O.M.D.’s fifth album continued their run of UK Top 10 entries upon release at the end of April 1984.
“People seemed to think it was about rubbish or something”, Andy McCluskey has said of Orchestral Manouevres In The Dark’s rather misunderstood opus.
The misconceptions didn’t end there, as an apparently drastic musical and image change heralded by the album’s lead single and promo campaign further confused even loyal fans. Locomotion proved a UK Top 5 smash, breezing its way into the upper reaches of the chart that the singles from 1983’s Dazzle Ships had notably failed to trouble.
Yet its lightweight arrangement, use of brass sections and steel drums, along with the simplistic lyrical conceit (rhyme as many things with Locomotion as possible, repeat to fade) raised some troubling questions about O.M.D. and where they might be headed. Such doubts may explain Junk Culture‘s less-than-stellar debut position of #9; a surprise given the runaway success of Locomotion and the band’s strong fanbase that took the uncommercial Dazzle Ships to #5 a year earlier.
(In a sign of how vibrant and competitive the UK scene was at the time, Junk Culture was released on the same week as brand new albums by Echo & The Bunnymen (Ocean Rain) and The Cure (The Top). Also issued soon after would be the latest by The Psychedelic Furs (Mirror Moves) and The Human League (Hysteria). Halcyon days indeed).
Despite this modest opening, the strength of its material – and some savvy single choices – helped Junk Culture to last more than 6 months on the UK Top 100 (twice as long as its predecessor) and restored some of their commercial lustre. Those shirts, however…
Cue fanfare. And some truly hideous fashion choices. No wonder Andy looks brassed off.
All of this has been fairly well documented; the move away from Dazzle Ships‘ sampling of Czechoslovakian speaking clocks, songs about genetic engineering and telescopes, experiments in “music concrete” and the like. An absence of a genuine hit single, with Telegraph suffering the ignominy of missing the Top 40 altogether (though only just….it peaked at #42), only served to harden the critics’ view that O.M.D. were taking themselves far too seriously.
Dazzle Ships has undergone a reappraisal since the turn of the century, and no longer serves as a by-word for “how to tank your career”. That’s a good thing, because – taken on merit, away from the very commercially-orientated 1983 pop landscape – the album has shown itself to be a bit of a classic, and not the self-indulgent misfire of yore.
Junk Culture was once largely seen as a deliberate 180-degree reaction to that record, an overly bright and listener-friendly effort. McCluskey and Humphreys have confessed that an element of over-compensation took place, as the dull greys of Dazzle Ships were replaced by yellows, reds and bright blues. (And those patterned shirts). Yet, look beyond the big singles (Locomotion, Talking Loud And Clear, Tesla Girls) and that picture becomes more complex.
Kicking the record off with a dub-heavy, Blade Runner-sampling instrumental title track is not exactly aiming for the Smash Hits heartlands, nor are the cacophonous urban soundscapes of Love & Violence. There are surprising echoes of The Beat on the lippy All Wrapped Up and traces of early Aztec Camera in Apollo‘s jerky jangling. The common theme among these tracks is they are not only proof that O.M.D. hadn’t surrendered themselves to the frivolous mainstream pop gods, but also that they don’t really sound like the O.M.D. people were used to. Quirky album cuts + unusually commercial singles = CONFUSION.
Look even further, to the demos, outtakes and B-sides from the Junk Culture era, and it becomes clear that, initially at least, the jump from Dazzle Ships wasn’t always as drastic as it would appear by the time the completed and released LP was bestowed upon the world.
Each of the album’s hit singles had original B-sides that played it much straighter, sticking to a recognisable O.M.D. blueprint – be it the sleek electropop variety, or the experimental collage approach. Thus we get Her Body In My Soul, The Avenue and Garden City; all good enough to be on album themselves, and less likely to scare the fanbase. Indeed, the track which was included with early copies of Junk Culture as a one-sided 7″ single (DO NOT ATTEMPT TO PLAY THIS SIDE, the label of the flip instructed…did you try? I did, for the hell of it) – an instrumental piece with ominous choirs and distorted synths called (The Angels Keep Turning) The Wheels Of The Universe – is often cited as superior to much of the main record. It’s certainly more in keeping with the Organisation / Architecture & Morality side of O.M.D.’s nature.
“Paul – I’ve been framed”….. “Yeah I know Andy, for the sake of some promotion”.
Where it gets even more intriguing is with the unreleased songs that appeared on 2015’s fudged Deluxe Edition of Junk Culture. They are exactly what you might expect in early 1984 from a band coming off a previous project that still packed some glorious melodies in amongst the Eastern European Time Zone bleeps and speaking clocks. Radio Waves, Silent Running, and of course Telegraph; all top drawer O.M.D., not to mention the stately Of All The Things We’ve Made.
From the evidence presented by 10 to 1, All Or Nothing and the Highland Studio demos of an embryonic Tesla Girls and the relentless proto-trance of Heaven Is (reworked by the solo-Andy OMD in 1993), the starting point for what become Junk Culture wasn’t that far removed from the more straightforward elements of Dazzle Ships. Yet a rethink, or sheer inspiration, took over at some stage – compare and contrast the early demo of White Trash with the quite extraordinarily un-O.M.D-like finished version.
From somewhere a willingness to explore their hidden funky side, a dirtier side with some seething lyrics, came about. There is arguably a surfeit of ideas and styles on Junk Culture, moreso than on any of their other albums. Tesla Girls grounds itself in a familiar enough milieu to keep older fans onside, Locomotion served as a perfect pop hit for the masses, then the “nursery rhyme nonsense” (as Radio 1 DJ Richard Skinner witheringly referred to it) of Talking Loud And Clear pulled off the kind of quaintly Olde Englishe pastoral pop that XTC’s Andy Partridge was in the process of trademarking. Albeit with synthesizers and not acoustic guitars.
In fact, the artistic reboot worked so effectively that, come the end of 1984, Never Turn Away‘s very old-skool O.M.D. qualities left the public completely cold when issued as the album’s final single. It got no higher than #70, the lowest of any O.M.D. 45 that had managed to trouble the UK charts since 1979!
Paul and Andy would waste little time in going back into the studio and creating Crush, the album which finally broke them in America but found the going tougher in their home country. So, in a way Junk Culture became forgotten (if a Top 10 album with 2 major hits and 27 weeks on the chart can ever be considered as such), caught between a famous folly and their subsequent evolution into a US chart force.
Overlook at your peril, though. It really isn’t rubbish.
[…] album has already been covered in some detail here on afdpj, with the Don’t Throw It Away feature going into the history of the record, its reception and how some quite typically OMD-esque […]