Pioneering Merseyside band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were once asked by an exasperated record company executive: ‘Are you Stockhausen or ABBA?’
To which founder members Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys replied in unison: ‘Can’t we be both?’
The question and answer sum up OMD’s unique approach to electronic music, happily mixing experimental bravura with elements of pop.
This ground-breaking fusion saw OMD become one of the most influential synth-pop bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
They enjoyed serious fame and commercial success too. So much so that one newspaper commented: ‘If Kraftwerk were the Elvis Presley of synth-pop, then Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were its Beatles.’
OMD’s popularity is reflected in their worldwide record sales. Up to now, the band have sold more than 40 million records, made up of 15 million albums and 25 million singles.
It all started on the Wirral in the 1960s when McCluskey, born in June 1959, first met Humphreys at Great Meols Primary School. The two ended up playing in several bands together.
McCluskey also attended Calday Grange Grammar School in West Kirby where he formed the group Equinox with school friend Malcolm Holmes on drums. McCluskey sang vocals and played bass while Humphreys was the band’s roadie.
Drawn to the electronic music of German band Kraftwerk, McCluskey then fronted the intriguingly titled group Hitlerz Underpantz while Humphreys developed his keyboard skills.
Their horizons expanded in September 1977 when they started the seven-piece Wirral group the Id.
McCluskey and Humphreys also collaborated on a project called VCL XI which allowed them to explore more obscure electronic themes.
When the Id split up in August 1978, McCluskey briefly joined another Wirral band – Dalek I Love You – as their lead singer. Other group members were Merseyside musicians Alan Gill and David Balfe, later of Big in Japan.
McCluskey left after less than a month because he wanted to perform his own songs. He rejoined Humphreys in the VCL XI project which they renamed Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
The title was taken from lyrics pinned on McCluskey’s bedroom wall and was chosen so the group could not be remotely mistaken for a punk band.
The pair also said the name didn’t really matter as they only intended to play one gig. How wrong they were! Later McCluskey said he regretted choosing such a ‘silly’ name.
With very little money, McCluskey was forced to play a left-handed bass guitar upside down while Humphreys created makeshift instruments from his aunt’s radios.
Eventually they got hold of a basic Korg synthesizer from a mail-order catalogue which they paid for in installments.
OMD made their debut, as did many other Merseyside bands, at Eric’s Club in Liverpool in October 1978.
They also released what they thought would be a one-off single entitled Electricity with independent Manchester-based label Factory Records.
It didn’t work out that way as Electricity (released twice) gained so much recognition that Dindisc, part of Virgin Records, signed OMD up to a seven-album deal worth £250,000.
OMD then opened performances for Manchester band Joy Division and supported future electronic music icon Gary Numan on his first major UK tour in 1979.
The band released their debut album Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark in 1980 via an unorthodox route. Instead of hiring time in a recording studio, they set up their own – the Gramophone Suite in Liverpool.
The album, which featured Holmes on drums and Wirral saxophonist Martin Cooper, produced the single Messages which reached No. 13 in the UK charts.
OMD’s second album, Organisation, was more sombre, influenced by the death of Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis. It included the global hit Enola Gay, which peaked at No. 8 in the UK, but topped the charts in Spain and Italy.
Along with the 1986 single If You Leave, the anti-war song Enola Gay is widely regarded as OMD’s signature tune.
In June 1988, OMD played a feature spot for Depeche Mode at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
To show OMD’s diversity, drummer Stuart Kershaw collaborated with McCluskey to set up the Merseyside all-girl group Atomic Kitten in 1998. He’d worked with OMD since 1991 and replaced Holmes permanently on drums in 2015.
Atomic Kitten’s first major hit was Whole Again, which went to Number One in 2000 – four weeks after original band member Kerry Katona quit the group.
She was replaced by Jenny Frost who joined Liz McClarnon and Natasha Hamilton.
*Fascinating wartime images of Merseyside feature in Clive Hardy’s latest hardback book, The Home Front – Britain 1939-45.
It’s now on sale for £14.99 plus UK postage and packing. Just go to inostalgia.co.uk/shop to order or call the order hotline on 01928 503777. And remember – buy three books and get 25 per cent off!