So OMD were now sweating bullets for the first time in their musical career. The rise to the top and the consolidating smash third album had been as natural and easy as could be, and yet by 1983 they had run aground after three years; a pretty common run of success as pop music goes. Rare is the band who can maintain hits beyond that “three year hype window.” In an era when Altered Images would break up when their latest single only made it to 46, OMD decided to honor their Virgin contract and soldier on, but not without some big changes.
First on the chopping block? Their self-described “boring bank clerk image.” In the late 70s, there was a Post-Punk vogue for bands that wore simple dress shirts and thin ties. John Foxx kicked this off for his “System Of Romance” look [a.k.a. The Quiet Man] and Ian Curtis of Joy Division picked it up and gave it some more cachet, and by the time that OMD coalesced, they managed to turn what had been an anti-image into a real one. For three years, one could not see photos of the band without the solid dress shirt and thin tie combo. Their fans probably dressed following suit… I know I did! [spoiler alert: I am wearing a solid color dress shirt and a thin tie right now]
When OMD resurfaced in 1984, a year on from “Dazzle Ships” they were like peacocks in comparison in mid-80s designer fashions which probably cost them ten-twenty times their previous wardrobe budget. But in a cutthroat world of bands vying for chart supremacy, much less a dramatic comeback, clothes do make the men.
Next big change? Their songs now had a conventional verse/chorus structure. One of the defining traits of OMD was that many of their songs had instrumental recurring chorus structures. Not only did they have esoteric song themes and subject matter, but they largely eschewed the Tin Pan Alley tradition of verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus. This was an aesthetic compromise more serious than designer fashions.
Stylistically, they were a band with lead synths and little or no guitar. Sometimes Andy would play a bass guitar and at other times he used bass synth in the rhythm bed. By 1984, the writing was on the wall. All manner of bands from their Post-Punk peer group were adding the potential scourge of the mid-80s: a horn section. Elvis Costello + The Attractions, The Stranglers, David Bowie all had them with Duran Duran joining the fray the next year. Sure, sure. Martin Cooper played sax on their debut album, but now they would come to lean on him all the more. This was the era of the MOR sax solo and OMD were looking into it cautiously.
Then came possibly the biggest change: they would now write songs with the word “love” in the lyrics! This had the effect of making the band far less unique in the marketplace in a profound manner. The sense of geeky otherness of the band would gradually dissolve away as they adopted more common subject matter for their songs. With the benefit of hindsight, the pivot point that was the commercial failure of “Dazzle Ships” would come to be the band’s bête noir. I’d go further to say that it defined everything they did from that point onwards.
Next: …But what about the music?