Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s
Mad World celebrates the New Wave music phenomenon of the ‘80s via new interviews with 35 of the most notable artists of the period including Duran Duran, New Order, the Smiths and here, OMD.
Two Scouse Scallywags Pretending to Be Kraftwerk
I didn’t know this at the time, but I later found out he left our cassette in his car, and it was his then-wife Lindsay who wanted to know what was on it. He said, “Some fellows from Liverpool. Two Scouse scallywags pretending to be Kraftwerk.” She thought it was great and told him to listen to it again. By the time he finally called us, his wife and Peter Saville had talked to him, and he’d gone from not liking it to saying, “You guys are the future of pop music.” To which we replied, “Fuck off, we’re experimental. Don’t call us pop.”
Tony said, “We’ll do a record. It will basically be your demo, and I’ll send it to all the major labels.” They made 5,000 copies of “Electricity.” We went round to 85 Palatine Road, which was their office—i.e., Alan Erasmus’s flat—and we took them all out of the white sleeves and put them all in the black thermograph sleeves that Peter Saville designed. Every single one was handbagged by myself, Paul Humphreys, or our then manager. The only person to play it was John Peel, who played it every night on the week it was released, and 5,000 sold out in a week. One of them landed on the desk of a lady called Carol Wilson, who had just started a label called Dindisc, which was part of Virgin. She contacted us, and we didn’t have any more gigs at the time, so she came up to Liverpool. She stayed in Paul’s mother’s back room, which was appropriate because that’s where all the songs were written. She sat on the sofa, and we played her all of our six songs. About three weeks later, we were playing in Blackpool on a Factory night with Joy Division and A Certain Ratio. She turned up late while we were loading our gear into the van, and she said, “Read this on the way home.” So we got in the van and got out the torch...and it’s a seven-album contract. This was eight months after we’d played our one-off gig.
We were absolutely adamant that we were going to make music, but we were going to avoid what we considered rock clichés. We were not going to write “I love you” or “You love me.” If we were going to write relationship songs, they were going to be so shrouded in metaphor as to be almost unfathomable. Obviously, “Electricity” was inspired by Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity,” and when I finally confessed to Kraftwerk, they all went, “Ja, ve know.” We could only get inspired enough to write music if it was inspiring to us conceptually. It’s hard to imagine in this day and age of X-Factor and banjo music being the future that somebody would insist on writing songs about airplanes and oil refineries and telephone boxes. This is what we wanted to write about. We wouldn’t allow our drummer to use cymbals because they were rock clichés. I tortured myself for months that I’d finally conceded to use the word “love” on our third album, and I just couldn’t find another monosyllabic word to replace it. So “Joan of Arc” became the first song I used the word “love” on. Carol Wilson used to say to us, “Can you tell me whether you want to be ABBA or Stockhausen?” We were like, “Both.”
The first album was a load of songs that we wrote from the ages of 16 to 19 that our friends thought were crap and that went gold and had one hit off it, “Messages.” Then we have an album [Organisation, 1980] that also goes gold, and we have a song that sells 5 million around the world [“Enola Gay”]. The next album [Architecture and Morality 1981] sold 3 million. So we just thought, This is incredible—we have the Midas touch. We do exactly what we want to do by our own rules and nobody at the record company ever second-guesses us.
Were we arrogant? Yeah, we probably were. We were arrogant in the sense that we believed in our art, and we were pleasantly surprised that we were selling lots of it. Having said that, by this time we’d sold 15 million singles and 4 million albums, and I was still living in the box [storage] room of my mother’s house, seven feet by six feet, with all the platinum albums on the wall. I was like, “You know that seven-album deal we signed? Was it really shit?” It was, actually. It was a better deal than some of the bands in the seventies signed, but “Enola Gay” sold 5 million. Now, for argument’s sake, let’s say each one cost a pound. We were on a 6 percent royalty, so we got six pence. Now, most of them sold in Europe, so, because Virgin were licensing us in Europe, we were on a two-thirds deal, so we had four pence. The producer, Mike Howlett, who just helped us get a nice sound, was on three points, so he got three pence, and we were left with one—out of which we had to pay the recording costs and all of the video costs and any advances we’d had. So that’s why I was still living in the box room at my parents’ house, driving a second-hand car that had mushrooms growing in the footwell because it was damp.
We actually weren’t that bothered by it, because we hadn’t gotten into it for the money. This was our art project, and it’s why we confidently set out on the ship Dazzle, thinking, “Well, we started with synth garage-punk, we then went kind of gothic and wrote songs about airplanes and atom bombs, then we went all religious with choral music and Edinburgh Tattoo drums. Every time we decide to do something different, we sell even more records.” Then somebody at the record company made the catastrophic mistake of saying, “If you just make Architecture and Morality 2, you’re going to be the next Genesis.” Wrong. Thing. To. Say! We went, “Right, we’re going in completely the opposite direction.” We decided... well, when I say “we,” ...I—’cause it took Paul about 25 years to forgive me for Dazzle Ships*—I decided we were going to make lots of recordings of politics and shortwave radios and cold war Radio Prague call signs, and this time, for whatever reason, we left it kind of stripped. It was bare-bones, and it wasn’t sugar-coated with the melodies and the choirs. We picked the song “Genetic Engineering” for a single, which probably did freak people out. We went from 3 million sales to 300,000. We lost 90 percent of our audience between two albums.
Consciously or unconsciously, we dialed ourselves back a lot. By this time, we were old men of 24. Paul was married, and we both had houses, and it was our job. We still thought we were going to try and make art, but I think we got a little more conventional in our songwriting. It was the beginning of us following other people’s rules in order to sell records.
To a lot of people in America who just have a passing musical interest, “If You Leave” is our only hit. We’re like a one-hit wonder. To a lot of people in Europe, it was anathema. They hated it: “Our wonderful alternative electro band has sold out. They’ve got this cheesy song about teenage relationships in a teenage movie in Hollywood.” It wasn’t a hit in most of Europe. It didn’t even make the Top 50 in the U.K. American audiences cannot contemplate the fact that when we play Europe, we usually don’t even play “If You Leave.” Can you imagine us playing in America if we didn’t play it? We’d be shot.
THAT WAS THEN BUT THIS IS NOW
Paul Humphreys left the group in 1989. Andy McCluskey continued to lead OMD with varying degrees of success until walking away in 1996. He dabbled in manufactured pop, assembling the Liverpudlian girl trio Atomic Kitten and penning their biggest hit, “Whole Again.” McCluskey and Humphreys reunited in 2006. They have released two albums, 2010’s History of Modern and 2013’s English Electric, and continue to tour the world.
McCluskey: In America, there are three albums they know: our Best Of , so at least half a million of them caught up with all of the European hits; Crush; and The Pacific Age. Now, The Pacific Age is our musical nadir. That was the one where we were writing songs because we had to make an album. We were going round and round America in buses for months on end, and the record company said, “It would be great if we had a new album for Christmas.” We were on the treadmill. We were going back to an empty well. We were exactly the sort of band we promised we never would be. There were no concepts, no weird ideas, no “Enola Gay” and oil refinery songs and Catholic saints. I was dragging out lyrics that I would have been appalled by 10 years earlier. And yet Americans love The Pacific Age. It was almost like we traded our European success for American success. But all of the success we put into breaking America effectively broke us. By the end of the eighties, we just imploded.
Paul and I were always different guys—personally, socially, emotionally, musically— yet we complemented each other. But we had spent 10 years together, and we were sick of each other. The whole vibe had atrophied. We knew that we weren’t making good-enough music, but our solutions were different. It just fell apart. The band stopped, and for six months that was it. Then Paul and [drummer] Malcolm Holmes and [keyboard player] Martin Cooper came back to me and said, “There is value in the name OMD. There’s three of us and one of you, and we want to continue.” I was horrified. I really didn’t like what they were doing musically; admittedly, they didn’t like what I was doing, either. I went to Virgin Records, and they said, “We own the rights to these records under the name OMD, and we think of you as the frontman. So if there’s going to be either/ or, how about you be OMD?” For Paul, in particular, that was hard, because people who’d signed him when he was 19 turned round and said to him, “We choose Andy, not you.” That must have been galling in the extreme.**
I released the Sugar Tax album in 1991. That sold close to 300,000—as many as Architecture and Morality—and almost reestablished us in America. And then I unlearned my own lesson. I disappeared up my own backside again, trying to make an album too quickly. It was starting to be a struggle, because it was the mid-’90s: grunge, Britpop. We could get our heads around the fact that fashion had changed, that electronic music that was supposed to be the future was now the past; what we didn’t get was that we were now in the postmodern era where the future sounded like 1969. I was banging my head against a brick wall, so I stopped.
Then we got into the new millennium, and there was a new generation of people who were bored with the resurgence of rock clichés. They rediscovered electronic music, and people started talking to us. Agents started saying, “Hey, would you like to do a tour? I reckon you could sell out.” I’d gone grudgingly—I didn’t want to retire in 1996. It was like a soccer player who’d got to the age of 36 and had to hang up the boots and get off the field. Then suddenly, at the age of 46, people were like, “Hey, get your boots back on! You can play again!” And I’m like, “Really? On my own team? With the same guys?’’
We booked some gigs across Europe in 2007, and they all sold out, so we did 40 more, and then the problem set in. Being OMD and starting out as a conceptual band, we thought, Is this it? Have we become a tribute band to ourselves? Are we just going to play the old stuff ? Because some of our contemporaries, their management tell them they need to release a new record because they need a name for their new tour, they can’t just play the hits again. I’ll mention no names, but there are a lot of bands who make records who shouldn’t be allowed to—they don’t have anything left to say, they’re just addicted to the lifestyle, and they can’t stop. We promised ourselves we wouldn’t do that. So, once again, we had to be conceited enough to believe that we actually had something to say. Paul and I agreed that we really needed to unlearn the previous 30 years since Dazzle Ships and the more conventional songwriting that we’d grown into and go back to songs that didn’t have a chorus. We started with a sample of Voyager 1 going through Jupiter and three minutes of synths and me singing about the contrast between perfect clarity and machinery and how imperfect the world is. And then the big drums and the choir come in, and we fade out. That’s how we used to write songs, and that’s what we used to write songs about.
*Paul Humphreys: I definitely forgive him. I love Dazzle Ships. It was a spectacularly successful album in its complete commercial failure. We had to do that album in order to advance ourselves musically. We pushed our boundaries, and even though we reeled ourselves in from those boundaries, we had to go through that process.
**Paul Humphreys: We had no money; we didn't have any ideas. I just said, at the end of the eighties, "Look, I'm exhausted. It's not working. I'm not so happy with the records we're making. Let's take three years off." Which as what I wanted to do. But the record company and management were all horrified because they're making money, and they wouldn't let us do it. There were a lot of divisive people around, and they threw a wedge between me and Andy. They said, "If Paul's not going to do it then, Andy, you should continue with the band." And I said, "Andy, if you want to do that, then you do it. I'm stopping." And that's how it happened. Obviously, Virgin were happier to take OMD with Andy as the frontman because it was a lot easier. He was a more recognizable face, which was always fine with me. That's the way it works with bands and frontmen.
Lori Majewski was a cofounder and editor-in-chief of Teen People. She was also an executive editor of Entertainment Weekly and Us Weekly. She lives in Weehawken, New Jersey.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Los Angeles–based writer. He is the author of, among other titles, Pretty In Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies, and has contributed to publications such as The Guardian, Spin, Rolling Stone, and The Face.