OMD’s Organisation Is One Of The Great, Lost Synth-Pop Albums
Orchestral Manouevres In The Dark gave us an archetype. When you think of big end-credits drama and synth-pop swoon, when you think of that shorthand of an ’80s prom ballad beamed in from our collective pop culture memory, you think of “If You Leave.” You think of OMD’s signature song playing behind that climactic high school scene and you think of Molly Ringwald. You think of giant swooping synths and yearning vocals and gauzy memories of young love and heartbreak. That is one idea of the ‘80s, one historical pop shorthand we go back to again and again. But before OMD became one of the acts to successfully bridge the futurism and avant-garde tendencies of early synth-pop into the grand romantic gestures and bulletproof pop hooks of its mid-’80s mainstream insurgence, they were architects of a whole different thing. Before they soundtracked Pretty In Pink, they soundtracked a vision of the world that was far more tense and eerie.
OMD’s sophomore album Organisation doesn’t necessarily come up all the time in the conversation about classic ’80s albums. OMD’s artier roots might even remain obscured in general when we’re decades removed and many would only recall them as one of those synth-pop one-hit wonders in America, when a few would maybe recognize other singles like “Dreaming” or “So In Love” alongside “If You Leave.” The story is almost a direct parallel to that of Simple Minds, another adventurous and innovative European new wave act that are primarily remembered stateside for their crossover John Hughes movie hit than they are for the richness of their catalog.
OMD might get more credit in the grand scheme of the new wave era, and yet Organisation remains a bit overlooked — not quite an obscurity but a forgotten gem. Because when OMD released this album, 40 years ago tomorrow, they gave us a whole other archetype before the one everyone knows them for. They gave us one of the great albums from the early synth-pop era.
When people talk about the ’80s as a cultural signifier — about how artists are constantly excavating one ’80s reference point or another, creating cycles of nostalgia in the process — it tends to be a certain fuzzy, romantic version of the decade, one of escapism and big blockbusters in movies and music alike. Those strains of new wave have endured, as have all the more grandly melancholic corners of ‘80s alternative music.
But there’s this other version of synth-pop, deeply influential in its own right and in many ways a counterpoint to broad, summary definitions of the decade. This is the stuff of nuclear anxiety, post-industrial and postmodern mindsets, a creeping sense of Cold War paranoia. It’s the stuff that almost feels like origin texts for how we live now, artists 40 years ago using new technology to mull over science fiction becoming fact in a rapidly evolving, unnerving civilization. Today, it often feels as if the world is on the precipice of disaster. Today, we live in a digitized reality, mediated by corporate portals all of us have to carry in our pockets. An album like Organisation is just as legible as it was in 1980.
After kicking around in other local Merseyside bands on and off through the mid/late ‘70s, the core duo of Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys founded OMD in 1978. (Other significant members included Martin Cooper on synths and saxophone, and drummer Malcolm Holmes, whose addition turned OMD into a trio for Organisation and whose drumming changed the scope of their sound for that album.) Bonding over their love of Brian Eno and Kraftwerk, the two solidified their early sound on their self-titled 1980 debut, and then quickly followed it up with Organisation that same year.
The album was a noticeably darker affair. The whole thing has a chilly, grey atmosphere to it, as if born from barren winter landscapes. Drawing significantly from krautrock influences, it had that same feeling of Soviet-era Europe, a harsh and imposing sense of modernism. Tracks like “Statues” and “Promise” were pop songs hidden in icy textures, while “The Misunderstanding” was like free-fall chaos, McCluskey singing amidst synths that keened and spiraled around him. Glacial soundscapes were common throughout, particularly on closer “Stanlow” — named for a factory McCluskey’s father worked at.
At its best, Organisation showed what synth-pop could be. The first passage of the album is pristine: “2nd Thought” is propulsive and meditative at once, wave after wave of steely synths crystallizing the album’s core sound, the way OMD could lean into all the mechanistic aspects of synthesizer music but start to turn them towards something more lush and enveloping. It pairs with “Vcl XI,” another small masterwork of nascent synth-pop that concludes with all manner of clattering noises, like a giant automobile sputtering and coughing to life, drowning out the humans controlling it.
Organisation begins with the song that, all these years later, is the most famous of OMD’s early work: “Enola Gay.” There’s a reason for it. “Enola Gay” is a perfect achievement from those primitive synth-pop days. Like their buzzy debut single “Electricity,” the star is the synthesizer. The verse melody is basically a chorus, but then the chorus itself is an infectious, nimble synth line. When I saw OMD at Primavera in 2015, they opened with “Enola Gay,” and suddenly a crowd of Spanish fans was jumping up and down and chanting along to that riff as if it was a famous pop refrain.
“Enola Gay” also set the stage for the rest of Organisation. It’s one of the iconic examples of how new wave could situate bleak, doomsday feelings within sharply written pop music; it takes all the atmospherics of, say, the instrumental stretches of Bowie’s Berlin albums and weaponizes it in a way. The hook will never leave your head, but then you realize it’s actually a song about the US dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. The rest of Organisation from there could take place in the real world as it was in 1980, an uneasy step into a new decade, into the future. Or it could just as well take place in an imagined, haunted place, a wasteland brought upon by the technological sins of man.
A marriage of art and pop sensibilities became the core of the new wave movement that would soon blossom. Musicians who had grown up with a punk sensibility, but had more progressive designs in mind beyond guitar-based music, used these newly accessible inventions to push the boundaries of pop music. In hindsight, Organisation is not often cited as OMD’s masterpiece. (And it is, admittedly, not a completely perfect album, with the goofy gait of “Motion And Heart” threatening both its mood and momentum.) Its 1981 successor, Architecture & Morality, is probably more often regarded as OMD’s finest achievement artistically, and there’s a case for that: While remaining inventive, that album also brought OMD ever closer to a true pop sensibility, with songs like “Maid Of Orleans” and “Joan Of Arc” and “Souvenir” turning the blues and grays of OMD’s synths towards something just a bit more embracing.
Yet four decades on, Organisation is perhaps the more transfixing of the two. It feels like a lost classic, an early example of a young synth-pop band forging new sonic territory but also capturing the feeling of the times. Music from the early ’80s now, of course, sounds of its time. But in its finest moments, Organisation almost feels like the future again. Then, at the same time, you can walk out into an unforgiving December day, in some city here or abroad, and feel as if it was somehow made for this time, right now. There’s a little message hidden within albums like Organisation, the thing that makes the album sound vital so many years after it first arrived. Back then, Organisation wasn’t just the sound of the future — it was also the sound of the fear that there might be no future at all.