Sunday 15 September 2019

80s hitmakers OMD - Coming out of the dark

OMD's Andy McCluskey takes time out from an impromptu spot of baking to tell our reporter how the 1980s hitmakers, now free from stringent record label deals, are enjoying a new creative streak

On the road to Dublin: Humphreys and McCluskey (right) of OMD
On the road to Dublin: Humphreys and McCluskey (right) of OMD
Enola Gay
John Meagher

John Meagher

Andy McCluskey could hardly be in cheerier form. He has spent the day with his son, who's also a musician, but rather than slave away in the studio as they had originally planned, the two have repaired to senior's home for a spot of baking.

It's an apple-and-blackberry pie that's just gone into the oven when Review calls. "How rock 'n' roll is that!" McCluskey quips. "Hope it doesn't ruin the illusion."

It's a sweet sign of ordinariness for a man whose band made some of the most thrillingly unordinary music of the early 1980s - and beyond. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark emerged with two albums in 1980 and helped steer the course that pop would follow for the remainder of that decade.

Together with songwriting partner Paul Humphreys, McCluskey ensured OMD were regulars in the upper reaches of the charts and synth-pop anthems like 'Enola Gay' and 'Joan of Arc' were global hits.

After reforming a decade ago, the pair now find themselves in something of a creative streak and their excellent new album, The Punishment of Luxury, has arrived hot on the heels of the well-received English Electric.

"We're in this lovely position now," McCluskey says, "where there's no reason for us to make albums other than for our own enjoyment. We can take time to make the music we want to make and nobody is putting deadlines on us. That hasn't always been the case in the past, especially when you consider the kind of record-company troubles we had."

Despite being one of the bestselling British bands of their day, OMD were crippled by debts, something McCluskey attributes to the sort of "terrible" contracts so many bands unwittingly signed at the time.

"In 1989, we had sold 20 million singles, 10 million albums and owed £1m to Virgin. How can that happen? It's not like we were living in castles. We did enjoy ourselves - don't get me wrong - but we weren't flushing it all down the drain."

Such worries are long behind him although so, too, are the days where OMD were vying for the number-one spot. "Look, nothing is going to dislodge the Ed Sheerans of this world," he says, "and I'm okay with that. As long as I'm confident that the music we're releasing now is as good as it can be, chart gratification isn't important although - and, I won't lie about this - it would be nice."

The gratification McCluskey and Humphreys enjoy now comes with taking their show on the road and they call to Dublin's Vicar Street on Monday week.

"We always try to get the balance right," he says. "There's going to be songs from the new album, some rare stuff for the hardcore fan and, of course, the hits that people have loved over the years."

Not for him the idea of eschewing the emblematic songs in the manner in which some heritage acts do. "I've never understood why anyone would do that," he says. "Those songs have been very good to us and there's an expectation that we'll play them. I think it would be disrespectful to those paying their money not to do so and, anyway, as the artist you can reinvent them a little if need be."

McCluskey is now 58 and was still in his teens when he founded Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (he chooses not to abbreviate the name in this interview) with fellow Merseysider Humphreys in 1978. "We put everything into those first couple of albums," he says, "and sort of hit the ground running."

He says the songs didn't come easily - and still don't. "I think there's two sorts of artists in the world: geniuses, and those who work their arses off to do good work. I definitely fall into the latter category. So, today, if I'm working on something and I get a bit stuck, I don't think, 'I'm the guy who wrote 'Enola Gay', I'll be able to get through this', I think 'I wrote Enola Gay after hours and hours of f***ing hard work and if I work really hard again, I might be able to get this new song done to my satisfaction'."

For many OMD fans, their third album, 1981's Architecture & Morality, is their crowning glory - and one of the very great albums to have emerged from the new wave movement - but it is also possible to argue that their career never properly recovered after the release of the deeply experimental follow-up album Dazzle Ships. It sold only a 10th of what its predecessor did thanks to the wilfully inaccessible electronics and subject matter centred on the Cold War and the then Eastern Block.

"Oh, there's no doubt that it was a commercial disaster," McCluskey says cheerily. "But now you've got people saying it's our masterpiece. Maybe it was ahead of its time, maybe it was a bit too out there - but it is part of our story and we were delighted to play it in full at [London's] Royal Albert Hall, alongside Architecture & Morality."

Besides OMD, McCluskey will be forever associated with a far less loved creation. It was he who foisted girlband Atomic Kitten on to the world. "In the mid-90s, I wasn't in the charts any more but felt I could still write pop songs that would be. I just needed others to sing them. And it was [former Kraftwerk member] Karl Bartos who suggested that I should create my own band to sing them. I've always thought a three-piece girl group was the very best you could have for pop and so Atomic Kitten were born."

He fell out with their record company from the second album on, but says he is proud to stand over the work. "The first album has some bloody good songs on it - even if I do say so myself!"

The Punishment of Luxury is out now. OMD play Vicar Street, Dublin, on October 23

80s songs of war

Several defining songs of the early 1980s tackled big themes, including one of OMD's most emblematic songs.

Enola Gay

"Enola Gay' (1980) by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (above): an anti-war song with a difference, its title references the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima

'99 Red Balloons' (1983) by Nena: a protest song about the stupidity of war and how it destroys ordinary lives - and straight from the heart of divided Germany

'Two Tribes' (1984) by Frankie Goes to Hollywood: chart-topping commentary on US-USSR tensions during Cold War

'The Unforgettable Fire' (1985) by U2: an avant-grade, Eno-assisted look at America's devastating atomic bomb attack on Japan.

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