History of modern: OMD's crazy career arc, from Factory Records to Atomic Kitten

Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
Andy McCluskey  and Paul Humphreys of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, 1984. (Photo: Virginia Turbett/Redferns/Getty Images)
Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, 1984. (Photo: Virginia Turbett/Redferns/Getty Images)

In 1998, Andy McCluskey retired from working under the new wave band name Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, a development that coincided with the release of Virgin Records’ career-bookending The OMD Singles compilation. When McCluskey spoke to Yahoo Entertainment at the time, he seemed not only at peace with his decision, but downright thrilled with it. “This has been, strangely enough, quite good fun,” he chuckled, as he chatted about the demise of the band he’d formed with Paul Humphreys in 1978, when he was only 19 years old. “I'm quite enjoying being able to talk about OMD because it's over — I can be honest, and brutal, and frank, instead of trying to jam some new product down people's throats and saying, ‘Oh, this is better than the last one, buy it!’”

Twenty-one years later, OMD are very much back together, having issued three genuinely excellent albums of “new product” since reforming for what was what supposed to be a one-off performance in 2005 for a German TV show. Now McCluskey is back on the phone with Yahoo Entertainment to talk about a new OMD compilation, the four-decade-spanning, five-disc, 98-song boxed set Souvenir, and he’s as honest, brutal, and frank as ever. And still very funny.

For instance, when he’s reminded that in our 1998 conversation he declared that he’d “completely embraced the beauty of kitsch, of marketable pop” and “intended at least for a year or two to live vicariously through some young people and be a vampire of pop,” he points out that soon after this declaration, he and his OMD bandmate Stuart Kershaw founded Atomic Kitten — a girl group that was massive in Britain, scoring a double-platinum album and five top 10 singles (including “Whole Again,” which stayed at No. 1 for four weeks).

McCluskey’s songwriting for Atomic Kitten even earned him an Ivor Novello Award nomination, and the unexpected, unlikely second career act showcased his pure-pop smarts and helped him stay up to date with modern recording technology. But when he talks about the experience — and his entire career — he’s his usual snarky self.

Yahoo Entertainment: Please tell me how you went from doing OMD to Atomic Kitten — and then back again.

Andy McCluskey: Basically, [OMD] were finished… but was I still conceited enough to think I could write some tunes! And so, not long after I spoke to you, I started creating other bands, vehicles for my songs, trying to develop younger artists in Liverpool, with various degrees of success.

But in the ‘90s, you were still doing great work under the name OMD. I mean, 1996’s “Walking on the Milky Way” wasn’t a big hit, but it’s one of my personal favorite OMD songs.

Actually, “Walking on the Milky Way” is the song that made me decide to retire, because I figured, “I cannot write a better song than this!” I mean, it was trying to climb up the charts with both hands tied behind its back. In the U.K., it actually did get to No. 17, but Radio 1 would not play it, because the band was considered old and not their “target demographic.” And because Radio 1 wouldn't play it, Woolworths wouldn't stock it. So I just thought, "I am banging my head against the brick wall here... because ‘Walking on the Milky Way’ is one of the best songs I ever wrote in my life.” I am convinced of that. It's as good as “Enola Gay,” “Maid of Orleans,” “If You Leave.” And that's why I decided that there was nothing wrong with the message; it was the messenger that was being resisted. So I thought, “All right, f*** it. Either somebody else can sing [the songs], or I'll do it under another name.”

But here's the kicker, here's the thing that nobody ever believes, and what is totally true: Kraftwerk invented Atomic Kitten.

Huh?

I had become very friendly with Karl Bartos, who had played in Kraftwerk, and we worked together. I said to Karl, I said, "OK, I'm wasting my time here. This isn't happening. I think I'll just write songs and give them to the publishing company." And he said, "No, no, no, no. Don't do that, because you'll have no control, and you'll just be whoring your wares around, and you'll no chance of seeing how they're changed and manipulated." He said, "Create a vehicle for your songs." I said, "Like what?" He said, "Well, what's the best type of pop group in the world?" And I said, "Oh, a girl band."

You see, girl bands have hits with great songs. Boy bands get away with murder, because, sadly, with a lot of teenage girl [fans], love makes them not only blind and deaf as well. Boy bands are appalling; they turn out terrible music. Girl bands invariably have to make great music to survive in the charts. And so, Karl Bartos told me, "Create a three-piece girl band." So, Kraftwerk invented Atomic Kitten.

Wow, Atomic Kitten are even hipper than I realized — with ties to both OMD and Kraftwerk! So, did you enjoy that whole experience?

I did for a couple of years. It was amazing working with these crazy young girls. Stuart and I had to learn an awful lot of new programming techniques, which had been useful for me in later years. The old dog was learning new tricks. I can remember the moment when they got offered their contracts when we were doing a showcase. We accidentally bluffed the label into releasing “Whole Again,” which became a massive No. 1 single.

But then the manager, who I had put in place, and the boss of the record company, who I'd signed them to, basically decided to stiff me — rip up my contract and go and get other people to write songs for them. I took songs in for the second album to the head of the record label, and he just said, "But this sounds different." I was like, "Well, yeah, because we're on a journey here. We can't just keep doing the same thing all the time!" And he said, "No, no, no. We know have our formula. I want ‘Whole Again,’ ‘Whole Again,’ and more f***ing ‘Whole Again.’ And if you don't write it, I'll get somebody else to do so!" And he did. And the band, on their second or third album, just became a pastiche of themselves. And that's when the fun went. After four years, I wasn't even allowed to talk to them, other than through lawyers.

I imagine that soured you a bit on the mainstream pop world.

Well, stupidly, I created another girl band, Genie Queen, who were actually even better than Atomic Kitten and incredible singers, with incredible songs. But the s*** that passed then for girl bands… the music industry didn't want girl bands anymore. They wanted a new flavor. Boy bands were back in style again, and I couldn't get [Genie Queen] signed, so that was very frustrating — even though one of the singers has gone on to be very, very famous and successful in the U.K., a lady named Abbey Clancy. She's known for being very beautiful, but when people find out she can also sing, they don't believe me, but she had a wonderful voice, actually.

Abbey decided that there was more money to be made by dating a football star [Peter Crouch]. I called her, and she said, "I'm not coming back." … I said, "I totally understand that you've been in the band for 18 months, and you've realized how hard it is" Because it is. These manufactured pop groups have to do dance routines, they have to look right, they have to dress right, and they work the most stupid hours. And particularly with being a girl as well, you've always got to look glamorous. It's a 24 hours a day, nonstop. She had realized how exhausting all this was. And I actually said to her, "You now see that it's a much easier job f***ing a guy who earns 40,000 [pounds] a week." And all she said was, "Sixty-thousand, actually." [laughs] So, the point was made.

So, bringing it full-circle back to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, do you hear your pop influence in the EDM-leaning pop music that is being made today? In the ‘80s, OMD had bona fide crossover pop hits.

Actually, I think what's interesting is that of all the albums we ever made, the one that actually almost killed our career in 1983, commercially killed us, Dazzle Ships, seems to invariably be the record that other artists namecheck. ... There was even an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson, where the whole museum was given over to Dazzle Ships. The director went, "Guess what? I'm a huge fan of Dazzle Ships. I'd love you guys to do something really crazy and bonkers and off-the-wall, and do something for my museum. You can have a floor, or you can have four floors."

So what do mean when you say Dazzle Ships almost killed your career, then?

Our third album, Architecture & Morality, at the time sold 4 million. It's now sold even more. In the U.K., there was three top 5 singles on it, and I actually refused to let the record company release a fourth single; we would've had another hit with “She's Leaving,” but I can distinctly remember saying, "You're not prostituting my art by releasing a fourth single!" Yeah, I was quite a precious, pretentious little bugger when I was young. So, then we went from that to Dazzle Ships, which sold about 10 percent of its predecessor. It was more experimental, more political. I mean, in this day and age, if you listen to it, it doesn't seem that dangerous. But 36 years ago, it was just a bit too fractured. All of the conceptual ideas weren't candy-coated in all the beautiful melodies that we had done previously. And yeah, people just went, "OK, that's just a bit more than 15 minutes ahead of its fashion. We don't like it." It just went a little too far.

What made you want to take that risk?

We wanted to change the world. A couple of journalists had said to us, "You're selling millions of records. Why are you writing songs about oil refineries and French saints? Why aren't you more overtly political? The world is listening to you, so why don't you deal it a hammer blow now that you've got its ear?" And I think that's what helped us to compel us towards being a little bit more radical and political.

But I think you have to understand that we started as an experimental band. At first, Paul and I didn't have any real instruments, other than the bass guitar and some things that Paul made out of cannibalizing his auntie's radio. We just made weird noises that even our best friends thought were horrible. The reason why we were a two-piece with a tape recorder was nobody wanted to play with us. And the second gig we played was at the Factory in Manchester. Having met [Factory Records’] Tony Wilson, who was on the TV and sometimes had bands on the local news, we were cheeky enough to send him the cassette, saying, "Hey, we met you last week. Can we get on your TV program?"

Tony filed it in a supermarket bag in his car, which was basically the rubbish. And this is a true story, because his ex-wife told us this last year when we did our 40th anniversary book: She got in the car and went, "What are all these cassettes?" And he went, "Oh, it's the junk that I'm just going to throw out." She fished in, pulled our cassette, and said, "’Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark,’ that's a funky name. Let's listen to this!" And he went, "Oh, I met them last week. It's rubbish, don't like it." She put it on and said, "No, that is a hit. That is the sort of thing you should be signing, honey." And so, after she played it twice, Tony — apparently patronizingly — leaned over, patted her on the thigh, and went, "All right, dear. I'll sign them for you."

Tony Wilson was very good at rewriting history. A week after he had this conversation with his wife, he called us in to the Granada TV studios to meet us, and he said, "You guys are the future of pop music!" And I think we used an F-word to say, "No, no, we're not. We're experimental!" But when he offered us to make a single, we said, "Oh, OK, we'll do that. Don't call us ‘pop,’ because we're not, but sure, we'll do a record!" And he said, "You're going too big for us." The model with Factory Records originally was for them to be a facilitator: to sign local artists, then sell them onto big labels, and then use the money to redevelop other artists. We turned out to be the only band that ever did that. And our conceptual art project became a pop group, much to our amazement. We were flying by the seat of our pants.

I always thought it was interesting that even with OMD’s very uptempo songs, even a big pop smash like “If You Leave” on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, there was a darkness to the lyrics.

It's a complete accident, but you are right that we have created a sound, which is a juxtaposition of sadness and melancholy and darkness with quite beautiful, often euphoric and uplifting, melodies and harmonic interlayers. Somebody once called it “soaring melancholy.” Paul and I have created this kind of strangely euphoric melancholy feeling, which resonates with our personalities. It's a conversation we're having with ourselves, but fortunately, we created a language that seems to resonate with many other people, and we're blessed by that.

And it’s still resonating. You’ve released three albums since 2010 that have been critically acclaimed.

Yes, I think [2010’s] History of Modern, [2017’s] Punishment of Luxury, and [2013’s] “Dresden” and “Metroland” all stand next to [classic ‘80s singles] “Enola Gay” and “Electricity.” I'm very happy about that, and I don't think it's us just deluding ourselves. When we did the Punishment of Luxury tour, we played 22 songs, and eight of them were new songs from within the last six years — and the entire audience did not go to the bar or the bathroom during the new songs! [laughs] That was a good sign. The last three albums have actually contemporized us, which has been amazing. And I'm really glad we chose to make new music, because otherwise we just would've been a tribute band to ourselves.

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