Book Review: Richard Houghton: OMD – Pretending To See The Future

This Day In Music Books | 2018 | 449 pp.

While the OMD book shipped late last year, the time to read it had been scant this year and I only recently finished it! I took an immediate shine to the compact, yet hefty tome on delivery as it was impossible not to take a quick look. The loose format followed a simple timeline of the last 50 years dating back to the boyhoods of primary members Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey to even before they met in school. McCluskey has said that the book would be weighted towards the earliest days of the band which made the most sense. After all, it was their youth experiences that formed those two into the people who could have only ever been Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark.

Andy in his “prog phase” as part of Equinox while in school. Possibly the only time he was ever near a double necked guitar.

The format of the book had everyone discussing their experiences in the first person. Primary of these are the paragraphs of the memories of McCluskey and Humphreys, but the book uses them as a jumping off point. Close family members, childhood friends, and their peers all figure the tapestry of the book. Childhood experiences like Paul losing his sister at a young age or Andy’s father having a gambling compulsion [or even his grandmother’s incontinence] were all grist for the tale and it quickly became apparent that the more gregarious McCluskey had a far lower use for caginess than his more restrained partner. If Paul expressed regrets for how the band split in 1988, then McCluskey gave us a warts-and-all view of the hows and whys of it; usually taking it on the chin at the same time.

Andy had nothing on Paul’s serious “rock dude” coif!

The two met in school as boys and the opinionated, gregarious McCluskey met Humphreys when the latter agreed to be the roadie/tech for Andy’s group, Equinox. Ironically, Andy hated prog but this was all he had to work with locally in Meols. Personally, Andy figured that the future of Rock was: Kraftwerk, Bowie, Neu!, Roxy Music, and Eno. And nothing else! It was Paul who had an ear for prog; leading him to offer support for Equinox. Once they met, it became apparent that they had formed a small, mobile, intelligent unit of their own, and from there it was quickly on to the formation of their next band, The Id.

There were some dead-end journeys along the way…

But before that there was the risibly named Hitlerz Underpäntz, who dared to traffic in Rock Umlauts®! Soon, the duo were in college and The Id was laying down some material that would live onward as part of the early OMD sound. The density of points of view all remembering these times as the band members and their intimates all weigh in creates a dense web of information, all loosely configured. Though the book was credited to Richard Houghton, he can be said to have edited it rather than writing it, since the writing was all first person accounts from the contributors.

teenaged mad science from the notebooks of OMD

The layout of the book has an eye-comforting balance of white space allowing for freedom from fatigue, and the profuse illustrations [all except for original b/w images are in color] drop in to show things as varied as early live photos, handbills, venue ads from the music press, and even drawings of new instrument concepts as above.

Did you know that Peter Saville directed the “Souvenir” video? Me neither!

Once the band’s story has them taking flight by 1980, the pace of the narrative sped up, with the final 2/3 of the book covering the rest of their career right up to last summer. Given that the book was announced in early 2018 and the call for fan involvement lasted from roughly February 2018 to the late summer, with the book’s publication date being released in June. So the conceit of having a first person account of the full 40 year OMD saga from pre-origins to the point of publication via hundreds of submissions from the band as well as their industry contacts and fans allowed this book to come together very rapidly. I can’t say how long that they were planning this before they announced the call for entries, but I think its fair to say that it could have been on the burner for as much as a year at the least.

Notes on “Architecture + Morality”

Perhaps the most amazing thing to learn is that OMD had a cripplingly bad deal with Dindisc/Virgin. This was down to the A+R person who signed them taking one look at their name and their hygiene-challenged manager and deciding that they would not go far. He thought they were lucky to even have an offer. Of course, when OMD were selling in the millions of discs two years later, they barely had two coins to rub together. This penury was hammered home throughout the book as the basic state of the band throughout most of their first ten years. At the same time that OMD were getting $5000/show to open for Depeche Mode in America on that 1988 tour, the headliners [who famously had a 50/50 split with Mute Records] were set for life.

Amazing maquettes for the ‘Dazzle Tour’ that blew our mind

Things came to a well-documented head in 1988 with the band fissuring because Andy and the manager could not see a point where they could step off of the treadmill without losing what they had achieved so far. The rest of the band were in need of a break and by that I don’t mean “breaking” America. The difficulty in selling their music over here resulted [as we all know] in it being watered down from their more personal point of view into something more blandly professional. Famously, the story of their writing and recording “If You Leave” in a frantic, chemically-fueled 24 hour period is recounted here with a sense of amazement that they were able to do it at all. As ever, the band’s insights to this critical period are candidly forthright as they discussed financial issues that dogged the band and ultimately contributed to its breakup.

…as compared to the actual stage set by Ben Kelly/Peter Saville

Ironically, it was only after the band broke up that they managed to have any money! Without album/tour advances dogging their heels, they released their greatest hits and finally slipped into the black. With Virgin whispering in his ear, Andy next released three OMD albums without the participation of the other members and while the first one was a hit, he once again found himself in exactly the same financial position as before with debt steamrolling him into following up the hit “Sugar Tax” album with an ill-considered album that sold poorly because he felt he didn’t have the time to get the necessary inspiration to write the material.

The band get magenta call outs to discuss various topics in sidebar

Of course the band ultimately reformed in 2006 to stick together [barring the health issues that sidelined drummer Malcolm Holmes from continuing to play in 2013] until they had marked their 40th year with this book as well as world tours. As the book moves beyond their peers talking about their relationship to the group, the band’s fans come to dominate the book’s second half. Many fans have come to points in their lives where they now work with OMD, which is inspirational. Their current manager, Mirelle Davis, used to follow them from gig to gig in her younger days. And hearing some of the fan’s stories can sort of choke you up as many people relate how the music of OMD got them through rough patches in their lives. The band’s latent melancholy must have called out to a lot of people. I was one of them, and both of my submissions actually made the cut for the book; amazing me when I got to the point in the timeline where they would reside. Of course they were brutally edited down, even though I was trying to reign in my usual verbosity [do tell?] in the interest of being succinct. As I suspected up front, this book is both definitive, and endlessly browsable as it’s comprised of discrete chunks of writing with the longest segments being 2-3 pages long at most. My Aztec Energy Dome is duly doffed at the end result. This book was a lively and informative look at one of the most major bands in my Record Cell. If you can say the same then by all means look out for this one.

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About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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6 Responses to Book Review: Richard Houghton: OMD – Pretending To See The Future

  1. Tim says:

    It looks like a really well put together book.
    Did you ever buy that DEVO deluxified book?
    I am reading a David Sylvian bio right now, I usually finish any book that I start, in this case there’s a lot of skimming happening and I probably won’t read all of it.

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  2. Andy B says:

    I received this lovely book from my girlfriend for Christmas. Just the right balance of photos and peoples’ accounts. It did indeed make sense to put most weight towards the early years with some fascinating insights along the way. Being a local lad I have the benefit of knowing many of the places referred to in the band’s story so I could really relate to many of stories. It’s a shame that Erics appears to be lying empty again after reopening not so long back. I did notice a few errors – repeating one person’s story twice and stating one photo was from a 1990s gig when it was obviously more recent. Ignoring that, it really is a must read for anyone interested in the band. I’m looking forward to seeing them again in the autumn/fall.

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  3. slur says:

    While you’re at OMD again, here is an interesting tidbit at The Quietus I found today in my lunch break which is perhaps not mentioned in the book;
    https://thequietus.com/articles/26635-joy-division-unknown-pleasures-40th-anniversary-bakers-dozen-suede-laibach-irvine-welsh?page=11 taken from this 2013 feature;
    https://thequietus.com/articles/11834-andy-mccluskey-omd-orchestral-manoeuvres-in-the-dark-favourite-albums
    I’ve found it a very interesting read.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      slur – I had read that myself! Actually, it is included in the book, but not that first astonishing paragraph where he laid down the Limp Bizkit law to his son! [priceless]

      The tale of Hook “babysitting” the 17 year old “girlfriend” of the then 27 year old McCluskey [ugh! – Andy’s no better than Iggy pop on that front] at the “Pretty In Pink” prexy and then meeting her son years later was in the book.

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  4. Congratulations on getting into an internationally-published work, O Monk! I’m sure your entries — even cut down to “mostly harmless” — will do your acolytes proud!

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