Souvenir: An OMD Retrospective
Listen to the playlist on one of the following services while reading along.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark roll into Toronto this week and I’ll be seeing them for the second time. They’re a band I knew well from my youth but lost touch with them over the past twenty years, so this write-up is a mix of reflection and learning about their career.
- Enola Gay
- The Misunderstanding
- Joan of Arc
- Radio Waves
- Talking Loud and Clear
- So In Love
- If You Leave
- (Forever) Live and Die
- We Love You
- Sailing on the Seven Seas
- Call My Name
- Stand Above Me
- Walking on the Milky Way
- History of Modern, Pt. 1
- The Future Will Be Silent
- As We Open, So We Close
- Kiss Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Bang
OMD is one of the more intriguing acts of the new wave era. They were pioneers of the electronic, synth-based music of the time that managed to blend stark, experimental music with unabashed pop tunes. As a result, they were one of the few acts to break through to widespread success, though as with many of the new wave bands never crested the top of the mountain. Their stop this week will be two shows at The Danforth Music Hall (better than the single show they pulled last time in town) and not one of the larger venues in the city, indicative that while influential and popular, remain largely a smaller act in the history of pop music, especially in North America.
I try to make these playlists less a compilation of singles and hits and more a thoughtful introduction to all aspects of a band. OMD is a challenge since their availability in streaming services has some gaps and because their album cuts are generally not as strong, or more atmospheric fillers that wouldn’t fit well in the playlist. Therefore more than most this playlist, certainly for the early years, is a hit list. But that doesn’t do it any harm, there’s still lots to explore.
OMD was formed by a duo from Merseyside, England that wouldn’t have seemed obviously destined to be pop starts. Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys had known each other since they were children, and by the mid-1970s Humphreys was the roadie for McCluskey’s rock band, Equinox. Influenced by German synth pioneers, Kraftwerk, and ex-glam and by then leading experimenter of electronic soundscapes, Brian Eno, the pair were drawn into electronics and tried their hand at a couple of different bands that startled to dabble with those sounds, though still mixing with traditional rock and pop instruments. McCluskey sang and played bass and Humphreys was on keyboards. After a few minor successes with a couple of different bands, parting and then coming together again, the duo finally settled-in together in late 1978, shifting completely to electronics for their sound. They named themselves Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark after a lyric McCluskey had written, the appeal of which was to not sound like a punk band; and with that they’d succeeded in coming up with one of the more pretentious and least used monikers in music history, forever to be known as just OMD. Not officially of course, but who is ever going to say that mouthful of syllables when referring to a band?
Electricity; Messages \ Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (1980)
OMD debuted in 1978 in Liverpool and in 1979 released its first single, “Electricity,” on emergent indie label, Factory Records. It was a great debut with a catchy melody riding a shimmering synth line and propelled by Paul’s bassline. The song wouldn’t catch on but an opening slot on Gary Numan’s tour helped to spread the word.
The first, self-titled, album followed on label Dindisc and was promoted by a new single, “Messages.” I go on at length about this song in my new wave write-up, so I’ll just reiterate here what a brilliant song this is. It gained them their first chart success, reaching #13 in the UK and helping the album get to #27. It is a consummate album of the early, post-punk new wave scene, dominated by synths and packed with quirky sounds, atmospheric moods, and tunes that would both draw you in with great melodies or push you away with experimental and avante garde constructions.
Enola Gay; The Misunderstanding \ The Organisation (1980)
Later the same year their second album would be released, again on Dindisc. Drummer Malcolm Holmes was brought on, who had played in prior bands with the duo as well as on “Julia’s Song” on the first album. The use of drums to pair with McCluskey’s bass would help warm up the band’s sound. The single, “Enola Gay,” was another impeccable pop song built on simple synths and would give them their first top ten single.
The album’s artwork was done by Peter Saville, who did many Factory artists’ designs including Joy Division. OMD was influenced by that music and this album reflects that, filled with darker, unsettling songs such as “The Misunderstanding” (YouTube playlist only). After the lead-off from “Enola Gay,” the rest of the album doesn’t venture much back to that pop sound. Despite the less accessible sound, clearly the reputation of the band was growing along with the acceptance of synth music, and the album managed to reach #6 in the UK.
Souvenir; Joan of Arc \ Architecture & Morality (1981)
I love the title of this album, even though it matches the pretentiousness of the band name (it was suggested by Martha Ladly from Martha and the Muffins and a then girlfriend to Peter Hook of Joy Division). This was the album I first caught on to the band, though it was a few years later and as usual because it was in my brother’s record collection. One of my favourite memories as a young teen was walking to school early one morning after a big, overnight snowfall. Everything was white and pristine, and I walked with my Walkman and headphones in my ears listening to this album. The sound of “She’s Leaving” while walking in a winter wonderland was affecting. The sparse construction, light sounds of the song, and subtle melodies perfectly matched the whitewashed and shimmering landscape. It was not often I was blissful when walking to school.
More than the first two albums, this one came together start to finish and made for a complete work of art. More in control of their equipment and what they wanted from it, the duo seemed more self-assured and purposeful. The permanent addition of former occasional guest, Martin Cooper, on sax, helped broaden their sound. The album’s experimental and varied sounds were balanced with the beautiful melodies resulting in both stark soundscapes as well as lush, hook-filled tunes. It is OMD’s greatest work and the perfection of their sound, and one of the landmark albums of the synth-pop era.
“Souvenir” provided a perfect example of the album’s pop sound. It was a song written and sung by Humphreys that took some convincing to get McCluskey onside, who felt the melody was too saccharine. “Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)” was a monumental song, and paired with its slightly more pop-sounding partner, the single “Joan of Arc,” the two provided an incredible balance of pop and art, sparse and full, bleak and lush. The approach proved successful as the album reached #3 in the UK, which remains their highest chart achievement. It would also catch minor attention in the US, reaching #144 on the album chart. The three singles all went top ten in the UK, though the band would never be able to snag a #1 single.
Telegraph; Radio Waves \ Dazzle Ships (1983)
From an artistic point of view, you have to respect that after the achievement of Architecture & Morality the band would next release one of their most experimental albums. From a commercial perspective, it was ill-advised and set the band back in career terms, and probably didn’t ingratiate themselves with their new label, Virgin Records, where they would remain for the next thirteen years. The singles would not chart very highly but the album would get to #5, no doubt riding on their reputation and prior success. From a creative standpoint, it served to provide an intriguing and memorable album of the genre, continuing to place OMD at the vanguard of electronic music.
The lead single, “Genetic Engineering,” is a noisy song lacky melody and gives the listener little to grab onto. The second single, “Telegraph,” was more in keeping with their pop sound but didn’t chart well after the album had likely alienated a chunk of their fan base. Similar to the deeper tracks of the first three albums, this album brings the cooler, bleaker elements of their electronics to the fore. For those that appreciate electronic music and the breadth of experimentation and moods it can achieve, this is a strong album with much to appreciate. The last song, “Of All the Things We’ve Made,” is a lovely and hypnotic song with a repetitive guitar riff throughout, altering their sound from the usual synths. The album was a compelling evolution for the band and has influenced many artists, despite it’s lack of commercial appeal over the years.
Locomotion; Talking Loud and Clear \ Junk Culture (1984)
OMD returned to its electro-pop sound with their fifth album. Although with the dramatic opener of the title track, that might not have been immediately obvious. However, the second song and first single, “Locomotion,” made it clear this was a more accessible and fun OMD. Riding a rhythm that conveys the feeling of riding a train, it’s a clever pop song that once again revealed the duo’s ability to catch a hook.
The second single was a subtler song, “Talking Loud and Clear,” that provided one of the more subdued singles to the band’s’ discography. This was immediately offset by the third single, an unabashed pop song, “Tesla Girls.” For some, and over time myself included, this was an off-putting song that had no place in the band’s repertoire, given the high-pitched wail of the repetitive “Tesla Girls” lyric. Yet it is very catchy and undoubtedly helped build their following. Junk Culture would be the fourth consecutive top ten album and “Locomotion” would be another top ten single.
So In Love; Secret \ Crush (1985)
Opting not to alternate with another experimental record, the band decided to move further into the pop sound with an album geared to the broadening electro-pop movement in the US. Stephen Hague was hired to produce. Ironically they would suffer a bit in the UK, only reaching #13 with this album and ending their top ten streak, but reach #38 in the US, the first time they would crack the top 100. It is a nice example of the differences in preferences between the two music markets, and a dynamic I’ve noted often in my write-ups – that when a UK act changes its sound to win in North America, it tends to lose ground in their native land.
The first two singles from the album, “So in Love” and “Secret,” would do well, with both being the first two for them to break into the top 100 in the US. The album loses most of the atmospheric and sparse compositions of their earlier albums, relying more consistently on their accessible melodies and lighter synth sound.
If You Leave \ Pretty in Pink Soundtrack (1986)
(Forever) Live and Die; We Love You \ The Pacific Age (1986)
As he did for so many new wave artists of the 1980s, John Hughes recruited OMD to provide a single for one of his movies. Pretty in Pink may have been standard, teen flick fare in movie terms, and another big hit for Hughes, but its soundtrack stands tall in terms of promoting previously overlooked artists, especially from the UK. The OMD single, “If You Leave,” would be the band’s first and only top ten single in the US. It doubles down on the smooth synth-pop sound of “So in Love” and delivers an appealing and safe song. Any remnants of the band’s earlier, experimental self seemed gone.
The album that followed, The Pacific Age, again produced by Hague, was consistent with their new, global-pop sound. “(Forever) Live and Die” was admittedly one of their most polished and lovely pop songs, getting the most out of their harmonizing vocals, synths, and sax. The band’s fuller sound was a result of an expansion to a six-piece lineup, with Graham and Neil Weir added on horns and additional keyboards. The following singles, “We Love You,” and “Shame,” didn’t chart well and belied the general weakness of the album. In achieving a safer pop sound the album lacked energy, personality, and any distinctiveness that OMD once had as artists. In those days alternative artists would be accused of ‘selling out,’ which suggested a compromise in one’s artistic aims and a calculated design towards commercial – read ‘dull’ – output. This album seemed the very definition of that notion.
Dreaming \ The Best of OMD (1988)
OMD capitalized on their growing success stateside with a greatest hits compilation, The Best of OMD, in 1988. It included a new single, “Dreaming,” that made it to #16 in the US, but again underwhelmed in the UK only getting to #50. The album however, reached #2 in the UK and #46 in the US, their best peak position in the UK and second best in the US after Crush. “Dreaming” was once again a very pop- and dance-oriented song, with a steady beat, harmonies, and simple synths. Comparing this song to something like “The Misunderstanding” makes it hard to believe this was the same band.
Paul Humphreys seemed to think this too and was unhappy with the musical direction of OMD. Despite their new success the band started to come apart. The Weirs left at the end of the 1988 US tour and then Paul called it quits in 1989. Cooper and Holmes then joined him to form a new band, The Listening Pool, in 1989.
Sailing on the Seven Seas; Call My Name \ Sugar Tax (1991)
Stand Above Me; Christine \ Liberator (1993)
Walking on the Milky Way \ Universal (1996)
Andy McCluskey decided to carry on under the OMD name despite being the only remaining member. His first release was the album, Sugar Tax. McCluskey’s knack for melody and pop held the OMD sound in stead but now fully embraced a dance approach more than the edgier feel of the early albums. He was rewarded with an album that reached #3 in the UK, equalling Architecture & Morality as the highest charting OMD release. The singles “Sailing on the Seven Seas” and “Pandora’s Box (It’s a Long, Long Way)” were both top ten UK singles. Oddly, given the pop-dance nature of the album, neither the songs nor the album charted in the US, effectively ending OMD’s career in North America and entrenching them forever as an 80s band.
McCluskey would go on to release two more albums in the 1990s with his new line-up. Humphreys actually co-wrote one song on the Liberator album, but otherwise OMD remained ostensibly a solo act for McCluskey (though his band members would be given writing credits for their contributions to the music). The sound remained firmly entrenched in the pop and dance style. Synths remained prominent though with modern technology the sound could be warmer and more polished, which made for nice songs but ultimately a less engaging sound. They are pleasant and solid albums to listen to, especially if you like the synth-dance sound, which in the 90s had established a solid place in the music world despite the rise of grunge and the trippy sounds of Madchester and rave/trance/acid house music. For me, “Christine” is the only song that rises to a relative quality of the earlier work.
Only one of the singles from the two albums would crack the top 20 in the UK, “Walking on the Milky Way.” Liberator reached #14 to be the eighth consecutive top 20 album in the UK, but Universal only reached #24, making it the least successful album since the debut. In terms of overall sales though, neither would reach Gold status in the UK, making the albums overall the worst selling under the OMD name to date. In the face of these declining results, Andy decided to retire the OMD name.
History of Modern, Pt. 1; Sometimes \ History of Modern (2010)
Humphreys and McClusky stayed busy in the 2000s playing with different acts, producing, and touring with the OMD material. A request to perform for the German television show, Night of the Proms, in 2006 led the duo to reform (check out this decent documentary on the band, which was done on the occasion of this reunion). Joined by Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper the original line-up from their early albums was restored. They first toured and released a complete performance of Architecture & Morality, along with a live album and DVD of the performance, and then did a performance with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2009.
In 2010 they released their first album in 24 years with both Humphreys and McCluskey as principal songwriters. The album, History of Modern, announced a return to their earlier sound with the lead song, “New Babies; New Toys,” which led with an edgy and forceful bassline that seemed to renounce the dance-pop sound of the late 80s and 90s. However there was still lots of pop-synth sound on the album, but not quite as smoothed over. Part one of the title track shows how this came together. The song, “Sometimes” reveals OMD has a modern synth act with a slightly groovier, almost soulful sound that also permeated several other songs, such as “Save Me.” A song like “Pulse” lessened the pop format for a modern, techno-R&B blend. It was a decent return for the band and the album reached #28 in the UK, which while being the worst charting album for the album was still pretty good after a fourteen year absence (or more if you discount the McCluskey solo years). The first singles, “If You Want It” and “Sister Marie Says” charted very low in the UK and would be the last to see the charts for the band, struggling as most older acts do these days to find space in the modern music universe.
The Future will be Silent; Dresden \ English Electric (2013)
As We Open, So We Close; Kiss Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Bang \ The Punishment of Luxury (2017)
Two more albums have been released by OMD in the past few years. English Electric was a good album, mixing their pop-synth sound with some of the experimentation and variety that marked their earlier work. They returned the use of the short, interlude songs that often brought some of their moodiest moments on their album; on this album they were digitally voiced compositions. It was probably their best album since Crush or maybe even Dazzle Ships.
The Punishment of Luxury, which shares the name of a great UK punk band from the late 70s and early 80s, is a return to a more synth-pop sound. It’s taken a few listens for me to warm up to it but overall I don’t think it’s a very strong LP. I notice more of a political bent to the lyrics, which is new. This is especially evident in the song, “Kiss Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Bang.” The album was led by several singles released last year. The lead single was “Isotype,” a song that seems to tip its hat to some Kraftwerk influences but ultimately settles into an uninspiring synth-pop tune. The second single was the title track, and it’s a bland, techno-pop song with the usual Auto-Tuned vocals that seem to infiltrate every song these days. The album gets stronger as it goes, but ultimately never grabs your ear. I find the album keeps ending and I realize I’ve stopped paying attention to it many songs ago.
OMD now relies on touring to make a living, as do all musical acts in contemporary times, though to their credit they also produce new music to carry them along. My wife and I saw them in July 2013. The Danforth Music Hall that night was sweltering on a hot, humid Toronto evening and with a packed crowd inside with either none, or inadequate, air conditioning. Within minutes my t-shirt was soaked and it was very uncomfortable all evening. Andy McCluskey, however, gave it all he had, buoyantly bouncing around the stage in his awkward, gangly dance style. Nearing the end of the main set the band paused between songs and then announced they needed a few minutes, leaving the stage. About ten minutes later McCluskey returned to announce that Malcolm, who had undergone a bypass surgery a few years earlier, was feeling unwell and they were going to stop the show. As we exited the building an ambulance pulled up and a stretcher was rushed down the alley next to the building. In the days following it would come to light that Malcolm’s heart had stopped once he was backstage and was thankfully resuscitated. He would recover but understandably retire from performing. The rest of OMD’s tour was cancelled. Therefore we will venture out this week looking forward to a show in which hopefully the only memories will be of the music and the celebration of a band with a long and successful career. And yes, The Danforth Music Hall subsequently improved the air conditioning and we haven’t noticed anything close to a repeat of the sauna-like conditions of that evening, though it can still be a pretty warm room when it’s full.
OMD is a band that enjoyed ground breaker status, a solid period of commercial success as one of the leading synth-pop acts of the 1980s, and now is continuing to explore the sounds and technology they helped pioneer. They had a penchant for great melodies and could blend the more esoteric reaches of their sound with catchy hooks and accessible tunes. They should not be dismissed as a simple pop band or as basic keyboard players, Humphreys and McCluskey managed to forge new ground with limited and unreliable technology in its earliest forms and create brilliant songs, displaying a creativity and talent that built a well-regarded legacy. They also produced one of the most seminal albums of their generation with Architecture & Morality, which showed synth music could be beautiful, expansive, and artistic. This band has a little something for everyone, whether you appreciate the nerdy, intellectual posture of ‘Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’ or the accessible and friendly face of ‘OMD.’