Four Decades of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark played its first show in 1978.
White Noise Records
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark played its first show in 1978.
“I’ll just put the phone down,” says Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark frontman Andy McCluskey, who’s at home in Liverpool and talking about the act’s first show — at Eric’s Club, in October 1978, opening for Joy Division.

“This is the sound of our audience at the end of our songs,” says McCluskey, clapping slowly and without much enthusiasm. “About five claps — and that was family and friends!”

Family and friends made up about thirty people at Eric’s that night. McCluskey and Paul Humphreys had come up with the band’s moniker not long before.

“We went and looked at my wall,” McCluskey says. “We just came up with the most preposterous name we could think of, because we thought, well, it’s going to be two guys with a tape recorder playing songs that even our best friends think are rubbish. So we let people know: It’s not rock, it’s not punk, it’s not disco. It’s crazy, so we just picked the craziest name we could think of. And here we are forty years later with it.”

In the early days of the synth-pop duo, McCluskey and Humphreys were using gear they’d bought at secondhand stores or things made by Humphreys, who had studied electronics.

“And everything was played by hand,” McCluskey says. “There were no computers. We didn’t have a drum machine. We didn’t have a sequencer. It was really primitive electronic stuff.”

With that basic gear, they made the song “Electricity.” McCluskey had given Factory Records head Tony Wilson a tape of it from when they’d played in Manchester with Cabaret Voltaire. Wilson wasn’t too keen on the recording, but his wife loved it and convinced him to sign the act.

Six months after the pair’s first gig, OMD’s debut single was released on Factory Records.

Gary Numan, who was working at the Beggars Banquet record shop on Saturdays at the time, heard “Electricity” and asked OMD to open for him on his U.K. tour in the fall of 1979.

“We went out and toured around with him everywhere,” McCluskey says. “We had no money, so he took us on his bus. He took our equipment in his truck. And then we signed our deal while we were on that tour. And exactly a year later, we had two hit singles, including ‘Enola Gay,’ and we headlined all the venues that we’d just played with Gary the year before.”

While Numan helped establish OMD in the U.K., the 1986 John Hughes film Pretty in Pink helped promote the group’s highest-charting song in the United States: “If You Leave,” which McCluskey and Humphreys wrote in less than 24 hours, just before embarking on an American tour.

The two parted ways in ’88, and McCluskey led OMD for eight more years before dissolving it in 1996. He and Humphreys reunited ten years later and have since released three albums, including last year’s The Punishment of Luxury, whose title was taken from an 1891 oil painting by Giovanni Segantini that McCluskey has loved since first seeing it as a teenager at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

“The title is fantastic, but actually it’s a misogynist painting,” he says. “The first thing I have to say is, we do not hold with the intention of the original artist, but we purloined the title, and we appropriated it and put it onto our own vision of the world, which is essentially that most people in the Western world are materially better off than ever before — any of our ancestors, anybody ever — and yet we are more unhappy now than ever before, because we have been brainwashed into thinking we need more shit that we don’t actually need.”

The album’s title track deals with that. And McCluskey adds that marketing people and advertisers have done their research, and they know how to press human beings’ buttons.

“They make us feel bad if we don’t own the latest thing,” McCluskey says. “What does my car say about me to my neighbors? My wife should look different. My kids won’t love me if I don’t have the new Xbox. I don’t earn enough money. I’m wearing the wrong clothes. All the shit to make you feel insecure, to make you feel unworthy of self-respect; therefore, if you buy this product, then you’ll love yourself. Bullshit. But we’ve been brainwashed into it. Right there, there’s something that interests me and fascinates me. Trying to express it in a song is difficult.”

While technology has evolved tremendously over the past four decades, especially when it comes to making music with computers, McCluskey points out that in the end, a human being still has to write the song.

“The hard part is finding a place in your head and in your own catalogue where you can go that is still a discovery and still a surprise,” McCluskey says. “Having done this for forty years and written probably nearly 200 songs or pieces of music, the hard part is challenging yourself to do something that interests you, that you feel like you haven’t done before or said before or heard before. That’s the hard bit, which is why it takes us longer to make records than it used to when we were kids. We had heads full of ideas, and everything was brand-new and virgin to us.”

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 20, Ogden Theatre, $30, 303-832-1874.