OMD on the Dawn of Synth Pop, 'If You Leave' Success, New Album

Eighties hitmakers also talk musical formula they're still perfecting on latest release 'The Punishment of Luxury'

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark look back on the origins of synth pop and their hit 'If You Leave,' and discuss their approach to songwriting. Credit: Mark McNaulty

Had Andy McClusky and Paul Humphreys formed Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark today, their chances of success might be slim, something they freely admit.

"Never, ever would we get a record contract now – two kids from a [Liverpool] suburb who looked ridiculous," says McClusky from a cramped hotel room in San Francisco, where songs from The Punishment of Luxury – the band's stellar new 13th album – debuted to an emphatically receptive crowd later that July night. "We had Afros and long hair, but were accidentally making what would turn out to be the next electronic pop music."

That was back in the late Seventies, back when punk paved the way for kindred outsiders. For the duo's very first gig, these Kraftwerk and Eno fans supported future post-punk legends Joy Division. Their second show had them opening for industrial music pioneers Cabaret Voltaire in Manchester, where they met Joy Division's manager Tony Wilson, who released their "Electricity" on his soon-to-be seminal indie label, Factory Records. That initial single was released nearly simultaneously with Tubeway Army's "Are 'Friends' Electric," which crowned Gary Numan as England's first breakout synth-pop star. After Numan drafted OMD to be his opening act, the brainy pair's undeniable catchiness scored numerous hits like "Enola Gay" as synth-pop exploded in European popularity: Their majestic "Maid of Orleans (The Waltz Joan of Arc)" became Germany's best-selling single of 1982.

"OMD are an integral thread in my musical history," Jason Mercer, the Honolulu-born singer-songwriter for the Shins and Broken Bells who spent most of his adolescence in Germany and England, tells Rolling Stone. "You can hear them in my melodic sensibilities and at times in our production aesthetic. Their music played while I pined for my first crush and I'll always love them!"

But in America, OMD struggled to match the success of their MTV-conquering Anglo contemporaries until they dashed off "If You Leave" for Pretty in Pink, the 1986 romantic comedy written by John Hughes, whose previous films boosted the careers of Simple Minds, Oingo Boingo and other quintessential New Wavers. Unabashedly romantic where much of OMD's output was intellectual, "If You Leave" scored their first and only U.S. Top 10 smash; back home, where their early albums all went gold or platinum, it reached no higher than Number 48.

"Why it wasn't a [U.K.] hit, I don't know," McClusky reflects. "We spent so much time trying to break America. Certainly it wore us out in terms of our style of songwriting, energy, and balance. We spent five years trying to break America and in the end America broke us."

He's not just being figurative: By the time of their most successful album, 1988's The Best of OMD, the band were indeed broke; a million dollars in debt. Having lost money on every U.S. tour, McClusky and Paul Humphreys went their separate ways the following year; it was only then, on hiatus, that they started to make money. But few could fault them on their work ethic.

"The first gig we ever played in the States was at Hurrah's [Manhattan's first rock disco], and we went onstage at 1 a.m.," McClusky recalls. "We'd arrived that day, and had no money for anything. So for that whole tour, we didn't have hotels. Basically, the barmaids at Hurrah's and their friends would look at pictures of the band and say, 'I'll take him, and you have him.'"

"I married one of them," soft-spoken Humphreys pipes in. "For that first gig, I married the girl I stayed with. And I have a lovely daughter from her as well."

McClusky resumed OMD as a solo act in the early Nineties, but gave up when grunge and Britpop reestablished retro-rock's dominance, rendering futuristic Eighties musicians, as he puts it, "past the sell-by date." Following a recommendation from former Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos, he formed and wrote songs for his chart-topping girl group Atomic Kitten.

"I thought I knew the music industry and all the shit I had to deal with after signing a terrible deal when I was 19," McClusky ruminates. "The manufactured music industry was the most dirty, backstabbing, ruthless ... everybody was angling for their piece of the pie."

Ten years after retiring their band, McClusky and Humphreys reunited in 2006 with their primary OMD collaborators, drummer Malcolm Holmes and keyboardist/saxophonist Martin Cooper, and have been touring and releasing albums ever since. Their new one, The Punishment of Luxury, ramps up both the sociological commentary and the melodiousness for which their classic Eighties recordings remain beloved. Uniting the duo's pop-smart immediacy and finessed aesthetics, it's their most balanced, well-rounded work in decades.

"Isn't it great that you have a song with a beat you can dance to?" McClusky summarizes. "Has a tune you can remember? Has something that is emotional? And has a lyric that makes your brain think? If you can tick four boxes with one tune, why not have it all?"