Interview with Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD)

(This interview was originally published March 10, 2011 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Andy McCluskey. He is best known as the lead singer and bassist for the group Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD). Along with co-founder Paul Humphreys and core members Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper, OMD achieved great notoriety and success especially in the UK. This initially did not translate to the U.S. (unless you were on the cutting edge) really until the band had a song featured in the 1986 John Hughes film Pretty in Pink. Hughes prided himself at being on that cutting edge and helped introduce OMD to America with “If You Leave”.

As is usually the case here, I will focus on the American perspective which means unfortunately not much attention will be given to their outstanding UK hits. Though you will still be able to find out more about the origins of OMD, their biggest U.S. hit and what they are up to now as we get on to some selections from my interview with Andy McCluskey…

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a musician and songwriter? How did you get your start in the music industry?

Andy: Paul Humphreys and I grew up in a suburb of Liverpool and became fascinated by Kraftwerk when I was 16 and he was 15. We used to make weird noises in the back room at his mother’s house on Saturdays never thinking that we had a hope of a career because even our friends hated what we did. Slowly we accumulated a mixed bag of cheap old instruments and finally dared to do a one off gig in September 1978 at our local club called Eric’s. The owners asked if we would like to play again at their friend’s club in Manchester. This is how we met Tony Wilson who was about to start Factory Records. He told us that what we did was the future of pop music and offered to release our first single, “Electricity“.

Q: When and how did you meet Paul Humphreys?

Andy: Paul and I grew up in a little place called Meols across the river from Liverpool [England]. We went to the same school. His friends were looking for a bass player and I joined their band, but it quickly became obvious that Paul and I had a different musical influence than the rest of them.

Q: Please discuss your personal musical influences and who/what molded and inspired your sound and your bass playing.

Andy: We only liked a handful of artists: Kraftwerk, Neu, Roxy Music, David Bowie, Velvet Underground and Eno. This was our inspiration. I owned a bass because just before I heard Autobahn [Kraftwerk’s 1974 album] I had bought the only one in a second hand store that I could afford. It was left-handed and I am right-handed. So my bass style was really influenced by playing upside down.

Q: After you and Paul formed your own band, how and why was the band name Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark chosen? What are your thoughts on the band name today and have you ever regretted choosing it?

Andy: We used the name because we wanted people to know that we were not your typical rock or punk band. It means nothing, but it didn’t matter because it was only for one gig… or so we thought. We have grown to love it. We say OMD for easy talking but we prefer Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

Q: How did the opportunity to join Gary Numan’s first major British tour in 1979 come to OMD? Please tell us about Gary Numan and what this opportunity meant to OMD at that point in time.

Andy: Gary bought our first single “Electricity” when it came out on Factory. When he hit it big just a few months earlier, he was looking for a band to compliment his style on tour and it helped that there was only 2 of us so it didn’t interfere with his huge stage set. He was very kind. We paid no “buy on” and he carried our gear and let us travel on his tour bus. It gave us an opportunity to get to know the theatres that we ourselves would headline exactly a year later after we had had our first two hit singles.

Q: In the early '80s, OMD had huge success in the UK, but it did not seem translate to the U.S. market right away. Did this matter to you at all at the time? Were you surprised or frustrated? How do you explain the fact that OMD did not seem to catch on in America right away like so many other British bands were at the time?

Andy: There was no Virgin USA label at the time so we were licensed in a bundle with XTC and Japan. The U.S. label made very little effort to promote us and English electronic music had such a low profile underground audience in the U.S. because no radio stations would play us. It was frustrating and weird. We would do big venues in Europe than be back to our roots in tiny clubs in the USA.

OMD’s first five albums were all certified Gold or higher in the UK with four of those reaching the Top 10 of the UK album chart. Those albums alone generated nine Top 40 singles in the UK as well with five of those reaching the Top 10 (with even more to come in the future). At the same time, none of those songs even broke into the Billboard Hot 100 and the highest album peaked at #144 on the Billboard 200 Album Chart. This demonstrates the band’s incredible popularity in the UK and lack thereof in the U.S in the early '80s.

Q: Then in 1985, your single “So In Love” was OMD’s first to finally crack the Billboard Hot 100 [peaked at #26]. Why do you feel that this single finally caught the attention of the U.S. market? How much do you feel producer Stephen Hague is responsible for this success?

Andy: After our fourth album, Dazzle Ships, was too experimental even for Europe, we pulled back and started to be more conservative. I think that this fact and our move to A&M records really made the difference in the USA. Also MTV was becoming important and UK bands initially made better videos than the U.S. bands. Hague created a more polished sound for us that probably helped on U.S. radio.

Q: You had your biggest U.S. hit with “If You Leave” from the 1986 John Hughes’ film Pretty in Pink. Were you commissioned to write this song specifically for the film? What is the back story about how that song was conceived and written?

Andy: John Hughes was a big fan of English music. He had asked Simple Minds to do a track for The Breakfast Club and then asked us to do one for Pretty in Pink. We went to Paramount and met him, Molly [Ringwald] and Jon Cryer on the set of the movie. He told us where he wanted the song and we went home to write one.

Unfortunately, by the time we returned with a 2 inch tape ready to mix, they had tested the film and the audience didn’t like the ending so they re-wrote it and our song didn’t work lyrically. [The original ending had Andie choose Duckie instead of Blane and that original song was “Goddess of Love”.] John Hughes asked if we could write another, so we went into Larabee Studios and wrote “If You Leave” off the top of our heads in one day. The lyrics were fitted to the film story. The original was so long that we really had trouble editing the end for radio. We ended up lying about the final length and wrote 3:59 on the tape although the track is well over 4 minutes long!

Surely aided by being featured in the final scene of the popular film, “If You Leave” went on to become OMD’s first and biggest hit in the U.S. reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Over time, this song has evolved into one of my very favorites from the entire decade. Here is the music video for “If You Leave” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark…

Q: It is such a beautiful and emotional song. You can feel the emotion in your voice. What brings that emotion forward for you in a case like that? Also, how was it decided to modulate it with so many key changes within this song? I believe it does add to the emotion.

Andy: I was really trying to capture the intense emotional impact of the ending of the film where all hope for Andie’s dream of love looks doomed. Seven years is the length of time from Middle to the end of High School and the Prom is the last chance to say goodbye. I can’t remember why we modulated it; probably because it was so bloody long we thought it needed a key change to keep the interest going. We also made a couple of programming mistakes and liked the accidents so we kept them, e.g. the steel drum in verse 2 is not supposed to be off the beat but it sounded better that way.

Here is another insight to the song that McCluskey mentions in another interview:

If You Leave” had to be 120 BPM [beats per minute] because that’s the tempo of “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” which is the track they actually shot the prom scene to. Unfortunately, the editor obviously had no sense of rhythm because they are all dancing out of time in the final film.

Q: What were your feelings about this particular song when you wrote and recorded it? Did you feel you might have something special?

Andy: Because we did it so quickly, we had no time to really appreciate what we had done. The next day we went off on a 3 month tour with the Thompson Twins. It was really only when it was released and got such a huge boost from being in the film that we realized what was going to happen. The movie premier was amazing… all the cliches: red carpet, limo, Chinese theatre… fantastic!

Q: Do you know what Hughes’ feelings were about your outstanding contribution to his film? What were your thoughts regarding the film Pretty in Pink then and now?

Andy: As I have said, John Hughes was a fan and it was great that he encouraged us to do another song when the first one wouldn’t fit anymore. I always had the impression that he felt that our song created a great emotional crescendo that helps enhance the final scenes of the movie. The film is a wonderful snapshot of '80s American high school. I am proud to have been involved.

Q: As I mentioned, this single went on to have huge success in the U.S. peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, but surprisingly did not have nearly the same reaction in the UK [peaking only at #48 there]. How do you explain this turn of events?

Andy: I think that our career was in trouble in the countries where we had previously been successful. Perhaps because we seemed a brand new band to most of the U.S. audience, it was a great way to really kick start our sales in the U.S. Also many of the Europeans saw it as a “sell out” pop song.

Q: When you have a mega hit song like that, do you (or did you) ever get sick of playing them?

Andy: I am proud of the song and we never get tired of playing songs that we are proud of, though we seldom play “If You Leave” in Europe as it was not a big hit there.

Q: You mentioned MTV earlier and some of your videos received lots of exposure on MTV back then. What are your thoughts on the impact that MTV had on music in the '80s, especially in America?

Andy: MTV initially was a wonderful tool for spreading the word without having to tour for months and do all the interviews. I never thought it would take off… just shows you what I know.

Q: Any other comments concerning '80s music or pop culture?

Andy: The '80s were the last decade where the pop groups actually wrote their own songs and tried to create the future.

Q: Some '80s pop superstars “run away” from the '80s and some embrace the success and fans from that decade. How do you personally deal with and keep the '80s alive and in perspective?

Andy: The good music is still good. Every generation rejects its immediate predecessors, so it was no surprise that 80s was out of fashion. But now people are reassessing what was done and finding the quality. Also many people just stick with what they grew up with. We are happy with what we did and we are loving the opportunity to play again to enthusiastic audiences.

Q: Please describe the circumstances surrounding Paul Humphreys’ decision to leave the band in 1989 and the eventual reduction to you being the only one left as OMD. You retired the OMD name in 1996, but then in 2006 reformed the band with the original members. What triggered and made it the right time for a reunion?

Andy: Paul and I were always very different personalities and had different musical feels. After a while, I guess we got sick of all the touring and being together non-stop. We knew that OMD was beginning to struggle but had different ideas about which way to go. He left taking Mal and Martin and I decided to continue which was actually very strange. We never really fell out and when the time seemed right to play again all four of us really wanted to do it. The new found success live and with our recent album has justified our decision.

Q: OMD released its 11th studio album, History of Modern, in late 2010. What are your feelings about this latest work? What inspires you to continue to write and record new music after all this time? How do you feel OMD fits into the contemporary musical landscape now?

Andy: Our sound has been rediscovered and is now applauded. This leaves us in a very fortunate position that we were able to play again live. However, we had to be sure that the quality of the music was up to standard or it would have been stupid and self-indulgent to make an album that ruined our credibility.

Q: You are returning to the U.S. for a tour this year (for the first time in over 20 years). To underscore the point earlier, “If You Leave” was not even on your set list for the previous leg of your tour in the UK. I assume it will be added for the U.S. dates? Are you looking forward to touring in the United States again?

Andy: It has been too long since we played in North America. We are very excited to be finally coming over and the ticket sales look great. Can’t wait! “If You Leave” will be in the set, so don’t worry!

Q: What else is Andy McCluskey up to nowadays?

Andy: Totally involved in OMD… and very happy about it.

I am so delighted that Andy took some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. Special thanks go out to Phil Marsh who helped coordinate the interview. Again, I could not do OMD’s overall accomplishments justice, but at least wanted to best cover the American perspective. If you want to find out more about Andy or the band and what they have going on now, please be sure to visit the OMD official website. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Andy McCluskey for his contributions to '80s pop culture especially with “If You Leave” and, even more, for taking a walk down memory lane with us here as well.

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