The second of the two European-coded DVDs is an impressive trinity of material. The first two parts are live shows that Andy McCluskey says demonstrate how time and experience changed the band for the better. The 1981 show filmed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane was during the “Architecture and Morality” era, “when we were at the peak of our powers, but it just shows how very minimal the stage lighting was. We were trying absolutely not to be a [conventional] rock and roll show, with crash bang wallop full of pyrotechnics and big flashing lights. It was [about] trying to be more theatrical and moody and quite often, it was dark.” He further notes, “When you listen to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane show, this was our third album, but we were still only 20, 21. It’s crazy. We were kids. We still had all of our anxieties and nerves.”
In contrast, a 1985 show at Sheffield City Hall (“the most beautiful oval building”) filmed for the BBC’s Oxford Road Show series “shows a band much more confident, much more middle of the road, because we had brass with us. We’d grown into being a bit more capable and relaxed onstage. You can see that we’ve grown and mellowed a little bit by the mid-eighties. It’s nice to see those two shows back to back.” OMD will be returning to Sheffield on the 3rd of November, to that very same venue, on their European and UK 40th anniversary tour.
Also included on the second DVD is Crush the Movie, previously only available on VHS cassette in the eighties. I ask Andy if the original intention of the film was to promote the album, or vice versa. “It’s hard to know, really. Someone persuaded us to make this complete film. It was available as a video to purchase, so the fans could buy it, and it obviously contains the promo videos for the single releases. But it was one of those things you do and you look back and think, I wonder how much that cost us?
“People say, ‘you look so serious in your photographs, and your music is dead serious.’ And we’re like, ‘we are serious about our music. But we ourselves are ordinary guys who have a laugh.’ So you can see us goofing off in the studio and when we’re filming in Spain. I think that was quite nice, to see a different side of OMD. It hasn’t been available since it was available on VHS video, so we thought we’d make it available digitally because a lot of people haven’t seen it in decades.”
Included in the film is Andy and Paul Humphreys’ parody of an ABBA-themed sketch from Not the Nine O’Clock News, a tv programme that made Rowan Atkinson a star. They are in the studio with headphones on, gaily singing something called ‘One of Us is Ugly, One of Us is Cute’. “Again, that was us, messing around in the studio, copying a comedy routine from a popular tv series at the time. I look back at it and actually cringe because, god, what were we doing? But it’s probably quite funny now.” It is.
Arguably, the most accessible parts of the “Souvenir” deluxe boxset are the 40 singles that span OMD’s career because many, if not all, are old friends to OMD fans. He and Paul decided to be “completely inclusive”, though Andy concedes that “some of them, maybe we could have done better [with], or we didn’t realize at the time it wasn’t as good as we thought it was.” With the ever-present desire to try a different direction on each successive album, the singles lined up chronologically reflect this spirit of experimentation.
‘Don’t Go’ is their special 40th single, and it turns out it was conceived around the time they considered B-sides for 2017’s “The Punishment of Luxury”. As Andy explains, things were promising from the start, but it took Paul’s intervention to finish the job. “When I put the lyric on this sequencer, we thought, ‘hang on a minute, this is really good, this actually could become quite a strong song. Let’s hold on to it.’ So we kept it, and earlier this year, when we were looking to finish the [greatest hits part of the] album, we went back to it. It was a bit of a struggle, actually, because we knew there was something good in there [the earlier version], but we knew something was missing. Finally, when Paul put the melody in the middle that reprises at the end, that was when we had a real clincher.
“The funny thing is, I started out singing it in the lower key. Then, as it grew, I just thought, this needs to go up the octave to give it the proper McCluskey howl. And that’s what really then elevated it to have a huge, intense, emotional kind of melancholy. It’s a really good song. We’re very proud of it, we thought for our 40th single in our 40th year, it stands up. It’s good. We know it won’t be a hit. It’s not going to get played enough on the radio. But we know it’s a good song.
“It’s one of the few songs where I’m not trading in poetry or metaphor. It’s a pretty straight lyric about how much you can hurt when someone leaves your life.” The tear-jerking video by Sprankenstein Studio was also just released last week. “The video is a choker, isn’t it?” Andy jokes. “It’s such simple line drawings. The particular bit where the main character is sitting on the bench, aging, really shows how touching you can be with a few brushstrokes, you know?”
Naturally, having the singles arranged in chronological order allows Andy to reflect on the individual singles and what their success meant to him at the time. “‘Electricity’ was never a hit, until this week when the 7” re-release was number 1 in the [UK] vinyl [singles] chart. ‘Messages’ was our first hit, that was amazing.”
Sometimes, there was simply astonishment. “‘Enola Gay’ was massive. I remember we went to Italy and the record company asked us, ‘would you mind doing some press before we go to the tv station?’ We walked into this room and there’s 50 people and we’re like, this is a press conference! Normally we do one-on-ones. What the fuck? And the first question was, ‘how does it feel to be number one in Italy?’ And we were like, ‘is this Candid Camera, is this a joke? What?’ The record company goes, ‘yeah, it’s a surprise! We didn’t want to tell you!’
“‘Maid of Orleans’ is a weird song to have been the biggest-selling song in Germany in 1982. I mean, it starts with 40 seconds of distortion. ‘Sailing on the Seven Seas’ was a huge release that I had as a hit on my own. I was terrified because all I’d ever done was work with Paul and the other guys in the band. Then ‘Walking on the Milky Way’ is one of the best songs I’ve ever written in my life, and that struggled to get to number 17 because [BBC] Radio 1 wouldn’t play it in the UK.”
OMD are in an enviable position where they have not one, but two fantastic primary songwriters and lead vocalists. I ask Andy which of the songs he’s penned are his personal favourites. “I have a soft spot for ‘Electricity’ because it was the first piece of music, an object of a song I had written. That was the most amazing feeling, ever. A song that Paul and I had written when we were 16, and I was now holding in my hand at age 19. ‘Enola Gay’ because it kicked the doors open [for us] internationally.
“‘If You Leave’ [from the Pretty in Pink soundtrack], we’re proud of [it] because it was a remarkable piece of craftsmanship: under extreme duress, we write a song off the top of our heads in 1 day, and then it turned out to be the biggest hit. I am very proud of ‘Sailing on the Seven Seas’ because I think I went back to the kind of ethos of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, which was ‘don’t write a hit, just write something and see what happens. And one of them will be a hit if you’ve actually written a good song’. ‘Sailing on the Seven Seas’ was an utterly bonkers song, but it was a massive hit in northern Europe.”
Andy also wants to take the time to reflect back on the two most recent OMD albums ‘English Electric’ and ‘The Punishment of Luxury’ and through the eyes of the version of him holding that original 1979 ‘Electricity’ single. “There’s some tracks on there, because we’re looking back, because we’re reflecting, because we’re looking at 40 years, [so] I know how the 20-year old Andy McCluskey would have felt about the fact that the 60-year old McCluskey was still in the music industry. He would have been horrified.
“He would have said, ‘if this is for young people, only young people make good music. Old people make boring, conventional crap. You need to retire before you’re 30. Get out of the way, and let the young train come ploughing down the track.’ All I would say to him was, ‘son, totally understand where you’re coming from. That gave you your energy and your angst, your naivete and enthusiasm. But just have a listen to this album. Have a listen to “The Punishment of Luxury”.’ I suspect the 20-year old Andy McCluskey would have gone, ‘wow! You guys can still do it! Okay, carry on!’”
In the year of their 40th anniversary, Andy and OMD have incredible music behind them that they can be pleased with because they made it largely under their own terms. “The one thing we’re most proud of is that for the most part, we have ploughed our own course through the music industry. We have done what we have wanted to do. There were times when we were under pressure. It was only because of money – because we didn’t get into this to be rich and famous – but once it becomes what you do, you have to pay the bills to keep on creating. If you don’t sell enough records, you get dropped, so no-one’s going to hear the next one.
“We sometimes had to err on the side of caution. And the one thing that we have realised, when we err on the side of caution, we’re not as good as when we go for an adventure.” It’s that sense of adventure, along with their healthy desire to be different, that has led OMD to write some of the greatest songs in popular music. The “Souvenir” deluxe boxset, then, affords the music fan the chance to join them on a unique ride. And what a ride it is.
Mary L. Chang is an American freelance music journalist. She was the Editor-in-Chief of the UK/U.S./Irish music website There Goes the Fear from 2010 to 2019 and has contributed to international music outlets including DIY, Click Music and PopWreckoning.