Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are even better than you think they are

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Artwork by Chris Strouth

Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.

There aren't a lot of bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. There is something incredibly singular about them in every aspect of their work. To the casual listener, they are the soundtrack of every Gen-Xer who was a little crushed when Andi walked away from Duckie and into the arms of Blayne to the sounds of "If You Leave" at the end of Pretty in Pink. (For what its worth I am pretty sure that Blayne would have eventually worked for Enron and done jail time.) That moment aside, from the release of their first record -- the self-titled Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark -- the group has cut a lonely path through pop music.

Full disclosure: I really like OMD. I wouldn't call myself a fan, but I own all of their records. Plus, I have seen all their shows in Minneapolis. The fact that there have only been two makes that a little easier -- and the cancellation of this week's show at the Varsity keeps it at that number for the foreseeable future. But given that the first one was 1988 and the second was 2011 makes it a little more impressive. With some help from a conversation Gimme Noise had with lead vocalist and co-founder Andy McCluskey, we might make an OMD fan out of you.


OMD formed in 1978 in the Wirral peninsula at a time when the U.K. was a tad angry and erratic. The area is not notable for its music, except for a few legendary exceptions, Elvis Costello and John Peel. While punk rock was music about finding beauty in chaos, OMD was more about finding beauty in beauty -- although it was often about not very pretty subjects.

At the reading of that, somewhere a synth fan is growing agitated and thinking things like, "What about the Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, and Clock DVA?" A good point, except they were all more than an hour and a half away in Sheffield -- which in U.K. geography might as well be a million miles, and stylistically about a million miles further. To put it in a more local sense think someone asking "what influence has the Milwaukee sound had on Minneapolis?" That said, I'm not sure that Milwaukee has a sound outside of the making of beer and dairy products.

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Artwork by Chris Strouth

"Essentially we hated almost all the music that we heard," says Andy McCluskey of the band's teenage influences. "We only liked a few things, and I can still name them. There was Kraftwerk, but on the other side, also from Dusseldorf, a much more energetic and emotional band was a band called Neu. We liked Kraftwerk's intellectual and melodic concept but we loved Neu's pure radical emotion. And then the only other bands we would listen to, quite literally, were Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Brian Eno. We wouldn't listen to anything else. Everything else was shit apart from those six I've mentioned. You know, our record company used to say to us, We cant work out whether you want to be ABBA or Stockhausen. And we said, well, we want to be both, actually."

I was 18 when I saw them open for Depeche Mode at the Northrup Auditorium. This was a highly anticipated show. Mostly for Depeche Mode, who were just hitting their stride with "People Are People" being a pop radio favorite, and joining the ranks of bands like the Police and the Clash that were stadium punk -- the small band that everyone knew.

OMD was the opener. They had no crazy set pieces, no computer-controlled lighting arrays or any of the accoutrements of a Wagner opera that scattered the stage for DM's performance later. Instead, it was just a few guys and gear. They tore the roof off the place, in a lot of ways almost literally, as the balcony swayed in time to the music. That might sound like a romantic metaphor but in this case it was literal.

"Well, when we were young, we completely accidentally fell into the music business," McCluskey explains. "It sounds preposterous and pretentious now, but what we were trying to do was actually make art. It was a conceptual art project in the guise of the two people who started the band. We had no idea, and no desire to ever be a pop group. Nobody was more surprised than us that we were when we ended up selling many of the records. Then we kind of lost the plot. There was a while in the '80s when we were too busy chasing sales in America, and doing what the record company told us to do, and we don't ever want to go back to that."

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