To casual pop fans in the United States, there’s no question that Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark — OMD for short — is best known for its 1985 synth power ballad “If You Leave”. Full of New Romantic vocal melodrama and crescendoing keyboard, it was the song that famously launched Molly Ringwald towards James Spader’s arms at the end of Pretty in Pink (see video below).
But it would be a mistake to tuck OMD away in the nostalgia files. What many Americans may not realize is their now seminal position in the history of electronic music. Though “If You Leave” and other chart hits like “Enola Gay” stand out for their earworm melodies, the band’s beginnings around its native northwestern England were truly avant-garde.
OMD’s earliest shows, for instance, consisted of founding members Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys performing backed only by a four-track named Winston. Other early releases were based heavily on the latest electronic tools of the time, from home-made synthesizers to circuit-bent gadgets to collaged tape. The songs themselves were built based on a graphic notation system McCluskey and Humphreys invented. The symbolic series of slashes, dots, and lines would be stylized by iconic graphic artist Peter Saville (of Factory Records/Joy Division fame) on the cover of their first single, “Electricity”.
These days, the pop world seems to have finally caught up with OMD. The visual, modular style of songwriting is now the de facto method of choice in current production programs like Logic and Ableton, and heartfelt, soulful singing coupled with chillier, danceable electronics was long ago folded into the mainstream.
More than 30 years after the group’s inception, OMD is experiencing a rise in its stock. Not only are their original fans still turning out in droves — the band’s North American tour earlier this year sold briskly — but younger gear heads are coming to pay homage to the masters.