By Raiment Young
Thanks to BBC Arts, I was able to listen to a remake, not remix, of Blue Monday, the biggest UK 12” single of all time, and, playing for seven-and-half minutes, one of the longest. This new version by the little known and almost mysterious band Orkestra Obsolete is the stuff that makes my spine tingle. Possibly New Order’s best-known track, Blue Monday was an important part of my musical education in the early ’80s that had nothing to do with Michael Jackson. It was also the second part of my initiation into electronic music after Kraftwek, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and Depeche Mode.
And it’s been awhile since something so aurally captivating has filled by work space. Blue Monday and so many ’80s indie-dance-rock have been subjected to such frequent runs through software manipulation such as Digital DJ that, no matter how imaginative the remixer, much of the result sounds the same. Orkestra Obsolete, as its name suggests, brought a piece of modern music back to a time when software was not part of the line-up in a musician’s arsenal. The point in time is 1933, and the instruments used are those available that year.
The result is music that has the lushness of yore, but a vibe of the present. Unfair a comparison it may be, but it does remind me of the 1997 ‘tribute’ album El Baile Alemán by Sēnor Cocunut, aka Uwe Schmidt (also Atom Heart), considered one of Germany’s leading composers of electronic music. While El Baile Aleman’s Latin-flavoured sound is poles apart from (and more ‘exotic’ than) Orkestra Obsolete’s experimental output, both share the same sense of analogue adventurism that is oddly compelling.
According to pop lore, Blue Monday was the result of the testing of a new drum machine—the Oberheim DMX. The band, however, claimed that the song was written as an encore track to be played at the end of concerts, during which fans had always left disappointed because New Order did not do encores. Lead singer Bernard Sumner once told the media, “I don’t really see it as a song. I see it as a machine to make people dance”, further corroborating the drum-machine test theory. Whatever may have been the case, Blue Monday went on to be a Brit pop/disco anthem identified with the ’80s, just as Soft Cell’s camp remake of Tainted Love was and still is.
Despite its success in the UK and, later, in the US, Blue Monday did not really catch on in Singapore until Zouk’s Mambo Night, hosted by DJ Adam Low. When I first heard it during those retro-themed sessions, I was dismayed that it was considered a retro track, yet thrilled that I was able to dance to it under the immersive sound system that was part of Zouk’s heady appeal. To most Zouk-goers, Blue Monday was too indie and off-key sounding to be mainstream-danceable. I wonder what they’d think of Orkestra Obsolete’s take today.
Another aspect of the band’s appeal is the music video released by the BBC. This noir-ish recording has the mood and the seduction of a fashion film, possibly one by Prada (and Wes Anderson?). The band members in suit and bow tie, too, look like they’re part of Prada’s world, with eye masks that would win the approval of Green Hornet fans. Orkestra Obsolete has possibly created the soundtrack to Muccia’s next show. As it’s sung in the song, “now I stand here waiting”.