You Always Said We’d Still Be Friends: 40 Years of OMD

As Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark embark upon a massive anniversary tour, singer Andy McCluskey talks with Rock & Roll Globe about the synth-pop duo’s illustrious career

Vintage OMD (Image: Pinterest)

On April 22, iconic synth-pop band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark will kick off an extensive North American tour as a belated celebration of their 40th anniversary.

It’s certainly a career worth celebrating: since their 1978 formation, the band have sold 40 million albums thanks to international Top 20 hits such as “If You Leave,” “Electricity,” and “Enola Gay.” 

Calling from his home near Liverpool, England, vocalist/bassist Andy McCluskey recounts how he and keyboardist Paul Humphreys went from being childhood friends to creating one of the most popular electronic bands of the past four decades. By his own reckoning, their success has been “a remarkable, fabulous accident.”

McCluskey was drawn specifically to synthesizer-based artists from an early age. “I was an opinionated, spiky teenager who was looking for something different, and I really didn’t like what I saw as the boring stereotypes of conventional and current musical genres,” he says. “So when I heard Autobahn by Kraftwerk when I was sixteen, that was really exciting and interesting. I went to see them play that autumn, and I was blown away. It changed my life.” 

 

 

Inspired, McCluskey bought a bass guitar and taught himself to play, then he and Humphreys (who had a natural talent with electronic equipment) started creating little bits of music together. “We had aspirations to be more experimental and electronic, but we didn’t have any money so we would make weird machines that made weird noises,” McCluskey says. 

Finally, he says, “We decided to be brave and go onstage in a club in Liverpool called Eric’s” in October 1978.

For that show, they came up with the name Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, never imagining it would be something that would stick for decades more.

Liking the experience, the duo played more gigs, eventually earning enough money to buy a cheap synthesizer from a mail order catalog. “That sounded terrible but at least it was a synth,” McCluskey says. “Basically, we just made the best out of the weird collection of junk that we had.” This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it led them to come up with a unique sound, as evidenced on the first song they ever wrote, “Electricity.”

They continued to gig, growing in popularity in Northern England. That eventually led to the influential record label Factory Records, based in nearby Manchester, releasing their demo of “Electricity” as their debut single in 1979, followed by a self-titled studio album the next year. The band immediately enjoyed significant radio airplay and chart success in the United Kingdom.

 

VIDEO: OMD “Electricity”

This radically altered their plans. McCluskey had been intending to go to college for a fine art degree, “and Paul had been offered a job in London working for British Telecom, the U.K.’s national telecommunications company, because he’d finished his electronic studies and he was offered an apprenticeship,” McCluskey says, adding with a laugh, “He didn’t tell his mother, and he turned it down. She would have killed him if she had found out!”

Instead, OMD signed a seven-album deal with a subsidiary of Virgin Records and went on tour as the opening act for Gary Numan. “And away we went on a little journey, thinking, ‘Well, we’ll see how long this lasts,’” McCluskey says.

As it turned out, they were vastly underrating themselves: their debut album achieved gold sales status in the U.K. After that, McCluskey says, “Our second album just happened to have a little tune on it called ‘Enola Gay,’ which sold five million copies and went ballistic. Then the third album sold four million and had three top five hits in the U.K., and number ones all over Europe.”

 

VIDEO: OMD “Enola Gay”

Through it all, “We were still just doing what we wanted. Nobody told us what to do. We had this kind of crazy, arrogant confidence.”

The band stood out not only because of their distinctive take on electronic music, but also their unusual lyrical content that was “not generally considered the usual things that people write songs about,” McCluskey says. “For example, “Electricity” was an anthem for alternative power sources. “Enola Gay” was about the airplane that dropped the atom bomb. The raison d’etre of our band was to always try to think of something different to do, not just, ‘Oooh baby, I love you.’ Now, there’s nothing wrong with love songs. The world revolves around love and passion. We just don’t want to write cliché lyrics. We still write songs about feelings; we just try to connect them in a way that is specific rather than generic.”

OMD finally broke big on this side of the Atlantic thanks to their song “If You Leave,” which played a prominent role in the soundtrack to the 1986 hit film Pretty in Pink. That song opened up a lot of doors for us in America,” McCluskey says. “We are very grateful to [director] John Hughes. Quite a few of our longstanding European fans went, ‘Well, that’s a bit of a cop-out – that sounds quite conventional.’ And we were like, ‘Yeah, but it was a big hit in America, and we wrote it in a day, so we’re taking that one.’ A lot of people got into us from of that, and then started working back through our catalog.”

 

VIDEO: OMD “If You Leave” 

With so many memorable songs to their credit, McCluskey says it’ll be no problem coming up with interesting setlists for their upcoming North American shows: “We’ve got a load of hits the fans always love to hear. We’re not one of these bands who’s bored of them, nor do we go, ‘We’re not going to play it’ or ‘we’re going to play some acoustic version of it.’ No, that’s being disrespectful to your song and to the audience. We play it straight. There is no better feeling than dropping the drum machine on ‘Enola Gay’ and the place goes crazy, or know you’re about to start ‘If You Leave.’”

He also promises they’ll play some rarities that should please fervent fans.

Still, McCluskey adds, OMD are far from some heritage act: they continue to release new albums, including three studio albums since 2010. “We put a lot of effort in. I’m not a fan of bands of our generation who just go through the motions and do some kind of pastiche of their former selves,” he says. “The last few albums we’ve done have been incredibly well received – not just with our fans, but with the press, as well. People have gone, ‘They’re not just sitting on their fat asses here. These guys are trying.’ I mean, it’s hard work to go and sit in a studio hour after hour, day after day, and mine your head for something you haven’t done before, or something that is interesting and relevant. But it seems like we’ve been doing it.”

As he looks back on OMD’s career – and ahead toward their future – McCluskey is satisfied. “We still love being Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. We still have energy,” he says. “Basically, after 43 years, we still get to do what the hell we want to do. I like it! I ain’t complaining!”

 

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Katherine Yeske Taylor

Katherine Yeske Taylor began her rock critic career in Atlanta in the late '80s, when she interviewed Georgia musical royalty such as the Indigo Girls, R.E.M. and the Black Crowes while she was still a teenager. Since then, she has done hundreds of interviews with a wide range of artists. She has written for dozens of magazines, including The Big Takeover, Aquarian Weekly, Stomp & Stammer, Creative Loafing, Jam Magazine, Color Red, Boston Rock, and many others. She contributed to two books (several entries for The Trouser Press Guide to the '90s, and a chapter for Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama). Additionally, she has written liner notes and artist bios for several major acts. She currently lives in New York City.  

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