American music fans of a certain age know Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark — OMD, for short — as the English duo that soundtracked Pretty in Pink‘s prom scene with their 1986 top 5 hit “If You Leave.” Many may also recognize them as the opening act on Depeche Mode’s seminal 1987-88 Music for the Masses arena tour; once seen, Andy McCluskey’s herky-jerky jig, which may or may not have inspired Elaine Benes’s moves on Seinfeld, is impossible to forget.
Snagging that supporting slot introduced the Liverpool act to a whole new wave of fans stateside, including the more than 60,000 Depeche fans who held tickets for the tour’s massive June 1988 finale at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. But by that time, McCluskey and Paul Humphreys had already amassed a dozen British top 40 singles, the first of which was responsible for informing Depeche Mode’s all-electronic mission and sound.
“Vince Clarke told us that they heard ‘Electricity’ by us in a club in Basildon [England, Depeche Mode’s hometown] and went, ‘We want to do that,’” recalls McCluskey. Adds Humphreys: “Vince went to buy a synth, and the first riff he learned to play was a song called ‘Almost,’ which was on our first album [1980’s Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark], and also the B-side to ‘Electricity.’”
(Clarke, founder of Depeche Mode, Yaz, and Erasure, and widely regarded as an electronic-music genius, corroborates these statements in my new wave oral history, Mad World: An Oral History of the New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s: “The thing that changed in the ’80s was that people used synthesizers to make pop records rather than concept records. I’m a fan of Kraftwerk, but I’m more of a fan of OMD, because I like emotional records. … The thing that turned me on to synths was ‘Almost.’ That was when I connected synthesizers with folk music.”)
In New York City to promote their 13th studio album, The Punishment of Luxury, the lifelong friends and electropop pioneers talk about being “punk on synths,” their influences (Kraftwerk, yes; the Beatles, not so much), their career-long proclivity for “pretentious twaddle,” and more.
Yahoo Music: I saw OMD open for lots of bands in the ’80s: Power Station, Thompson Twins, and Depeche Mode for their “Music for the Masses Tour,” which you actually lost money on. Considering the size of the venues, how was that possible?
Paul Humphreys: Oh, but we did — and “If You Leave” was flying high in the charts at that time.
Andy McCluskey: They were doing their “Making Enough to Retire Tour,” and we were getting paid $5,000 a night. With the band, the crew, and all the transportation, we were losing money. We did massive tours trying to break the States, and we lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Our joke is by the time we broke the States, the States broke us.
Being from Liverpool, how important was it to you to make a mark on your city that was distinct from the Beatles?
Humphreys: It was kind of important. Because the Beatles were a fantastic band and wrote amazing songs, but they weren’t really … I mean, my brother used to listen to them, and they used to be blasting out of his bedroom, but they weren’t a great influence on us. We weren’t big fans of the Beatles when we were younger.
McCluskey: The funniest thing is, the place we played our first gig, which was Eric’s Club in Liverpool, was on Mathew Street, where the Cavern was. But the building that the Cavern had been in had been flattened, and actually, that was the car park. We used to park on top of the Cavern to go to Eric’s.
What were the hallmarks of the late-’70s/early-’80s Liverpool scene?
McCluskey: Stupid names.
Humphreys: From Echo & the Bunnymen to Frankie Goes to Hollywood to Teardrop Explodes. A Flock of Seagulls…
…and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark!
McCluskey: The thing is, we all started in this club Eric’s, which we call a punk club, but actually, there were no punk bands in Liverpool. All the bands in Liverpool were basically art school students, so that’s why we all had these incredibly pretentious band names and thought we were going to try and change the world by doing something different. But it was amazing: Ourselves and the Teardrops and the Bunnymen all started in the same month in Eric’s, and I think our third gig, it was us, the Bunnymen, and Teardrops all playing together in Eric’s one night. Every single person who was in the audience at Eric’s was in a band that you got to hear of within a few years.
Still, punk had an enormous impact on your generation. Didn’t you once say something to the effect of “Punks played two chords; we used one finger”?
Humphreys: We were punk on synths, weren’t we, really?
McCluskey: When we first started making music together, we were 16. I’d just got a left-handed bass guitar — even though I’m right-handed, because it was the only one I could afford in the secondhand shop — and Paul was making these noise machines. Literally, we learned to play as we got our instruments, and we taught ourselves. And everything was really one finger, one note.
Humphreys: Because punk opened the door for people just to express themselves. Up until that point, you had to have a musical background, you needed to be musically proficient, whereas punk allowed us all to just get up and express ourselves without any huge talent.
McCluskey: The other thing was that punk clubs grew across the country, so for a brief period, all of the cities across the U.K. had their own clubs. So, for a couple of years, it decentralized. It wasn’t just about London. And all the bands of our generation, almost all of us came from outside of London. Because we started off in these little, provincial punk clubs where you could get up and do what you wanted to do. No record company was going to hear you. You didn’t care; you were just doing it for the fun of it. People like ourselves, UB40, Human League, Joy Division, Simple Minds, and U2 all started outside of London. That was the window of opportunity we all had.
Andy, you saw Kraftwerk when you were 16, and the show had a profound impact on you. What do you remember about that?
McCluskey: To give you some idea of how powerful it was [to] me, it was September the 11th, 1975, at the Liverpool Empire Theatre, and I was sitting in seat Q-36. I remember that. So, it was the first day of the rest of my life. And this was the days of long hair and flared denims and guitar solos, and these four guys come out wearing suits and ties, short hair, two of them playing what looked like tea trays with wired-up knitting needles. I was just like, “This is the future! I want to do this! Oh, my God!” Because I still had flares and a trench coat and had an Afro at the time!
Humphreys: My mum wouldn’t let me go to the gig, because I was still 15 at the time, and I had to wait until I was 16 before I was allowed to go to a concert. I’m incredibly jealous to this day.
In my book, Mad World, you talked about OMD’s manifesto. One of the rules was that you forbade the use of the word “love” in your early songs.
McCluskey: We saw certain things as rock clichés. For example, our drummer was not allowed to play a cymbal for the first three albums. And it was before you had samples or programmable drum machines, so you still had to have the bass drum, the snare drum, the hi-hat. But we wouldn’t even let him play them as a kit — he had to play the bass drum separately, then the snare drum, because we didn’t want that rock ’n’ roll spill. And, yes, the word “love”: With the song “Joan of Arc” on our third album, I tormented myself, because I couldn’t find a better word than the word than love, so I had to use it. But it really bothered me!
Your excellent new album, The Punishment of Luxury, seems to combine earlier, industrial-sounding OMD with the lushness of your later work. Can we talk about the title track? It seems like a powerful statement.
McCluskey: And wholly appropriate in 2017! The title is appropriated from a painting in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, which I have loved since I was a kid. However, the painting is actually a misogynist painting about bad mothers in purgatory, because it’s a Victorian painting, and women who wanted to be more than wives and mothers were considered to be wanting things beyond their station, so they were bad. They were sent to purgatory.
Humphreys: But the song isn’t about that.
McCluskey: We’ve stolen the title, but it’s not a misogynist song. Essentially, most people in the Western world live materially better off than ever before, and yet we seem to be more and more unhappy. We have replaced the imagined order of religion, royal decree, and nationalism with this brainwashing of consumerism, to the point now where you firmly believe in your subconscious that if you don’t own this TV, if your car isn’t this new, if your kids haven’t got the latest Xbox, essentially, you’re not worthy of love. You should have more! It’s just this constant bombardment by marketing people. Because all the major companies in the world who manufacture have got a massive overproduction, so the only way they can keep making their profits and keep making their bonuses is to make you buy the new one even though your old one is just fine. So that is the punishment of luxury.
It’s a very OMD title.
Humphreys: Isn’t it just?
McCluskey: Pretentious twaddle again!
Humphreys: At least we’re consistent with our pretentious twaddle.