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music scene in the late 1970's was an exciting and dynamic place to be.
Everyone was either in a band, in-between bands or were forming a band.
In the midst of all this activity was Eric's Club - a small discreet
venue that was a favoured haunt for the people who would later form
bands such as The Teardrop Explodes, Echo & The Bunnymen and
Frankie Goes To Hollywood. So it was quite apt that Eric's was the
venue of choice for the debut performance of Orchestral Manoeuvres In
The Dark in October 1978.
Founder members Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys
had originally been inspired by the experimental electronic music of
German bands such as Kraftwerk and Neu. Working with radio sets and
home made synthesisers, Humphreys and McCluskey christened themselves
VCLXI (after a valve diagram on the sleeve of Kraftwerk's Radioactivity
album) and began their own musical experiments. This, however, was
still a side project the pair indulged in on odd weekends while they
were active in local bands such as Equinox, Pegasus and The Id.
However, although they had gained a lot of experience from working in a
traditional band environment, it was never quite the creative platform
they were looking for. It was time for a new approach.
Naming themselves after an obscure VCLXI song, Humphreys and McCluskey launched their own unique style of catchy electronic melodies that helped form OMD's reputation for intelligent pop. Back then, to burden your band with such an unwieldy name as Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark might have seemed somewhat unwise, but the obvious commercial appeal of their music provoked enough interest that it eventually led to Factory Record's supremo Tony Wilson offering them the chance to cut their debut single 'Electricity' on the Factory label.
'Electricity' (and its flip side 'Almost') perfectly captured OMD's infectious blend of melody and melancholia. 'Electricity', with its frenetic dance rhythm, rapidly became OMD's theme song and maintained its status as a live favourite right into the 1990's. Attracting the interest of Virgin, OMD signed to their subsidiary label Din Disc in 1979. An advance from Din Disc enabled the band to plough the money into building their own studio (situated close to Eric's Club) where they could continue writing and recording new material. This included their self-titled debut album which was released the same year. After a brief period of touring, notably as support for Gary Numan, OMD quickly established themselves with a number of classic singles. 'Messages', with its simple but infectious melody, managed to get OMD into the public eye in 1980 by reaching No. 13 in the UK charts. Later the same year they made No. 8 and scored their first international hit with the dance pop of 'Enola Gay' - an up tempo number inspired by the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This bizarre style of wrapping pop songs around unusual ideas was something that OMD were to prove to be quite adept at throughout the band's career.
The success in 1980 helped OMD to rapidly become one of the UK's premier pop acts. Their initial use of extra personnel for live performances led to Humphreys and McCluskey recruiting people in the studio as well. After some initial line-up shuffles, the band soon established itself as a four piece outfit with the assistance of Martin Cooper (keyboards, saxophone) and Malcolm Holmes (drums) who were both friends from pre-OMD days.
OMD's third album, the ethereal 'Architecture and Morality' proved to be one of their finest moments. Blending choral effects and wistful melody the album produced three classic singles: 'Souvenir' with its bittersweet Humphreys vocal, the religiously inspired 'Joan Of Arc' and its epic follow-up 'Maid Of Orleans'. All three singles secured a top 5 chart position and by 1982 had turned OMD into household names and cover stars for Smash Hits.
With 3 hit albums and a string of million selling singles it seemed that the band had a Midas touch. It was about to desert them with the release of their most radical album to date.
The 1983 album 'Dazzle Ships' described a fractured futurist soundscape of ideas that drew on everything from East European radio broadcasts to industrial robots for influences. Although the album concealed some fine pop songs, its lack of critical and commercial success was perhaps responsible for OMD taking a more conservative approach in the future.
The album 'Junk Culture' from 1984 saw the band steering closer to a more traditional band approach. The instant pop of 'Tesla Girls', percussive dance flavour of 'Locomotion' and pastoral, dreamlike quality of Talking Loud And Clear proved that they could still deliver classic 3 minute pop songs, while retaining a flavour for the unusual.
Producer Stephen Hague was drafted in for the 1985 album 'Crush' and the subsequent 1986 album 'The Pacific Age'. Hague managed to give the songs on both albums a polished edge, while retaining an essential energy that was vital to the songs. Singles such as 'So In Love' and '(Forever) Live & Die' drew on OMD's flair for writing engaging melodies, while demonstrating that they were taking much more of a traditionalist approach to song production.
This period also saw the band touring extensively in North America and finally achieving the chart success that had eluded them for so long in the USA. 'If You Leave', specifically written for the John Hughes movie 'Pretty In Pink', was a huge success globally (although strangely not in the UK). However, the consistent schedule of touring took a toll on the band both professionally as well as personally and 'Dreaming', released in 1988, was to be the last single written by Humphreys and McCluskey.
OMD ended an era in 1989 with the departure of Humphreys, Holmes and Cooper leaving Andy McCluskey to forge ahead under the OMD banner. Teaming up with local Liverpool musicians Stuart Kershaw and Lloyd Massett, Andy continued writing and recording before releasing a new album Sugar Tax in 1991. It was a brash and dynamic approach that fused the classic OMD sound with a more mainstream 90's dance approach. 'Sugar Tax' managed to win over a lot of new converts, as well as the die-hard OMD enthusiast, with singles such as the spectacular 'Sailing On The Seven Seas' and the dance pop of 'Call My Name' and 'Pandora's Box' (a paean to silent movie star Louise Brooks). OMD capitalised on the success of 'Sugar Tax' with its 1993 follow-up 'Liberator'. This album saw OMD broadening their field of influences with the Barry White inspired 'Dream Of Me'.
Following the 'Liberator' tour, Andy McCluskey took some extended time off to reflect and consider OMD's future. Suitably refreshed, he begin writing again - taking a unique musical direction. The result of this work was premiered in 1996 with the release of a new single - the subtle and rhythmic 'Walking On The Milky Way' and the follow-up album 'Universal'. With its mix of ethereal ambience and epic production 'Universal' captured a sense of wistful mood that hinted at early OMD, yet still had a unique style and character that was very much its own.
From the beginning, OMD have managed to occupy that rare space between the alternative and the commercial, writing songs about such diverse subjects as airplanes, oil refineries, religious icons and movie stars. These songs capture perfectly the balance between energy and emotion; a pop melancholia that echoed around the walls of Eric's Club over twenty years ago and that still sounds fresh and exciting today.
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