Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, the stars of Eighties electro-pop are back, via a circuitous route that included the rise and fall of Kerry Katona. They confess all to Neil McCormick .
'We feel like kamikaze pilots with a long-service medal,” declares Andy McCluskey. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” Eighties synth pop stars Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are back with their first album in 14 years. Which, according to the 51-year-old singer and bassist, would come as a grave disappointment to their younger selves.
“The 20-year-old Andy would be absolutely mortified. I used to tell my friends, 'If I’m still in this business when I’m 25 you can shoot me’.
“He’s still wearing his bulletproof vest,” interjects his partner in crime, Paul Humphreys, 50.
The duo originally formed “as a dare” for a gig at Liverpool punk club Eric’s in 1978. “That’s why we came up with such a preposterous name – it was just for one night, not world domination,” insists McCluskey.
Schoolfriends from the Wirral, they played in “art-school rock bands”. But they also shared a love of electronic music, inspired by seeing Kraftwerk in September 1975. “That was a life-changing gig,” says McCluskey.
“We were looking for our own identity and found it in German electronic music. Our friends, who were into Genesis and the Eagles, just thought that we were mad. That’s why there was only two of us and a tape recorder, cause nobody else wanted to play with us.”
Their performance was witnessed by Manchester music provocateur, Tony Wilson, who released their debut single, Electricity, on his Factory label. “He said, 'This is the future of pop music’, and we were offended. 'We’re experimental! How dare you call us pop!’ We were completely unconscious of the fact that we had somehow distilled the Kraftwerk aesthetic into three-minute punky electro.”
The song was a hit and OMD (as they quickly became abbreviated to) went on to become multi-million-selling pop stars, with such distinctive hits as Joan of Arc and Enola Gay.
“We would find ourselves standing on stage at Top of the Pops, with Elton over there and Roxy Music over there, and we’d look at each other going, 'How the hell did this happen?’ ” says McCluskey. “I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wish I had done. I was very nervous, very uptight, very intense. My younger self might be horrified to see me now, but my older self just wants to slap 20-year-old Andy round the head and go, 'Lighten up and enjoy it!’
“But OMD wouldn’t have been what it was if I wasn’t a complete pain in my own arse. Paul was there to balance it out. We are very different people. Two Pauls would get nothing done. Two Andys would have shot each other in the first six months.”
McCluskey is a very live-wire character, loud, articulate, argumentative, witty with a sharp edge to his humour, and a gusty laugh. Humphreys, the synth wizard in the duo, is much softer and quieter, though they seem to genuinely enjoy the dynamic this creates. It is reflected in pop music that is full of complex, philosophical, downbeat lyrics and almost sickly-sweet singalong melodies. “The tension between technology and humanity is where we generate our romance,” according to McCluskey.
Humphreys left OMD in 1989, when, he says, the band “were losing the plot”, exhausted by constant touring and futile attempts to break the American market. McCluskey soldiered on alone until 1996. Both are fairly withering about the band’s output after the first run of hits. “We were going back to an empty well too regularly. We’d run out of things to say,” admits McCluskey.
McCluskey finally retired the OMD name in 1996, feeling adrift in a changing musical landscape. “Britpop had come along and, all of a sudden, our idea of modern wasn’t modern anymore.”
Which is when this rather polemical character had a second unlikely career as the Svengali behind manufactured girl band Atomic Kitten, featuring a young Kerry Katona. He claims it was Karl Barthos of Kraftwerk who first suggested he invent a band as a vehicle for his songs.
“It was very liberating, great, disposable junk-culture pop. I wrote five top 10 British singles, including Whole Again, of which I am very proud. But after 18 years in OMD, I thought I knew the music business. I had no idea just how nasty, dodgy, backstabbing and dirty the manufactured pop industry is.”
After one album, McCluskey was deemed “surplus to requirements” by Atomic Kitten’s record company, who didn’t share his vision for the group. He recounts a meeting in which he was told, “We’ve got a winning formula now. I want Whole Again, Whole Again and more f‑‑‑ing Whole Again.”
When I ask if McCluskey feels responsible for inflicting Kerry Katona on the world, he snorts with laughter. “I feel more responsible for inflicting her upon herself than the rest of the world. I love Kerry to bits. But she is a Titanic looking for an iceberg. She was a beautiful girl, funny as hell, brilliant but totally insecure and screwed-up, who thought being rich and famous would change her life and make her happier. She is the classic case of 'Do not have your wishes and dreams come true’.”
He had a second stab at manufactured pop with Genie Queen, featuring Abi Clancy, who became better known as England footballer Peter Crouch’s girlfriend. When she left him in the lurch to pursue romance and modelling, McCluskey decided to stop expending time, effort and money on other artists.
“She’s a great singer, one of the best voices I’ve ever heard. But she realised there was loads more money to be made taking your clothes off for FHM and dating footballers than there is out of working hard at music. And she’s right. I don’t think if we were 18 now we would be getting into the music industry. It really does feel like we’re at the decline and fall of the pop empire.”
And yet the duo are back in the fray. The pair remained friends, collaborating on songwriting projects, and began to detect a groundswell of interest in OMD, with young bands such as the xx, La Roux, the Killers and LCD Soundsystem namechecking them as an influence.
“Its cool to sound like OMD at the moment,” says Humphrey’s. “And if anyone has an excuse to sound like OMD, it’s us.” They initially reformed in 2007 to perform live, reviving only their early Eighties material, but soon found themselves back in their home studios. There was a sense, they admit, of unfinished business.
“We actually had some things to say,” says McCluskey. “And we could talk in our own language: analogue synths, simple drum patterns, and songs about the end of the universe.”
The result is the ironically titled History of Modern. And it’s extraordinarily good, a belting synth-pop classic crammed with catchy tunes and complicated lyrics about matters of life and death, art and philosophy.
The pair are aware of all the contradictions in making a nostalgic comeback with music once considered boldly futurist, but seem to be really enjoying their foray into what might be deemed retro electro.
“We consider ourselves some of the last of the 20th-century modernists. It’s like being 19 again. We’re really talking to ourselves. If other people like to listen in to the conversation, that’s great. That’s the way we used to work. It took us 30 years to get back to that state of mind.”
'History of Modern’ is released on Sept 20