Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) are an English electronic band formed in Wirral, Merseyside in 1978. Spawned by earlier group The Id, the outfit is composed of co-founders Andy McCluskey (vocals, bass guitar) and Paul Humphreys(keyboards, vocals), along with Martin Cooper (various instruments) and Stuart Kershaw (drums); McCluskey is the only constant member.
OMD released their debut single, “Electricity“, in 1979, and gained popularity throughout Europe with the 1980 anti-war song “Enola Gay“. The band achieved broader recognition via their album Architecture & Morality (1981) and its three singles, all of which were international hits.
Although retrospectively reappraised, the experimental Dazzle Ships (1983) eroded European support. The band embraced a more straightforward pop sound on Junk Culture (1984), while continuing to experiment via newly acquired digital samplers; this change in direction led to greater success in the United States, and yielded the 1986 hit, “If You Leave“.
A year after the release of The Best of OMD (1988), creative differences rendered McCluskey the only remaining member of the group as Humphreys formed spin-off band The Listening Pool. OMD would return with a new line-up and explore the dance-pop genre: Sugar Tax (1991) and its initial singles were sizeable hits. By the mid 1990s, however, electronic music had been supplanted by alternative rock, and both OMD and The Listening Pool disbanded in 1996. McCluskey later conceived pop girl group Atomic Kitten, for whom he served as a principal songwriter, while Humphreys performed as half of the duo Onetwo.
In 2006, the outfit reformed with Humphreys back in the fold, and began to work on material more akin to their early output. The band re-established themselves as a chart act, and kept on touring extensively.
Founders Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys met at primary school in Meols in the early 1960s, and in the mid-1970s, as teenagers, they were involved in different local groups but shared a distaste for guitar driven rock with a macho attitude popular among their friends at the time.
By 1975 McCluskey had formed Equinox, as bassist and vocalist, alongside schoolmate Malcolm Holmes on drums, while Humphreys was their roadie. During that time McCluskey and Humphreys discovered their electronic style influenced by Kraftwerk. After Equinox, McCluskey joined Pegasus, and, later, the short-lived Hitlerz Underpantz, alongside Humphreys. McCluskey would usually sing and play bass guitar; roadie and electronics enthusiast Humphreys graduated to keyboards. The pair shared a love of electronic music, particularly Brian Eno and Kraftwerk.
In September 1977, McCluskey and Humphreys put together the seven-piece (three singers, two guitarists, bassist, drummer, and keyboard player) Wirral group The Id, whose line-up included drummer Malcolm Holmes and McCluskey’s girlfriend Julia Kneale on vocals. The group began to gig regularly in the Merseyside area, performing original material (largely written by McCluskey and Humphreys). They had quite a following on the scene, and one of their tracks (“Julia’s Song”) was included on a compilation record of local bands called Street to Street.
Meanwhile, Humphreys and McCluskey collaborated on a side-project called VCL XI (named after a misreading of a valve from the diagram on the back cover of Kraftwerk‘s Radio-Activity album; the name of valve is actually written with Arabic numbers, VCL 11, and not Roman numerals). This side-project allowed them to pursue their more bizarre electronic experiments, often working with tape collages, home-made kit-built synthesisers, and circuit-bent radios.
In August 1978, The Id split due to musical differences. The same month, McCluskey joined Wirral electronic outfit Dalek I Love You as their lead singer, but quit in September.
In September 1978, the same month he left Dalek I Love You, McCluskey rejoined Humphreys and their VCL XI project was renamed Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. The name was gleaned from a list of song lyrics and ideas that were written on McCluskey’s bedroom wall; the name was chosen so as not to be mistaken for a punk band.
OMD began to gig regularly as a duo, performing to backing tracks played from a TEAC 4-track tape-recorder christened “Winston” (after the antihero of George Orwell‘s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four). Their debut performance was in October 1978 at Eric’s Club in Liverpool. Finding themselves on the cusp of an electronic new wave in British pop-music, they released a one-off single, “Electricity”, with independent label Factory Records. The track was supposed to be produced by the Factory Records producer Martin Hannett. However, the A-side was the band’s original demo produced by their friend, owner of Winston and soon to be manager, Paul Collister under the pseudonym Chester Valentino (taken from a nightclub called Valentino’s in the nearby city of Chester). The single’s sleeve was designed by Peter Saville, whose distinctive graphics provided OMD’s public image well into the mid-1980s.
In 1979 they were asked to support Gary Numan on his first major British tour. Humphreys noted, “[Numan] gave us our first big break. He saw us opening for Joy Division and he asked us to go on tour with him… we went from the small clubs to playing huge arenas. Gary was very good to us.” Numan later supported OMD on a 1993 arena tour.
The eponymous first album (1980) showcased the band’s live set at the time, and was basically recorded by the Humphreys/McCluskey duo, although included some guest drums from Id drummer Malcolm Holmes, and saxophone from Wirral musician Martin Cooper. It had a simple, raw, poppy, melodic synth-pop sound. Dindisc arranged for the song “Messages” to be re-recorded (produced by Gong bassist Mike Howlett) and released as a single (right) – this gave the band their first hit. Dave Hughes, a founder member of Dalek I Love You who joined OMD in early 1980, is featured in the “Messages” video.
A tour followed, Winston the tape recorder was augmented with live drums from Malcolm Holmes, and Dalek I Love You‘s Dave Hughes on synths. Hughes then left OMD in November 1980, replaced by Martin Cooper.
The second album Organisation (a reference to the band which preceded Kraftwerk, founded by Kraftwerk’s original members Florian Schneider-Esleben and Ralf Hütter) followed later that year, recorded as a three-piece with Humphreys, McCluskey and Holmes. It was again produced by Howlett, and had a rather moodier, dark feel. The album spawned the hit single “Enola Gay“, named after the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The song was intended to be included on the debut album, but was left out at the final selection. The tour for this album had a 4-piece band line-up, with saxophonist Martin Cooper (another Dalek I Love You alumnus) recruited for keyboard duties. In early 1981, Record Mirror named OMD as the fourth-best band of 1980; NME and Sounds both named the group as one of the 10 best new acts of that year.
Howlett then presided over the recording of a further hit single, “Souvenir“, co-written by Cooper & Humphreys. It ushered in a lush choral electronic sound. The song also became OMD’s biggest UK hit to date. In November 1981, their most commercially successful album was released in the UK and Europe – Architecture & Morality. The group went into the studio with Richard Mainwaring producing. Cooper then temporarily dropped out and was replaced by Mike Douglas, but this change was reversed by the time the album was released and a tour embarked upon. The album’s sound saw OMD’s original synth-pop sound augmented by the Mellotron, an instrument previously associated with prog rock bands. They used it to add very atmospheric swatches of string, choir and other sounds to their palette. Two more hit singles “Joan of Arc” and “Maid of Orleans” (which became the biggest-selling single of 1982 in Germany) were taken from the album. “Joan of Arc” and “Maid of Orleans” were originally both titled “Joan of Arc”; the name of the latter single was changed at the insistence of the publishers and to avoid confusion. It became “Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)” and later simply “Maid of Orleans”.
In 1983 the band lost commercial momentum somewhat, with the release of their more experimental Dazzle Ships album, which mixed melancholy synth ballads and uptempo synth-pop with musique concrète and short wave radio tape collages. It was recorded by the 4-piece Humphreys/Holmes/Cooper/McCluskey line-up, and produced by Rhett Davies. Its relative commercial failure caused a crisis of confidence for Humphreys and McCluskey and brought about a deliberate move towards the mainstream.
1984’s Junk Culture was a shift to a more pop-style sound and the band used digital sampling keyboards such as the Fairlight CMI and the E-mu Emulator. The album was a success, reassuring the group about their new direction. The “Locomotion” single returned the group to the top five in the UK and was a good indicator of the group’s new found sound, notably the adoption of a classic verse–chorus form, which is something the group had often previously avoided. In 1985, the band expanded to a sextet, featuring new band members Graham Weir (guitar, keyboards, trombone) and Neil Weir (trumpet, bass guitar), and released Crush, produced by Stephen Hague in Paris and New York. The success of the single “So in Love” in the US Billboard Hot 100 also led to some success for the LP which entered the American Top 40, establishing the group in the US and making Stephen Hague a sought-after producer.
Later in 1985 the band was asked to write a song for the John Hughes film Pretty in Pink. They selected “Goddess of Love.” The ending of the film was re shot. After the song received a negative reaction from test groups, OMD wrote “If You Leave” in less than 24 hours and it became a huge hit in Australia, the US and Canada where it reached the Top 5. The same six piece line-up also released The Pacific Age in 1986, but the band began to see their critical and public popularity wane in the UK while they failed to capitalise upon their breakthrough in the US market. The Pacific Age contained the UK No. 11 hit single, “(Forever) Live & Die” and other notable single releases, “Shame” and “We Love You.” The success of “If You Leave” has concealed from US audiences the group’s history of making innovative music.
During 1988 the band appeared poised to consolidate their US success, with a support slot for Depeche Mode‘s Music for the Masses Tour at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on 18 June 1988, a top 20 US hit with “Dreaming” and a successful “Best of” album. However, it was at this point when OMD broke in two. Graham and Neil Weir left at the end of the 1988 US tour and co-founder Paul Humphreys subsequently called it a day, unhappy with the band’s commercial orientation. Finally, Cooper and Holmes left OMD to join Humphreys in founding a new band called The Listening Pool in 1989.
This left only McCluskey to carry on, essentially becoming a solo artist working under the OMD banner. McCluskey’s first album from the new OMD was the dance-pop Sugar Tax LP in May 1991, which charted at No. 3 in the UK. McCluskey recruited in 1989 Liverpool musicians Raw Unlimited (aka Lloyd Massett, Stuart Kershaw and Nathalie Loates) as collaborators for the making of Sugar Tax: writing credits carefully distinguished between songs written by OMD (i.e., McCluskey) and songs written by OMD/Kershaw/Massett. This iteration of the group was initially successful with hits like “Sailing on the Seven Seas” and “Pandora’s Box“, with lesser success on fellow chart entries, “Call My Name” and “Then You Turn Away“. McCluskey’s live band was then formed by Nigel Ipinson (keyboards), Phil Coxon (keyboards) and Abe Juckes (drums) since late 1990. Kershaw, Ipinson and Coxon from 1992 to 1996 contributed to OMD albums and a 1993 tour
- 80s Studio albums
- Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (1980)
- Organisation (1980)
- Architecture & Morality (1981)
- Dazzle Ships (1983)
- Junk Culture (1984)
- Crush (1985)
- The Pacific Age (1986)