theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark | New music reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
On electro-pop stardom, Kraftwerk, religion and the new album
Andy McCluskey (b 1959) is singer and frontman of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, one of the most successful groups of the late Seventies and early Eighties electro-pop boom. They reformed five years ago but have been in no rush to dive into things, finally releasing a new album, History of Modern, this autumn.
The other person at the heart of OMD is McCluskey's creative partner Paul Humphries, and the classic line-up also contains multi-instrumentalist Martin Cooper and drummer Malcolm Holmes.
The group began in earnest in 1978, signing their debut single "Electricity" to Tony Wilson's Factory Records whose resident design wizard Peter Saville continued working on their sleeves long after they'd left the label. Their 1980 hit "Enola Gay" transformed them from a fringe interest into pop stars and their initial wave of success peaked with the 1981 album Architecture & Morality, which included two multimillion-selling synth-pop classics "Joan of Arc" and "Maid of Orleans".
The more experimental album Dazzle Ships (1983) failed to maintain their broad appeal but the group made commercial headway by mining more predictable pop territory, and contributing a song, "If You Leave", to the soundtrack of John Hughes's film Pretty in Pink. This helped make them a success in America but the band was worn out and split in 1989. McCluskey continued as OMD, and surprised everyone by making their biggest-selling album to date, Sugar Tax, while the other three formed a less successful group called The Listening Pool.
Eventually OMD fizzled out in the mid-Nineties and McCluskey moved behind the scenes, putting together the girl group Atomic Kitten, writing their Number One hit "Whole Again" among others. But right now he seems completely enthused with what OMD are doing. The band are, after all, about to embark on their biggest tour for many years.
Heavier-set than he used to be but fit and healthy-looking, he sits in a booth high up in Soho House, an eager interviewee who gulps mineral water as he attacks his answers with relish. Andy McCluskey talks to theartsdesk.
THOMAS H GREEN: Last night I happened to watch the DVD of Waltz With Bashir and suddenly "Enola Gay" came on, utilised to emphasise lost innocence as Israeli soldiers dance on a boat heading to war in the Lebanon.
ANDY MCCLUSKEY: We get quite a lot of requests to use songs in films and adverts but I remember that one coming in and thinking, a political cartoon from Israel, that's not exactly going to be a big seller, but if they want the song, fair enough. Next thing it's a big prize-winner and everyone's going to watch it.
Is the new album all your own handiwork?
Predominantly. There's one track called "Pulse" that was written by someone else. I completely rewrote the vocals but kept the chorus - the rest of it sounds like a dirty phone call. A lot of people say it doesn't sound like OMD; well, it doesn't, but it's very Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer. Effectively, it's a warped cover version, originally by some Danish songwriters [Remee, Cutfather & Joe].
Watch the video for "If You Want It", the first single from the new OMD album:
The song "Sometimes" also has a chorus that will be familiar to some.
It's a heavily pitch-shifted sample from the famous gospel song "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child". It wields a melancholy atmosphere over the rest of the song.
It has a touch of Moby about it.
You're not the first to have made that comment. It's not dissimilar to something that would've been on Play by Moby. However, we were using Gregorian chants and gospel choruses 30 years ago and Moby credits Architecture & Morality as being one of his top three albums so I expect Moby sounds like OMD as much as vice versa.
Did you go to church much as a boy?
The new song "Sister Marie Says" chimes with some of your older material in that it has an almost ecclesiastical feel.
My fascination with religion is born out of the fact I'm completely agnostic. I'm a very grey-area person. I can see both sides - if not more - of an argument so I'm fascinated by people who see things in black and white. The two strongest examples of this are religion - "I'm the right religion, you're the wrong religion, you are going to burn in hell" - and warfare, which we've also touched on in various songs - "I'm right, you're wrong, so I'm going to kill you". Both these attitudes I find quite hard to get my head round, to be that extreme because you're that certain... because I'm never that certain. I do like the incredible, stirring emotional qualities that are inherent in most religious music. It's designed to make your spirit soar and reflect your love of God. So ever since we got hold of a Mellotron we've sampled choirs.
The lyrics of "Sister Marie Says" are very specific.
In 1994 when I was living in Ireland there was a Polish nun called Sister Marie Gabriel who was taking out full-page adverts in The Times and the Independent - which can't have been cheap - saying that the Hale-Bopp Comet was a harbinger of the end of the world, that we should all be repenting and turning to Jesus, that she'd had revelations and knew what the third revelation of Fatima of Lourdes was, that the Catholic Church had tried to suppress this. I'd written songs about Joan of Arc and this just hooked me. I bought her book off the internet and read about her. The song is about her and there's a line in it, "Turn you face to Jesus and you'll all get fooled again."
Your first name is really George.
It wasn't a terribly fashionable name when I was born. I was named George after my paternal grandfather, then when I was less than a week old and very small my Scottish father picked me up and said, "Och, he's too wee to call George," and I was called Andrew because my parents were engaged on St Andrew's Day. Not even my mother calls me George; nobody does, apart from you.
What can you tell me about Meols where you and Paul Humphries come from?
It's Norse for "sand dunes" because it's on the coast, but it's misspelt. It used to be "Melse" but when the railway arrived they had a sign from Meols in Southport, which got its name for the same reasons but was spelt differently, so they thought, fuck it, that'll do. It's on the Wirral Peninsula, on the north coast, almost equidistant between the River Mersey and the River Dee. The Wirral Peninsula is quite schizoid - it has the M53 going up the middle and on one side, looking towards Liverpool, it's very built up, and the other side, looking towards Wales, is very rural.
If there was an OMD guided tour it would begin at Meols Primary School where you and Paul first met.
Although we're only eight months apart he was in the year below. Strangely enough my earliest memory of Paul and myself was when we'd both been naughty and we were made to stand on the stage in the hall at lunchtime when everyone else was eating. That was my first time on stage with him.
Being British, how would you define your family background from a class perspective?
On the cusp of upper-working and lower-middle. My mother's father dragged himself up by his bootstraps, from an office boy to director of a company that ran shops in Africa. They moved out of Liverpool to the nice leafy suburb of Meols, taking the train in every day. I get the impression they thought my mother had married below herself. My father was a renegade Scotsman who came to England to play football. He was a part-time footballer who'd broken his leg and ended up coming down to play for New Brighton on the Wirral Peninsula, who at the time were in the Northern Third [the old Third Division North of the Football League] and commanded gates of 15,000 a week. He was also a part-time engineer. I felt like the most working-class person in Meols, not least because we had a very small home. My mother was a part-time hairdresser and part-time lollipop lady. She never had time to clean the house which was populated by three children, several greyhounds and loads of oily engine parts that my father kept under the staircase. I was embarrassed to bring friends round. I grew up with my father working on people's cars every other day to earn money which he then lost at the greyhounds every night.
At the risk of a stretched analogy, do you think having all this machinery around rubbed off on your music later on?
I have a much happier relationship with synthesisers than with cars. I was woken every weekend morning by my father effing and blinding while he tried to hammer some recalcitrant car part. I grew up hating cars. I had to have my arm twisted to learn to drive and didn't pass my test until I was 20.
How would your teenage self regard your new album?
The late teen/early twenties Andy McCluskey would be frankly horrified that the 51-year-old Andy McCluskey was still in the music industry. I think that 20-year-old Andy would think 51-year-old Andy was a classic case of a kamikaze pilot with a long service medal. It just shouldn't be. I remember sitting in our local pub when I was 21, had a couple of albums out, been on Top of the Pops, talking to my mate Graham who had sold Paul his electric piano, the second ever tuned keyboard we ever got. I said to him, "Listen, if I'm still doing this when I'm 25, please shoot me." I was very precious, very pretentious, completely up my own arse about music, but OMD wouldn't have been the same if I wasn't like that. It was this desire to do only our own thing by our own rules and parameters that drove us to do what we did. If we just wanted to be in a rock'n'roll band, sell records and shag girls we wouldn't have been two guys and a tape-recorder playing songs that our best mates thought were shit. It wasn't really a recipe for success.
Previous incarnations of the band were called The Id and, ahem, Hitlerz Underpantz.
I didn't come up with those names. Hitlerz Underpantz was basically an annual event by a load of loony musicians from various parts of the Wirral Peninsula. You were invited to be in it. We weren't in the first Hitlerz Underpantz, we were in Hitlerz Underpantz, part two. We had a few rehearsals and just threw ourselves onstage with whatever gear we could beg, borrow or steal. I borrowed two bass cabs [amp cabinets] so you couldn't hear anyone else as I was so fucking loud. We were fronted by three shameless hussies, girlfriends in fishnets and suspenders who whipped the audience.
Did The Id use more traditional instrumentation?
It was a bunch of teenagers playing art-school rock that was on the proggy side. We had a brief flirtation with Yes and Pink Floyd. We did actually play a few songs that Paul and I wrote. There are recordings of The Id playing "Electricity", "Julia's Song" and "The Misunderstanding", songs that went onto our first album. We wrote "Electricity" when we were 16, when we got that electric piano off my mate Graham.
Continuing with the prog theme, weren't you initially produced by Mike Howlett, the bass player from Gong?
Cor, you really have done your research, that's frightening. Carol Wilson had created Dindisc, a subsidiary of Virgin. She signed us and let us do our first album by ourselves in our studio which we'd built. We thought they were so mad to give us a record contract because we confidently expected to sell bugger all. We thought, right, we'll keep the money, build our own studio so when the album flops and we get dropped, at least we'll have something to show for it. So we built a studio in three weeks, recorded the album in two. It sounded like badly recorded synth garage so when it came to our third single, and the first two hadn't really done anything, she insisted we get a producer... who just happened to be her boyfriend Mike Howlett. He did "Messages" with us, then "Enola Gay" and "Souvenir".
Watch the video for "Souvenir"
Happily he didn't bring his prog-rock background to the musical table on those songs.
The one thing he did was insisting that things sounded better but he left us to decide how the songs should be arranged. We had our own way of doing things, even down to when Malcolm played drums on "Messages" he wasn't allowed cymbals. In fact, he wasn't allowed cymbals for his first three years in the band because it was too stereotypically rock'n'roll.
One of your first incarnations was VCL IX, a name taken from the cover of Kraftwerk's Radio-Activity album, and your second album was called Organization, a reference to Kraftwerk's original name. Were you obsessed with Kraftwerk?
Yes, both of us were completely entranced by them to the point where I can tell you that on 11 September, 1975 at the Liverpool Empire I sat in seat Q36 and watched Kraftwerk play. It was the first day of the rest of my life. At the time it was all long hair, flared denim and guitar solos and these guys came out in short hair, suits and ties - it looked and sounded like the future and I wanted to be part of that, even though I looked like a junior Tom Baker with a big Afro, long scarf and greatcoat. When we heard "Autobahn" it was weird but it was very listenable, it wasn't Stockhausen, so we started buying their stuff. Their early music was quite experimental which suited us because we didn't have any instruments - a bass guitar which I got for my 16th birthday, an echo machine, a fuzzbox, and things that Paul created which made noises but didn't actually have a keyboard attached. In the back room at Paul's mum's house while she was at work we made noises and fantasised about being the Wirral's answer to Kraftwerk.
In terms of image Kraftwerk must have offered you a different way of presenting yourself before punk arrived and changed things for everyone.
Yes, when punk came we'd already found our alternative, but punk was very useful to us. There was this attitude of just get up and do it. We couldn't play, we didn't even have any instruments, we just got up and did it. We finally dared ourselves to go onstage in a club. Eric's [in Liverpool] opened at the end of the Seventies and gave a platform to all sorts of bands that would never have had a chance otherwise. All the good bands from our era came from the provincial cities - Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield. For a year or two the whole music industry decentralised and there were opportunities for kids who'd found their own local catalytic venue. Eric's was our Cavern. They let us play there which got us in [contemporary music magazine] Sounds' gig guide because we were in a name venue. The whole punk thing really worked for us. I think we saw ourselves as synth punks.
OMD seems to have always been a balancing act between stark synthesisers and your more opulent orchestral leanings.
As we started to develop we were consciously huge fans of Kraftwerk but unconsciously adopted other musical influences. We were big fans of NEU! who were a more organic, emotional musical being and we wouldn't have believed it ourselves at the time but we were welding Kraftwerk's minimal electro thing to an early Seventies British glam-pop sensibility. When Tony Wilson came along and said, "You guys are making future pop music," we were deeply offended because we thought we were experimental. But then you listen to "Electricity" and "Enola Gay" and they're electro-futurist pop songs. Nobody expected that the type of music we were making, which our friends thought was shit, would become the dominant face of British pop for the first half of the Eighties. The marriage of machines, of regimented programming, with more human, emotional, orchestral elements was an unconscious juxtaposition, but the tension of those elements pulling against each other created this beautiful melancholy, the sound of OMD. Even we understood this by the time we did our third album which was why it was called Architecture & Morality, alluding to the two qualities.
Watch the video for "Electricity":
Is it true that if you were asked to jam with a band you couldn't because you only know your own songs?
Very true, although I think that Paul has become a more accomplished keyboard player over the years. We once did a version of the Velvet Underground's "Waiting for the Man" in a very dysfunctional way but none of us can play guitar. I thrash at it like a percussion instrument in a very early [Brian] Eno way. No, we were such bad musicians in terms of technique that we never played with anybody else. We could do our own thing and after a while we could execute that quite professionally. We weren't interested in spending five years bending our fingers around a piece of wood and metal, the instrument manipulating us to become part of it. We wanted to liberate our heads from our hands. We wanted to have the idea and hear it come out of the speakers as soon as possible, so we used what we could, simple synths and drum machines, fitting things together in a way that worked but bypassed musicianship. You can teach anybody to play an instrument but writing songs, that's the important thing.
Gary Numan gave you a leg up in 1979 by inviting you as his tour support when he was one of the biggest acts in the world, then you repaid the favour taking him on tour in the Nineties when he wasn't as popular. Do you stay in contact?
I don't have much contact with many musicians. Paul's got many more interesting numbers in his phonebook but that's because he lives in London while I still live in the Wirral, and Paul's partner Claudia [Brucken, of Eighties synth acts Propaganda and Act] knows all these groups so he's got to know the Depeche guys, Heaven 17...
Gary Numan attracts a remarkably young crowd to his shows these days. Do you?
It's not all 40-year-olds. We have the first-time fans from the early Eighties, then another bunch who only first heard of us from the Sugar Tax album in 1991. Now you've got bands like LCD Sound System, MGMT, The xx, Brandon Flowers, all name-checking us so there's all these kids who've obviously been raiding their parents' record collections to find out who the grandfathers of this genre were. We were so condemned as being past our sell-by date in the mid-Nineties, at the height of Britpop, that it's nice to be a bit cool again.
Britpop was a dull media construct in the first place. The true populist musical movement of the Nineties was the post-acid house scene coming out of clubland, the music that you helped bring to fruition.
It was the logical extension. Forget your Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, Kraftwerk were the most important band in the last 40 years of popular music. They started it all.
The Beatles of techno.
And technology has gone on to dominate. It was quite weird in the Nineties. We were a Modernist band. I see British pop music as the last of the 20th-century modern movements. After it started in the art world with Le Corbusier, De Stijl, Cubism, Bauhaus and so on, it finally made it into popular music due to Kraftwerk. Our era was about trying to be the future. Every generation slags off its immediate predecessors as being out of date but it was quite strange when the next generation, led by the Manchester mono-brows, decided we were the past but that the future was actually the 1960s and 1970s.
I'm so with you there.
That was quite difficult to get my head round.
Listen to "Destiny" by Dalek I Love You:
Tell me about the symbiotic relationship between OMD and the Liverpudlian synth-pop group Dalek I Love You.
They were led by Dave Balfe who went on to be the man who owns a very big house in the country [a reference to the Blur song "Country House" - Blur were signed to Balfe's Food label], via being in Teardrop Explodes and owning Zoo Records. It was always obvious he was going to make it on the business side even if he didn't as a musician. The first time we came across Dave Balfe was when his band Radio Blank robbed our drum kit. A few years later they reinvented themselves as an electro-pop group. They started before us. It was seeing them that made Paul and I think, they're onstage with a drum machine, why don't we do that? In the summer of 1978 Dave Balfe asked me if I'd sing with Dalek I Love You because their singer, Alan Gill, was a great songwriter but had a really quiet voice that you couldn't hear live. I did four or five gigs then Paul and I decided we wanted to give our songs a go again together as Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Martin Cooper and Malcolm Holmes both played with Dalek I Love You and Dave Hughes, who played with us for a while, started in that band. They were one of the first bands to get signed but it took them too long to make a record. For those of us who heard their songs in their stripped punky infancy they were so much better than on their debut album Compass Kumpas. They got bored of them so they started fucking around with them which was a shame.
You've written two famous songs about Joan of Arc - one called "Maid of Orleans". Have you ever been to the French city of Orleans?
We toured with our second album in France because "Enola Gay" was huge there. It was Number One for about three months. Our French support band one day said, off-the-cuff, "This is like the Joan of Arc tour, we're going to Rouen, Orleans, all these places associated with our national saint." Once the tour finished I started doing research. I used to have a ring-binder folder that I kept ideas for songs in so I went to the library and started making notes of phrases and historical facts. I'd research it like I was doing an essay - what a total fucking anorak! I was determined to have a song about Joan of Arc because the more you read about her, the more confusing and mysterious she becomes. She's one of these amazing historical characters that, in reality, like Robin Hood, is a fantasy. The myth is far removed from what must have been the reality. No fucking army in their right mind is going to let some barely pubescent peasant tart lead them into battle. Every historical movement since has put their own spin on her so the more you read, the less you know - bonkers!
So did Orleans give you the key to the city?
No, not at all. "Enola Gay" had been a huge hit but when the French found out we'd written two songs about their national saint they went, "Hang on a minute, 500 years ago the English burnt her and now they're singing bloody songs about her - screw the lot of you." Neither song was a hit in France. In fact, thereafter we never had another hit in France.
Watch the video for "Maid of Orleans":
Dazzle Ships is a fascinating album, innovative and different, but it was a flop. After your golden run of early hits, the first single off it, "Genetic Engineering", only reached number 20 in the charts. What was that time like?
Painful. It was almost a career-stopping moment. We went from selling more than three million albums globally to selling 300,000, in other words we lost 90 per cent of our audience from one album to the next. The joke at Virgin was that it shipped gold and returned platinum.
Did you think at the time it was an experimental album?
We were just doing what the hell we felt like doing, that's what we always did. The first three albums had all been quite different from each other. The first one was really lo-fi synth-punk, the second one was well-produced but Gothic - apart from "Enola Gay" and "The More I See You" it was quite a dark album - then for the third album we went all religious-choral-music-meets-the-Edinburgh-Military-Tattoo. Everything we did just got bigger and bigger. We couldn't believe it, nobody was as surprised as us. Then we had these journalists saying, "If you want to change the world, why are you writing songs about Joan of Arc? Who cares? Be political now you've got the world's ears." Twenty-two-year-old Andy went, "You're damned right, yeah," so I used all these clips from shortwave radio and Cold War political stuff. On Dazzle Ships we had the usual variety of weird ideas but we left the bones in, we didn't candy-coat them in beautiful melodies. Boy, was it a catastrophe. It took 25 years for Paul Humphries to forgive me for that album. It was only when it was re-released recently to rave reviews, greeted as a lost masterpiece, that he went, "Yeah, it's quite good, even though it screwed our career."
Presumably, then, you relished the relative success of your next two albums?
Hmmm. Paul had got married and we both had houses so we kind of went, "Oh shit, this is our job, we have to sell records." Musically that was the worst thing that could have happened to us. Whenever we've just done what we wanted, just had a conversation with ourselves, we made our best music, but when we've been concerned with selling music, we haven't. We had enough time making Junk Culture  but with the next two [Crush (1985) and The Pacific Age (1986)] we didn't have enough time. We were losing a fortune trying to break America where all our money was put into loss-making tours. We did finally break America but it broke us. We were sick of everything and became just the kind of band we promised we'd never be, full of rock'n'roll touring clichés.
Well, you toured the US with Depeche Mode at their decadent peak...
Oh yes, even though it was the height of summer that was a real snowplough tour.
Did cocaine contribute to the gradual disintegration of the band?
Everything did. We'd lost the plot. We were sick to death of each other, sitting in a bus, cranking out albums because we had to, and skint despite all the millions of records we'd sold. We needed to make another record to get the advance, then we'd only have two weeks to make it. Once we started to drift apart, we wouldn't go back together.
Could you handle the debauchery of that era or did you need to draw a line, embrace sobriety and so on?
To a large degree I could switch it on, switch it off. On tour it was all there for you but back in the suburbs of Liverpool it wasn't. In hindsight what depresses me was that it was very bad for the music. We allowed ourselves to make some records that are less than what they should have been - Crush and The Pacific Age.
So how did it all fall apart eventually?
We got to the end of the Eighties and just couldn't write together. Paul saw house and techno as a cop-out which I didn't. We needed to be ourselves but Paul's idea of ourselves was away with Malcolm and Martin - they'd become musicians. As far as I was concerned they were going to sit in the studio getting stoned and arguing about a hi-hat pattern for three days. That wasn't my idea of how to write a song. I wanted to embrace some of the simple programming of house music. So at the end of 1989 OMD was finished. Then Paul, Malcolm and Martin said, "We've been told by our lawyer that the band name has value and we want to carry on without you. There's three of us and one of you." I went to Virgin and said, "Can they do this?" Virgin said, "They can if they make a record we want to release but you're the lead singer and if anyone's going to carry on the band we want you to." For nine months OMD didn't exist but then I thought I'd written some good songs so I said, "Yes, I'd like to be OMD." So then our record company of 12 years turned round to Paul and said, "We don't want you, we want him," which must have hurt like hell.
Especially when the subsequent album, Sugar Tax, was your most successful.
Did you discuss the songs on Sugar Tax when you got back together?
Some he likes, some he doesn't. We still play some of the songs from the Nineties. Paul, Malcolm and Martin like the good strong musical songs like "Walking on the Milky Way".
Which was OMD's last Top 20 hit back in 1996.
Strangely apocryphal, a song about getting old and looking back. It appeared to be the final nail in the coffin because I thought, I can't write a better song than that, but Radio 1 wouldn't play it, Woolworths wouldn't stock it and I thought, I'm banging my head against a brick wall here. It's time to go. I had to stop, hang up my hat and go into management.
Watch the video for "Walking on the Milky Way":
So, then, was Atomic Kitten your idea?
No, it was Kraftwerk's idea. I'd become quite close friends with Karl Bartos, one of the drummers from Kraftwerk. I told him, "I'm stopping, I'm just going to write songs from now on." Karl said, "You don't want to be just a songwriter, a publishing whore, you need to create a vehicle for your songs and try and get them signed." Well, you can't do manufactured rock music and boy groups are always crap but, from The Ronettes to The Supremes to Bananarama, the best pop groups have been girl groups. So that was it.
Yes, but in the end, you couldn't keep away from OMD.
We started to get people asking us in 2005 if we'd like to produce new artists and then we did a German TV show, our first performance together in 17 years. We had a blast. Then we were offered gigs and we put a lot of time in to get them just right. The nice thing is that this time round we don't care if we sell any records, we're not expecting to sell loads and we won't judge ourselves, in the same way that 30 years ago that wasn't how we judged ourselves. In any case, we think the new material is the best thing we've done for donkey's years.
- Find OMD on Amazon
- Book tickets for OMD in concert. Their tour runs as follows: Brighton, Fri 29 Oct, Bristol, Sun 31, Nottingham Mon 1 Nov, Glasgow, Tues 2, Liverpool, Thu 4, Ipswich, Fri 5, London, Sun 7, Birmingham, Mon 8
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