Architecture & (Resumed) Normality
Given the sharp, commercial right turn which followed, it’s almost too easy to overlook how pioneering (way beyond being arch instigators of the, peaked in the late eighties but still features heavily among ‘come on, of course I get it!’ uncles at wedding receptions, still ‘kicking’, indie, student teacher dance, featured in the 'Electricity' video below!) OMD were as a seminal UK electronic/new wave/synthpop band. As Ian Peel rightly opines though, in a piece written for Record Collector, the group’s legacy actually consists of two brilliant but very different bands.
OMD 1.0’s experimental brand of electronic tinkering, layered with occasional forays into musique concrete and synthpop at alternating ends of a coruscating spectrum of aural exploration, has garnered fairly limited mainstream critical attention, despite now having featured in a plethora of movies and TV series. We’re onto at least the third generation of musicians who have followed somewhere in the frothing wake, nodding in their direction, inspired first to pick up synths, drum machines or samplers, then to sample or remix what their forebears had crafted. OMD have their critics and cheerleaders on either side of the ‘two band’ divide, with little of anything in the mainstream they wooed so successfully caring much about the difference.
Founder and consistent members, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys met at primary school in 1960’s Merseyside. As teenagers they shared a distaste for the ‘guitar driven rock with macho attitude’ popular amongst their peers and experimented with various short lived musical projects.
The most successful and longest lived of these was seven piece group The Id. Running parallel to their involvement in this, the duo also collaborated on a more experimental, electronic project, working with tape collages, home made synths and circuit bent radios, called VCL XI.
When The Id split in August 1978, within a few short months McLuskey and Humphries had decided to focus all of their energies on this project. They renamed it Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, chosen from a random lyric scrawled on McLuskey’s wall. They wanted something which meant they couldn’t be mistaken for a punk band.
They began to write and perform as a duo, adding only a 4 track TEAC recorder, which they would use for beats, sound effects and the occasional layer of recorded synth, as an extra member. They christened the machine Winston, named after Orwell’s anti-hero in 1984.
A ‘one-off’ single, the mighty ‘Electricity’, was released in October 1978 on Factory Records. It’s artwork was designed by Richard Saville, whose distinctive graphics would continue to provide anything which could be called OMD’s image, with the band being almost meticulously ‘anti-celebrity’, well into the mid 1980’s. This seminal artistic take was apparently inspired by the electronic duo’s notation style, which they had developed as a surrogate for not being able to read or write music, and was an adapted series of symbols for instruments and timings.
Their eponymous first album, essentially an attempt at capturing their live sound, released in 1980, gave the band their first hit, with the single ‘Messages’. A second album swiftly followed later that year.
Named after the precursor to Kraftwerk, formed by original members Florian Schneider Eileben and Ralf Hutter, in a conscious picking up of a baton, 'Organisation’ included a song omitted from the prior album, with it just missing the cut on the final edit, which became the big UK hit from this album and set something of a blueprint for OMD singles to follow. The anti-war song ‘Enola Gay’ not only eatablished OMD throughout Europe, it also showed an ability to combine sonic experiment, atypical subject matter and catchy hooks to engender relative commercial success. An OMD synth hook, which might often stand in place of the chorus they generally eschewed, could be just as catchy, create as many ear-worms as anything you could chant or sing along to.
By the time the band were prepping for their third, and to many seminal, album, they were aware a roll was ensuing. Pre-empting the album came their biggest UK hit to date, ‘Souvenir’. The single brought with it a bigger, more lush, choral, electronic sound. It would become the hallmark of their classic album in this incarnation, ‘Architecture and Morality’. Winston had also been replaced by a live drummer. Two more hit singles, ‘Joan of Arc’ and ‘Maid of Orleans’, followed:
By the time the next album came around, Humphreys and McLuskey decided to take something of a musical stand. The experimental ‘Dazzle Ships’ (an absolute creative masterpiece and lifelong inspiration, from the fledgeling musical teen to greying, grizzled iterations of this writer), mixed melancholy synth balladeerng with some more familiar uptempo synthpop, threw in a little more than a smidgen of short wave radio collages, found sound and musique concrete, published and was damned.
Despite a massive reappraisal since, the album was critically and commercially panned at the time. Early 1980’s music charts and journalists apparently just couldn’t take it based on what they’d come to expect from a band regularly charting. The innovation, excitement and verve, the initial post punk cusp of UK new wave, had either dissipated, sulked into the shadows or had been translated into a steady slew of now formulaic hits and general commercial success for peers like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet or Eurythmics.
Facing a full on crisis of confidence brought about by what appeared to be almost universal disdain for ‘Dazzle Ships’, McLuskey and Humphreys fashioned a deliberate right turn. Not just back into the mainstream but into its very heart, in the process almost birthing an entirely new notion of what OMD is/was, a 2.0.
This ushered in the ‘Locomotion’ era, with a string of chorus led, commercial successes, included in Hollywood movies, frequently high in the US charts and somewhere, for true believers as it seemed to be ultimately for the band, with the nagging suspicion it was utterly the wrong move.
This wasn’t OMD, no matter how much they could pretend mockery of the industry or how much electronic experimentation they could still sneak onto tracks. Dissatisfaction bubbled under as commercial success still ticked along, slowly diminishing the early critical acclaim in cultural memory. By 1989, McLuskey was essentially performing as a solo artist under the OMD name. He finally gave up the ghost of OMD 2.0 in 1996.
It seems McLuskey was the lone stand out for greater commercial success during this period due to family financial commitments. Following an unexpected request for the band to appear on German TV, after McLuskey had divorced, the band announced a reformation in 2006. They did a little of the almost inevitable retro re-treads through old singles and albums, let’s call it re-establishing their fan base, while they worked on new material. The inclination seemed to be towards an updated version of the original OMD 1.0 blueprint. Nothing of the 2.0 material made it onto the setlists for the nostalgia tours of 2007.
An album or two worked out the kinks. McLuskey vented some frustration in 2010, before the release of their 11th studio album, ‘History of Modern’, opining that OMD had become ‘the forgotten band’. The album went on to reach no.28 in the UK charts, in an utterly changed musical landscape. Not too shabby for some old synth heads with an ear for a hook.
By the time 2013’s ‘English Electric’ was released, the band were back into their stride, having genuinely now, it seemed, picked up where OMD 1.0 left off, they were whole again, praise be! ‘The Future Will Be Silent’, as a single following ‘Metroland’, brought back familiar sounds and themes, still relevant, with new tricks too:
And now, after much more baited breath, OMD have announced the impending release of new album ‘The Punishment of Luxury’ in September (its available to preorder here, doing so prompted my excitable flurry of fingers over keyboard and dig through the creaking memory crates!).
The new album takes its title from a painting by Giovani Segantini. It is written, played, produced and mixed almost entirely by Humphreys and McLuskey. It promises to combine the ‘wistful nostalgia’ of their future/past aural palette with explorations of entirely new territory.
‘On this album we have managed to make beautiful things out of noises and repetitive patterns.’, McLuskey notes in a press release, ‘The trouble is, we just can’t help but write a catchy tune.’. The band trailed the album with a typically unlikely single this week, ‘La Mitralleuese’.
French for ‘Machine-Gun’, the track builds on layers of monastic intonation and loops of cannon and gunfire, yet manages to become somehow ‘catchy’, even if hauntingly so, with the lyric ‘Bend your body to the will of the machine’ chanted over the rhythms of war.
The track has been released, and synced beautifully, with a video directed by Henning M.Lederer. It animates another painting, this time by Christopher Nevinson, from which the track derives its title:
On this showing, roll on September 1st, and any other single releases before then. For another old synth head, albeit distinctly lower leagues, just exploring some shiny new equipment, following a week or two of awesome releases to inspire his noodling, this was just the icing on my Tumshie cake!
(There will be a full UK tour supporting the album’s release but the only scheduled Scottish date is at the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, November 19th, tickets available here)