Founded in Liverpool, 1978, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were at the vanguard of the leftfield electronic pop scene in the early eighties - selling in excess of 11 million records.
However, the duo of Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys had acrimoniously split by the end of the '80s, whereupon Humphreys formed the relatively ignored, The Listening Pool.McCluskey, meanwhile, sold millions as a songwriter for teen girl band sensation, Atomic Kitten, before being brushed aside by the machinations of corporate greed . Nevertheless, this year sees a reformation of the electronic pioneers. McCluskey talks frankly about his rollercoaster career and OMD's impending comeback.
Your first big break was to go on tour with Gary Numan, can you tell me how this came about? Erm, just trying to think now. Gary Numan was still working in a record shop when we released Electricity on Factory. And he had a copy, which had our manager’s number on the back and when he was looking for support bands for that tour in ’79, he was actually interested in us. He came to see us play down in London and asked us to do the tour. It was a great opportunity obviously because we just had the one single out, the only dilemma for me was that I’d just got my first ever proper job in June that year and three months later I had to jack it in to go out on tour. But it all worked out well because as the same time we did the tour we signed to Din Disc records, a subsidiary of Virgin, so it all worked out quite well. Exactly twelve months later we headlined the same venue on our own tour.
Where you actually a fan of his at the time? No. To be honest, my initial reaction was, “who the fucking hell’s this Johnny come lately who’s just jumped on the synthesiser bandwagon”. Because people like ourselves and The Human League had been going for a while actually, but my concerns faded away when I got to know him, and he was a nice bloke. I mean, we had a great time. Not only were we asked to do it, we travelled on his band coach, they carried our equipment free, which they didn’t have to do. We went out and bought ourselves t-shirts for that tour and I can remember standing backstage just about to go on – we were at Wolverhampton – and Gary’s mum came up to us and said, “come here lads, give me your shirt… let me iron your shirt.” (laughs)
But you resisted putting the make-up on didn’t you? Were you tempted to go down that route? Well no, basically we didn’t see ourselves as a glam band and we didn’t see ourselves as a new romantic band, we’d been influenced by German electronic music. We saw ourselves as very straightforward, working class Northern experimental musicians. We were horrified when we started to get tagged with this romantic, poncey dress tag.
Do you have any regrets from your formative years with OMD? Where do I begin? There’s plenty of regrets, I mean you can’t have almost 30 years without making some glaring cock-ups. I can look at our fourth album, Dazzle Ships, and erm, perhaps we got a little carried away; we believed we had the Midas touch, that everything we did seemed to just turn to gold. It was a wonderful ability and we were walking a tightrope there for several years basically, sort of being quite experimental music and still having million-selling hit singles that sold our albums. But I think we sort of fell off the tightrope with Dazzle Ships, so there might be an element of regret in doing that. There’s loads of them, I can remember having a stand up row with Carol Wilson from Din Disc, refusing to let her release a fourth single off Architecture & Morality, and had She’s Leaving been released as a single in the UK, I’m sure that would have been another top ten single and the album would have gone on to be double-platinum. I was a precocious, precious 21 year old, if I can remember the argument it was, “I’m not having you prostituting my art by releasing a fourth single.” (laughs).
Did you feel OMD got a fair rap from the music press at the time, or indeed throughout your career? I think it’s been up and down. In the early days there was quite a lot of negativity about it, not just for us, there was a prevalent attitude with a load of journalists that, y’know, if it hasn’t got a guitar it aint real music. That took a little while to break down. I think we went through a patch where we got a lot of credit for what we were doing, and like any band, after a while people start to pick holes in you whether it’s because they’ve think you’ve sold out once you’ve had hits or you’re on to your third, fourth or fifth album and they think you should be doing something that you’re aren’t doing. You’re all just sitting targets. It goes up and it goes down; the big album from 1981, Architecture & Morality, which is now seen as a seminal, iconographic album apparently, did get some stinking reviews. I must admit actually, once I got to know Gary Numan, I do remember seeing… the level of sheer vitriol really, there didn’t seem to be any reason for it.
Are you the sort of person that gets upset by negative criticism? Erm, you don’t like it, y’know? You sweat blood and energy and personality into what you do, and it hurts when you get criticised! Don’t like it, still don’t.
That doesn’t wear off over time? No, because I think if you get hardened to it then maybe you’re not putting the energy and passion in. I think its something you shouldn’t get hardened to, it should always hurt because that means you still care about your music. If you don’t give a toss, if you’re just doing it for the money and you think, “fuck it”, then I guess you become immune to the criticism. But if you’re putting passion and energy and your heart and soul into it then it hurts.
You and Paul (Humphreys) obviously had your disagreements, but you’ve always managed to patch them up haven’t you? We’re gentleman. Erm, nah, it was difficult – at the end of the eighties we had spent basically half of our lives together. We were both coming up to thirty and had been working close together since Paul was 15, nearly 16. We’re all very different people, and when it worked it locked together, but when it began to not work we began to go in completely different directions. So it was a little difficult, I think that Paul’s nose was put a bit out of joint when Virgin actually said to me, you should carry on as OMD. Because OMD was dead for about six months, and it was Paul, Malcolm and Martin who actually said, we’d like to carry on and I went to Virgin and said, “can they?” And Virgin said, we own the rights to release records under the name, and to be honest you’re the lead singer, you’re the more recognised person we’d rather you did it. So I think that hurt for a while, understandably.
I read somewhere that when Architecture & Morality was released it sold something like 3 million copies and the associated singles 8 million, yet you were skint? I was wondering how that could be? We’d signed one of Mr Branson’s classic justice side of fucking barely legal deals. Yes, the marvellous grinning entrepreneur, everybody’s favourite knight. Quite simply… I’ll give you an example. Singles! 6% we were on, so, say a single’s a quid, lots of the singles we sold were in Europe – outside the UK we were on two-thirds royalty, so 4p. The producer was guaranteed 3%, that left us with a penny.
Did you not realise that was the deal when you signed the contract? When you’re 19 and somebody offers you a contract, and the other thing to be perfectly honest as well is… our manager, who was our manager by default – because he owned our tape recorder and had the studio garage and drove the vans we used to drive around in during the early days, was a pretty odd looking character. He had long greasy hair, green sleeves, smelly pumps, and I can remember a few years after we signed the deal I was out somewhere in London and I bumped into the lawyer who acted for us and he said, “before you say anything, I’m sorry, I know. I never met you, I just met your manager – I’m sorry.” We just signed a shit deal.
So he apologised before you’d even said anything? Yeah.
That’s always a bad sign. Yeah.
So, Architecture & Morality has now been remastered, ready for re-release. Did Virgin assume full control or were you allowed your say? I have full control of everything that’s released. One of the nice things about my contract with them is that they cannot release anything without my authority, which is one of the reason there hasn’t been seventeen different 'best of's' in seventeen different sleeves with different song arrangements on.
Did they come to you with the idea for the re-release? Well, when we decided that we were going to play Architecture & Morality, I went to Virgin and just said, we’re going to do this, do you want to come along for the ride and re-release it and do something special with it. This is the first ever OMD DVD. We don’t even have a best of slow mo video collection on DVD. So this isn’t me trying to lever Virgin into servicing back catalogue, but I think it’s a nice pack, y’know it’s digitally remastered, which is good because some of the old digital masters, the old CDs from the eighties, are just awful. So it’s nice to go back to the analogue tapes and remaster them, and we’ve also got all the B-sides and extra tracks associated with it, which I think is nice as we used to spend a lot of time on our B-sides and some of our B-sides are actually our favourite songs we ever wrote because the pressure was off, once you’d finished the album it was like, whoah, let’s have some fun and some of our B-sides were really wonderful pieces of music because the shackles were off and we just went to the studio to have fun.
Are you just touring that album and associated tracks? It would be a bloody short gig wouldn’t it? (laughs)
Well a few artists have done that recently, sort of retro album gigs. Yeah, basically because we’re doing such a large tour… I mean it started out as 12 European gigs to see what the interest was and we’ve now got 37 gigs. This is the beginning of OMD functioning again, there will be other things, there will be concerts, installations with the designer Peter Saville, hopefully work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, there will be a new album. This isn’t just a come and take the money and run tour, so it seemed logical to put a marker down, and as I was saying earlier the album seems to be considered iconographic and when we had the idea to do this – nearly two years ago – it just seemed like a really cool things to do and clearly stake out where we came from. And I think we’re kind of keen for people to understand, for those who have forgotten and for those who never knew in the first place, where we came from. We were actually a experimental band who happened to accidentally write massive tunes, and showing people where we came from goes to sort of restart the career really. It’s a long answer, but basically it’s all Architecture & Morality but that’s only 35 minutes so it would be far to short, so we are going to play Kraftwerk singles as best we can (laughs).
When’s it starting? 13th of May in Dublin.
Are you a bit nervous at all about going back on the road, I would imagine you haven’t done it for quite a while? Err, yeah! Paul and I did do a tour in Germany in December. It wasn’t a full OMD tour, it was a strange package of orchestra and choir and guest artists singing their famous songs. So, prior to December I hadn’t actually sung with a live mic in front of an audience for 13 years. It was nerve-wracking the first couple of gigs but it came back to me and I have to say, the rehearsals are going brilliantly. We’ve been rehearsing for 9 months, not every day, but it takes so long because we are very sound specific. It’s not just plug a guitar in and go, “G, sing!”, it’s like – do you need that sound? We’ve got to have that sound for Souvenirs and that sound for Maid of Orleans, so taking forever, but it sounds fantastic.
I was going to ask you actually, how will you recreate the sound of the album because I’d imagine it’s not very realistic to drag the analogue synths back out - or the Mellotron? Well I have to say, the Mellotron was one of the more reliable synths we ever used. But no, if we were to carry with us every synth we ever used on every particular song it would look like a cross between a Rick Wakeman nightmare and a junk shop on stage. We’re using these fantastic big Roland Phantom 8 synths, which have combined sound modules and a sampler in them. So Martin and Paul are only playing one keyboard, that’s it, it’s all in the keyboard and unlike the old days, it’s just patch no. 1, patch no. 2. It’s great.
In the old days I’ve been told that when the auditorium would get too warm all those analogue synths would just go out of tune. It was probably a nightmare wasn’t it? Oh yeah, with the old analogue synths the tuning would wander all over the place. You’d try and set up a sound in the dark and you’d start playing and suddenly realise you’ve left the portmento on. We had plenty of nightmares and technical problems on stage over the years.
Have you still got a lot of that old gear in the garage? Yes, quite a few actually locked away in storage, some of which was dragged out to sample for the tour? There’s a lot of Mellotron sounds on the new record.
So what’s your fascination with the Mellotron, because it’s such an old device but you’ve used it a lot? It gave us an opportunity to use sounds that we couldn’t use, and we were particularly interested in the power and emotive quality of choir sounds, and also strings and things, so it just allowed us to do something that we couldn’t do without it really.
You also had a musique concrete approach to recording sounds didn’t you? Yeah, I mean a lot of our songs started out as just noises and backing tracks, we were just creating a sound, an ambient palette and then we’d construct the song into it really and indeed some of the songs we literally purely just noises.
And this audio-visual installation that you’re doing with your once album designer Peter Saville, or you taking that on the road with you as a projection unit? No, it’s a stand alone project that’s going to go into the FACT building in Liverpool. There will be four projection screens, basically based on electricity-producing power stations around the arc of the Irish sea, with five different ones – nuclear, hydro, electric, windpower etc., we recorded the sounds at these sites and built music out of the concrete bed track - out of the sound of the turbines or the waves, or wind, whatever we recorded. It’s going to be a fab project, but we’ve had to sort of set it aside for the moment and concentrate on the tour. It isn’t something we’re going to carry on tour with us but we do have a very strong visual element on tour. We’ll have a massive LED screen behind us. I’ve commissioned 24 pieces of footage to go with the songs, it’s going to be quite a production, believe me.
Is this is similar principle to the recent Kraftwerk tour? I don’t know if you saw that? Well they’ve always had images. Even when I first saw them in 1975 they had projectors. So it’s taking the Kraftwerk thing a little bit further. I think they had three rear-projectors on tour, although to be perfectly honest they kind of need it, because there’s not much to watch (laughs).
Yeah, visually they just stand there. I love Kraftwerk to bits but you don’t exactly get a huge amount of personality off the front of the stage. And that was part of the thinking actually, because some of the Architecture & Morality tracks are pretty ambient really, so we thought, four middle-aged blokes standing there for seven minutes going, “boom boom, tschk, tschk, tschk, tschk, tschk, tschk, boom, boom”, might need a bit of visual assistance.
So did I hear you say that you’re considering recording a new OMD album? Yep.
Are you just pooling ideas? No, there’s quite a lot of tracks done actually. And without sounding too big-headed, I’m conceited enough to say though that I think it’s bloody great. It is a bit nerve-wrecking because to be honest, let’s face it, 9 out of 10 of my contemporaries are heritage acts that come back with a new record that’s pants, and you’re praying they don’t play any of it on stage.
Was it difficult not to theorise too much about what it should sound like? Actually no it’s been quite easy. I mean one of the reasons why I stopped in 1996 was I spent three years wondering what to do for an album, ended up deciding to try and make it more organic, decided that didn’t work and I just felt I’m banging my head against a brick wall here. But now, enough time has passed that the style of music we were doing has been, not rehabilitated, but people are being able to be objective about it again and say, y’know, that had its merits, that was really good, that was leading the way, whatever. So, I was really wasting my time being perceived as an eighties synth band at the height of Brit-pop in the mid-nineties. It’s nice now that basically it’s like, "ooh, what I should I write, what should it sound like. I don’t know, it’ll sound like bloody whatever I feel like, just like the old days", and it’ll probably end up just sounding like OMD, which won’t be a bad thing.
You probably have more freedom than ever in the current climate to experiment and do whatever you want with electronic music? Hmm, and all those things I’ve learned from writing for Atomic Kitten can be put for good use with OMD (laughs).
Will the album lean towards the technology side or more songwriting oriented? Well if you’re saying is the technology making up for a lack of songs then I hope the answer is no (laughs).
Well I haven’t heard it yet, but you know what I mean because on your early albums, whilst the songs were obviously there, you’d wander off and do these abstract tracks as well wouldn’t you? Ermmm. Theres a lot of songs on there, there’s a lot of tunes that you can sing along to. There’s a few things that are quite interesting.
When do you think it might arrive? Some time in 2008, as to when I’m not sure.
You’re also working with this new band, The Genie Queen? Err, no. My developing with other acts day is long over. I spent 10 years doing that and I’m delighted not to have to work with other people because they’re all thankless bastards!
Is there a formula to that sort of success? Yeah, basically, you have to kiss the ass of half a dozen A&R men in London who have big budgets and even bigger egos, and I found out in the end that it doesn’t work. The Genie Queen were brilliant, the Genie Queen were absolutely stunning. They looked better than Atomic Kitten, they sounded as cool as the Sugababes, they could all sing, and I couldn’t get the deal because basically I was putting something on a plate when they wanted control of it. So I realised I was banging my head against a brick wall really and made me realise that I kind of got lucky with Atomic Kitten, that I found somebody that wanted to take them on.
So just the usual record company "bs" put the spike on that one? Yeah, its just the way. The guys who do these bands, they put them together – their arse is on the line, it costs a huge amount of money so they don’t want any fly in the ointment, any third-party who can have any position to cause the problem. To be honest it’s hardly surprising at the moment that there are no new girl groups because the pop music market is in a bad place. Unfortunately, the major record companies have made pop music into a bad word again because there’s been an awful lot of absolute shit foistered on the public and it’s become an expensive business because they have to spend £1 million pounds on varnish because they’re polishing a turd. If they didn’t start with a piece of shit in the first place it wouldn’t be so expensive to market it.
(Laughs) Very succinctly put. How much satisfaction did you derive from your success with Atomic Kitten compared to what you achieved with OMD? Very different, but it was very enjoyable. It was really exciting in the early days and I’m sure that their first album was not in your collection of records, but it was a great, great album. I co-wrote five to ten singles on that album, including Whole Again, which I would put alongside Enola Gay and Maid of Orleans as a quality tune, I’m very proud of that song. Unfortunately, once they’d had heir first hits I parted company for reasons that I’m not allowed to talk about because my lawyer tells me I’ll get in trouble. Suffice to say, I was very sad about us parting company, but at least I can say now with a clear conscience that I’m not responsible for the pastiche they became of themselves with the second and third albums, where everything I wanted them to be they turned into the opposite. I always said actually that my intention was to be some kind of energy vampire, I couldn’t do it again myself but I could feed off the energy off these kids, and boy did they have energy.
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark interview, Barcode 2007 ©
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