As Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (later, OMD) Andy McCluskey (right) and Paul Humphreys have sold more than 40 million records. Their brand of early eighties synth-pop helped define an era and shape a generation of bedroom songwriters and producers.
They are best known for their trademark synth-led choruses and abstract lyrics, which were an instant hit when they first emerged from Liverpool in the late seventies. The pair continued as OMD throughout the eighties and into the early nineties, but an 18-year hiatus followed. In the meantime, Andy formed girl group Atomic Kitten and, together with Stuart Kershaw, penned their number one single .
On the eve of the release of their 12th studio album English Electric, we spoke to Andy about an impending OMD renaissance and heard about the new acts that have inspired the band’s latest material.
This is the full interview for the English Electric feature, which appears in the latest issue of M magazine (M47).
Were you surprised by your early success?
Yes! No one was more surprised than we were when what we thought was experimental music – and all our friends thought was shit – turned out to be great big fat pop hits. Perhaps, largely unconsciously, what we’d done is distil out of Kraftwerk, Roxy Music and David Bowie a sort of catchy British electric pop thing. It was instinctive. I remember our label asking us if we wanted to be ABBA or Stockhausen. And we replied both!
So you were 16 when you wrote Electricity and there were only four or five bass notes in it…
We had no concept that we were going to be professionals in the music industry. When we were given our first recording contract, we were so sure that they were never going to sell any records we thought, ‘Right, what we’re going to do here is spend all the money building our own recording studio here in Liverpool so that when nobody buys the record and we get dropped, at least we’ll have the studio! We just didn’t think that what we did was going to sell.
I suppose synth-pop hadn’t become a thing so you were breaking the mould in a way… It could have gone either way?
Absolutely! We played our first gig in the autumn of 1978 and we were talking to Dindisc Records from the summer of 1979. It all happened very quickly but we didn’t really think that we would sell. We were going to take a shot at it and were delighted to have the chance to make an album.
Your first single was out on Factory wasn’t it? How did you fit in with that label and what was it like later going over to Dindisc (Virgin)?
We played our first gig at Eric’s in Liverpool and Factory Records had a reciprocal agreement with the place, which at the time we knew nothing about. So after we played our first gig [supporting Joy Division], the guys at Eric’s said he would try to get us a gig at the Factory Club in Manchester. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark was only invented as a band with a stupid name to do one gig! That was it. We just wanted to say we’d played on stage once. So then when they offered us to play in Manchester we thought, ‘Oh ok then, we’ll play two gigs’.
When we went to Manchester we met Tony Wilson. Afterwards we cheekily sent him a tape with a note saying he seemed to quite like what we did when we went over and, ‘Can we get on your telly programme?’ We’d see the Human League on there and thought, ‘Fuck it, let’s try to get on!’ He listened to the tape and didn’t really like it very much but his first wife and Peter Saville thought it was quite amazing that these two kids from the suburbs of Liverpool actually wanted to be Kraftwerk.
So, after a week of being badgered by his first wife, Tony turned round to us and said, ‘Actually, you two are the future of pop music – would you like to make a record with us?’ And we said, ‘Yes, we’d love to make a record. But fuck off, we’re not pop!’
What makes an OMD song?
A good synth melody. This is a page we took out of Kraftwerk’s book, The Tornados’ Telstar as well. Many of our songs use the synth melody as the chorus. There are verses but generally the melody is the chorus. If you think of Electricity, Enola Gay, Souvenir – in a lot of our songs the melody was the chorus. That is distinctive.
Another thing is to pick lyrical subjects that are not the usual pop music fodder. I was very angry and horrified with myself when I finally succumbed on my third album and in a single Joan of Arc to having to use the dreaded word ‘love’. I was really pissed off with myself but I just couldn’t find another single syllable word that would take its place! I’d fallen into the cliché!
Does that still irk you?
I can understand at the time why it bothered me, yes! This is the whole ethos – it sounds crazy now to think we were a pop group and were trying to change the world. That was the way we thought. We wanted to write about oil refineries and atom bombs and telephone boxes and catholic saints and warfare and space and politics. We didn’t want to write love songs. And if they were songs about relationships they were usually tortured metaphors! We wouldn’t even let our drummer use cymbals, they were cliché too!
So you had a strict manifesto?
Basically, yes. Poor old Malcolm had to play each drum individually. On stage he was allowed to play his kit but in the studio he had to play the bass drum on its own, then the snare drum, then the hi-hat – no symbol allowed.
Why is that? So you could chop them around?
No, it was to keep each individual one clean so that we could actually insist on him playing the pattern we had written and not vary it. We didn’t want all of that spillage and ambient room crap from a drum kit – we wanted bass drum, snare, hi-hat – all clean.
Eighties synth-pop still resonates heavily in the charts today. What do you think about that?
I think it’s understandable now we’re in this postmodern landscape. Lots of music is referential. There was a time in the nineties when eighties synth-pop was very out of fashion, at the height of Britpop with Oasis, it was like the seventies were back in and the eighties were out! I was nice when people started to re-adopt some of the sounds and styles that we’d been inventing and playing and it became rehabilitated. I can hear threads in lots of current music, but that’s just the way things are these days.
It’s interesting that you mention the nineties and Britpop – do you think it’s a better time for OMD now?
Definitely. I made a successful album in 1991 called Sugar Tax, which sold three million and had two top 10 hits. But by the time it got to ‘96, I was fighting a battle. We released a great song called Walking on the Milky Way but radio stations weren’t going to play us and I felt we were banging our heads against a brick wall, so why bother? But then the new millennium started and suddenly there were new bands coming along, record companies were asking us to produce new artists and we were getting referenced as being iconic and influential and all those nice words!
What do you think when you look back and reappraise your work? How do you view albums such as Dazzle Ships these days?
I wish we’d had a stronger manager who hadn’t encouraged us to be part of the business and who had encouraged to stick more to our creative routes. Whenever we’ve chosen not to worry about sales and just do what we wanted to do we’ve usually not been indulgent. Funnily enough, Dazzle Ships is not my biggest regret. Looking back over our catalogue, I think we made our sharpest and most poignant music when we chose not to give a damn about record sales. It was when we were running around trying to sell records and touring America for nine months on end and exhausting ourselves, we found we would go back to a well of ideas that was dry because we hadn’t had the chance to fill it up again. So yes, there are records in our catalogue that I wish we’d taken time to make them better. But we were doing the best that we could at the time under pressure.
So do you think on English Electric you are honing those skills that you excel in?
You tell me! I think we are closer on this album than we have been for a very long time to the ethos that we made our music by, the concept by which we made our music. But its only just been made so it’s hard to step aside from something you’ve been in such close proximity with. I’ve got a feeling that it captures a lot of what we would like to be in our music.
Recently you’ve done a couple of The XX covers and have said you found their minimalism interesting. I wondered if you were bringing in some contemporary influences on the new album too.
I think there have been influences. I make a point of searching things and I have discovered a lot of very interesting new music. It’s almost as though we’d had to hear other people’s work to get a clear handle on our own. I look at the melancholy minimalism of The XX and go, ‘We used to do that! We should take a page out of their book because they’ve taken a page out of one of our old ones anyway!’ To some degree we’ve learned from the fact that younger bands with their quiet confidence are prepared to strip things down. It’s one of the things we felt was important with this album; we wanted to strip things down to as few tracks as possible.
Who else have you been influenced by on this new record?
I don’t think that consciously I’ve listened to someone and thought I would do the same, but I’ll tell you my favourite recent artists and you might be able to tell if we’ve distilled anything. I love the Bodytalk series by Robyn. Fabulous. I love The XX. I love Glasvegas. I love Andreas Kleerup. There’s quite a lot of glitch that I like. There’s a German artist who’s made an incredible glitch album under the name Atom TM.
Is it the production that attracts you to these artists?
It’s the production and the musical ideas. There’s nothing more exciting – and sometimes more galling – than hearing something and thinking, ‘Fuck, that’s different, and I like it. Why didn’t I think of that?’ The first time I remember hearing Dancing on My Own [by Robyn] – the album version, a brutal stab of electronica – I was stunned. I thought it was amazing.
Is that what keeps you going back into the studio?
I like expressing myself. And Paul and I are in the fortunate position of being able to express ourselves without having to worry. The trick is to not be self-indulgent. There are a lot of people who get to a certain age and think they’re making great music and they’re just deluding themselves! We hope we’re not deluding ourselves too! If you have to have something that you want to say and it means something to you’ll find a way of expressing it in a strong way. If you’re making a record because your manager thinks you need a new record, it shows.
Did you twig any kind of magic pop formula when you were writing for Atomic Kitten?
No. I’ll tell you why – because I’m actually not a very good musician so I couldn’t come up with a harmonic formula! I don’t really know the notes I’m using, I do it all by ear. People ask me about a chord on a song I’ve done but I never know, I’ve forgotten, I can’t remember what I did! I haven’t got any better after all these years!
Do you still approach songwriting the same way?
It’s all done by ear – if it feels right then I’ll do it. I was very fortunate that I worked with Stuart Kershaw on Atomic Kitten who was a very good musician and he could play keyboard, guitar, bass and drums. He would often take my rough ideas and make them more musical for the pop palette.
Do you find it difficult to write for others?
Yes I do. I’m not really a musician. I’m just like, ‘Here are a few chords and a bit of a melody. Want to sing it?’ I make no pretence – I can sing adequately, but with the help of some machinery and some good musicians I manage to get by. And quite frankly, I don’t care. I’m not ashamed of it. It works for me. For every really great song that is written there are tens of thousands of people that can perform it. It might offend your readers, but it’s the way I see it. I never wanted to be a great musician. What’s the point? It doesn’t mean you can write good songs!
What do you hope for English Electric?
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want people to like it. But ultimately it’s a conversation that myself and Paul Humphreys have been having in a language we first invented for ourselves over 35 years ago. We know we can’t change the world anymore. We realised that after our third album. We sold millions and we hadn’t changed the world. That was the worst thing that ever happened to us – not the commercial failure of Dazzle Ships – it was actually realising aged 22 that, despite having sold millions of singles and albums, the outcome hadn’t been as I’d intended. How come we hadn’t managed to change the world by introducing experiments into popular music? Oh fuck, what are we going to do now? We spent the next 30 years trying to work out the answer to that one!