell machine, a typewriter and a dark globe's worth of speaking clocks. The songs included here find the band winding a thin sheet of their trademark melody and melancholy around the most fantastically primal and percussive rhythms, the motorik level pushed up to 11, with devastating results. Naturally, "Dazzle Ships" almost killed their career, and subsequent releases saw the band retreat shell-shocked into the balmier waters of commercial synthpop.

In addition, "Peel Sessions 1979-1983" features a bonus in the form of the original single version of "Electricity", recorded on a 4-track reel-to-reel machine in their manager's garage. Although theoretically not entirely compliant with the spirit of the album, both its rarity and absence of studio polish make it a worthy extra feature.

Somewhat less fertile ground is tilled by "Navigation The OMD B-Sides". To quote the squintingly small note on the back of the booklet, it's "a collection of OMD b-side songs demonstrating OMD's essential balance between the melodic and the ethereal", that 'essential balance' perhaps being that the melodic bits went on the A-sides of their singles, leaving the ethereal stuff to fluff up the flips. Compiled in consideration of the results of a survey on the band's official website, the songs collated here describe a similar chronological/qualitative arc as any other OMD compilation, all bright-eyed experimentation, effects and echoes in the first half, increasingly sapped and saccharine post-"Dazzle Ships".

For the good times, though…an alternate take of "Almost" is wobbly but marvellous, blundering along on a primitive percussion track that sounds like a match being struck and escaping steam. The queasy sensation that the band aren't entirely in time with each other only adds to the charm. Their version of "I'm Waiting For The Man" - it seems almost as though the obligatory Velvets b-side cover was a rite of passage for bands of this period - is rudimentary but intense, a testament to just how flexible both Reed's songwriting and OMD are, even if they don't quite meet each other halfway. "The Romance Of The Telescope" is a prototype of a song that would reappear in lightly dusted form on "Dazzle Ships", showing the band at their majestic, mystical best, when they didn't give a stuffed fig about "Top Of The Pops". Inevitably not as much fun as "Peel Sessions 1979-1983", "Navigation" nevertheless presents some of the choicest pickings from its source material, making it about as entertaining as an album of OMD b-sides could reasonably expect to get.