For most Americans they were a brief moment in time. It is 1986. In one of the quintessential movies of the '80s, Pretty in Pink, one of the decade's most popular actresses, Molly Ringwald, is trying to decide whether to go back to John Cryer of go off with '80s dreamboat, Andrew McCarthy. Coming up in the background, as in all good Jouhn Hughes movies, we hear the opening crash of drums and the catchy sound of a synthesized xylophone announcing the melody to that summer's big hit, "If You Leave." For a moment America falls in love with a pleasant pop band with the name OMD.
Seven years earlier, in tha fall of 1979, England fell under the spell of a deifferent band, one with the unlikely and unwieldy name of Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark. Their first single started with a bit of swishing electronic noise, false starts, and, hey, the instantly catchy sound of a synthesized xylophone. Could there be a connection?
Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, or OMD, as they came to be kown, has been at least three fairly different bands in it's surprisingly long and varied history. There were the highly experimental and very influential Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark during the early 1980s, the ready-for-America pop OMD of the late '80s, and the phoenix-from-the-ashes Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark of the early 1990s. The fact that most Americans may only know the band for the brief period during 1986, that spans the band's U.S. hits "So In Love," (Billboard #26), "If You Leave," (Billboard #4), and "(Forever) Live and Die (Billboard #19), belies the long history the band has had outside the U.S. In the U.K. they had 20 hits in the 1980s alone, from "Red Frame White Light"(#67) to "Dreaming"(#50). In the mid 1990s the band enjoyed a mini-revival thanks to such club hits as "Sugar Tax."
Now comes the release of a new best-of, 19 songs, an entire career summed up in under 74 minutes. But as I found out in talking to founding member Andy McCluskey, the new greatest hits is only part of the story.
"We've always had a funny relationship with America. Our firt couple of albums were released over here by Epic. As far as I could tell their release plan was to simply dump the album over here. It wasn't until A&M got a hold of us that anything began to happen in the States. And then, funny enough, we took off with the Crush album just as theings were fading in England. Then when I revived the group in 1990 it was popular in England. But I bet you very few people over here were even aware I was doing stuff again. It has always been like that, very flip-flop."
That being said, one has to ask why even bother releasing an updated best of, since A&M put out a very serviceable on in 1989. The immediate answer might just be the fact that the rights have reverted back to Virgin Records and the A&M set has gone out of print. But McCluskey sees more to it than that.
"First of all it is not like no one was aware of the last go-around of OMD here. I think "Sugar Tax" sold a quarter million copies, and we had some club hits. But mainly it was a chance to sort of tidy things up. Tie up the loose ends and put OMD to bed for good. This is the defentitive best-of for OMD. No more new stuff."
"Besides, the digital technology in the '80s was not all that good. Everyone went around saying that the sound being produced at the time was the best it could ever be. But digital sound compressed a lot of things in those days. It was not warm, it sounded squezzed and compressed." The new package gave McCluskey a chance to go back and clean up and open up the sound. But the new package also allowed him to go way back to the original master tapes to do some remixes.
"We remastered the best-of off the master two tracks, but those were not the original masters. Those were a mess. We used some of those to lend out to various remixers to do some new remixes. It was amazing to go back and listen to some of those tapes. First off we had to do things like bake them becuase the tapes were in bad shape, some 20 years later. But the just realizing how we recorded those things, I am amazed "Electricity" was recorded on a 24-track machine, but we only used 11 tracks. It was like, vocals, bass, drums, melody line, white noise left, white noise right, and that was it. Very simple stuff."
But you will not find the remixes on the new best-of. "We were very careful to keep them off of the new set. We wanted people to just have the stuff that has lasted. The thing about remixes is that 9 out of 10 of them are crap. Most of them sound more dated than the original whithin about six months." However, they did hand pick the people who did the remixes, which have been limited to several U.K. singles. "We picked people like Moby because he was so good and becuase he listed Architecture and Morality as one of his five influences."
McCluskey is aware that OMD has been influential for today's sythpop scene. "There was a time in the late '80s, early '90s where you couldn't be synthpop. It was too close, people were too close to it. Now there are kids who see it as this cool thing from a long time ago. And even older people can look back now with fond memories."
In looking back at his own memories McCluskey feels a little frustrated. "Back when we were kind of experimental, people would accuse us of selling out. Singles like "Souvenir" or something would be a hit and people would say we sold out. Then when we were selling out, and were a hit, especially in America, most people in the media had no idea about the band's history. They just chalked us up as this fluff pop band." But McCluskey feels that, at least for a while, they trued their best to be cutting edge. "Some of those songs are groundbreaking. Songs like "Enola Gay." But after a while you begin to chase yourself. You get on this treadmill and it is hard to get off. But at the same time it gets so much harder to write good songs. I suppose because you are trying so hard. You end up trying to please people. In the early day we were trying to please ourselves."
"If You Leave" was seen by many early fans as the ultimate sellout, the band had, literally, gone Hollywood. But McCluskey sees the song more as a watershead. "It was a turning point for us. Up until that point we had been inventors. Every new song had been a progression, something original. But the we reached a point where to keep doing that was just beyond us. So instead we became craftsmen. We actually took time to construct songs and polish them. I am very proud of that song. It's very well constructed. I mean, look, there comes a time when you realize you cannot save the world with a pop song. But you can create something of beauty."
Sadly things of beauty do not always last. By 1989 it was clear that despite a promising new single from the best-of set, the band had broken up. McCluskey and longtime band-mate Paul Humphreys had decided to go their seperate ways. And McCluskey was content to let sleeping dogs lie and to get on with his life.
It was not much of a life. He couldn't write, was getting off the multitude of drugs the band had enjoyed during the late '80s, and, most soberingly, was over a million pounds in debt. But hust three momths after everyone had scattered, Humphreys came back to ask McCluskey if he would mind if Humphreys and several others went ahead and restarted OMD. McCluskey said no. "I said over my dead body! That made a lot of people very unhappy with me, for a long time. But I went to Virgin and I asked them if the others could do this. And Virgin said that what they really wanted was another album from me; they considered me to be OMD. So I went back to the studio, on and off for a whole year, trying to come up with songs. I was not sure I could do it without Humphreys." But he did. The resultant album, Sugar Tax was a big enough hit to warrant a follow-up. But McCluskey had hedged his bets a little. "If you notice, my name is not to be found on that album. None are. I hoped people would not notice that Paul had left."
When asked what the future holds, McCluskey is full of plans. "I'd like to do pure pop, but I'm not sure I can. Right now I'm involved with some Liverpool is surprisingly dead in pop music terms right now."
But for now McCluskey and Humphreys want to leave OMD behind, most likely permanently. "I want to leave OMD on a pedestal,"
explains McCluskey. "Ididn't want to drag OMD down into some sort of retro-revival hell. I did some TV recently with Paul and it
went surprisingly well, but I don't want to get up on stage for the next 20 years and be forced to sing OMD stuff. Not that I
won't play OMD songs again, but it would be part of a bigger picture, mixed in withy new material. I enjoy being retired, not
having to fit into the OMD 'jacket.'"