Richard McKenna / July 16, 2020
Sometimes it’s in ephemeral fragments of the culture that time travel lurks. We learn to tune out the looming monoliths of the zeitgeist the same way we learn to tune out the sky: its ubiquitousness would otherwise be oppressive. But sometimes a corner of the firmament reflected in a humble puddle brings it back to radiant life. Released in 1982, Future World Orchestra’s Mission Completed is that kind of puddle, capturing a small shard of its time in strangely vivid colors.
Future World Orchestra have the lot: gauche mustaches, a demeanor to which the word “goofy” does not do justice, digital watches, white ties with piano keyboards on them, wristbands, bizarre bespoke overalls, uncomfortable dance moves, and an even more uncomfortable relationship with the camera. But somehow, it’s not a pastiche—it is instead from the Netherlands, and its creators are the astonishingly-named Robert Pot and Gerto Heupink.
The lens-flare cover and slightly bullish ring of the title might give a misleading impression of what Future World Orchestra are actually about, but as will become immediately clear upon watching any video footage of them, they’re very much not the high-fiving cock-jocks you might imagine. Rather, they meld a bouncy and vaguely unfashionable style of retro-pop with the elegiac electronics that had by then become an increasingly powerful element of the musical landscape: can you imagine a Frankensteinian welding together of, say, Jean-Michel Jarre, Genesis’s Tony Banks, and Neil Sedaka? Well, now you no longer need to try.
The record lays out its aesthetic manifesto on the first track, “I’m Not Afraid of the Future,” whose “Popcorn“-reminiscent arpeggios, hints of Hi-NRG, and upbeat vocal are shot through with a vague melancholy that runs counter to the song’s optimism—a sensation that underpins the whole record. I don’t know how to define this video of them lip-syncing to “Desire” except as punk chutzpah—a total don’t-give-a-fuck immersion in a personal aesthetic. Even though I love it, it makes me want to run out of the room screaming, so god alone knows what effect it might have on anyone who doesn’t like the music (though if you want more, have a slightly less uncomfortable version and a version from after they discovered coke). “Desire” mines the same kind of synthetic doo-wop shuffle of Andrew Gold’s wonderful “Never Let Her Slip Away,” a mood taken up later in a slightly less optimistic key in “Don’t Go Away.” “Airborne” hints at a kind of Schlager-trance, “Casablanca Nights” blends the “Popcorn” bubbling with an “I Feel Love” throb, while instrumental “Hypnos” is a Jean-Michel Jarre-ian monster. And aptly, Mission Completed ends with, yep, “Mission Completed.” Because it fucking was.
There are moments where the balancing act between something inspired and something awful falters—“Happy Moments,” for instance, would make perfect background music for a breakfast TV montage of Dutch pensioners visiting a petting zoo (and rips off 10CC‘s “I’m Not in Love” to boot)—but, all told, Mission Completed somehow manages to create its own beguiling futuristic world of mystery, excitement, and romance, all shot through with a vein of pensive melancholy. Is the undercurrent of angst a tacit admission that, for all of the album’s upbeat optimism, there was plenty about 1982 that actually was pretty frightening? Other groups, artists and authors that year certainly seemed to think so.
Apart from the obvious pop skill on display, I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about Mission Completed that I find so appealing. Is it the yearning that imbues the whole thing? The earnestness? Silly nostalgia for the time when I was still earnest myself? The record often feels a little like it’s straining against its own restraint, groping at new sounds and atmospheres and struggling to break free of the limitations of its own good pop manners. Perhaps it’s because I can see a bit of that in myself that it connects with me.
I’m not going to make any wild claims for Mission Completed as some neglected masterpiece, nor am I going to attempt to research its creators, because the truth is that I don’t really want to know: from the perspective of Mission Completed, even the iterations of Future World Orchestra performing the following year’s great and unexpectedly explicit anthem Captain Coke and Theme from E.T. are already so incomprehensibly alien that god alone knows where they went after that. I’m just going to hold it up as what I think it is: a charming collection of ironically elegiac pop songs, as frivolous as they are lovely.
Richard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.