Hearts will break…
In 1983, when OMD released the first single from their then-forthcoming album Dazzle Ships, no one was quite prepared for what they were about to hear. Even by the unwieldiness of its title, ‘Genetic Engineering’ was a strange composition pulled together from an unusual list of ingredients.
But it was still a song that carried with it the DNA of OMD’s influences (which seems an appropriate analogy given the lyrical themes). In particular, the Brian Eno-style guitar work was something that Andy McCluskey had previously employed on tracks such as ‘New Stone Age’ from the Architecture & Morality album.
Eno was just one of the many influences that managed to find a way into OMD’s music writing, outside of the obvious touchstones such as Kraftwerk. In fact, there were other outfits from the German school who had an equal influence on messers Humphreys and McCluskey in their formative years, This included La Düsseldorf and Neu!, groups that shared some connections with Kraftwerk, although their style and approach was very different.
Neu! Had been formed by Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger, who had actually been part of Kraftwerk previously. Neu! Was German for “new” and, along with its empathic exclamation mark, served as a comment on consumer society – as well as throwing a nod to Andy Warhol’s Pop Art ideas.
Rother and Dinger recorded the first eponymous Neu! Album in the winter months of 1971, also bringing in legendary producer Conny Plank to pull the whole thing together. It was through these early Neu! compositions that Dinger employed his “motorik” beat, a style picked up by additional collaborators for future Neu! releases, including Thomas Dinger and Hans Lampe (In fact OMD returned to these early influences on the 2017 B-side track ‘Lampe Licht’ – its title a nod to drummer Hans Lampe).
But it was the Neu! 75 album that perhaps shows the clearest OMD influences. Tracks such as ‘Seeland’ and ‘Leb’ wohl’ have a warm, organic quality to them.
There’s a stark approach on some of the tracks on this 1975 album that has a melancholic element that any OMD fan will recognise. Certainly listening to a lot of OMD’s ‘tone poem’ compositions, it’s not difficult to draw connective tissue between tracks such as ‘Stanlow’, ‘Sealand’ or ‘Navigation’ and Neu!’s more thoughtful outings.
On that basis, the penning of ‘4-Neu’ (“For Neu!”) hardly seems surprising.
‘4-Neu’ is a haunting piece of work that revolves around a plaintive piano melody and whispery vocals care of Andy McCluskey, some of which have an obscure quality (often, when penning songs, McCluskey would sing into the mic with purely random words and phrases on the first recordings. From there, they could be shaped up into actual words and lyrics – or, on occasion, left as-is to puzzle OMD fans for years afterwards!).
As the song spirals to its end, there’s also a slightly discordant element which seems to be battling against the warm melody of the main composition. Many OMD songs play around with these odd combination of sounds however, as evidenced on Architecture & Morality’s title track or early outings such as ‘Dancing’.
But the production keeps these more dissonant elements in check, allowing ‘4-Neu’ to display a bleak beauty that still captivates today. In fact, for the 2014 Dazzle Weekend event in Liverpool, the song was actually reconstructed to be played live for the first time ever.
While the most obvious influence for OMD’s sound can be traced back to Kraftwerk (there’s the old joke about ‘Electricity’ simply being ‘Radioactivity’ sped up!), Neu!’s impact on the band can’t be underestimated. Certainly, in the case of ‘4-Neu’, OMD have managed to not only acknowledge their influences, but then take them to a new and unexpected place.