Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark celebrate 40 years with gig at Portsmouth Guildhall

For a band who performed their first gig on a dare, Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark have had a pretty good run.

Monday, 4th November 2019, 9:01 am
Updated Friday, 8th November 2019, 9:54 am
OMD at Portsmouth Guildhall on November 12, 2019. Picture by Alex Lake

One of the first synthpop acts, they have gone on to sell more than 40m records and influence countless others. Started by Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, OMD are celebrating their 40th anniversary with a world tour and new boxset including five CDs, two DVDs, a book and art prints, all aptly named after their early hit single, Souvenir.

They bring the tour to Portsmouth Guildhall on November 12, and The Guide spoke with Paul while the band were still on tour in America with Love Shack hit-makers The B52s – who also celebrate turning 40 this year.

On paper, it may not seem the likeliest of pairings, but as Paul explains: ‘We can do our own big American tours, and sell out big shows on the east and West Coast and, places like Chicago and Florida and stuff like that, but there’s this whole middle America where we struggle to sell tickets.

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‘It's been a way to play to people in the same way that you do at festivals – to play to people who wouldn't normally come to your gig and then you kind of win them over. Or at least you hope to win them over!

‘Between the two bands, we're playing for a lot of people each night.’

Andy and Paul grew up together on The Wirral in Merseyside. They were friends at school and eventually started dabbling in electronic music, united by a mutual dislike of most guitar music.

‘For a band who only intended to play one gig we’re doing pretty well,’ laughs Paul. ‘It was kind of a dare – me and Andy daring each other to go on stage to play our electronic music at (renowned nightclub) Eric's Club in Liverpool.

OMD are at Portsmouth Guildhall on November 12, 2019. Picture by Alex Lake

‘We were two working class boys growing up in a suburb of Liverpool, and we were the only people listening to that sort of German music – Kraftwerk, Neu!, La Düsseldorf – and all our friends who were musicians were listening to Genesis, Pink Floyd The Eagles and Queen, and stuff like that.

‘But we were into all this weird German stuff, which was kind of why we were a duo – we couldn't find anyone else to play with us!’

The pair were hooked from the first time they heard Kraftwerk’s Autobahn on the radio – its impact still clear on Paul more than four decades on.

‘It was like: this is the first day of the rest of our lives! And: what the hell is that? Closely followed by: that sounds like the future to me.’

OMD are at Portsmouth Guildhall on November 12, 2019. Picture by Alex Lake

Legendary Liverpool record shop Probe Records helped feed their habit for this new wave of electronic German music, with store manager Pete Burns, who would later find fame as frontman of Dead or Alive, sourcing imports for them.

Some of the audience at that first gig at Eric’s had come across from Manchester, and convinced the new act they should play there at The Factory Club. Here they met Tony Wilson, who was at that time a TV presenter on Granada Reports, but would also go on to start Factory Records, the home of Joy Division, Happy Mondays and New Order.

‘We cheekily gave him a cassette of Electricity, the the only song we had recorded at that point, and said: “Can we get on your TV show?” because he used put local bands on the end of his news program to give them exposure.’

For several weeks they heard nothing. ‘Apparently Tony didn't really get it, but his wife loved it and kept playing it in the car. Tony had just decided to start Factory Records and he'd already signed Joy Division, and Lindsay, his wife, just kept saying: “You've got to sign this band for the label, they’re great”.

‘So he phoned us up and said: “Listen, I can't get you on the TV show, it’s booked up for ages. But I'm starting a label, can I release Electricity on it?” Of course we said yes.’

Their next lucky break came while they were on tour with Joy Division and A Certain Ratio.

‘We played a show in London on The Factory Tour with Joy Division, and I remember there was a knock on the dressing room door and in walked Gary Numan, who had just had the number one with Are ‘Friends’ Electric? and Cars was climbing the charts.

‘He said: “Listen guys, I'm going on tour in the UK. I've got a huge tour booked. I'm looking for the right band to open up for me. Do you want to come on the road with us?”

‘And we said: “Gary, we've absolutely no money, we can't do it”.’

But Numan told them not to worry – they could ride on his tour bus and they would carry all of the band’s equipment.

‘We've been good friends ever since,’ adds Paul, ‘because that was a fabulous tour.’

Things moved fast now – during that tour, they signed a seven album deal with Dindisc Records, a subsidiary of Virgin.

‘Only a year after that support slot with Gary we went round as a headline act doing the same venues. All of a sudden we had gone from going to do one gig at Eric’s to having hits, being on Top of the Pops and doing huge tours, it was really quite surreal.’

So being a popstar wasn't part of the plan, then?

‘The thing about OMD was that there was no plan, we had absolutely no plan at all. We were just in the right place at the right time, the right doors opened, and we dared each other to walk through those doors to see what happened. And we ended up with a career…’

And as Paul admits, even as they were in the ascendant, they were already making plans that definitely didn’t include future fame.

‘Andy and I didn't have a masterplan. All our friends thought our music was crap because we were doing this weird electronic, experimental stuff.

‘We kind of believed that we were sort of no-hopers. Even when we signed the deal with Dindisc, we kind of budgeted for failure because we read the contract. It said they can drop us after one album, but we can't leave for seven albums if it goes well.

‘We thought, well, they're going to drop us after one album anyway, so we spent all the advance money that we had to build a big recording studio in Liverpool. We thought that if and when they drop us after the first album, at least we have a business.

‘There was only one real recording studio in Liverpool at that time,so a recording studio was a good business to have.’

Their 1981 album Architecture & Morality sold more than 4m copies, and they scored top 10 singles with Enola Gay, Souvenir, Joan of Arc, Maid of Orleans and Locomotion.

But Humphreys quit the band in about 1990, unhappy with their direction.

‘I let Andy carry on and he made a few albums after I left. He had a really good successful album with Sugar Tax, but then the more it got into the ’90s the more it became obvious that electronic music wasn't hip anymore.

‘It was confined to being “’80s music”, and that was when grunge was starting to come through and Britpop, Nirvana and Oasis, and all of that. All of a sudden, the future wasn't electronic music, the future was like the ’60s, kind of The Beatles and Rolling Stones or this mix of ’70s punk.

‘There wasn't really a place for electronic music and Andy found he was banging his head against the wall so he stopped.’

Andy put OMD to bed in 1996, but as the wheel turns, so there was renewed interest in the band.

‘Then we got into the, into the noughties and all of a sudden we were in these kind of postmodern times. Through the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and into the ’90s, music was always fashion-driven and it was always a linear thing where one style deleted the style from before, but as soon as we got into the noughties, it was like, actually, everything can now exist together. Every genre is current in a way, as long as you do that genre really well.

‘The phone started to ring again and people wanted to see the band.

‘We kept putting it off until around 2005, when we got a call from a German TV show saying Maid of Orleans was the biggest hit of 1982 in Germany, we’re doing a show of the biggest hits from every year, can you come and play Maid of Orleans on the TV?

‘We phoned each other up and said, shall we go for a jolly, stay in a five star hotel in Cologne for two days, we’ll work for four and a half minutes, and we can all see each other. Because we all lived in different parts of the world it was a good opportunity to get together.

‘Around that time we'd been offered some other concerts, and it was so great to see each other again that we all said, should we dip our feet in the water and just try it again?’

Those nine shows soon grew to a run of 49 sold out shows. For several years, they were happy to revisit their back catalogue, playing classic albums and the like.

‘After a few years of that, we thought, well, Is this it? Are we going to start to become a tribute band to ourselves? Or do we still have something to say in the voice of OMD?

‘So we kind of dared ourselves to go back into the studio and we did the History of Modern album (2010), which was really well received and sold very well.

‘That was us getting the engine running and then we did English Electric (2013), which I think was a really good record.

‘Then the latest one we did a couple years ago, The Punishment of Luxury, Andy and I put our heart and soul into, and it did really, really well and was very critically acclaimed, even from our fans who put that album in among our very best from the ’80s, which is very flattering, because our fans are hard to please.’

The album put the band back in the top five for the first time since Sugar Tax.

Paul admits they were a bit pompous about labelled as pop music in their early days, telling Tony Wilson exactly what they thought when he called them ‘the future of pop music.’

After telling him where to go, Paul says they told him: ‘This isn’t pop music, how dare you?!’ Paul laughs at the memory.

‘We didn't get into the music industry to be famous, music was our art.

‘We always considered it our way of expressing ourselves. It was always our art form, but we also had a knack of writing catchy melodies, which helps because it meant we could continue – hit singles buy you freedom.’

When it came to the new boxset, the band were keen to be hands on.

‘Andy and I, we added up all our singles and we went: “Hm, we’ve released 39 singles in 40 years... If we write one more, it will be 40 singles in 40 years. So we wrote the new single Don't Go.

‘And we thought, if we ever have a license to celebrate our history, it's now really now, after 40 years. We have control of our catalogue so we don't put out that many compilation albums, but we thought for our 40th anniversary, let's just go for it.’

As well as all 40 of the singles, the package includes all of their Top Of The Pops appearances on DVD, a new live album from 1983, and 22 previously unreleased tracks Paul found during a rummage in EMI’s archive.

‘I mixed those and put together an album with 22 unreleased pieces. Some are more songs than others, some are under-developed, but I would say half of them are songs and half of them interesting pieces.

‘For Crush, our sixth album, we did we making of the album movie, and it was only ever released on VHS, so that’s there on DVD too.

‘There's lots of stuff for the fans to enjoy it, and it's a lovely, beautiful package.’

OMD are at Portsmouth Guildhall on Tuesday, November 12, doors 7pm. Tickets £41.75 - £49.85. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk.