Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Andy McCluskey, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD)

In Does Rock 'N' Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: Andy McCluskey – frontman of OMD, who are celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year.

1: What Factory number is OMD’s 1979 debut single ‘Electricity’?

“FAC 6.”

CORRECT.

“That’s a relief! (Laughs) Lindsay Reade, Tony Wilson’s ex-wife, confirmed with us last year a story we’d thought was urban myth. She got in the car and pulled out our cassette from a pile of rejects and said: ‘Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – that sounds interesting.’ Tony said: ‘We played them last week in Factory – I’m not into them at all.’ She put on ‘Electricity’ and said: ‘That’s the sort of thing you should sign’, so he leans over, patronisingly taps her on the thigh and goes: ‘OK dear, I’ll sign them for you’. (Laughs)”

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Your first ever gig was supporting Joy Division….

“In the process of researching our 40th anniversary, we’ve destroyed our own creation myth! The first gig wasn’t with Joy Division – it was with a comedian signed to Factory with the same initials: John Dowie. (Laughs) It was only a couple of months later we played with Joy Division. It was a comfort watching Ian Curtis onstage because his dancing was not dissimilar to mine. Those first Factory gigs would be us, Joy Division and A Certain Ratio. Joy Division would always ask us: ‘Do you guys wanna headline?’ ‘No!’ Why? Because nobody wanted to go onstage after the fire-breather because it stank of paraffin and it was really fucking dangerous (Laughs).”

2: For what unlikely reason was ‘Enola Gay’ banned by the BBC children’s TV show Swap Shop?

“They thought it was promoting homosexuality.”

CORRECT.

“I don’t know how they conjured that up as we’d done loads of press about the fact it was about the aeroplane that dropped the atom bomb. (Laughs) Bizarre! (Adopts an archetypal old-fashioned BBC suit voice) ‘It’ll be fine if it’s questioning the morality of dropping atom bombs but we don’t want the word ‘gay’ on kids’ morning TV!’. We were gobsmacked they could get such the wrong end of the stick.

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Apparently the song was divisive within the band…

“Paul Humphreys [OMD synth player] wasn’t a fan of it but that was largely down to the fact that it was the first single we’d released that wasn’t written by both of us – it was just myself. Our manager at the time – who only got the job because he owned the tape recorder we used onstage and worked for Vision Hire so had a van – threatened to resign if we released it. He thought we were experimental and ‘Enola Gay’ was cheesy pop.”

3: Your song ‘If You Leave’ soundtracks the prom-scene of John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink. In which high school does it take place?

“First one I’m going to fail! I’ve forgotten.”

WRONG. It’s Meadowbrook High School.

“We’d been having hits in the UK and Europe, but we were signed to a label in the US who had been given a lucky dip bag of us, XTC and Japan and they didn’t give a damn. So as soon as John Hughes asked us to write a song, we knew it would finally prise the door open.”

“‘If You Leave’ was a last-minute song we had to write off the top off our heads. When we arrived in LA to mix the song we’d written, John Hughes went: ‘We’ve changed the ending – can you do another song because the first one you’ve written doesn’t work lyrically?’. Our only parameter was we had to stick to 120 bpm – because they’d filmed the prom scene to Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’, and the dancing needed to be in time.

“We flew in on the same plane as New Order who also had a song in the film, walked the red carpet, and watched the movie ‘til the big prom scene. And we thought: who edited this film?! Not a single person is dancing on the beat! It could have been any bloody tempo! (Laughs).”

“At the premiere party afterwards, George Michael was there and told me: ‘Best gig Andrew [Ridgeley, George’s Wham! bandmate] and I ever went to was OMD’. It was amazing driving around Los Angeles in an open-top rental car. On would come ‘If You Leave’ on the radio, so you’d change the channel and it’s on another station. Then a third.  It was like: wow, that’s a hit!”

4: Which German electro pioneer suggested that you create Atomic Kitten?

“Karl Bartos from Kraftwerk.”

CORRECT.

“If you asked anybody else in the world that, nobody in their right mind would come up with that answer! (Laughs) We became friends in the early ‘90s when I asked for permission to a cover ‘Neon Lights’.  He said: ‘I’m happy for you to do this. By the way, I’ve left the band. Would you consider doing some co-writing?’. I was like: Wow, Kraftwerk were the band that changed my life when I saw them aged 16.”

 “After ‘Walking on the Milky Way’ came out in 1996 – which was one of the best songs I’d ever written – but Radio 1 wouldn’t play it and Woolworths wouldn’t stock it because in the ‘90s, a synthpop band from the ‘80s was considered past its sell-by date, I told Karl I was going to jack it in and just write songs for my publishing company, and he told me to create my own pop vehicle – a three-piece girl band – instead so I’d have control over the songs I write. So I did. He was really happy for me when Atomic Kitten‘s ‘Whole Again’ spent six weeks at number one in Germany.”

“I used to tell Kerry Katona she had Marilyn Monroe syndrome. She didn’t realise how pretty she was and she was going to be famous at all costs. She had a very unhappy childhood and thought having that lifestyle would make her happy. A few years ago, I took the opportunity to apologise to her on the phone because I didn’t know what a shark-infested pool I was throwing her into. She’d arrive to the studio with five paparazzi following her.  So I apologised and she said: ‘It’s alright love. You gave me the opportunity to earn money for my kids and anyway, all the problems I had were from before I met you. I don’t have enough self-love.’ I went: ‘You’ve had therapy, haven’t you?’ She said: ‘Too right!’ (Laughs).”

 Would you be interested in writing an Atomic Kitten comeback single?

“No. It ended too painfully. After the first album – which was a stunning collection of pop songs – the record company stiffed us and ripped up our contract. We couldn’t speak to the Kittens for four years except through lawyers. The only good thing is we’re not responsible for the pale pastiche of themselves they became where they became a bland covers band that all looked the same.”

For a bonus half-point, what did England fans change the ‘Whole Again’ lyrics to during the 2018 World Cup?

Southgate, you’re the one/You Still turn me on/Football’s coming home again.

CORRECT.

“I couldn’t believe that when I heard people singing it! ‘Southgate you’re the one/You still turn me on’ is very homoerotic. Maybe the BBC were right all along! (Laughs)”

 5: Which rock band adapted your so-called ‘Trainee Teacher Dance’ as part of their live sets?

ZZ Top! I bumped into Billy Gibbons in a lift in Paris and said: ‘I read in your biography that you stole my dance moves!’. And he said: ‘Too right! Let’s go and talk to Dusty [Hill] about it.”

CORRECT. What have been the strangest reactions to your dancing?

“Somebody tried to climb onstage at the G-Mex in Manchester when we were on with The Smiths and hit me with a beer tray. It didn’t help that Paul Morley had introduced us as ‘Two rich bastards from Los Angeles’ – which took him 20 years to apologise for. My dancing has been described as ‘a geography teacher with ants in his pants’. ‘An epileptic windmill’ is probably my favourite – my cousin who has epilepsy thinks that’s hilarious. Paul Humphreys says I’ve spent 20 years overcompensating for his static performance. Synthesiser music was considered to be pretentious and robotic, so I wanted to prove that there is energy and emotion. If I can dance to this – so can you.”

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6: Which pre-fame radio DJ appears in your ‘Everyday’ video?

“The wonderful Sara Cox.”

CORRECT.

“She was still a teenager at the time and was just one of the models in the video who looked very surly and pouty. Sadly it wasn’t one of our better songs so not many people saw that video.”

 

7:  You bought the Motor Museum recording studio in Liverpool. Can you name the Arctic Monkeys EP that was recorded there?

“My house engineer Mike Crossey asked me if he could use the studio at weekends to develop his skills as a producer. He said he had a band coming – their manager wants them to do a demo outside London because they’re really hot at the moment. I came in on the Monday, he played me some of their stuff and I went: ‘Holy shit! I’ve never heard anything like it’. Of course, Mike Crossey’s now a very famous producer, who does The 1975. Oh God, was it called ‘Five Minutes with Arctic Monkeys?

CORRECT.

“Mike started renting the studio off me when he became a successful producer. I met The 1975 there and Matt Healy said to me: ‘Oh my God, I love your song ‘If You Leave’. In fact, I want our album to sound like a Pretty in Pink soundtrack album’. One of the funny things was their video for ‘Girls’ I thought was a complete rip-off of our video for ‘Tesla Girls’. Well, not a complete rip-off, but I definitely thought: ‘Mmmn, they’ve borrowed that’. (Laughs) Then again, when Franz Ferdinand went all mid-century constructivist and Russian, their look was completely the way we used to look in 1983’s ‘Dazzle Ships’ album.”

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8: Which synthpop star once branded OMD’s song ‘Never Turn Away’ as “boring” in Smash Hits?

“If I say Phil Oakey, people will start saying, ‘Oh yeah, well you’ve got a feud with him,’ which is bollocks. But I’m going to say him.”

WRONG. It was Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, who described it as “sad, drifting music” and “boring.”

“Well, he would know! (Laughs) We were one of the last interviews he did when he was working at Smash Hits in 1984. The idea of two guys, one singing and one playing keyboards seemed to become a blueprint for a lot of bands after we did it by default because none of our friends wanted to play the weird shit we were doing! Neil told us he was in a band and was releasing a single that year – that was ‘West End Girls’ which went straight in at Number One and turned him into an international superstar. And I remember the interview took place at the photographer Eric Watson’s studio. I saw a picture of a girl in the studio and asked: who’s she?’. And Eric went: ‘Oh some fucking dancer from New York who thinks she can sing – Madonna’ (Laughs).”

9: Which OMD track did Kid Cudi sample in 2009?

“’ABC Auto-Industry’ on his track ‘Simple As…’”

CORRECT.

“It’s the best song he’s ever released if you want my opinion (Laughs). I loved it. To me, it was part of the surreptitious rehabilitation of the ‘Dazzle Ships’ album.”

Which was considered a flop upon its original release…

“It scared the crap out of us. We’d lulled ourselves into a false sense of security because our first three albums, we didn’t have an A&R man, we produced them ourselves and everything we did just got bigger. We were pushing the envelope trying to be experimental but it turns out to be pop music, so we carried on. Then with ‘Dazzle Ships’, we went more than 15 minutes ahead of the fashion. It doesn’t seem as weird now as when it appeared in 1983. But we went from selling four million albums of ‘Architecture & Morality’ to about a tenth of that globally. The painful joke at Virgin was that it shipped gold and returned platinum.”

10: Name two bands that appear on the 2001 ‘Modern Synthpop Artists Cover Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’ tribute album.

“Oh I won’t be able to do that!”

WRONG. Among many others, you could have had: Color Theory, The Faint, Electrosquad, White Town and The Virgins.

“The band Frost did a nice cover of ‘Messages’ and there was one that was used in The O.C. that I liked [by Nada Surf]. I’m hoping somewhere down the line, the next huge international boyband will cover ‘Whole Again’ so I’ll have a nice payday at a pensionable age. Vince Clarke has done a fantastic remix of ‘Almost’ for our ‘Electricity’ seven-inch 40th anniversary vinyl. Depeche Mode heard ‘Electricity’ in a club in Basildon and decided they wanted to play synths, but Vince said to us: ‘When I worked out to play the lead synth in ‘Almost’, that’s when I knew I was a decent enough synth player’.”

 

The verdict: 7.5/10

“I expected to do considerably worse! I’m seriously surprised that I did know things about my own career!  The only ones I got wrong were slightly tangential to OMD. Which I like to think proves we were experimental and weren’t rock’n’roll – so my brain cells are intact.”

OMD’s career box set, ‘Souvenir’, is out now. The band’s 21-date  UK and Ireland tour starts in Belfast, Ulster Hall on October 23

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