Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are even better than you think they are
Artwork by Chris Strouth
Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.
There aren't a lot of bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. There is something incredibly singular about them in every aspect of their work. To the casual listener, they are the soundtrack of every Gen-Xer who was a little crushed when Andi walked away from Duckie and into the arms of Blayne to the sounds of "If You Leave" at the end of Pretty in Pink. (For what its worth I am pretty sure that Blayne would have eventually worked for Enron and done jail time.) That moment aside, from the release of their first record -- the self-titled Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark -- the group has cut a lonely path through pop music.
Full disclosure: I really like OMD. I wouldn't call myself a fan, but I own all of their records. Plus, I have seen all their shows in Minneapolis. The fact that there have only been two makes that a little easier -- and the cancellation of this week's show at the Varsity keeps it at that number for the foreseeable future. But given that the first one was 1988 and the second was 2011 makes it a little more impressive. With some help from a conversation Gimme Noise had with lead vocalist and co-founder Andy McCluskey, we might make an OMD fan out of you.
OMD formed in 1978 in the Wirral peninsula at a time when the U.K. was a tad angry and erratic. The area is not notable for its music, except for a few legendary exceptions, Elvis Costello and John Peel. While punk rock was music about finding beauty in chaos, OMD was more about finding beauty in beauty -- although it was often about not very pretty subjects.
At the reading of that, somewhere a synth fan is growing agitated and thinking things like, "What about the Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, and Clock DVA?" A good point, except they were all more than an hour and a half away in Sheffield -- which in U.K. geography might as well be a million miles, and stylistically about a million miles further. To put it in a more local sense think someone asking "what influence has the Milwaukee sound had on Minneapolis?" That said, I'm not sure that Milwaukee has a sound outside of the making of beer and dairy products.
Artwork by Chris Strouth
"Essentially we hated almost all the music that we heard," says Andy McCluskey of the band's teenage influences. "We only liked a few things, and I can still name them. There was Kraftwerk, but on the other side, also from Dusseldorf, a much more energetic and emotional band was a band called Neu. We liked Kraftwerk's intellectual and melodic concept but we loved Neu's pure radical emotion. And then the only other bands we would listen to, quite literally, were Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Brian Eno. We wouldn't listen to anything else. Everything else was shit apart from those six I've mentioned. You know, our record company used to say to us, We cant work out whether you want to be ABBA or Stockhausen. And we said, well, we want to be both, actually."
I was 18 when I saw them open for Depeche Mode at the Northrup Auditorium. This was a highly anticipated show. Mostly for Depeche Mode, who were just hitting their stride with "People Are People" being a pop radio favorite, and joining the ranks of bands like the Police and the Clash that were stadium punk -- the small band that everyone knew.
OMD was the opener. They had no crazy set pieces, no computer-controlled lighting arrays or any of the accoutrements of a Wagner opera that scattered the stage for DM's performance later. Instead, it was just a few guys and gear. They tore the roof off the place, in a lot of ways almost literally, as the balcony swayed in time to the music. That might sound like a romantic metaphor but in this case it was literal.
"Well, when we were young, we completely accidentally fell into the music business," McCluskey explains. "It sounds preposterous and pretentious now, but what we were trying to do was actually make art. It was a conceptual art project in the guise of the two people who started the band. We had no idea, and no desire to ever be a pop group. Nobody was more surprised than us that we were when we ended up selling many of the records. Then we kind of lost the plot. There was a while in the '80s when we were too busy chasing sales in America, and doing what the record company told us to do, and we don't ever want to go back to that."
They were musicians playing music. Not electronic music, in spite of the fact that it was all electronic in nature. I'd be lying if I didn't say it changed the way I looked at Depeche Mode. Their theatrics now seemed like a cheap pose, flash without the bang. There is a long history of musicians being failed art students. OMD felt like music by art professors, taking the intelligence and groove of prog, and getting rid of the hippie-dippieness of it.
When OMD played First Avenue in 2011 it was to a near capacity audience, and no one went home disappointed. Most folks, at least everyone that I went with, were expecting a nostalgia show. What they left with was a take-no-prisoners performance that for many was the show of the year. The kind that created equal amounts of applause for the new songs as well the hits. Nostalgia shattered by the thundering pop of why you liked them so much in the first place.
"There was a time in the 90s when we were considered to be an "80s synth band and that was out of fashion, and we were past our sell-by date," McCluskey recalls. "In this post-modern era, there's no fashion anymore, people just look back at the history of popular music, and they see key indicators, and people seem to talk about us in beautiful glowing terms -- that we were influential and iconic and seminal and all those nice words. The last thing we need to do is make an album with just a shadow pastiche of what we do. It's important that we actually try to do something if we can, to outdo ourselves. And that's hard to do over 35 years and 12 albums, but if we don't try to do that, what's the point?"
There is always a lot of sentimentality for the music of our youth, and in many ways Gen-Xers are the worst. We cling to the memories of Kajagoogoo records like holy relics, and even the saddest of new wave high school hits can be heard at convenience stores that certainly wouldn't have played them at the time that they came out.
Another thing that sets OMD apart is that they don't approach their new music with a sense of nostalgia; instead, they hit the unknown like explorers, willing to take bold risks to find untold treasures. Their new record, English Eclectic, is no different. In fact it is arguably the most changeling since 1983's Dazzle Ships. If OMD are a seesaw ride between ABBA and Stockhausen, then Dazzle Ships -- which was recently reissued -- was the fulcrum point on which it all balances.
"It was a wonderful album," McCluskey says now. "It just pushed the envelope a little too much. We were just more than 15 minutes ahead of the fashion and nobody could handle it."
If there is one thing that would separate OMD from the rest of the class of new wave, it is the truth, not honesty, which is best saved for confessional singer-songwriters who struggle in Bob Dylan's shadow. They are the antithesis of punk, and yet maybe the best embodiment of it, simply because either way they could care less about the definition, they just want to make art.
"You know, we're in a wonderful position now," he concludes. "We don't have a record company. We have a very sympathetic manager who does not want to just knock money out of us. We only do what we want to do. We're not multi-millionaires. But we've sold enough records and had enough hits that the publishing money and the radio play generates sufficient money that we can live on it. So it gives us actually the kind of creative freedom that we had in the very early days. Where basically we just did what the hell we wanted to do."
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