On Tuesday, British synth-pop legends Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are releasing English Electric, their 12th studio album. “It’s not bad going for a band that was only going to do one gig,” frontman Andy McCluskey told Rolling Stone recently. “I’m still surprised that we had any career at all.
“The whole of our career is one huge accident,” McCluskey continued. “We were writing songs together in the back room of Paul [Humphreys]’s mom’s house and, quite frankly, our friends thought they were shit. It was only at the end of 1978 that we dared ourselves to play the songs live.”
After that one gig, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, better known as OMD, began to explode on England’s nascent New Wave scene, with their 1980 debut album hitting number 17 on the U.K. charts. Their third album, the critically acclaimed Architecture & Morality, yielded three chart-topping singles and threw the band into international stardom, save for in the United States.
“The strange situation we find ourselves in with American audiences is that they know ‘If You Leave,’ but are hard-pressed to think of another song,” McCluskey said with a laugh. “They think of us as one-hit wonder! ‘Enola Gay’ sold five million records, but we couldn’t get arrested in America. It was number one in France and Italy for three months!”
Despite what some Americans might think, OMD has had a wildly prolific career before the original lineup disbanded in 1986. That left McCluskey, operating more or less as solo act, to put out three records under the OMD name in the Nineties. English Electric is the second album to feature OMD’s classic lineup – original members McCluskey, Humphreys, Martin Cooper and Malcolm Holmes – since 1986’s The Pacific Age.
The band reunited only after they “had spent enough time part” and when a new generation of artists started to acknowledge the influence that OMD had on their own work. As McCluskey put it, “For a band that was past their sell-by date, a lot of young musicians were name-checking us. We had hung up our microphones like we were old football players who hung up their boots. And then when you’re 46, they call you up and tell you to get your boots back on and play. We did a few gigs, playing tracks of Architecture & Morality and such, but we didn’t want to be a tribute band to ourselves for the rest of our lives.”
To avoid that trap, the band set about trying to recapture their self-professed “dysfunctional” approach to songwriting – McCluskey can’t read or write music and plays everything largely by ear – which resulted in hits including “Electricity” and “Enola Gay” back in the Eighties. “What we tried to do on this album is unlearn 30 years of musicianship,” McCluskey explained. “On our first four albums we weren’t following anyone’s scripts. We just went into writing songs in our own weird dysfunctional way and we did what we wanted to do. And it sold. It sold millions! Then on our fourth album [Dazzle Ships], we went too far off the edge, and then we dialed ourselves back in and became craftsmen and started writing very conservatively. This time we tried to unlearn that conservative songwriting.”
After returning to their roots, the group crafted a new album filled with songs that are unmistakably OMD. It’s something that McCluskey claims was wholly intentional. “We were fortunate enough to have a distinctive sound. People recognize our sound. We would be foolish enough to abandon that for novelty. There’s no use in doing a shadowy pastiche of yourself for some trip down Memory Lane.”
For McCluskey and his bandmates, that meant diving back into the New Wave sound that they had helped create back in the early Eighties, while also striving to remain true to their status as musical innovators.
“It’s a dilemma for the old men in their 50s who were the sound of the future in their 20s,” said McCluskey. “What do the modernists do in the post-modern era? On this album we were true to our own sound and our own ethos, which is to question and try to find new ways of doing things. The hardest thing is to come up with new ideas.” Luckily for fans of the band, OMD seem to have no problem.