It started with Paul, Andy and a 4 track tape recorder called Winston…

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Photo by Stas Knop from Pexels

I first saw OMD play at legendary Liverpool club Eric’s. A small, sweaty legendary venue that featured all the punk and new wave greats like The Clash, Joy Division, Buzzcocks etc. It also gave a platform to local bands inspired by those they were seeing on the Eric’s stage: Echo and the Bunnymen, Big In Japan, Teardrop Explodes, The Mighty Wah! and Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark.

At the time OMD (Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark) consisted of Paul, Andy, and a third member in the shape of a TEAC 4 track tape recorder called Winston. I remember being curiously impressed by this strange outfit who didn’t look or sound like any other bands we were seeing there. A few months later I remember seeing the original Human League line up at the same venue — synths, and Phil Oakey’s vocals backed by some impressive visuals. It was obvious something was going on. Groups like OMD, Human League and Daniel Miller’s The Normal were using newly available technology to create a very different, and exciting sound.

40 years on from these early gigs how do you sum up the career of OMD? 40 million record sales, numerous hit singles, 13 albums and a huge worldwide devoted fan base? Or as synth pop pioneers recognised for their innovation and their massive influence on successive generations of musicians? Or simply as two people who wrote brilliantly, bizarre pop songs? The reality is that it is all of these and more and this exhibition throws the spotlight on part of what has been a fascinating, unconventional career.

The story of OMD really begins when Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys met at their primary school in Meols. As teenagers they played in various groups including an OMD forerunner called The Id. Eventually in September 1978 the two former school friends came together to form the magnificently named Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. The following month they made their debut live performance at Eric’s and their story really began.

Six months after their first gig they released their debut single Electricity on Tony Wilson’s Factory label. The distinctive sleeve was designed by long time Factory collaborator Peter Saville who subsequently went to work with OMD for many years. I love this track which still sounds incredibly fresh and vital when you play it now.

Their first album Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (1980) spawned the hit single Messages and a second album later the same year, Organisation, featured the single Enola Gay, named after the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It was the band’s first Top 10 hit in the UK, topped the charts in other territories and has sold 5 million copies worldwide.

At this stage OMD were also a very successful touring band with the two founder members joined by Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper. Their next album Architecture and Morality (1981) was their most commercially successful featuring three big hit singles: Souvenir, Joan of Arc, and Maid of Orleans (also originally titled Joan of Arc).

Then in what was a typically contrary move by the band they chose to follow up all these hits with a much darker, more experimental album called Dazzle Ships. It definitely wasn’t what the world or OMD fans were waiting for and album sales reached 300,000 compared to the 3 million of Architecture and Morality. I loved the bleak innovation of the record at the time but there weren’t many of us who thought that way. With the passage of time the album has rightly been re-evaluated and its significance and huge influence acknowledged widely.

Since then the band went through numerous ups and downs before eventually splitting up. Thankfully they reformed in 2006 and suddenly it seemed the world suddenly began to appreciate the brilliance of their subversive pop genius. Since then they have continued to tour, playing to growing audiences across the world as well as releasing new music that shows they have lost none of the old magic. A re-release of the magnificent debut single Electricity even topped the vinyl singles chart earlier this month. A fitting way for the band to celebrate their 40th anniversary and another indication that at last the world has recognised the quirky, innovative brilliance of these two very unlikely pop stars from the Wirral.

Written by Kev McManus, Head of UNESCO City of Music, Liverpool

View the latest exhibition on OMD at the British Music Experience, Liverpool here.

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