Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
British pop band
The most famous band ever to come out of Liverpool, England may have been the Beatles. In the 1980s, however, the Liverpudlian group cranking out the most catchy pop hits was the synthesizer band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD). For most of its history, OMD was essentially atwo-man operation consisting of Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys. During its mid-1980s heyday, the duo recorded a string of commercial hits that put it among the elite of that period’s synthesizer-based, dance-friendly pop bands.
Friends since grade school, McCluskey and Humphreys began playing music together during the mid-1970s. Their earliest inspiration was the German electronic band Kraftwerk, which pioneered the use of synthesizers in popular music. McCluskey and Humphreys began noodling around with a collection of primitive electronic gear, and soon began creating original experimental music under the name VCL XI. Over the next few years, one or the other or both of them performed in a series of bands with such names as Hitlerz Underpantz, Dalek I Love You, and Equinox.
In 1977 McCluskey and Humphreys became part of an eight-piece band called The Id. The Id was heavily influenced by the emerging electronic music scene populated by such bands as Cabaret Voltaire and Human League. When The Id began to fizzle, McCluskey and Humphreys reformed as a duo under the most self-indulgent name they could thing of—Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Playing mostly material salvaged from The Id, OMD made its live debut in October of 1978 at a Liverpool club called Eric’s. In addition to its two human members, OMD’s third performer was a tape deck named Winston.
The novelty of OMD’s sound quickly caught the attention of Factory Records honcho Tony Wilson, who signed the band to its first record contract. OMD’s first recording was the single “Electricity,” released in May of 1979. The record sold out its first pressing in a couple of weeks, and received heavy radio play in Britain. It led to gigs with other emerging bands of post-punk England, including Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen, another band that awarded its drum machine full membership status. While touring in support of new waver Gary Numan, OMD was approached by Din-Disc, a new subsidiary of Virgin Records. They quickly signed with DinDisc, and used their advance money to build their own recording studio.
After a couple more fairly successful singles, OMD struck gold in 1980 with the single “Enola Gay,” which sold 2.5 million copies worldwide and reached the top of the charts all over Europe. The group’s debut album,
Members include Martin Cooper (left band in 1989), keyboards, saxophone; Malcolm Holmes (left band in 1989), drums; Paul Humphreys (born February 27, 1960, in Liverpool, England; left band in 1989), synthesizers, vocals; and Andy McCluskey (born June 24, 1959, in Liverpool, England), bass, synthesizers, vocals.
First live performance as Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark in Liverpool, October 1978; signed with Factory Records and released first single, “Electricity,” 1979; signed with Virgin Records, 1980; scored first major hit single, “EnolaGay,” 1980; broke up, 1989; resurrected by McCluskey with release of album Sugar Tax, 1991.
the self-titled Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and their follow up, Organisation, both released in 1980, were also big commercial successes. For the next two years, OMD was a fixture at the top of the singles charts, with a string of hits that included “Souvenir,” “Joan of Arc,” and “Maid of Orleans.” Meanwhile, the band replaced Winston with two human musicians, drummer Malcolm Holmes and keyboard/saxophonist Martin Cooper.
OMD’s 1981 album, Architecture & Morality, reflected a further refining of the band’s trademark sound, which combined a haunting electronically-generated atmosphere with the catchiest brand of pop melodies. Melody Maker magazine described the album as “the first true masterpiece of the Eighties.” OMD continued to be a prolific hit machine, scoring several hit singles and another four Top Twenty albums. The band’s 1983 LP Dazzle Ships, was a bit more experimental than its predecessor’s, to the dismay of some OMD fans. Almost unified enough to call a concept album, it contained such anti-pop elements as a spoken-word tape collage (“Time Zones”) and a piece that featured sounds of ship noises (the title track).
By the mid-1980s, many synth-based bands that had been clearly influenced by OMD, including Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, and Pet Shop Boys, had emerged. OMD scored its first American hits in 1985, with the singles “So in Love” and “Secret” from the album Crush. In 1986 the band was heard on the soundtrack for the popular film Pretty in Pink. By the time OMD’s 1986 album The Pacific Age came out, it was becoming clear that the band’s popularity had already peaked. Although the LP included a hit single in “Forever (Live and Die),” its critical reception was mixed at best. Writer Dave Castle called it “a weak epilogue” to the staling partnership between McCluskey and Humphreys.
In 1988 the band released The Best of OMD, and the following year, with internal tensions mounting, Humphreys left OMD to pursue other musical interests. Humphreys joined forces with old OMD associates Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper to form another band, called The Listening Pool, with Humphreys assuming the role frontman and chief songwriter. Meanwhile, McCluskey spent two years writing songs and assembling a new stable of young musicians, and in 1991 he dusted of the OMD name and emerged from the shadows with a new album, Sugar Tax, which featured the hit singles “Pandora’s Box” and “Sailing on Seven Seas.” Sugar Tax eventually sold more than two million copies worldwide, and it thrust OMD back into the spotlight after several years of stagnation.
Riding the momentum of Sugar Tax, and the hugely successful world tour that accompanied it, McCluskey returned in 1993 with Liberator, which, although touted as OMD’s most blatantly commercial offering, did not perform as well as its predecessor. “Liberafor picks up the musical thread of OMD’s mid-’80s synth-pop hits,” wrote Larry Flick of Billboard.
McCluskey and OMD came through with another album, Universal, in 1996. This recording included the single “Walking on the Milky Way,” which received fairly heavy radio play and fared respectably on the pop charts. Since OMD in its current form is essentially McCluskey’s solo operation, its life expectancy is exactly as long as his attention span—at least if loyal fans continue to buy OMD recordings at the levels they have in the past.
McCluskey’s fountain of pop hits certainly shows no sign of drying up. “My best songs come from me leaping off into the wild blue yonder,” he was quoted as saying in Billboard. “It’s like therapy. In my day-today life, I often steer clear from emotional confrontation. A lot of those tightly tucked feelings wind up in my songs. The challenge is to effectively place them into a three-minute pop tune.” For OMD, meeting that challenge has been a formula for lasting pop stardom and acclaim.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Virgin, 1980.
Organisation, Virgin, 1980.
Architecture & Morality, Virgin, 1981.
Dazzle Ships, Virgin, 1983.
Junk Culture, Virgin, 1984.
Crush, Virgin, 1985.
The Pacific Age, Virgin, 1986.
The Best of OMD, Virgin, 1988.
Sugar Tax, Virgin, 1991.
Liberator, Virgin, 1993.
Universal, Virgin, 1996.
Billboard, July 17, 1993
Creem, June 1982; July 1985.
Melody Maker, April 28, 1984.
Musician, October 1985.
Rolling Stone, August 29, 1985.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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