Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys met as school children on the Wirral in England (across the Mersey River from Liverpool). They formed a fast friendship and bonded over similar musical tastes, especially the pioneering electronic sounds of Kraftwerk. They were in a number of musical acts, both together and separately, before forming the locally successful band the Id. Concurrently, they launched the experimental electronic duo VCL XI, named for the label on the drawing of a valve on the back of Kraftwerk’s album Radio-Ackivität. The Id imploded over musical differences, and after a short stint in Dalek I Love You McCluskey reconnected with Humphreys. They renamed VCL XI, using a tentative song title they had written on McCluskey’s bedroom wall. Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark, while a bit unwieldy, clearly declared that they were something different than the bands in the burgeoning punk scene. Honing their distinctive synth-dance sound, they also performed live shows accompanied by a TEAC 4-track affectionately named Winston. They recorded a single, Electricity at Factory Records, released to little fanfare. After some work opening for Joy Division and Gary Numan, they recorded their eponymous debut. It was a solid success in the UK, peaking at #27 and featuring a new version of Electricity and two other singles, including the Top 20 hit Messages. Fresh off that success, they added percussionist Malcolm Holmes — who had worked with them in the Id — and went into the studio to record their second album. Titled Organisation after the band that eventually became Kraftwerk, that disc declared OMD to be masters in the pioneering world of synth-based pop music.
||Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark
||Oct. 24, 1980
||Andy McCluskey, Paul Humpreys, and Mike Howlett
- Enola Gay
- 2nd Thought
- VCL XI
- Motion and Heart
- The Misunderstanding
- The More I See You
In many ways, Organisation is a typical second album. It was recorded quickly to capitalize on initial success, it features some reworked early material, and it includes some experimental components. OMD neatly avoided the sophomore slump, however, brilliantly building on their demonstrated strengths and blazing stunning new trails. Every track is stellar and despite the rush and random origins the album is very cohesive, projecting a dark, brooding energy. It also hints neatly at their future directions, tantalizing listeners with the growth to come.
Things kick off with one of OMD’s finest songs, the richly layered Enola Gay. A tribute and warning, the song takes its name from the plane that bombed Hiroshima and is one of the most danceable songs about nuclear devastation ever recorded. A surging dance-pop anthem on the surface, it features amazing keyboard work propelled by Holmes’ great drumming. McCluskey turns in a stunning vocal, aching and dire but finely tuned to the energy of the music. The only single from the album, it broke OMD into the British Top 10 [#8] and welcomes listeners to Organisation‘s dark meditations.
2nd Thought is more typical of the material on the album, a stream-of-consciousness lyric over a quietly mechanical melody. A meditation on distance and loneliness, it has a quiet tension. Eschewing typical pop verse-chorus-verse structure, it moves in a straight line while feeling vaguely claustrophobic. That haunting quality pervades the rest of the disc. VCL XI is an homage to the band’s earlier incarnation and a clear tribute to their heroes in Kraftwerk. The musical framework conjures up sonic images of the valve it’s named for, propelled by a cheery keyboard line. McCluskey famously mumbled the near-nonsense lyrics, going for feel rather than meaning. It’s a great song that shows off the band’s growing confidence with everything their musical tools have to offer.
Motion and Heart was almost a second single and could have been big. It’s a lovely track with a chirpy organ-style keyboard figure, the most poppy song on the album. On one level it celebrates a romance, but there is an underlying tension that ties it to the rest of the disc nicely. Statues is a brooding number inspired by Ian Curtis, the recently deceased lead singer of Joy Division. Another tribute and warning, it ponders the powerful grip of depression. The dark ache of the synths is a nod to the sound of the other band, while McCluskey’s vocal is clear and quiet, anchoring the feelings of sorrow and loss.
The Misunderstanding brings the energy back into high gear. An old track from their days in the Id, it opens with quietly creepy, almost industrial noises. When the keyboard and drum kick in, however, things move fast. An angry, frustrated lyric surges along with the music, with McCluskey and Humphreys singing together in a tight, jarring harmony. It’s one of the best tracks and starts the original vinyl’s side two perfectly.
OMD almost never recorded covers, so the inclusion of the Mack Gordon / Harry Warren song The More I See You is a surprise. McCluskey found himself singing the lyrics he remembered from the Chris Montez hit over a keyboard riff they were working on, and it worked well enough that they kept it. Although the band remain skeptical, it actually works well, providing a strangely compelling bridge between the darker moments. Promise features Humphreys’ first full lead vocal on a song of broken love and distrust. It takes the somewhat tense celebration of the cover song and shatters it. The central musical figure is straightforward synth-pop, but the jagged electronic sounds that move in and out of the background tear the comfortable setting into dark tatters.
Stanlow is the perfect closer, remedying the sense of distance and loss introduced by 2nd Thought. Named for a local oil refinery where various family members worked, it’s an odd but poignant tribute. The lights from the structure served as a welcome home when the band returned from the road. Featuring nice samples of the industrial noise of the refinery, it’s a quietly noble song — featuring an oboe-like keyboard fanfare — that manages to brush up against irony while being truly celebratory. The calm strength of the track, while keeping the darker energy of the disc, ends things on a strong, positive note.
Early vinyl releases of Organisation came with a seven-inch disc featuring four live tracks performed by McCluskey and Humphreys with Winston. The 2003 reissue of the album includes these tracks and Annex, the B-side of the Enola Gay single. It also has one of the variant versions of Electricity. These tracks are nice as part of the historical record and solid electronic work, but don’t add anything in particular to the album itself.
FURTHER LISTENING: You really can’t go wrong with any of OMD’s first five albums. Clearly the work of a single, innovative unit, they are also very distinct entities.
- Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark is a strong debut, with several great songs and a sense of fun and adventure. It’s clearly connected to their influences but shows strong hints of where the band are headed.
- Architecture & Morality is their most critically lauded album and a close second-favorite of mine. It builds powerfully on the promise of Organisation, mixing solid off-kilter pop with musical innovation and sonic experimentation. Sax and keyboard player Martin Cooper, also from the Id days, joins the band here, creating the classic OMD quartet.
- Dazzle Ships is the most challenging, alternating more unusual synth-pop with electronic samples and noises. It’s an important, innovative album but not one of my favorites, although it features a couple of wonderful songs.
- Junk Culture finds the band retrenching after the commercial backlash against Dazzle Ships, presenting a straightforward set of danceable synth-pop songs. It has just enough experimentation and ingenuity to stand out from the pack.
After that, OMD became a much more pop-oriented act, recording some solid songs on fairly mediocre albums. After two more discs — and a notable contribution to the Pretty In Pink soundtrack — Humphreys, Holmes, and Cooper left. McCluskey recorded three more albums as OMD, all featuring serviceable dance pop tracks but no real inspiration. Casual listeners will find 1998’s The OMD Singles a good representation of all the band’s work.