Andy Mccluskey Of OMD: 'Atomic Kitten were invented by Kraftwerk'
Having recorded and released eleven albums spurning no less than seven top ten singles, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (aka OMD) should need no introduction. Formed in 1978 on The Wirral by Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, their early releases such as 'Electricity' and 'Messages' undoubtedly pre-dated the whole New Romantic movement by a good few years, fusing the mono-electronic dramatics of Kraftwerk with a post-punk mentality. It wasn't until their third and fourth albums 'Architecture & Morality' and 'Dazzle Ships' that both critical and commercial success really ensued, the former's trilogy of 45s 'Souvenir', 'Joan Of Arc' and 'Maid Of Orleans' all long term fixtures in the top five. And this at a time when artists had to sell tens of thousands of units to achieve such a feat.
Success in the United States wasn't as forthcoming until the back end of the 1980s, the band having undergone several changes in both line-up and sound over the interim period (although McCluskey and Humphreys remained). With an ever-changing musical climate and interesting seemingly waning in OMD, the band initially called it a day in 1996, Humphreys himself having left the fold seven years earlier. While both founder members continued to be heavily involved in the music industry, Humphreys as part of Onetwo with former Propaganda chanteuse Claudia Brucken with McCluskey carving out a successful career as both an acclaimed songwriter and manager, it wasn't until 2007 that they decided to get the band back together again. Having embarked on numerous sold out tours since, 'History Of Modern', their first collection of new material in fourteen years, was released to various levels of critical acclaim at the back end of 2010.
Now, having just played their first UK festival show in twenty-five years at a rain-sodden Latitude, Contactmusic has the distinguished honour of spending forty-five minutes or so in the company of Andy McCluskey. Here's how it went.
Having just played Latitude for the first time, how was it for you?
Andy: Well, the weather probably dampened a few spirits over the course of the weekend, but we were rather delighted actually because we're always quite nervous when it comes to playing festivals, because we never know who's going to actually want to watch us as opposed to somebody else. So, the fact that it started pissing it down fifteen minutes before we went on stage, we thought was great!
I'm not sure I'd attribute the weather as being the main reason why the tent was full, as there was a ridiculously vibrant atmosphere from people of all ages that seemed to know every one of the songs.
Andy: It was really nice. I think Latitude is a pretty eclectic festival in terms of the kind of people who go there purely because of the different types of music on offer. It was nice to see kids and teenagers mixed with thirty-somethings and oldies all lapping it up. We made the right decision to take the path of least resistance and just play a load of hit singles. We just go out there and do what we can, and hope that somebody likes it.
Over the course of your career you must have seen many changes within the music industry and how it operates. Would you say these have been for better or worse as far as artists are concerned, and do you think a band like OMD would be able to survive in the current climate if they were just starting out now?
Andy: I don't know about surviving. I think a band like us would have started out because we didn't begin with any intention of being a successful pop group. We began because we wanted to make music and it was a hobby and it was our art. I mean, it sounds a bit preposterous having just played a set full of 15 hit singles but just making our music was all that we ever wished to do. Now obviously, the opportunities that were afforded to us may not be around these days.
That's very true, especially in terms of selling records with downloading now seemingly an acceptable trait. The only way most bands can make any kind of a living from music is through touring, and yet they need to fund those tours from somewhere in the initial stages, so it's a vicious circle in many ways.
Andy: I think even touring isn't quite the lucrative aspect people make it out to be either. There's frankly been a glut of bands touring and that has coincided with an economic downturn and it's proving trickier now for bands to go out on tour. They're hard times, and I think the dilemma is that the business model for the music industry has been completely undermined by digital and downloading. They didn't respond quickly enough, they didn't get on board, and when they did finally respond they sold off the family jewels rather cheaply. It's quite funny that there are still some people out there who think it's too expensive on iTunes or some of the other MP3 providers when in terms of what the record company gets amounts to very little, and as for the artists they get fuck all! The model is not working, and unfortunately popular music as an art form - if you want to call it an art form? - is old. You know, whether you want to say it started in the jazz age of the 1920s or the crooners in the forties and fifties or rock'n'roll, it's been around for quite a long time and the style of popular music is atomised. There is nothing new, it's now all self-referential. Pop is eating itself as predicted, so basically it just feels like the decline and fall of the Roman empire, and it's terminal.
Do you see any way back? Surely the industry realises it simply has to change to survive?
Andy: I think what you're going to see increasingly is music for music's sake is going to become less important, with more emphasis being placed on music as part of a broad multi-media. It's interesting we're talking about the Latitude festival. When I was a nineteen-year-old kid, I would not have been seen dead in a tent with a bunch of fifty-year-olds playing on stage! But now we're in this post-modern, atomised society, there are no tribes because it's perfectly fine to listen to Nirvana and OMD and Dizzy Rascal and Led Zeppelin.
You're right. If I were to pick three major highlights from the weekend in terms of live sets it would be Suede, Echo & The Bunnymen and yourselves, yet in terms of reaching both a creative and commercial peak, many would argue all three's best years were far behind them.
Andy: I think one of the things you find with an older band is that they've learnt their trade. They are relaxed enough to know they can play, even at a festival if something breaks down they'll get through it. The frontmen can perform.you know, I have a relaxed confidence on stage now that I never used to have. I will conduct an audience. That's what I was doing in that tent. Thirty years ago, Andy McCluskey watching himself on stage; well first of all, he'd be horrified that he's still doing it, and secondly, it would be like, 'Andy, you're just doing all the rock and roll clich's and you weren't supposed to be doing that. How come that happened?' There are still some great young bands out there but I think it takes a few years for you to learn your trade. I wanted to see Hurts. I spoke to someone who said it was lovely but it wasn't really a festival set. It was too melancholy and polite.
You've had several re-inventions regarding OMD's sound and also in terms of line-up changes over the years. Are there any periods of your career or records you've created where using the power of hindsight you'd choose to approach things differently?
Andy: Yes, definitely. The funny thing is that this re-incarnation of the band is the four of us that made arguably our best records at the beginning of the 1980s. I think that the last couple of albums that we made in the 1980s, particularly 'The Pacific Age', both Paul (Humphreys) and I agree that we were going back to an empty well. We had gone from making music as our art to making a record because we had to for business purposes. We toured America ad nauseum, when we came back we had no real time to take stock and write some decent material, so the first nine songs we did come up with immediately went on the album. We made the album for the wrong reason. At the time we were doing our best, but looking back I'd definitely say that was a period where we lost the plot.
To be fair though, I do think '(Forever) Live And Die' off that record still stands the test of time.
Andy: '(Forever) Live And Die' is a good song, but, there are quite a few tracks on that album that just aren't good enough. Also, I think the production on that album and its predecessor 'Crush', just doesn't sound like us. One thing that me and Paul agreed on when we decided to make 'History Of Modern' was that we'd handle production duties ourselves. If you look back at what I consider to be our definitive period, nearly all of those records were self-produced. We created our own sound palette with the first four albums, and interestingly enough we moved on from that. One of the reasons was that we didn't want to repeat ourselves. We abandoned our own style and sometimes, change is not always for the better.
I'd probably agree with that, and thinking of other artists from the same era such as The Human League who also tried to become more mainstream and never enjoyed the same level of success afterwards either.
Andy: Yeah, I guess, although they still ended up with one great song, 'Human', by Jam & Lewis that reaffirmed them as great artists. We didn't try and become mainstream, we became mainstream because we had a different producer. We were running out of ideas, and yet we still liked the idea of incorporating new sounds into what we were doing, hence the brass section on 'Crush' and 'The Pacific Age'. We should have stayed where we were. The same thing happened to me in the nineties. I had a great comeback album with 'Sugar Tax' was essentially a solo album under the OMD moniker, and then didn't learn my own lesson and rushed into making another record where I let somebody else produce with me and we ended up with confused production, and in hindsight rather than rushing to make an album should have just sat back until it was ready to go. That's why when we released 'History Of Modern' we didn't release it until we knew we had something that was worth putting out, and we're already talking about a new album which, if its released, will be released when it's ready.
In some ways you're in quite a privileged position compared to other artists in that you won't have a label badgering you to have ten songs ready in the next three months to capitalise on the success of the first record or whatever.
Andy: Exactly. Paul and I said that in many ways now is a bit like being nineteen again. We feel like masters of our own destiny; we will do what we want to do, and we don't give a fuck if anyone buys it or if anybody likes it! The interesting thing is that whenever we've had that mindset it's usually culminated in our best work. In the tent at Latitude we played thirteen hit singles, and then the two singles off 'History Of Modern' which were never going to be hits, yet 'Sister Marie Said' in particular went down as well as 'Electricity' and 'Enola Gay'!
'History Of Modern' is a strong collection of songs, 'The Future, The Past, And Forever After' being a particular favourite. What makes it an important record for me is that it will stand the test of time in the same way 'Organisation' or 'Architecture & Morality' has, whereas when I hear the new material certain contemporaries from that era have recently released - Blancmange and Heaven 17 being two that spring to mind - it almost sounds as if they're trying to recapture their past glories only to fail, miserably.
Andy: I wouldn't name any of our contemporaries who've recently made records. I think that a few of them have possibly made them for the wrong reasons. In some cases they've started touring again or seen other bands from that era playing live, and suddenly felt the need to have new product to justify a tour, and possibly they've just gone out and cobbled together a nostalgic pastiche of themselves. The main thing is, don't make a record unless you've actually got something to say! Paul and I actually had something we wanted to say in these songs; we actually had subjects we wanted to sing about again. That was another reason why we lost the plot in the 1980s. When I listen to some of the lyrics I wrote I tend to think, 'What the fuck were you writing about?!?' I was just trotting out a load of clich'd shite, and I'm embarrassed. We have a problem whenever we want to go to America, because the two big albums over there are the ones that we think are our worst from the eighties. They want us to play songs like 'Goddess Of Love' and 'Bloc Bloc Bloc' and we're trying to tell them, 'No, trust me, 'Souvenir', 'Electricity', 'Joan Of Arc', they're much better!'
What did you make of the electro bands that emerged at the turn of the decade and after, many of whom cited you as an influence? Do you think they captured the spirit of what you and your peers achieved or do you feel they missed the point?
Andy: I'm always excited when a new generation turns its back on rock and roll clich's and decides once again it's time to slay the multi-headed rock beast. No matter how many times you cut its fucking head off it comes back to life every decade! What's great about this new generation now is that they seem to want something that's a little more interesting, intellectual even, a bit more carefully crafted, not just trotting out lead guitar solos and thrashing drums while singing 'Ooh baby baby I love you, let's shag' or whatever. Rock lyrics are just as clich'd as rap lyrics. It's just that nobody ever seems to say it. It's interesting though that in order to try and kill the rock beast once again they've picked up the sword that was first wielded by someone else thirty years ago and tried to carry on where they left off. I think there are some new acts that peddle out pure pastiche. They're just a bunch of wannabes who've decided that because electro is in fashion they need to buy the first Depeche Mode album and copy that, mentioning no names. However, there are a few - I think Ladytron have got a distinctive sound, I think Hot Chip have got a distinctive sound, and my favourite artist of the last few years, Robyn - that manage to take the electro sound and create something that's going forwards and has a passion and a beauty, so it still can be done. Our mantra for the band over the next two years is simply what does the future sound like? 'History Of Modern' is an appropriate title. We were making a comeback and self-referencing to make a production that was modern, but we've done that now, so if we dare to make another album bearing in mind we're in our fifties, we've actually set ourselves another challenge. What, if anything does the future sound like, and what, if anything, can McCluskey and Humphreys do to add to it?
Talking of producers, I know you worked with Stephen Hague on 'Crush' and 'The Pacific Age' at the outset of his career, but are there any other people that you'd really like to collaborate with at some point?
Andy: I'd really like to work with Brian Eno, but I don't think we're rich enough to do that! Brian Eno is one of the only five people we can count on one hand we consider to be influences. As I said earlier, our first four albums were essentially self-produced, as were 'Sugar Tax' and 'History Of Modern'. I actually think we have our own vision. We don't a producer to come along and impose his vision upon us. What we generally use producers for is to slow us down and tidy us up. In particular I have no patience, and I will not redo a vocal or a part. I just want to get the damn thing finished. I hate being in recording studios! They're just a means to an end. When we've used people like Mike Howlett on 'Architecture & Morality', the main contribution he made was to give us a more professional sound. He did not stop us from doing some of the bonkers things. A proper producer would have stopped us from using a Roto Tom on 'Souvenir'. 'You can't use those choir loops, they wow and they flutter too much.' Yeah, that's precisely their charm. If we had a proper producer they would have stopped us from doing things that effectively broke the rules.
That brings onto a story I read about the legendary Martin Hannett being lined up to produce your first single 'Electricity' for Factory Records and then for some reason it never happened. What was the story behind that?
Andy: He did a version of it, but his vision of the song didn't work. He did 'Electricity' and he did the b-side 'Almost'. He took 'Almost' from being a bouncy little song with a bouncing organ riff and transformed it into a swirling melancholy watery landscape, and it worked. It took me about a month to get my head round it, as initially I hated it. However, he tried to do the same to 'Electricity', and it didn't work as a swirling melancholy watery landscape, it worked as a bouncing pop song.
I guess bearing in mind the time it came out at the height of punk in 1978, 'Electricity' must have sounded like nothing else on earth.
Andy: In hindsight it was pretty raw and new. I can remember years later when I got to go to Dusseldorf and was having dinner round at Wolfgang Flur's apartment and Karl Bartos and Emil Schulz, who did the artwork for Kraftwerk were also there. I saw a gold disc on the wall for 'Radioactivity' - it had been a massive hit in France - and I sort of announced how it was my favourite song by Kraftwerk, and then added that 'Electricity' was just a faster, punkier version of 'Radioactivity' with a chorus and they all replied in unison, 'Yes, we know!'
You were probably the first UK band to emerge with that whole Kraftwerk-inspired sound. 'Electricity' predates Depeche Mode, a lot of The Human League's output and even Cabaret Voltaire's electronic phase.
Andy: I think that one of the things we are proud of is that we can be two very different bands depending on the environment. It's like with the set we played here, it was appropriate to play just the singles, but then when we go out on tour, we're more likely to play something more experimental, because ultimately that's what we're about. We manage to walk a tightrope between doing some weird and pretty interesting shit and having hit singles. The record company used to say to us 'Can you make your bloody minds up? Are you going to be Stockhausen or Abba?' It all makes sense to us! People who've only got the 'Best Of.' album would be surprised at some of the songs on 'Architecture & Morality' and 'Dazzle Ships'. I honestly think 'Dazzle Ships' is the nearest any British band has ever got to 'Radioactivity'.
That's a pretty strong statement.
Andy: It is but I think we were the only band at that time playing around and experimenting with the genre. 'ABC Auto-Industry' and 'Time Zones' for example. No one else was writing songs like these.
Do you think OMD got the credit or recognition they deserved at the time?
Andy: No, definitely not. We went off the boil in the mid-eighties when some of the other bands from that era were getting bigger and bigger. Depeche Mode make no bones about it. They told us that they heard 'Electricity' in a club in Basildon and went out and bought some synthesizers straight afterwards. In the same way, we heard 'Warm Leatherette' by Daniel Miller - their record label boss - in Eric's in Liverpool and thought 'Shit, someone's already doing what we've been doing in Paul's mother's backroom for the last three years. We really need to get on stage!'
More recently, you were instrumental in putting together Atomic Kitten, as well as managing them and I believe also co-writing their biggest hit, 'Whole Again'? What made you go down the manufactured pop route and would you ever get involved with something like that again?
Andy: No, I wouldn't. I did that because I felt my own performing career had come to an end, and I'd got to a point where I was just banging my head against a brick wall. Atomic Kitten were invented by Kraftwerk. That is absolutely true, as I will explain! I was in Dusseldorf, and then moved onto Ireland with Karl Bartos, writing songs for what would become the last studio album of the 1990's as OMD ('Universal'). I remember admitting to Karl that it wasn't my best work, and with Britpop at its height we were considered to be way past our sell-by date. It was then that I decided maybe the time was right to start writing songs for somebody else - I was still egotistical enough to think I could carry on writing songs. When I mentioned this to Karl, he said 'Andy, if you just write songs you'll be a whore and your publishers will control you. You really need to create a vehicle for your own songs, create a band.' The best pop groups are girl groups, because boy bands get away with fucking murder! It has to be good music if it's a girl group, and it has to be three girls, because three is the magic number. Karl then said 'Create a three-piece girl group' so for that reason, Kraftwerk invented Atomic Kitten!
Did you have any difficulties working with the girls at the time? I guess someone more cynical could even argue you were to blame for launching Kerry Katona on the general public!?
Andy: I guess I am responsible for inflicting Kerry Katona not just on the British public, but also upon herself. I told her at the time she had Marilyn Monroe syndrome in that despite being stunningly beautiful, she had absolutely no self-esteem. She was desperate to become rich and famous because she thought it would make her happier, but it hasn't. Even though she couldn't sing, she could dance brilliantly. She was the magic ingredient, like throwing a hand grenade in a room. She was a sexy girl, and she always insisted on running around with no bra on, which was interesting.but seriously, it was wonderful fun for two years, and also bloody hard work. I didn't have a clue what I was doing, and pretty much made everything up as I went along. It was also very liberating to write new songs in a totally different genre to what I'd been used to - I didn't have to worry about some spotty Herbert in his bedroom complaining that it didn't quite live up to the beauty of 'Almost' or 'Stanlow' for example. I also think it helped me learn about modern studio techniques in terms of making records sound current rather than retro. It ended in tears because some members of the band just became divas and their boyfriends were utter pains in the arse. I licensed them to a label and got a manager in who both shafted me. I ended up with a four-year legal battle and wasn't allowed to talk to any of the girls, only through lawyers. I had nothing to do with the second and third albums which in a sense is a blessing because I can't be held responsible for the pastiche of themselves they became. Their first album is great fun, and I co-wrote five top ten singles on that record including 'Whole Again', which is a great song that I'm terribly proud of.
That song is possibly regarded as one of the best pop singles of the past couple of decades, even if Atomic Kitten perhaps aren't remembered as fondly.
Andy: The problem is they started out as a great idea. It was supposed to be Baby Spice goes manga cartoon.but the music. I'm sure you don't have their first album?
Andy: The music is fucking brilliant! It's junk culture disposable beautiful pop, yet there's also some really weird shit on there. I wanted to grow them up with their audience, and this is where the problems started. The record company just wanted 'Whole Again' ad infinitum, you know, don't vary the hit formula. I was already off sampling things like 'Gone With The Wind' and Aaron Copland. Atomic Kitten shouldn't have had a song like 'Whole Again' on their first album anyway. There was a reason why it was the fifth single. The label didn't want to release it, we forced them to. I had a big falling out not that long after, but now I can still talk to Kerry and Liz McLarnon and Heidi Range. I haven't spoken to Natasha Hamilton for a long time and I bumped into Jenny Frost at an airport recently. I wouldn't touch their manager or Hugh Goldsmith from Innocent Records with a shitty stick, because they fucked me over. One of the greatest days of my life was doing the showcase gig with them and halfway through the third song, Goldsmith stopped the set, called them over and pretty much signed them on the spot. Can you imagine what three eighteen-year-old girls in this situation would be like? They were literally bouncing off the walls. Liz and Natasha had put their University degrees on hold for the band. Not many people know this but they're very, very bright girls. Both had eleven GCSEs and both were studying Law at University. For that reason alone I felt such a sense of obligation to those girls. They could have been a lot cooler. They ended up being walked to the end of the plank by their management and record label. I had another girl band after that I couldn't get signed because the whole 'Girl Power' thing had imploded, and the lead singer was a phenomenal talent. She created the band and simply refused to take no for an answer despite so many knockbacks. They looked better than Atomic Kitten, were cooler than the Sugababes yet nobody will ever believe me that the second greatest singer I ever worked with in my entire life is Abbey Clancy.
Andy: Abbey Clancy is a brilliant singer, she just realised that there was more money to be made by not wearing many clothes on the cover of GQ and shagging Peter Crouch! And you know what? She was right! I met her when she was sixteen, and she literally wouldn't go away. I remember one time telling her that I didn't work with solo artists, so she came back with a band!
What were the band called?
Andy: The Genie Queen. We made the most amazing record and I couldn't get them signed. She's unique in that she got both the looks and the great voice. She's been offered record contracts for the last four years and turned them all down because it's too much like hard work and she's seen how difficult it is to break into the music industry so she's like, 'Fuck that! I'll go to the Maldives and get paid o200k for wearing a bikini!'
So who's the best singer you've ever worked with?
Andy: Heidi Range, although she was never really allowed to use it with the Sugababes.
Finally, you've talked about there potentially being a follow-up to 'History Of Modern'. Does this also mean there will be another tour to coincide?
Andy: Did it look like we were running out of steam as a live band to you?
Andy: We have all said to ourselves that we will only do this if we are enjoying it and if there's an audience for us. We will also only make new music if we've got something to say. The reason we played Latitude is because we wanted to open the key to the festivals. We're still moving forwards, and while ever that's the case we'll always be around.