Wednesday, October 6, 2010

If You Leave by OMD

Because I grew up in a relatively small town, long before the public advent of the Internet, I often discovered non-mainstream pop cultural trends much later than other regions did. In fact, much of this type of music that I'm blogging about here was stuff that I didn't hear about until the late 80s when it achieved sufficient mainstream success to show up on MTV and in regular pop radio stations. After that point, I often had a backcatalog to catch up on from bands that had been around for a while but which I hadn't yet heard of (which was kinda fun in its own right), or with unknown word of mouth or related bands to check out. I was much less risk averse in my music preferences back then; I bought quite a few things just based on an offhand comment from someone who appeared to like the same kinds of music as I did.

Of course, that extreme of a position doesn't apply to OMD (or Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark as they're more properly called); I first heard of them when John Hughes made them famous in the USA by having them sing the definitive song from his movie Pretty In Pink. So by the time I was ready to hunt down some backcatalog, they had a pretty comprehensive one, considering that they were one of the very earliest synthpop bands out the gate, releasing material as early as 1979.

Longtime fans (or anyone with the capability of picking up the entire back catalog, really) will tell you that OMD's evolution over time is an interesting one to watch. They started off rather light and breezy with their first album, which gave us the singles "Messages" and "Electricity." "Enola Gay" was also originally meant to have been included on their eponymous freshman effort, but it got bumped, which was a shame, because it sounds more like it belongs with the line-up of the first album. The second album, Organization, was instead much darker; more melancholy and dreamlike in tone.

Of course, in the US, we didn't really know this, because we never got a release of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark or Organization; we got a release that combined tracks from the two albums onto a single one. Bleagh. OMD continued this darker direction for Architecture & Morality, as well as picking up a mellotron, which was not an instrument normally associated with the synthpop movement at all, but which added a very lush sound to their work. After this, OMD suffered a critical and commercial stumble with their even more experimental Dazzle Ships, which ushered in a strategic change in direction towards more overt poppish songs on their next albums, Junk Culture, Crush, and Pacific Age. Of course, when I was discovering OMD, they were smack dab in the middle of that more "commercial" synthpop phase, releasing songs like "Tesla Girls", "So In Love," "Secret", "Forever Live and Die," "We Love You" and, of course, "If You Leave" and "Dreaming."

Personally I like much of the "poppier" sound, and since I found them that way, I can hardly with a straight face accuse them of "selling out." This evolution is easy to see, though, even without all the albums in front of you. The greatest hits compilation that came out in the later 80s (and which was the best way to pick up "If You Leave" and "Dreaming" which were off-album singles) shows it clearly enough. But apparently, the band itself was sharply divided over this direction. While they were (usually) a four-man band, there were really only two "core" members, Andy McClusky and Paul Humphries, who never varied, and who did most of the direction, song-writing, singing, and other work, while the other guys were studio and concert musicians who weren't as involved on the creative side. Humphries left the band, along with the other ancillary members, and McClusky carried on on his own with the name OMD for three more albums, including 1991's very successful Sugar Tax, but the writing was on the wall already. McClusky had been the champion of abandoning the more experimental stuff and focusing on commercial success. Ironically, shortly after he did his first "solo" effort with the name OMD, the market for synthpop evaporated almost overnight, so his next two releases were much less successful, and he eventually abandoned working as OMD altogether.

That's not necessarily the end for OMD, of course… the classic line-up has recently reformed, done some very successful touring, and just released a new CD a few weeks ago. Which I haven't had the opportunity to listen to yet, but I'm curious how OMD will sound after all these years and all these changes. I initially fell in love with OMD's signature sound because it was both accessible and danceable (frequently) but also often haunting, ethereal, romantic, or otherwise very different in sound than bands like, say, Depeche Mode (which is interesting, because they toured with Depeche Mode more than once, including performing with them at the Pasadena Rose Bowl 101 concert.) In fact, I often loved OMD songs for the same reason that I loved Book of Love songs, and both of them stood as fairly unique offerings in the 80s synthpop line-up. Depeche Mode and Erasure, in particular, were often imitated but OMD was always something pretty singular.

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