Moving from electronic tape experiments to highly polished synthesizer pop and beyond, Liverpudlians Andy McCluskey (bass/vocals/keyboards) and synthesist Paul Humphreys (with other fulltime members, including — very significantly — a corporeal acoustic drummer) were among the most successful practitioners of electro-pop, as first demonstrated by a delightful string of singles. They proved early on that electronics were capable of interacting comfortably with regular rock instruments and not chill the mood. Abandoning their formula after two albums, however, OMD proved capable of far more ambitious creations not tied to the apron strings of technology.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark is a demonstration of stylish electro-pop. Aided by Dalek I’s Andy Gill, McCluskey and Humphreys build the songs up from computer-generated rhythms, polishing the synthesizer song into a full-bodied medium. Thanks to a knack for melodies and hooks, notable attractions are the catchy “Electricity” and “Messages.”
Organisation (which originally included an excellent bonus single of early tape experiments and live tracks) introduces drummer Malcolm Holmes and ethereal synthesizer techniques that suit the depressive subject matter of “Enola Gay” and the like. It also pays attention to ensure variation in the tunes, a problem that mars the first LP. With nods to John Foxx and David Bowie, OMD overlays melodies to dramatic effect; the performances are excellent.
O.M.D. is an American condensation of the band’s first two British albums, including both catchy OMD standards, “Enola Gay” and “Electricity.” Recommended.
Architecture & Morality struggles with new techniques, and includes two magnificent, ethereal hit singles: “Souvenir” and “Joan of Arc.” OMD is again experimenting with sound and much of the album sounds more naturalistic than electronic. An intriguing and highly inventive use of the technology.
The conceptual Dazzle Ships overreaches by a mile, succumbing to excessive found-tape gimmickry in lieu of adequate songwriting. It does contain the striking “Genetic Engineering” (which integrates a Speak and Spell toy to make a point) and “Radio Waves,” as well as some amazing sounds and a powerful atmosphere to recommend it. Impressive but not satisfying.
Junk Culture is much stronger, pulling away further from sparkling pop while retaining smart melodies in far denser and newly dance-based styles. “Tesla Girls” employs scratch production to great effect while fixing on science as a clever lyrical base (shades of Sparks); the rhythm-heavy “Locomotion” and the more fanciful “Talking Loud and Clear” are likewise ace tracks.
Despite its easygoing ambiance and a shortage of really memorable songs, Crush — OMD’s least stylized, most mainstream album — isn’t half-bad. “So in Love” and “Secret” are the obvious romantic singles, but the record has more serious moments as well: the topical “88 Seconds in Greensboro,” “Women III” (an ambiguous consideration of feminism) and “Bloc Bloc Bloc,” wherein McCluskey sings some truly stupid lyrics with only a trace of embarrassment. (That McCluskey’s highbrow lyrical pretensions were without intellectual foundation may help explain the group’s subsequent American success.)
OMD’s international commercial breakthrough began with Crush but exploded when “If You Leave,” a dull ballad from the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, became a Top 10 American single. That song was thankfully omitted from OMD’s subsequent album, The Pacific Age, but so was anything that might have prevented the record from being tiresomely ponderous and self-important. (Typical of the band’s well-meant missteps is “Southern,” an instrumental bed over which excerpts of Martin Luther King speeches are played.) OMD’s expansion from a duo to a sextet — the three latest arrivals play horns, guitars and more keyboards — has cost the group focus and clarity. Except for the smoothly contrived hit “(Forever) Live and Die” and the catchy “We Love You,” this dilettantish mess is less a set of songs than a meaningless collection of sounds. Re-recorded and released on an EP, “Shame” was combined with a couple of other Pacific Age tracks and the 10-inch edit of “Messages.”
The Best of OMD is the ideal remedy for The Pacific Age. After a concise recapitulation of the band’s artistic development — via fourteen A-sides, from clever synth-based pop (“Electricity,” “Enola Gay,” “Souvenir”) to well-realized audio experiments (“Tesla Girls,” “Locomotion”) to increasingly bland chart fodder (“So in Love,” “If You Leave”) — it ends with a promisingly pert new single, “Dreaming.” (The CD adds two bonus 12-inch versions of “We Love You” and “La Femme Accident.”)
Toward the end of the ’80s, the low-profile Humphreys bowed out, leaving his more outgoing partner with the band name. OMD/McCluskey pressed on with Sugar Tax, a confident album consistent with the band’s recent work. For all the synthetic-sounding keyboards and halfhearted forays into various unchallenging stylistic realms (mainly designer soul and energetic club beats), the melodramatic edge in McCluskey’s voice and the stability in his prosaic songwriting deliver it all back to OMD’s doorstep. The album is simply ordinary and mediocre, a disappointment from a once-captivating band.
Liberator heads straight for the dancefloor, taking two different routes. While “Dollar Girl,” “Agnus Dei” and “Love and Hate You” run through the house, “Everyday” and “Dream of Me” (which explicitly acknowledges its obvious debt to “Loves [sic] Theme”) are more than a little touched by the hand of Barry White. While it’s hard to imagine many rock artists less inclined to have a Love Unlimited or Village People epiphany, both genres find a skilled transducer in McCluskey. All those years spent in the company of keyboards evidently left him fully able to make convincing percolating rhythms and layers of faux violins, and both get good use on what is a pretty stupid but diverting exercise. Liberator is most agreeable if you can forget who’s behind it — not that covering the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” as if it were 1981 all over again and dropping in vintage OMD citations elsewhere make that any easier.
McCluskey made a final OMD album, Universal, in 1996. The opening, an extended overture of Kraftwerkian electronics, suggests that he has rediscovered the band’s experimental roots, but the album quickly settles into the type of pop OMD has offered since Crush (although “The Gospel of St. Jude” is, surprisingly, an a cappella gospel choir number). It’s enjoyable enough for what it is, but it’s unlikely too many OMD fans shed a tear when McCluskey called it quits.
Following his retirement of the OMD name, McCluskey took an unlikely career turn as the Svengali behind Atomic Kitten, an all-Liverpool knock-off of the Spice Girls. While the mixture of prefab singers given the OMD aesthetic has a certain appeal on paper, the group became a UK hit machine and nothing more. (Their closest brush with US chart action was a pointless cover of Blondie’s cover of “The Tide Is High.”) Their rendition of the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” is even more toothless and dull than the original. (McCluskey discovered that these Kittens had claws when they ousted him as writer/producer.)
For their post-OMD career, Humphreys, Holmes and keyboardist/saxophonist Martin Cooper formed the Listening Pool. On the band’s sole album, Still Life, the Listening Pool crafts a pleasant, organic sound as akin to later Talk Talk or China Crisis as OMD. Highlighted by the fine single “Oil for the Lamps of China,” Still Life is worthwhile for hardcore OMD-ers but otherwise expendable. Vocals on the track “Somebody Somewhere” are by Paul Roberts, who shouldered the thankless chore of replacing Hugh Cornwell in the Stranglers.
Navigation: The OMD B-Sides is an essential document for fans. McCluskey and Humphreys always took care to put worthwhile tracks on the backs of their singles, and nearly all of the songs here were worthy of inclusion on albums (which, in the cases of “Almost” and “The Romance of the Telescope,” happened). “Annex,” “Sacred Heart” and “Navigation” rank alongside the band’s finest work. The wildly syncopated “Her Body in My Soul” romps like the friskier sister of Junk Culture’s “Love and Violence,” while “Garden City” is driven by vaguely Asian instrumentation. On the down side, Navigation also contains one of early OMD’s very rare misfires: a silly cover of “Waiting for the Man,” on which McCluskey portrays the least convincing junkie in the history of recorded music.
The Peel Sessions album is likewise a must-have for fans, providing live takes of many OMD classics. There are a few curious choices, however: it’s hard to imagine that experimental tracks like “Dancing” or “ABC Auto Industry” were really crying out for the live radio broadcast treatment.
Several of the tracks from Navigation were appended, along with live cuts, alternate versions and other rarities, to the 2003 re-releases of the band’s first three albums. The first album contains the Martin Hannett productions of “Electricity” and “Almost” from OMD’s first Factory single, as well as alternate versions of “Messages.” Organisation adds the four-song EP included with early pressings of the album as well as the original DinDisc single of “Electricity.” Architecture and Morality adds B-sides, alternate versions of “Motion and Heart” and Dazzle Ships’ “Of All the Things We Made” and, best of all, an extended version of “Souvenir” with an added verse. Anything which prolongs one of the most majestic singles of the post-punk era is well worth owning.
OMD reunited for a 2007 European tour documented on Live: Architecture and Morality and More, which offers a performance of that album in its entirety (if not original running order) as well as a handful of greatest hits. The instrumental performances are not significantly different from the recorded versions; there’s no reinvention or revelation here. McCluskey is clearly enjoying himself — even bursting into laughter during “If You Leave” — and is in good voice throughout, while Humphreys turns in a somewhat shaky vocal on “Souvenir.” (Annoyingly, the UK version of the disc features four songs not on the US issue, which nonetheless shows the UK track list on its packaging.)
In 2008, Dazzle Ships belatedly received the same reissue treatment as the first three discs. Regarded as an impenetrable commercial failure at the time of its release, Dazzle Ships grew in esteem in the following quarter century, its sorrowful vision of a world made simultaneously smaller and less stable by the onrush of science and history remaining as resonant in the post-millennial world as it had been in its original Cold War context. The reissue tacks on alternate versions of “Telegraph” and “Genetic Engineering,” B-sides (including “4-Neu,” a tip of their hat to the band’s krautrock influence) and found-sound snippets unused on the original release.
With European reunion tours demonstrating a solid market for OMD nostalgia, McCluskey and Humphreys began work on their first album featuring a full band since The Pacific Age. Sporting a nifty Peter Saville cover and a ponderous title implying deep thoughts, The History of Modern gave every indication that OMD were prepared to go toe-to-toe with their best work. While, apart from a couple of outright stinkers, the album is a perfectly reasonable continuation from Crush and The Pacific Age, anyone hoping for a return to the glories of Architecture and Morality or Dazzle Ships was bound to be disappointed. Musically, OMD sound refreshed, and the two-part title cut, “RFWK,” “New Holy Ground,” “Sister Marie Says” and “The Right Side?” all manage the same combination of melody, mood and technology of much of their best work. Other tracks, however, strike out bigtime. With overheated synths, “The Future, the Past and Forever After” sounds like subpar Pet Shop Boys, and “Pulse” is a frightful attempt by McCluskey to sound like a horndog on the make. On “Sometimes,” McCluskey — one of the whitest men of British rock — continues to indulge the strange notion (which first surfaced on Liberator) that he’s Barry White’s Liverpudlian nephew. Added to the US release and issued as a single, “Save Me” is a mash-up of Aretha Franklin and “Messages.” Those complete misfires aside, The History of Modern’s main weakness is lyrical. Where McCluskey used to touch on weighty topics like the intersection of science and technology and religion, he now seems content to spout vapid greeting card profundities: “Give me all you’ve got to give / Live the life you want to live / No point in thinking about ‘what if’ / Come on…make my day.” While OMD still has sturdy musical architecture, it’s now partnered with banality.
OMD has been the subject of two tribute albums: Messages features stars of the early 21st century synth-pop revival (the Faint, Ganymede, House of Wires and White Town), while Pretending to See the Future is a lower-key collection of obscure OMD acolytes. Both albums are enjoyable and highlight just how well-crafted OMD’s music was in the first place. Tellingly, the best effort on either disc is White Town’s rendition of “Messages,” which is nearly identical to the original.