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

OMD on the Dawn of Synth Pop, 'If You Leave' Success, New Album
From Rolling Stone - September 6, 2017

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 nowtwo kids from a [Liverpool] suburb who looked ridiculous," says McClusky from a cramped hotel room in San Francisco, where songs from The Punishment of Luxurythe band's stellar new 13thalbumdebuted 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 will 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 was not a [U.K.] hit, I do not 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.

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