Bobby O - Freedom in an Unfree World

Bobby “O”: “Freedom in an Unfree World” Expanded Edition

New York producer Bobby “O” Orlando’s influence on the direction of dance music in the first half of the ’80s is immeasurable. Reanimating the corpse of disco with newfangled electronica, he was instrumental in the development of what became known as Hi-NRG, the relentless, pounding, cowbell-heavy genre that would be adopted by everyone from New Order to Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Inspired by Orlando’s work on club classics such as The Flirts’ Passion and Divine’s Jungle Jezebel album, assistant Smash Hits editor Neil Tennant took the opportunity to seek him out while in New York and persuaded him to produce some tracks for his fledgling band; the result was a number 121 hit with a song called West End Girls and a whole lot of unreleased tracks.

I must admit that I came to this reissue of Orlando’s 1983 début album knowing much about his reputation but very little of his actual work, other than that original version of West End Girls, which didn’t bode particularly well. I was expecting more of the same, so it came as something of a surprise to discover that opening track I Cry For You plays for almost a minute before Orlando’s signature drum machine sound kicks in. The chorus may be unhealthily similar to Don’t Cry For Me Argentina but the juxtaposition of Nadia Cassini’s vocals with Orlando’s frantic shouting works surprisingly well.

This opening track may well be the high point of the album, however, as the rest of it struggles to rise above the level of functional Hi-NRG dancefloor fodder. The origin of the iconic West End Girls cowbell rhythm can be found in How To Pick Up Girls (spoiler alert: the secret seems to be “Learn to dance”), Givin’ Up shamelessly appropriates the bassline from Blue Monday without so much as a by your leave, and These Lies spends some time threatening to become the theme from Blockbusters without ever reaching such heights.

Interestingly, the bonus tracks on Cherry Pop’s expanded edition of the album are somehow more enjoyable than the album itself. Early singles She Has a Way and I’m So Hot For You feel less forced than many of the album tracks, perhaps because Orlando hadn’t yet assumed full artistic control – others granted input include John “Jellybean” Benitez who remixes two of the bonus tracks to great effect. Listening to these tracks it’s easier to identify Orlando’s influence on much of the Pet Shop Boys’ early work; despite its Don’t You Want Me bassline, I’m So Hot For You could even be a PSB outtake if you don’t listen too hard.

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Freedom in an Unfree World isn’t a bad album – you can barely move for ideas and motifs that found their way into mainstream pop over the next few years – it just hasn’t aged well, from the industrial strength drum machine (this is one album that definitely doesn’t need more cowbell) to the sleeve. Picturing a woman from the waist down in just bikini bottoms and stilettos, holding some kind of semi-automatic weapon, it attempts to invoke James Bond connotations but only manages to conjure up images of Benny Hill. Like the music it contains, perhaps you had to be there at the time to truly appreciate it.

5/10