Excerpted from Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s by Lori Majewski, Jonathan Bernstein, Nick Rhodes. Copyright © 2014. With permission of the publisher, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK
Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s
(Harry N. Abrams, Inc.)
US: Apr 2014
Were they the coolest band in Liverpool? Perhaps not. Did audiences adopt their dress sense? No. Did they surpass their peers in terms of pretension, artiness, and absurdity? Again, no. But Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark—who began life making chilly, remote, yearning music—ultimately racked up more hits than anyone else in their competitive city. Long before Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys found American success soundtracking Pretty in Pink’s climactic prom scene, they were European chart fixtures with songs about telegraphs, telescopes, and typewriters that sounded like songs about girls. Even when the duo caved and penned an actual love song, the blushing recipient was Joan of Arc.
JB: I don’t believe there are Beatles people and Stones people and that the two are mutually exclusive. I do, however, think that there are OMD Phase 1 people and OMD Phase 2 people, and that those two parties have no truck with each other. OMD Phase 1 people came on board when they heard “Electricity” on John Peel. This was a song about electricity, but it was not bloodless or mock-robotic like so many records by bands who overidentified with the android lifestyle. OMD Phase 1 people were further rewarded with signature hits of the caliber of “Messages,” “Red Frame White Light” and “Enola Gay.” The Phase 1 constituency got a little uncomfortable when the rest of the U.K. muscled in on their territory and helped to make Architecture and Morality a blockbuster album. At least it was a weird blockbuster album. All the same, it was a relief for Phase 1 people when OMD released the difficult Dazzle Ships album and scared off all the dilettantes. Unfortunately, it scared off so many people that it ignited OMD Phase 2. Which is where I made my excuses and left. OMD Phase 2 wrote solid commercial songs, but I could get solid commercial songs anywhere. Still, even though I was a Phase 1 person, I was also an eighties teen-movie person—an eighties teen-movie person who wrote an eighties teen-movie guidebook called Pretty in Pink. So, in the case of “If You Leave,” which still packs an enormous amount of emotional impact (“I believed in you, I just didn’t believe in me. I love you… Always”), I’m an honorary OMD Phase 2 person.
LM: By virtue of my being American, I’m a born OMD Phase 2 person. However, as much as I love “If You Leave”—I, too, am an eighties teen-movie person (“If you don’t go to him now, I’m never going to take you to another prom again, you hear me?”)—that song was merely the entry point for my OMD obsession. After seeing them open for Power Station, Thompson Twins, Psychedelic Furs, and Depeche Mode, not even McCluskey’s onstage jerky jig could prevent me from delving deeper into their back catalog. That’s when I became an honorary OMD Phase 1 person. Architecture and Morality is so original, so special, so sublime, that if there were no other new wave bands to speak of, the entire genre could still hang its hat solely on that record.
Andy McCluskey: We’d had “Tesla Girls” in a John Hughes movie [Weird Science]. He was a huge Anglophile music lover. He’d had The Breakfast Club and “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” by Simple Minds, then he approached us and said, “I would like you to write a song for my new film [Pretty in Pink].” Our management and record company were over the moon. We went down to Paramount Studios and met him, Molly Ringwald, and Jon Cryer on set. They were kids, and they both said, “I love you.” Because even though we hadn’t had any hits in America, we had alternative and college radio station play. You could still be alternative in America and sell 100,000 records and be off everyone else’s radar. In L.A., KROQ were playing us, but we weren’t in the charts. Then John Hughes said, “Here’s the script. Write me a song for my big prom-scene ending.”
So we did. We came back armed with our two-inch tape of this song we’d written, “Goddess of Love.” And John Hughes said, “There’s a bit of a problem. Since I last saw you, we finished the movie and did some test screenings, and the teenage girls didn’t like the ending.” The original ending had Andie and Duckie dancing together. “Goddess of Love” lyrically bore no relationship to the new ending of the movie. He said, “Can you write me another one?” We were about to start a tour with Thompson Twins in two days, but we went into Larrabee Studios in Hollywood. We had nothing—we just knew how the movie ended. We knew that the tempo had to be 120 beats per minute, because they’d filmed the new ending with a song that was 120. Although, when I saw the final version, I thought, Who the fuck edited this? , because nobody’s dancing to the beat.
We worked till four in the morning, and we banged onto a cassette the rough demo, then called a motorcycle to take it to Paramount. We got a phone call at half-past eight the next morning from our manager saying, “John’s already in the office—he’s heard the cassette and he loves it. Can you finish it off?” We’d just gone to sleep. It was our day off. But we went back to the studio and finished it; then, after three weeks on tour with the Thompson Twins, we came back and mixed it. That’s how “If You Leave” was created—completely off the top of our heads in one day in Hollywood. It was bizarre that we managed to pull something like that out of the bag. If I knew how we did it, we would have done it more often.
And there we were flying in on a Pan Am jet from London to come to the premiere of Pretty in Pink, and who’s on the plane with us? New Order! The guys from Joy Division who we supported during our first-ever gig eight years earlier in [Liverpool club] Eric’s! We’re all getting out of limos, off our faces, living the Hollywood lifestyle down the red carpet, all the famous people off the telly telling us how much they love our music. In eight years, the crazy journey we’d been on…
At the same time I got my first bass guitar, I had my Eureka! moment: I heard “Autobahn” by Kraftwerk on the radio in the summer of ’75. That was when I went, Now this is interesting. And it’s different. I’m inspired! I might be able to do something like this! Then I got their Radio Activity album. I bought the vinyl import, and Paul had a stereo because he’d built one. I only had my mother’s mono Dansette. Radio Activity became our bible. I was 16, he was 15, and we were listening to this record, going, “They’ve used a Geiger counter, and chopped-up recordings of people speaking, interfering radio noises. We can do that!”
Paul knew a bit about electronics. He used to make things that made noises that didn’t even have keyboards attached so we couldn’t play melodies. It was just noises and ambient weirdness. Finally we got a cheap Vox Jaguar keyboard and a Selmer Pianotron—I’ve only ever seen one—from a combination of part-time jobs and a lot of dole money. We wrote songs for almost three years in Paul’s mother’s back room on Saturday afternoons when she was at work. Our friends thought they were shit. It was just a little art project of weirdness inspired by German music. We had to invent our own way of doing things that wasn’t necessarily conventional. In hindsight, that is what led to people having to invent a way of songwriting that ended up being much more creative than just sitting at a computer trying to copy someone else.
Paul and I had thought we were the only people in England listening to Kraftwerk, Neu!, some other German bands—all the stuff we’d been listening to since 1975. It turns out we weren’t. We were in Eric’s in 1978, and the DJ played “Warm Leatherette,” and we went, “Holy shit! Somebody’s been listening to what we’ve been listening to, and they’ve made a record, and it sounds great!” We went to have a chat with Roger [Eagle] and Pete [Fulwell], who ran the place. We said, “Hi, we’re Andy and Paul. For years we’ve been writing these songs… Could we play your club with just us and a tape recorder?” And they said, “Sure. We’ll book you in for a Thursday night in October.” If Eric’s hadn’t existed, we would never have thought of starting Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
There was a conscious thing going on. Young people of an artistic nature who gravitated toward the idea of making music as their chosen art form wanted to establish the fact that they were doing something different. Whether you were influenced by punk or art or electronic music, there was this absolute determination you were going to do something different. The name of your band was part of that. We consciously chose a preposterous name. We were only going to do one concert, and because it was a mad idea—a new wave club, two guys, one playing upside-down bass, keyboards, tape recorder—we thought, We’ll give ourselves a weird name so that people will know we’re not rock or punk. My bedroom wall was my notebook, much to my mother’s chagrin. There were song titles and poems and all sorts of stuff on there. So we consulted the wall and came up with the most preposterous title we could think of. It was my idea. “Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark” was the title of a song we never wrote. There were a lot of other things on that wall, and it certainly could have been very different, because right underneath “Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark” was “Margaret Thatcher’s Afterbirth.”
We were not cool. Paul and I were very much the outsiders. Our hair was longer than most people’s in Liverpool. We were from the other side of the river and still lived with our parents; we didn’t live in bedsits. We didn’t know all the cool people. The Bunnymen and the Teardrops signed to Zoo Records, and they didn’t want to sign us. [Zoo Records boss] Dave Balfe to this day says it was the worst mistake he ever made.
So we did our one gig at Eric’s supporting another band. There were 30 people there, and most of them were our friends and family, and even then the response was [slow hand clap]. Afterwards, Roger and Pete said, “That was interesting. Would you like to do another gig, because the guys that you supported tonight have come over from our friend’s place in Manchester.” We’d just supported Joy Division. So even though we’d only planned on doing the one gig, we decided to make it two. We went to Manchester and played at the Russell Club, which was called the Factory that night. We supported Cabaret Voltaire and met Tony Wilson, Alan Erasmus, and Peter Saville. We cheekily sent Tony a cassette with two tracks, “Electricity” and “Almost,” the next week because he used to present Granada Reports and sometimes they had bands on. We said, “Hey, we met you last week. Could we get on the telly?” Cheeky bastards. He was like, “We’ve come to the end of the season, but we’re starting a record label called Factory. Do you want to make a record?” So we went from one gig to a second gig to “Do you want to make a record?”