“Oh My God, We’ve Arrived”: An Exclusive Interview with Andy McCluskey of OMD on the “Souvenir” Greatest Hits and Deluxe Boxset (Part 2) – By Mary L. Chang

Two of the five audio discs are live show recordings, and from virtually opposite sides of OMD’s long career.  The earlier recorded of the two discs comprises tracks recorded live in 1983, at London Hammersmith Odeon and at the end of their tour campaign for the then-critically-maligned “Dazzle Ships”.  While we can now enjoy the audio mixed by Paul Humphreys, Andy McCluskey reports that sadly, the accompanying film footage that was shot that night has unfortunately been lost.  For anyone lucky enough to have been in the audience for this show, you may notice there is a track missing from the set.

 

It’s only human nature to remember, with often great and excruciating detail, the moments where we have failed.  Despite the event occurring over 30 years ago, both Andy and Paul remembered that ‘Genetic Engineering’ went off that night in an utter shambles, so they chose to omit it from this release.  “What happened was we came in out of time with the click track.  Throughout the whole song, we knew we were out of time, and each of us kept trying to stop and come back in, instead of all stopping and starting the track again.  Nowadays, [if] we screw something up, we just start again.  We tried to get to the end of the song, and it sounded like World War III!”

 

Since its release in 1983, “Dazzle Ships” has enjoyed retrospective positive appraisals from music critics, as well as gained enthusiastic fans.  Says Andy, “The rest of it [the concert] is as we played it, and it’s an interesting and unusual show for a band who was at the top of its game but had just released an album that caused us problems commercially but which is now considered a kind of masterpiece.”  Given the background, you can’t help but muse over what concerns and anxiety might have been burbling in their early 20-something heads before and during the gig.

 

Andy’s comment also drives home the fact that they have always taken great pride in their live performances, even from the very early days.  “Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were a live band.  Paul and I were experimenting in his mother’s back room.  But we took those experiments and went to play [them] live.  We were always a band who played live.  It was always part of the ethos.  So it’s important for us to demonstrate the energy, the emotion and the feel of a live show.  I love live shows because you can’t actually change anything about it, you know?  It’s done, it’s gone into the ether.”

 

While he concedes studio recordings are polished and “perfectly presented” these days and live recordings are not, “[a live recording] has much more energy and humanity, specifically for that reason.  It’s something that you did that one night, in that one room, to those people and those people only.  You may have played the same set the night before in a different city.  But every, every concert has a different feel because it’s a different venue and it’s different people.  It’s very much a document of a specific moment, and that’s what gives a live recording its charm.”

 

Those reading this who have seen OMD live will agree with me that Andy, and the whole band, clearly have a great time performing for their fans.  The ability to interface with the people who love their music is absolutely priceless to him.  “I think it’s the human and emotional connection with the audience in the hall.  It’s a special event to go and see people presenting their art to you.  The interaction you get between the band and the audience is visceral.  When an audience is enjoying themselves, when they’re applauding, they’re cheering, clapping and dancing, there’s a buzz.  You get something back.

 

“We’ve sold millions of records, but I wasn’t in the shop where every record was sold, you know?  I wasn’t sitting in the car when somebody heard it on the radio and turned to their friend and said, ‘hey, I really like this song!’  I can’t share that with people.  But when we stand onstage and play it that one time, in that city, to that group of people, then we see what they feel.  Then we see how they respond.  And they get us to play it to them personally, [it’s] not just the recording that everyone else got when they bought the CD or the record or listened to the download.  They get the one performance we’re doing that night in their town, and it’s individual.  It’s special.  That’s what gives it a frisson, an energy.”

 

The other live audio recording is a BBC Radio 2 In Concert special from 2011, hosted by Jo Whiley. “It’s a more recent live recording.  It was broadcast and went out into the ether live, but no-one’s ever heard it since.  So we just thought it would be a nice opportunity for people to have a different document of the same band, the same four people, playing whatever it was 27 years later.”  It is, indeed, a nice closing of the loop, a lovely reminder that four people who played music together as young men and shared so many stages could reunite after some time of estrangement, then return and perform together as a cohesive unit, as if little or no time had passed at all.  The music industry is littered with stories of band members falling out with each other, never to speak again.  OMD’s story is a rare one where outside forces may have conspired against them, but friendships and musical bonds have endured.

 

One of the two European-coded DVDs in the “Souvenir” deluxe boxset are a blistering array of the band’s live performances from 1980 to 2013.  The majority of the performances are taken from the BBC’s Top of the Pops, whose influence on British life Andy was keen to impress on this Yank.  “Top of the Pops, for British kids, is iconic.  It’s our American Bandstand.  We grew up watching it, it’s often where we heard a track for the first time before it became a hit or while it was climbing the charts.  To do Top of the Pops, for British bands, it was really a stamp of, ‘oh my god, we’ve arrived. This is really incredible.’  It was exciting.  It was terrifying!”

 

OMD’s first performance for the BBC series was a bit of a baptism by fire.  “Actually, the first time we did Top of the Pops with ‘Messages’, it was the first time I’d ever flown in an aeroplane.  We were in Belgium, and we were supposed to get the ferry back after a European tour.  We get a phone call, ‘quick, get back to the UK, you got Top of the Pops!’  It was quite weird because I had just been on this plane…then, of course, our equipment was still coming back on the ferry, so we were playing rented equipment, which weren’t our own instruments, so we all felt rather uncomfortable.”  With a chuckle and I’m sure a smile on the other end of the line, he adds, “Sometimes it’s not as glamorous as you think it is!”

 

Still, despite the nerve-inducing events before they even got in front of a camera, he has overwhelmingly fond memories of going to the BBC Television Centre in Shepherd’s Bush to record their live appearances.  “It was a great, big circular building.  Every studio was divided [into two] and so had pairs, so when you came out of the dressing room, the two studios would share this cafe and tea shop.  And the great thing about recording and rehearsing for Top of the Pops, because you were there all day, there was a very large likelihood that the adjacent twin studio could be doing anything from a period drama to Doctor Who.  You could be sitting down, having a cup of tea with someone who looked like they were Jane Austen or [with] Doctor Who and the Daleks, or god knows what!”

 

Further, for its time, the BBC tv programme had incredible reach and influence on music listeners and the music-buying public, unlikely to be rivalled in Britain again.  “There were only three tv channels, and so everybody watched [Top of the Pops].  It was the one concession parents would make to their children, ‘okay, it’s Thursday night, it’s 7 o’clock.  You all can watch Top of the Pops.’  Twenty million people would watch it, of a population of 50 [million].  That’s how big it was.  If you were on Top of the Pops, it was the biggest advertisement you could ever get for your song.  That was really amazing, and I think it made it hugely important and exciting to do.”

 

During my research for this interview, I considered that the “Sugar Tax” single ‘Pandora’s Box’, appearing twice on the tv programme appearances DVD, might have a more personal angle to Andy and OMD than might have been initially apparent.  He considers my suggestion.  “I don’t think I ever saw [American twenties silent film actress] Louise Brooks and her career trajectory as a metaphor for OMD…certainly, she was precocious, she was young and talented, she was a teenager when she first came to people’s attention as being successful, so there are some similarities with OMD.  I think she refused to play the game.  We refused to play the game, but we were fortunate that we managed to sell records by creating our own set of rules, whereas Louise Brooks ultimately was cast out of the film industry because she was not abiding by their rules and doing what she was told.  So there were huge differences.”

 

In any event, Louise Brooks must have been a major influence on Andy at the time, as her memory stayed on his mind.  He reveals to me something that I had missed upon my audio inspection of the unreleased tracks.  “I don’t know if you’ve made the connection there, but the ‘American Venus’ that’s on the unreleased CD was my first attempt to write a song about Louise Brooks because ‘American Venus’ is another one of her film titles [like ‘Pandora’s Box’].  When I later went back and listened to ‘American Venus’ after our conversation, I realised why it hadn’t registered: Andy’s voice is so processed on it that I wouldn’t have made out the word “Kansas” if Andy had not brought it to my attention.  “‘American Venus’, when I heard it, the lyrics, ‘born in Kansas, from the tender prairie, to New York City’, that’s me trying to write a song about Louise Brooks, and it didn’t work.  And then I went away to write ’Pandora’s Box’ instead!  Basically, I kept a couple of the lyrics but utterly abandoned all the music.”

 

Such deconstructing, then rebuilding, has been a successful approach for him in some cases.  He relates a story to me about how the second Joan of Arc-themed OMD song ‘Maid of Orleans (The Waltz Joan of Arc)’ came about, and from a previously discarded idea.  “Paul and Malcolm [then-drummer Holmes], they came into the studio when we were packing up to go to the Manor [Studio in Oxfordshire], and they both said, ‘whatever happened to that waltzy one?’  And I said, ‘it doesn’t work.’  Mal said, “if you let me play drums on it, it might.’  And it did!”

 

Hearing more about the OMD modus operandi to songcraft, I was struck by the elements of hard work, experimentation and fate that have played a part in creating the songs we hold so dear in our hearts.  Despite the numerous detractors of electronic music who hounded OMD and their eighties contemporaries for not being real songwriters, the truth of the matter is that they are an act whose magic moments in the studio may have been hard-fought, and the proof is in the memorable end product.

 

 

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.

“Different Colours, Different Shades”: An Exclusive Interview with Andy McCluskey of OMD on the “Souvenir” Greatest Hits and Deluxe Boxset (Part 1) – By Mary L. Chang

2019 will be remembered for a great many notable anniversaries.  In British music history, the greatest will be the 40th anniversary of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD).  The pioneering electronic act from a humble, working-class beginning in the Wirral, England, went on to become a successful, multimillion album-selling group who, except for the few times they “had to err on the side of caution”, were uncompromising in their artistic vision.

 

Days before their band were due to begin the anniversary-related European and UK OMD tour in Portugal, I was given the wonderful opportunity to speak with cofounder Andy McCluskey about the gravity of releasing the new greatest hits and deluxe boxset “Souvenir”, available now from Universal Music.  As Andy and I discussed what he and Paul Humphreys decided to include in the boxset, it became clear very quickly how important it was to the two of them to be able to present a big picture view of their career through this boxset.  It is designed for the fans, with scores of memorable tunes, live performance tracks and video clips, unreleased songs and fragments and more to dive into.  As a whole, it is a massive reminder of everything OMD have achieved and over such a long period of time, so much so that today’s up-and-coming acts should be envious.

 

Andy is matter-of-fact when looking back at their storied career.  “We’ve had some good moments.  There were other times when we were working and we didn’t get it quite right.  But not every Picasso is a masterpiece.”  He calls the big hit singles in the two greatest hits discs “the cherry and the icing on top” that music fans will clamour for, but he sees “Souvenir” as a metaphor for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.  That is, if you dig deeper through their oeuvre, their career is revealed as an “often dark and complicated, richer cake underneath [that includes] the unreleased tracks that show how we used to work” and the live performances they have chosen to include here.

 

I definitely was not expecting to hear a comparison of OMD’s career to a layered pudding.  However, upon further reflection, the metaphor totally makes sense.  (We will get to another cooking allusion later.)  While music fans know OMD for the single or singles that were successful in their respective territories, those who invest time exploring the band’s output beyond the hits and indeed, beyond the static studio recordings, shall be rewarded.  “It’s [“Souvenir”] about all the hidden depths of OMD, the different colours, different shades”, Andy explains.  “We’re not a band who just strives to write a hit single, and the rest of the album are songs that aren’t good enough be hit singles.  We accidentally write hit singles while we’re on our journey, experimenting and trying different kinds of music.”  This is just one example of why OMD are so beloved by their fans: the word “contrived” just does not exist in their vocabulary.

 

To the sonic geeks and synth addicts, both groups I consider myself a card-carrying member of, the most intriguing disc of the boxset has to be “Unreleased Archive Vol I.”  The songs and song fragments you hear on this disc were discovered in storage by cofounder Paul Humphreys, having been put away and abandoned following the completion of various albums.  Andy explains that in OMD’s early days, “we would write to tape, and it was a linear writing process.  We would just throw crazy ideas on the tape, then hope to actually make the song out of these component parts…[but] what tended to happen was if there was another song on the tape that had been used as part of a master in recording, then the tapes would go from the final mixing place and then into the storage, and we never saw them again.  So if we forgot to take the tapes home and keep them for working on again, they just went into storage, and so we hadn’t seen these tapes for, literally, decades.  So there was a real voyage of discovery to find what there was.”

 

However, before any reviewing of the material from storage could begin, they first had to overcome an unusual physical problem with the tapes, which Andy explained to me in much detail.  “Most of the tapes were from the late seventies to the early eighties, and the technology used on tape [around] then had changed.  The glue that was used to adhere the ferric oxide onto the tape was synthetic.  Prior to that, in the forties, fifties and sixties, they used glue made from whale product.  So the synthetic glue was obviously much more humane and moral.  The trouble was that it wasn’t as good as the whale product glue.

 

“Over the years, it tends to absorb moisture.  So what happens with these tapes is, if you try to lace these tapes on a machine and play them, they actually shed the oxide onto the playback head.  In the process of listening to your tapes, you’re actually stripping the magnetic oxide off the recording!  What you have to do is send them off to be baked, slowly, in an oven at a certain temperature for about 24 hours, and it dries the moisture out slowly.  And then you put the tape on the machine and transfer it to digital [recording] so you have saved the tape, but you’ve also got a digital copy.

 

“It was several weeks before we could actually get to hear these tracks.  And it was really exciting, because some of them we did recall, and it was like, ‘great, we’re just going to mix those, and we’ll have them.’  Others, we had no recollection whatsoever.”  For the long-time OMD fan, the disc is a nostalgic look back at their previous album eras, and you can practically picture yourself there in the studio with them.  If we use the metaphor of a slick muscle car to describe OMD and their unique musical output over these last 4 decades, then listening to “Unreleased Archive Vol I.” is like being afforded the chance to look under the bonnet and see how they worked back then.

 

“A lot of them [the tracks] are kind of like rough canvases”, Andy says, “where an artist was sketching in the background, but they never got to finally put the details on, the trees and the houses and the people.  It never got worked up to become a complete image, and that’s what some of these pieces of music are.  But there’s also quite a few complete songs that never made it out in public.”  More importantly, it reminded him and Paul of a completely different technical process of recording and writing, a process that worked for them creatively and artistically when they were younger.  “We’re rather proud of it.  It’s a really good snapshot of the way we used to think, the way we used to write, the way we used to experiment.  I love the fact that it starts with the cutest track we ever wrote, which is all of four or five channels of ‘Brand New Science’, which is just so sweet.”

 

OMD’s biggest hits have benefitted from his or Paul’s clever or emotional lyric content, so I asked him about two instrumental pieces on the disc that I found particularly intriguing.  “We are cool if something works as an instrumental.  We’re quite happy to leave it without a lyric.  That’s not a problem.  ’Guitar Thrash’ was just us trying to sound like one of the thrashiest songs by NEU!, like ‘Hero’, but we didn’t have a good lyric on it.”  So off to OMD storage it went.

 

“‘Radio Swiss International’ comes from the “Dazzle Ships” era.  We sampled a bunch of the radio call signs from various political radio stations.  Swiss [Radio] International wouldn’t let us use their call sign because they said the album was weighted too heavily towards communist propaganda.  And then we said, ‘if we use your call sign, we’re balancing it, aren’t we?’  They still wouldn’t let us use their call sign.  I hadn’t realized [until now that] we had tried to use it and make it into a broader piece of music, that we’d added extra instruments, so that was another surprise we’d found.”  When I mention that I think it sounds like a futuristic music box, he replies, “To English people, it [probably] sounds like an ice cream van, the ones that used to drive around and belt out distorted versions of ‘Greensleeves’.”

 

Using one of their international hits, Andy gives me a concrete example of his writing process in the eighties, along with a brief singing lesson.  “To give you an idea of how it worked [then], if you think of the song ‘Joan of Arc’, that started with me laying down 5 minutes of myself singing the note A and putting in an echo.  Then another 5 minutes of me singing random harmonies around it.  Then I played glockenspiel randomly in A major, and then I put down a click [track].  Then I started to write a song over that [instrumental] bed track.

 

“I put down the bass and chords, and then I finally got a vocal and drums.  And that’s how ‘Joan of Arc’ was created.  ‘Joan of Arc’ would not have that same texture or atmosphere if I had not started from those completely abstract elements.  That’s how we used to write: we would experiment, throw sounds onto a tape and then see if we could conjure a melody or a vocal out of it, from the feeling we created.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it didn’t.”

 

About the author:

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.