“Work, work, work, work, work, work, work, work...” goes the exultant cry.
Blue Orchids were formed by Martin Bramah and Una Baines, both former members of The Fall, in late 1979. They were famously named by John Cooper Clarke, punk poet and survivor of the sixties, who imagined them as 'a bunch of haemophiliacs raised by Alsatian dogs on a council tip'. Bramah and Baines, the axis around which the band rotated, were joined by Rick Goldstraw on bass and Ian Rogers on drums and spent much of the following year working on material.
At a time when Bruce Springsteen was celebrating the blue collar worker in America and thus affirming (according to Marxist idioms) man’s eternal right and desire to ‘work’, the Blue Orchids were painting a very different picture. Instead of revelling in tales of working life they paint a picture of a dislocated society. We are all “golden salmon, swimming against the tide of life”. On their debut single “The Flood” they had sang about the overwhelming sensation hallucinogens had on the system, but on their second 7 inch they were addressing the quandaries facing the nation.
While Britain had 3 million unemployed, Martin Bramah invoked the power of work. Not long beforehand the winter of discontent had seen 1 million trade union members laid off. Employment was an emotive issue. The song is a spiritual cousin of The Specials’ “Ghost Town”, an indictment of the failure of government to provide for its populace. Both released in early 1981, they highlight the desolation going on in the inner cities of the United Kingdom, be it Coventry or Manchester.
Musically Blue Orchids took the chilled out, drug influenced West Coast sound of bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors and filtered them through the grim, sodium lit, urban decay of late 1970s inner city Manchester. The band’s music invokes a kind of spiritual wanderlust, sensual and boundless, but rooted endlessly and irrevocably in Manchester. However they are less furious than Joy Division, less raucous than The Fall. Their songs are labyrinthine, a myriad of guitar lines and keyboards interlacing above a steady backbeat. On their debut album The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain) this psychedelic tradition is evident, yet on “Work” the soundscape is darker, spiteful, denser, colder, and has much more in common with the East Coast pioneers the Velvet Underground. Their link with the Velvets is well known; they worked as backing band for Nico, the Belgian chanteuse who appeared with the Velvets in the late 60s. There are many who feel that becoming her backing band, and the hard drugs it opened them up to, ended the band as a creative force for many years. Being a band for which recreational drug use was par for the course, the absence of work was seen as liberating.
“Work” is a far darker piece of music than appeared on their debut album released just three months later. Bramah traces out discordant patterns on his guitar, constantly picking out a lead motif that is constantly evolving, fluid, not fixed. Una Baines organ soars above, freewheeling above the tight mesh of the rhythm guitars. The whole sound is tense, stretched taut over the structure. Bramah’s voice stretches too, cracking as it strains to reach the notes. Skittish, dub style drums clatter and thrash in the background. They had taken the sound of psychedelia and inverted it, infusing it with a barely restrained fury, redolent of Germanic acts such as Can, Neu! and Faust.
The song ends on a celebratory note, guitars ringing out as Baines’ organ soars. The celebration of not going to ‘work’, the celebration of individuality, the celebration of liberating oneself from society, the celebration of drugs, the celebration of dissidence and the celebration of the soul that endures. “Work” is one of the few pieces they recorded that hint at a greater social awareness; the majority of their canon is insular, introspective in which the personal becomes political.