2019 will be remembered for a great many notable anniversaries. In British music history, the greatest will be the 40th anniversary of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD). The pioneering electronic act from a humble, working-class beginning in the Wirral, England, went on to become a successful, multimillion album-selling group who, except for the few times they “had to err on the side of caution”, were uncompromising in their artistic vision.
Days before their band were due to begin the anniversary-related European and UK OMD tour in Portugal, I was given the wonderful opportunity to speak with cofounder Andy McCluskey about the gravity of releasing the new greatest hits and deluxe boxset “Souvenir”, available now from Universal Music. As Andy and I discussed what he and Paul Humphreys decided to include in the boxset, it became clear very quickly how important it was to the two of them to be able to present a big picture view of their career through this boxset. It is designed for the fans, with scores of memorable tunes, live performance tracks and video clips, unreleased songs and fragments and more to dive into. As a whole, it is a massive reminder of everything OMD have achieved and over such a long period of time, so much so that today’s up-and-coming acts should be envious.
Andy is matter-of-fact when looking back at their storied career. “We’ve had some good moments. There were other times when we were working and we didn’t get it quite right. But not every Picasso is a masterpiece.” He calls the big hit singles in the two greatest hits discs “the cherry and the icing on top” that music fans will clamour for, but he sees “Souvenir” as a metaphor for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. That is, if you dig deeper through their oeuvre, their career is revealed as an “often dark and complicated, richer cake underneath [that includes] the unreleased tracks that show how we used to work” and the live performances they have chosen to include here.
I definitely was not expecting to hear a comparison of OMD’s career to a layered pudding. However, upon further reflection, the metaphor totally makes sense. (We will get to another cooking allusion later.) While music fans know OMD for the single or singles that were successful in their respective territories, those who invest time exploring the band’s output beyond the hits and indeed, beyond the static studio recordings, shall be rewarded. “It’s [“Souvenir”] about all the hidden depths of OMD, the different colours, different shades”, Andy explains. “We’re not a band who just strives to write a hit single, and the rest of the album are songs that aren’t good enough be hit singles. We accidentally write hit singles while we’re on our journey, experimenting and trying different kinds of music.” This is just one example of why OMD are so beloved by their fans: the word “contrived” just does not exist in their vocabulary.
To the sonic geeks and synth addicts, both groups I consider myself a card-carrying member of, the most intriguing disc of the boxset has to be “Unreleased Archive Vol I.” The songs and song fragments you hear on this disc were discovered in storage by cofounder Paul Humphreys, having been put away and abandoned following the completion of various albums. Andy explains that in OMD’s early days, “we would write to tape, and it was a linear writing process. We would just throw crazy ideas on the tape, then hope to actually make the song out of these component parts…[but] what tended to happen was if there was another song on the tape that had been used as part of a master in recording, then the tapes would go from the final mixing place and then into the storage, and we never saw them again. So if we forgot to take the tapes home and keep them for working on again, they just went into storage, and so we hadn’t seen these tapes for, literally, decades. So there was a real voyage of discovery to find what there was.”
However, before any reviewing of the material from storage could begin, they first had to overcome an unusual physical problem with the tapes, which Andy explained to me in much detail. “Most of the tapes were from the late seventies to the early eighties, and the technology used on tape [around] then had changed. The glue that was used to adhere the ferric oxide onto the tape was synthetic. Prior to that, in the forties, fifties and sixties, they used glue made from whale product. So the synthetic glue was obviously much more humane and moral. The trouble was that it wasn’t as good as the whale product glue.
“Over the years, it tends to absorb moisture. So what happens with these tapes is, if you try to lace these tapes on a machine and play them, they actually shed the oxide onto the playback head. In the process of listening to your tapes, you’re actually stripping the magnetic oxide off the recording! What you have to do is send them off to be baked, slowly, in an oven at a certain temperature for about 24 hours, and it dries the moisture out slowly. And then you put the tape on the machine and transfer it to digital [recording] so you have saved the tape, but you’ve also got a digital copy.
“It was several weeks before we could actually get to hear these tracks. And it was really exciting, because some of them we did recall, and it was like, ‘great, we’re just going to mix those, and we’ll have them.’ Others, we had no recollection whatsoever.” For the long-time OMD fan, the disc is a nostalgic look back at their previous album eras, and you can practically picture yourself there in the studio with them. If we use the metaphor of a slick muscle car to describe OMD and their unique musical output over these last 4 decades, then listening to “Unreleased Archive Vol I.” is like being afforded the chance to look under the bonnet and see how they worked back then.
“A lot of them [the tracks] are kind of like rough canvases”, Andy says, “where an artist was sketching in the background, but they never got to finally put the details on, the trees and the houses and the people. It never got worked up to become a complete image, and that’s what some of these pieces of music are. But there’s also quite a few complete songs that never made it out in public.” More importantly, it reminded him and Paul of a completely different technical process of recording and writing, a process that worked for them creatively and artistically when they were younger. “We’re rather proud of it. It’s a really good snapshot of the way we used to think, the way we used to write, the way we used to experiment. I love the fact that it starts with the cutest track we ever wrote, which is all of four or five channels of ‘Brand New Science’, which is just so sweet.”
OMD’s biggest hits have benefitted from his or Paul’s clever or emotional lyric content, so I asked him about two instrumental pieces on the disc that I found particularly intriguing. “We are cool if something works as an instrumental. We’re quite happy to leave it without a lyric. That’s not a problem. ’Guitar Thrash’ was just us trying to sound like one of the thrashiest songs by NEU!, like ‘Hero’, but we didn’t have a good lyric on it.” So off to OMD storage it went.
“‘Radio Swiss International’ comes from the “Dazzle Ships” era. We sampled a bunch of the radio call signs from various political radio stations. Swiss [Radio] International wouldn’t let us use their call sign because they said the album was weighted too heavily towards communist propaganda. And then we said, ‘if we use your call sign, we’re balancing it, aren’t we?’ They still wouldn’t let us use their call sign. I hadn’t realized [until now that] we had tried to use it and make it into a broader piece of music, that we’d added extra instruments, so that was another surprise we’d found.” When I mention that I think it sounds like a futuristic music box, he replies, “To English people, it [probably] sounds like an ice cream van, the ones that used to drive around and belt out distorted versions of ‘Greensleeves’.”
Using one of their international hits, Andy gives me a concrete example of his writing process in the eighties, along with a brief singing lesson. “To give you an idea of how it worked [then], if you think of the song ‘Joan of Arc’, that started with me laying down 5 minutes of myself singing the note A and putting in an echo. Then another 5 minutes of me singing random harmonies around it. Then I played glockenspiel randomly in A major, and then I put down a click [track]. Then I started to write a song over that [instrumental] bed track.
“I put down the bass and chords, and then I finally got a vocal and drums. And that’s how ‘Joan of Arc’ was created. ‘Joan of Arc’ would not have that same texture or atmosphere if I had not started from those completely abstract elements. That’s how we used to write: we would experiment, throw sounds onto a tape and then see if we could conjure a melody or a vocal out of it, from the feeling we created. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it didn’t.”
About the author:
Mary L. Chang is an American freelance music journalist. She was the Editor-in-Chief of the UK/U.S./Irish music website There Goes the Fear from 2010 to 2019 and has contributed to international music outlets including DIY, Click Music and PopWreckoning.