Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark
We report on this top chart group.
"Being fairly incompetent musicians means that we can't do the normal things that a musician would."
Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark makes it quite clear that he and Paul Humphreys, although they are among the most innovative electronic musicians in the country are not interested in doing things by the book. "Synthesisers should be a means to an end. If we wanted to, we could spend £10,000 on the Fairlight CMI which would record and analyse acoustic sounds, then reproduce them for us from its VDU analysis, but it doesn't interest us. We'd rather do it our way."
Doing it their way has, so far, proved musically fascinating and financially rewarding. Orchestral Manoeuvres is simply the most enduring line up, so far, of all the bands Andy and Paul have been involved in since they formed the Neu and Can influenced VCL XI when they were sixteen. That was followed by Hitlerz Underpantz and The Id. All of these bands had experimental leanings, but when The Id and our two heroes parted company in 1978, the decision was made to team their talents with those of Winston.
Winston was a tape recorder, who took the place of other musicians via tapes made by Paul and Andy prior to their gigs. So it was that OMD came into being with a gig at Eric's on 12 October 1978 in Liverpool. Merseyside is their home, and local landscapes infiltrate their lyrics frequently. "We were too young to be influenced by The Beatles, and I particularly don't like them," says Andy. "We listened to Eno, Kraftwerk, Can, but we had no idea that anybody else in England was doing the same thing until 1979 when Numan and Cabaret Voltaire suddenly appeared."
Gary Numan invited them to join his tour in September of that year and, very astutely, they used the money they earned to build their own 16 track studio in Liverpool. What they lack in traditional musical values is made up for by sheer hard work. "We're compulsive workers. We spend whole days in the studio and we've found it a great asset to us. We can spend a week in the studio and it costs us nothing, whereas most bands pay a fortune to get studio time exactly when they want it."
OMD are continually self-critical, but it is clear that most of their criticisms are unfounded. They claim to be disorganised but, in fact, "The studio also houses a rehearsal room, control room and office, so if we get bored we can do some office work." That kind of organised work pattern could improve many bands attitudes and their output. "We engineer ourselves, which accounts for the poor quality of our sound," says Paul, but on their new album Architecture and Morality (Din-disc), several of the tracks were completely recorded in their own studio and simply mixed elsewhere. "We didn't like the clean, clinical sound you get in most big studios. Our mixing desk is really battered and has a lot of channel distortion which gives a wonderful, graunchy edge to our sound."
Where most bands spend years trying to eliminate distortion, OMD are taking pains to introduce it creatively into their work. "Electronic music often sounds too clinical because synthesisers are usually D.I'd (direct input) into mixing desks, so because there's no microphone involved you don't get the speaker distortion or the amp distortion. We sometimes mike things up to restore that. We also have an ambient room down at The Manor studio where we mike things up at a distance and get a big, boomy sound."
What this ingenuity and lateral thinking proves is that you don't have to be a world class musician to produce unusual sounds or thought-provoking music. On the new album, OMD have been experimenting with electronic reproduction of vocal and acoustic sounds but typically, they even tackle that in their own way. "Our instrument of the week is our second-hand Mellotron, but we don't use it to sound like the Moody Blues. We don't put any echo on it and we use a sharply defined cut and thrust sound, big blocks of it. We build up whole choirs through multiple tape loops, and because some of them don't go round at quite the right speed, they shimmer and shift in ways that a real choir never could."
There was a certain irony in the fact that the 1976 punk explosion involved much sneering at the synthesiser. "In one sense," Paul points out, "they're the ideal punk instrument. If you take the punk ethic as being get up there and do it without being a musician', then the synthesiser allows you to make wonderful sounds with one finger and very little ability."
The hoary old chestnut - could the synthesiser eventually replace the guitar - puts Andy in two minds. "I don't know. They're in vogue at the moment, they're also cheaper and more accessible than ever but I think that what's really taking over is studio technology in general. Flangers, aural exciters, DDLs and space echoes, all that stuff."
When the synthesiser was first introduced onto the market, back in the sixties when people still couldn't pronounce Moog properly, it was seen as an instrument capable of reproducing any sound the musician might imagine, but in practice every synthesiser has its own unique sound, which to some extent explains why so many electronic bands sound alike. "There are getting to be synthesiser cliches or if you want to sound like Gary Numan you buy a Polymoog," explains Paul.
"A lot of Ultravox's sound depends on the ARP Odyssey," says Andy, taking up the theme. "And a lot of ours is Korg with a Prophet string sound. The real reason why people sound the same is that they don't use the instrument properly. They don't explore the potential, which is dreadful, because the synthesiser has more potential than any other instrument."
For Orchestral Manoeuvres, ideas are as important as technique, if not more so. In common with classical music composers, they can see ways to incorporate abstract ideas into their music. For example, "On the latest album, 'The New Stone Age', was an attempt to make primitive synthesiser music." To Andy, primitive synthesiser music doesn't mean George Crumb or Morton Subotnik. "No, it relates to my love of archaeology. The first thing I ever wanted to be was an archaeologist, so I wanted to bring that into the music. It seemed quite feasible to us, but we failed miserably."
I was lucky enough to hear the track he referred to, and if that's his idea of failure, I can't wait to hear it when they finally get it right. "What we ended up with here is choral and religious synthesiser music, because lately we've been listening to a lot of Gregorian chants, Debussy and various requiems. But we're still working on the 'Stone Age'."
"I suppose we have basically, a non-musical sound. Recently we were trying to work out some rather complicated chords which were too difficult for Paul to play so he did octaves, which gave it a very strange sound. In the studio we have our keyboards set up back to back and we search out the harmonies we want without looking at each other until we find what we want. I suppose it is unusual but if you compare our work with a lot of the stuff done by technically first class performers who know about all the latest hardware, it's our stuff that has a different edge to it."
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark is a group you can only judge on results. Despite their insistence that they can't play, their music is more melodic than most and that's what counts. It's hardly surprising that they can spot a good tune when they hear one because Andy points out that, as well as Kraftwerk, Can and the other Germans, they have some less predictable tastes. "Nat King Cole is just about my all time favourite singer, and if we ever get near a juke box with Sinatra or Glenn Miller on it, Paul invariably puts it on. Their stuff has become standard, it is revered almost as antiques. In terms of our melodies I'd like to think we could be like that. Good melodies should last forever."
You better believe it. Apart from the new album, just released, Orchestral Manoeuvres are currently touring the UK, so you've no excuse to miss out.