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Manoeuvring Into The Pop Mainstream

June 08, 1986|DENNIS HUNT

Don't judge a band by its name. If you did you'd probably completely ignore Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. And its music is too good to be ignored, particularly its Top 5 single "If You Leave," from the "Pretty in Pink" sound track.

It may not be the most pretentious, ponderous band name ever, but it can't be too far behind the worst. When Andy McCluskey (vocals, bass, keyboards) and his partner Paul Humphreys (vocals, keyboards)--both 26--were teen-agers in Liverpool, England, 11 years ago dreaming up band names, they were in the market for an unusual one.

"We wanted to show people that we are different," McCluskey recalled.

"I wish there was some deep and symbolic significance to the name but there isn't. A name like this is what happens when two fertile 16-year-old minds get together in a bedroom and think of song titles. It was the title for a song we planned to do when we were about 17. But we never got around to doing it.

"In 1978 we started out as a two-piece band. We needed a name that would show people that this wasn't an average punk band or an average pub-rock band. We needed an outrageous name so we used that song title that was never a song."

Now most people simply shorten it to OMD. But some smart-alecks do refer to OMD as "the band with the rotten name."

The riveting "Enola Gay," an early OMD single, is the band's best song. The tones of the music and the lyrics are at odds, creating a chilling tension. "Enola Gay" is the name the bomber that dropped the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. It's also the name of the pilot's mother. This sinister theme is couched in an up-tempo, effervescent musical framework. The concept is clever, the execution brilliant.

McCluskey explained how this song indirectly led to the "Pretty in Pink" sound track assignment: "John Hughes (screenwriter and executive producer of 'Pretty in Pink') has been quite a fan of ours ever since he heard 'Enola Gay' on KROQ way back when. When we were in L.A. last summer for a concert, we were invited to meet him at Paramount. He took us on the set of the movie and asked us to write a song for the sound track, something reasonably up-tempo for the final scene. We had nothing to go on but a script."

It turned out that the song he and Humphreys wrote was fine, but there was a problem. The ending of the film had changed, so this song was unsuitable. They tried again. But, on the eve of a tour, they were pressed for time.

"It was a traumatic period," said McCluskey, his tone indicating he was reliving the agony. "We rushed into the studio determined to do some song for this film. We had three days before the tour started. We were so nervous. The pressure was heavy. We were scared we would fail to come up with the right thing.

"This time we saw a rough cut of the film. That helped. We wrote the song in a way we usually don't write. We sat at the piano and worked it out. We had never done a song that way before. We usually start songs in an abstract way, with noises or odd ideas. Those noises and passages and rhythms start to suggest concrete ideas and as time goes by we hone it into a song and polish it up. But that's the long way. This time we went into the studio at 3 in the afternoon and by midnight we had written 'If You Leave' and had a demo (demonstration record) of it."

But was it what the film makers wanted?

"Everyone heard it and liked it," McCluskey replied. "It felt great to have the pressure off. And we felt like we had done something significant."

Before scoring with "If You Leave," OMD was, in this country, just an interesting cult band. "We spent six years playing in America without ever really breaking out of cult status," Humphreys said. "We weren't sure we could do it. For America something wasn't right about the music and we weren't sure what it was."

But making it in this country has never been high priority for this band. American success would have been nice, of course, but OMD wasn't exactly being ignored by the rest of the world.

"We were big in Europe before we came to America," Humphreys noted. "Over the years we have been No. 1 in every European country."

In 1980, when the band first came to this country, it had a small following based on its European popularity. Hip American fans were familiar with the band through imports and air play on progressive radio stations like KROQ. Those fans were intrigued by the kind of pop-synthesizer music OMD does so well--intelligent, slickly melodic power-pop surrounded by whining synth sounds.

When Epic Records signed OMD in 1981, American success seemed sure to follow. But right away there was a problem with radio. "The stations were very conservative," Humphreys noted. "They were playing REO Speedwagon, Journey, Foreigner--that type of band. We were too radical for American radio then."

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