The Romance of Obscurity: Written Experiments In Vertical Chart Movement

Written by Imogen Bebb 03/2020

How can you objectively determine whether a piece of music is ‘good’ or not? 

In theory there are multiple methods, although the conclusion you reach will likely be different depending on which of these methods you choose to utilise. 

For example, you could consider how much a song appeals to its target audience (probably the fanbase of that particular artist). You could consider the vocal ability of the performer, or the musical ability of those playing on the track. 

Or how about the proficiency of the songwriting? Surely if a song has a lot of chords or uses a particularly complex chord progression, that makes it ‘good’ in a technical sense?

You could use the Tin Pan Alley method, known as the ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ – playing the record to doormen or ‘Old Greys’, and if they can remember the song and whistle back the melody, the song will have passed the test.

However, though all of these are factors a listener may take into account when hearing a song, in reality the most widespread method of judging whether or not a song is worth bothering about is how many people buy it. Obviously this data then provides the basis for music charts like the UK Official Singles Chart and the US Billboard Hot 100 (or at least it did for multiple decades; nowadays, downloads and streaming are the primary consumption formats taken into account). 

But although this might be the fairest way to measure how ‘good’ a song or an act might be, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most accurate. In fact, if you made a list of tracks that have been number one in the U.K. charts – particularly in the heyday of ‘Top of the Pops’ when the disclosure of the weekly charts could really be considered a talking point – you would probably find that the majority of them fit nicely into certain categories.

For example…

– Tracks with an element of novelty about them (whether that’s along the lines of Joe Dolce’s notorious ‘Shaddup A Ya Face’ or where a band has deviated from their usual sound in order to score a hit single)

– Songs from films or television shows (Bryan Adams’ abhorrent ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ from the Robin Hood film ‘Prince of Thieves’ springs to mind)

– Songs raising money for charity (‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ etc.)

– Posthumous hits 

– The result of some inescapable publicity (essentially what Frankie Goes To Hollywood made a career out of)

– A well-timed cover version 

– A Christmas song (I refuse to name a specific one here because it’s only March and I’ll have it stuck in my head for the rest of the week)

– A song that’s so painfully cheesy or predictable that you’ve a good mind to strike anyone who admits to actually going out and buying it at the time 

The more radically-minded amongst you might take this theory one step further and share the attitude of Roy Trenneman from Channel 4’s ‘The IT Crowd’, who in one episode wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Nothing is any good if other people like it’. 

Personally, I wouldn’t go that far. Rules always have exceptions, so I’m not saying that every song that has ever been number one in the charts is awful (although I would argue that it’s a majority rather than a minority). 

What I am saying is that just because something is popular it doesn’t mean it’s ‘good’. 

Not by a long shot. 

On the other hand, this theory can also be reversed; just because something isn’t particularly popular it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth listening to. 

Here we are presented with the concept of something being ‘underrated’, or, as the Cambridge dictionary tells us, ‘better or more important than most people believe’. 

Now, I may be a little biased, but I would argue that Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are an underrated band. As a younger fan, I am often frustrated by people my age knowing who Depeche Mode are (primarily as a result of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’), but not OMD (despite Vince Clarke himself stating that the former would not have existed without the latter). 

I would also argue that, as one of those bands with a significant back catalogue, there are multiple OMD songs which don’t receive enough attention or appreciation from even the most devoted fans, simply because of the number of songs they have released.

Armed with this idea, I compiled a list of ten OMD songs that could be considered ‘underrated’, five of which were my choices, five of which were chosen by Sarah and Barry. 

I am well aware that people will disagree with some of these choices, and perhaps by the time you have come to the end of the list you might have some thoughts you’d like to share regarding the tracks we have chosen to include – which of course we would love to read (providing they don’t involve any physical threats of violence for including a song from ‘The Pacific Age’ LP). 

So, without further ado (drum roll please, Sarah) …

Ten ‘Underrated’ OMD Tracks

1Her Body In My Soul (‘Locomotion’ b-side) (1984) – This has always been one of my favourite OMD tracks, not only because of the frenetic intensity of the lyrics, but also because it showcases a more progressive side to the band’s mid-80s period. It also never fails to fascinate me how the a-side and the b-side of a single by one band can sound so different!

2. The Lights Are Going Out (Crush, 1985) – Songs on the ‘Crush’ LP covers a wide range of themes – from unrequited love to the KKK and racial tensions in America – so as an album it does occasionally lose its way. But no matter how many diversions the LP takes, the final track ‘The Lights Are Going Out’ puts ‘Crush’ back on the straight and narrow. It positively revels in its own ambiguity, but as a result is genuinely eerie and finishes the album perfectly. 

3. The Dead Girls (The Pacific Age, 1986) – Here we have OMD at their most deliciously theatrical, so much so that a literal description of the track’s key elements (booming lead vocals, operatic synths, multiple instrumental breaks utilising the sounds of a full orchestra) is in serious danger of sounding contrived and melodramatic. But stick with the track, turn it up the volume and around three minutes in you will be rewarded one of the most spine-tingling moments in OMD’s back catalogue – a slightly-surreal orchestral crescendo, ending with a line of McCluskey’s vocals sung acapella, followed by the kick back of the choirs and the kick drum. Gorgeous.

4. All She Wants Is Everything (‘Pandora’s Box’ b-side, 1991) – Emotionally charged but undeniably danceable, in my opinion this often-forgotten track encapsulates everything that was so brilliant about this era of OMD’s history. Complete with early 1990s-style breakdown!

5. Sometimes (History of Modern, 2010) – Musically, this track is a bit of a mixed bag (perhaps something that can be said of the entire ‘History of Modern’ album). But lyrically, honesty prevails, and the anguished candour of the track’s verses (“there was a vision once that I know we’ve lost/nothing now has a value/but it all has a cost”) means the slightly odd placement of some of the samples can be totally forgiven. 

6. Promise (Organisation, 1980) – The penultimate track on ‘Organisation’, one of the greatest albums ever released. All the songs are perfect – it’s just that some are more perfect than others. ‘Promise’ (which marks Paul Humphrey’s debut solo vocal) is one of these, the antithetical mixture of innocence, melancholy and delicately-delivered conviction making for an utterly compelling five minutes of music.  

7. Women lll (Crush, 1985) – The fourth track from the ‘Crush’ LP, it’s the synth riff and occasional brassy growls that really make you sit up and take notice of this one. The lyrics draw you in too, with their slightly unnerving balance of acerbity and compassion. 

8. The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You (Universal, 1996) – With arguably one of the most intriguing (and longest) titles in pop music, this song begins to make promises before you’ve heard even a second of it. Fortunately, it is able to keep them – something that becomes evident as soon as you’ve heard the track a few times through, from the pensive verse to the chorus that just lets loose. Admittedly, the latter sounds quite similar to Pulp’s ‘Disco 2000’, but personally (not that I’m biased or anything) I think OMD made far better use of the melody in question than Mr Cocker and his bandmates did. 

Also, just as you think the song has nowhere else to go…there’s that glorious key change. 

9. Helen of Troy (English Electric, 2013) – ‘English Electric’ saw a real return to form for OMD, partly due to the way many of the songs harked back to the band’s original sound. This track is a perfect example of that: a synth-heavy quasi-ballad framed by a soaring vocal melody, with lyrics about a historical female figure? It could only be OMD…

10. Stay With Me (English Electric, 2013) – Also from ‘English Electric’, in an ideal world this track would have been released as a single. Again, it is reminiscent of that early ‘80s OMD sound, but the delicate, glossy synths still gives it a futuristic edge. Essentially, it’s a love song that wears its heart on its sleeve…and as a result is a complete breath of fresh air.


Author’s Note: Originally this piece was written to coincide with recent announcements OMD had made about their gigs in May showcasing rarely-played material from their first album (as well as the usual greatest hits set). 

Unfortunately because of the current situation it’s now looking unlikely that these gigs will happen. Obviously this is a disappointment but I am sure we are all able to recognise that if they don’t go ahead it will be for the best, and that there are things going on right now in the world that are more important. 

Myself, Barry and Sarah would like to send everyone our best wishes, and we hope you’re all able to stay happy and healthy during these strange times we now seem to be living in! In the meantime, stay safe, stay inside, and keep listening to OMD!

Written by Imogen Bebb 03/2020