Andy McClusky of OMD

by Dan MacIntosh

Along with groups like The Human League and Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (don't worry, we'll ask about the name) helped turn nerdy electronic sounds into a viable pop music genre. Best known in America for "If You Leave," which was made famous in the movie Pretty in Pink, OMD had a string of hits in England, including "Enola Gay," which was an ode to the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

OMD founders Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys reconvened in 2010 to record the delightful album History of Modern. McCluskey is the group's lead singer, bass guitarist and primary songwriter. Here, he gives his take on the current state of electronic music, what happened with Pretty In Pink, and how "Enola Gay" has been so badly misinterpreted.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): The latest CD features you and Paul Humphreys. If Wikipedia is to be believed, both you and Paul have toured with versions of OMD at different times. How did you come back together as a band, and were there any legal and/or emotional issues that needed to be worked out in the process?

Andy McCluskey: I carried on as OMD without the other 3 (Humphreys, Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper) for 3 albums and tours in the '90s. It was difficult for Paul, especially to see OMD releasing and touring without him in the band. Paul never toured as OMD but some of his concerts were advertised as such by unscrupulous promoters. It was not hard to get back together. We are all still friends.

Songfacts: The synth pop OMD pioneered has never gone away. Acts like MGMT and Owl City have carried on that tradition, to some degree. What are your thoughts about today's modern electronic groups?

McCluskey: It did go out of fashion in the '90s when grunge and Britpop made rock popular again. That is one reason why we stopped. It seemed that we were wasting our time. We are delighted that intelligent modern music has come back into fashion again, and very flattered that many, many good younger acts are referencing us as influential. I suspect that the rock cliché beast is not totally dead yet, and will be back again.

Songfacts: I like that the new album is mainly song-based. I wonder what you think of contemporary techno and electronica sounds, which is usually not particularly song-based.

McCluskey: We have done some fairly pure sound experiments, but generally prefer to put our ideas into listenable song formats, as the emotion is deeper and the listening experience lasts longer.

Songfacts: Tell me a little bit about how you approach songwriting. Do you write as a team or as individuals, and do you compose music first on a piano, and then add lyrics? Do you find music to match a subject, or do you create music and then put subject matter to that?

McCluskey: We never use piano to write on ;-). The music always comes first, but I do collect ideas for lyrics, waiting until the music connects with a lyric idea. Often I actually write research on a proposed idea and collect information ready to be inspired to sing on some music. We write individually, swapping ideas, and together. It's usually faster together.
Songfacts: Your biggest hit in the U.S. was "If You Leave", which was used in the John Hughes movie Pretty in Pink. Hughes had a knack for putting together memorable soundtracks, just as he was more in touch than many with the teenage mindset. Please tell me the story of how your song ended up on the soundtrack, and if you are happy with how it was used in the film.

McCluskey: We were delighted to be asked by John, and went to the set where Molly and John Cryer were shooting. Unfortunately, the original song that we wrote didn't fit after they changed the whole ending (the original ending had Molly Ringwald's character choosing Duckie, who was played by Cryer, instead of Andrew McCarthy's Blane). We had 2 days to write a new track at Larabee Studios in L.A. We worked until 4 a.m. writing a rough version and sent a motorbike to Paramount. John heard it, liked it, and our manager phoned us at 8 a.m. and told us to go back in and mix it. That's how "If You Leave" Happened! The song had to be 120 BPM cos 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. It was cool to be in the film for so long and fantastic to go on the red carpet at the Chinese theater at the premier.

Songfacts: While "If You Leave" was a popular song, it didn't really showcase your electronic musical innovations. Was the band sometimes misunderstood, in that audiences that came to concerts saw a much more adventurous band in performance?

McCluskey: To many Americans, we are a one hit wonder, even though we had several other hits. Nothing as big as "If You Leave." It's a blessing to have such a big hit, but a shame that it overshadows so many other good songs for the U.S. audience. We have many European fans who hate the song...

Songfacts: There is a big difference between the colder synth-pop of, say, Gary Numan and Kraftwerk, and the warmer OMD. Did you feel like you were breaking ground by creating such uniquely romantic music?

McCluskey: Not consciously in the beginning. But after a while, we became aware that our sound was actually created by the tension between the machines and the humans. The architecture and the morality. We never wanted to be robot impersonators. There was no point to that.

Songfacts: Your song "Enola Gay" is the prettiest ever song about an atomic bomber. Was that song written because you're history buffs and/or anti-nuclear activists, and is it a song that is ever misunderstood?

McCluskey: Many people simply don't know what it's actually about. Some even thought it was a coded message that we were gay. We were both geeks about WWII airplanes. The most famous and influential single bomber was Enola Gay. Obvious choice for us, really.

Songfacts: People today probably know Brian Eno for his production work on Coldplay and U2. But I wonder if you could elaborate on why he's such an important innovator in music. What have you learned from him?

McCluskey: Apart from loving the first 2 Roxy Music albums, Eno was our hero because he taught how to make interesting music on ordinary instruments. We couldn't afford synths in the early days. He also championed music on cheap instruments. That's all we had.

Songfacts: Where did you get the idea to mix Nikola Tesla with girls in "Tesla Girls"? Do you have any regrets about the video you made for the song?

McCluskey: The video is shit; as were many of our early videos. We had no interest in them. The music and the sleeve was as far as we went. I wish we had been interested in videos to begin with. Maybe we would have made less crap ones! I stole the idea from Martha Ladly (from Martha and the Muffins). She was a wonderful, intelligent and beautiful woman. Unfortunately, she was also Peter Saville's girlfriend at the time.

Songfacts: Because you sing a lot about electricity, are any of you electricians? Have you done anything dumb that would prove you're not an electrician?

McCluskey: Paul studied electronics and would probably have been an engineer if the band had not changed his life. No accidents yet. But there's still time.

Songfacts: "Save Me" is a great update of an Aretha Franklin song. Do you remember the first time you heard Aretha Franklin sing and how that affected you?

McCluskey: To be honest, I was not a real soul fan growing up. I loved pop then. Synths. Only when I got older did I learn to appreciate other styles. Aretha is, without a doubt, the queen of soul singers.

Songfacts: The new album is called History of Modern. What is the relationship between OMD music and modern art?

McCluskey: We have always had a close relationship with art and architecture. I was supposed to study fine art for a degree, but took a year out - started OMD and never went back. Obviously, we have been able to have a very loose relationship with Peter Saville, who has designed many of our sleeves. And it is true that I went to an exhibition called "History of Modernism" with my daughter, which inspired the title.

Songfacts: Lastly, I read your quote, "I wake up some nights and think 'Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark'? What a stupid name! Why did we pick that one?" If you had to do it again, would you have picked a different name?

McCluskey: No. Because the journey would never have started if we knew where we were going sufficiently well to contemplate a real name.

We interviewed Andy on September 22, 2010. Get more at
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Comments: 8

  • Maureen from NycI am American and hate "If You Leave." My favorite song is "Secret" but I also love so many other OMD songs. I bought Crush on cassette when it came out (I actually owned two copies). I always felt like If You Leave was not totally OMD to me because I knew all their other songs like Electricity, Tesla Girls, Locomotion, The Lights Are Going Out, 88 Seconds in Greensboro, Stay (The Black Rose and the Universal Wheel), Motion and Heart and so on.
  • Mark from AustraliaInteresting interview but I am surprised there was no mention of Atomic Kitten, seeing as Andy mentored and wrote songs for them.
  • Roman from VirginiaAndy please don't generalise about "the U.S. audience" ... I still have four OMD albums on vinyl! My favorite tracks are probably "We Love You" and "Talking Loud and Clear"
  • Mike from Sf, CaCheck out "White Trash" off the Junk Culture album. I think I know what you mean with the uptempo bubblegummy love songs, but that isn't all they did. And "Electricity" might be somewhat bubblegum uptempo, but it's one of the best examples of it ever written.
  • Dan from Norwalk, CaI'll weigh in by saying I believe that intelligent pop music is not an oxymoron.
  • Dj Kenny from Portland OrTrue, LikaLota... these guys were brilliant composers and also wrote about real issues, emotions, and were never afraid to try something unique. The 1st 3 records were very experimental and in many ways ground breaking. The pop music following those records was also quite intelligent. Beats the post Nirvana crap we had to deal with for many years (nothing wrong with Nirvana... but mediocrity became the new 'alternative' following them)..from a radio stand point mainly, there was good intelligent well crafted synth pop music out there but it was not getting radio support.
  • Likalota from Zar@Mike from KC: Sounds like you have only experienced the OMD you would hear on the radio...
  • Mike from KcIntelligent, modern music? This is bubble-gum, teeny bopper music plain and simple. I mean no disrespect, it's a valid form of music, but the form, texture, harmonic content and melody of these selections are simply kids stuff.
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