Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark - Biography
By Michael Keefe
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) were formed in 1978 by the core duo of singer Andy McCluskey and keyboardist Paul Humphreys. Using tape machines and synthesizers, McCluskey and Humphreys combined their passion for pop music with the more experimental electronic music of Kraftwerk, creating some of the earliest synthpop records. Gradually expanding to a quartet, the group issued a string of highly rated albums that charted quite well in the UK. By the mid-'80s, they found success in America, as well. After Humphreys departed in the late '80s, McCluskey continued on well into the next decade, but the quality of OMD's output suffered. However, the original quartet regrouped in the 2000s, playing live shows and receiving strong critical marks once again.
Singer Andrew (Andy) McCluskey and keyboardist Paul Humphreys met in primary school in the English town of Wirral, near Liverpool, and played together in several bands before forming Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) in 1978. That October, at Eric's Club in Liverpool, the duo played their first gig. In May 1979, OMD released their debut single, the pulsating, percolating, and poppy "Electricity," on the now legendary Factory label. That issue didn't chart, but the song hit #99 on the UK singles chart that September when it was re-released by Virgin subsidiary label DinDisc. That year, the McCluskey and Humphreys began recording their debut album at the Gramophone Suite in Liverpool.
Released the following February, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (1980 DinDisc/Virgin) announced the presence of a great new band with its signature sound already firmly in place. Tracks such as opener "Bunker Soldier" and "Electricity" feature delectable arpeggios from Humphrey's sequencers, while McCluskey's low tenor croons over the top. On the lighter numbers, he sounds at one with the New Romantic movement of the time (Spandau Ballet, Ultravox, etc.). On the far moodier "Julia's Song," he channels the pathos of the post-punk scene. The album also features odder and more ambient pieces, like "The Messerschmitt Twins" and the warbly "Dancing." Still, it was the sweet and dreamy "Messages" that won over listeners. Released that May, the single went all the way to #13 in England and also made the US dance charts.
In October of 1980, OMD continued their rush of success with their excellent sophomore LP, Organisation (1980 DinDisc/Virgin). Drummer Malcolm Holmes and saxophonist Martin Cooper had contributed occasionally to the first album, but were full-fledged members by the time the group recorded their second and even more confident album. Advance single and leadoff track "Enola Gay" went Top 10 in England and was a hit all across Europe. The live drums mixed with programmed percussion gave the atomic bomb-themed song a propulsive energy. Appropriately, "2nd Thought" is more pensive, while "Motion and Heart" glides by on an easy shuffle. OMD re-introduced their darker side on "The Misunderstanding," an alienating and sooty track that prefigures the direction Depeche Mode would take a few years later. Despite just the one single and less emphasis on a pop feel, Organisation reached #6 in England.
OMD's greatest achievement would come one year later, though, album number three, the brilliant Architecture & Morality (1981 DinDisc/Virgin). From the first track, the distinctly more chaotic and aggressive "The New Stone Age," it's clear that OMD had evolved. They didn't leave behind their trademark sound, though. Rather, they expanded their repertoire, and with terrific results. Nostalgia-inducing first single "Souvenir" is almost unbearably lovely. Its winning melody carried the song to #3 in England. With its elegant string pad and insidious hook, "Joan of Arc" followed at #5, while its 3/4-time companion, "Maid of Orleans," hit #4 in the UK. Meanwhile, album tracks like the nearly eight-minute "Sealand" showed off the group's growing compositional skills. It all comes together on Architecture & Morality. The LP reached #3 in England and earned the band their debut presence on the Billboard 200 at #144. It's also has remained a favorite with today's critics, receiving 4.5 stars from AMG (All Music Guide) and an 8.7/10 from Pitchfork.
OMD experimented further with their fourth full-length, Dazzle Ships (1983 DinDisc/Virgin). It begins with the musique-concréte of "Radio Prague," signaling strangeness ahead. "Genetic Engineering" features ringing guitars, a new sound for the group, and it hit #20 on the UK charts. "ABC Auto-Industry" and "Dazzle Ships (Parts II, III & IV)" offer more intriguing sound collages. The head-bopping "Telegraph" most closely followed the group's early blueprint for singles releases, although its peculiar mix kept it to #42. Still, what didn't quite work on pop radio fit in well on OMD's boldest album to date, and both the public and critics responded quite positively. The LP's received many high many marks and reached #5 in England. In the US, though, the band continued to be a cult phenomenon, managing only #162 on Billboard.
OMD went bigger and brighter on album number five, Junk Culture (1984 A&M). Thanks to a wide sonic palette offered by the band's new Fairlight synth, the group made a giant leap toward a more accessible, radio-friendly sound. Unfortunately, this sheen doesn't suit OMD terribly well. UK Top 5 single "Locomotion" is trite and annoying, and #21 "Tesla Girls" is almost too instant in its catchiness. The rest of the album is hit or miss. Largely, some good material is hampered by the excess of production. Regardless, the album hit #9 in the UK and #182 in the US.
OMD finally broke big in America with their next album, Crush (1985 A&M). With live horns (from Graham and Neil Weir) and more of a traditional band sound, it makes sense that the LP landed better on the ears of US record buyers, who took the album to #38 on the Billboard 200. The group also made the US Top 40 with the floating, croon-heavy "So in Love." Although they were still popular in England, Crush and its singles didn't chart as well as its predecessors. This despite a solid array of songs that marked a return to experimental pop, although no longer with a synthpop feel. OMD's popularity on either side of the Atlantic continued to shift with "If You Leave," their single from the soundtrack to the John Hughes film, Pretty in Pink (1986 A&M). It shot up to #4 in America, but earned a meager #48 spot in the UK. That same year, the band issued their seventh full-length, The Pacific Age (1986 A&M). A solid album, it nonetheless lacked a terrific lead single, although the lovely "(Forever) Live and Die" did go Top 20 in both the UK and the US. The LP, which bore a similar synth-rock hybrid feel, is enjoyable from start to finish, but somewhat less memorable than OMD's other releases.
Two years later, OMD released their first compilation, The Best of OMD (1988 A&M), a chronological offering of their singles, including a new song, "Dreaming," which plateaued at #50 in England but made #16 in America. They toured for the album in the US, opening for Depeche Mode in large venues. Despite the group's continued success, OMD split in 1989. Humphreys, Holmes, and Cooper formed The Listening Pool, and released one album, Still Life (1994 Telegraph). Meanwhile, McCluskey recruited keyboardist Lloyd Massett and drummer Stuart Kershaw for a re-tooled OMD. Two years after OMD appeared to be through, this new outfit released Sugar Tax (1991 Virgin). With a return to a more straightforward synthpop sound that also reflected the more contemporary ideas of the Pet Shop Boys, OMD reversed the trends of the later '80s bands and climbed back up to #3 on the UK album charts. The record failed to chart in America, despite the obvious charms of UK #3 single "Sailing on the Seven Seas," which reached only the dance chart in the US. Massett soon departed, however, and was replaced by keyboardists Phil Coxon and Nigel Ipinson.
The success of this new version of OMD was short-lived, however. Each of their next two albums, Liberator (1993 Virgin) and Universal (1996 Virgin), was less popular than the last, and deservedly so. McCluskey, it seemed, lacked the creative spark he had when working with his old bandmates (including Massett, it would seem). After that, OMD seemed to just fade out of existence. In the early 2000s, however, remastered reissues of their early albums brought about renewed interest in the band. With a new wave revival happening, and bolstered by very favorable reviews from online indie tastemakers, Pitchfork, OMD became hip to a new generation of music fans. In early 2006, the classic line-up of McCluskey, Humphreys, Cooper, and Holmes reunited and began performing again, playing Architecture & Morality in its entirety, along with a sampling of hits. This live show was captured to CD and DVD for Live: Architecture & Morality & More (2008 Eagle). The band sounded revitalized on this album, adding extra warmth and sonic punch to their old songs.
Though a new studio album is rumored to be in the works, it hasn't surfaced thus far. Still, it's heartening for music fans to have the classic OMD line-up together again. They are synthpop originators and gifted pop songwriters, inspiring legions of keyboard-based acts and leaving an impressive body of work in their wake.