Popular Culture Is Eating Its History and OMD Are Not Complaining

“Enola Gay”, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s (OMD’s) wonderfully indulgent synthpop classic named after the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, has just turned 40. While the last 40 years have seen OMD produce multiple charting records, break into America with Pretty in Pink‘s “If You Leave”, and more recently, record the critically acclaimed The Punishment of Luxury, it’s “Enola Gay” that most honestly captures the band’s triumphant legacy.

Synthesizing intellectual lyrics with popular sensibilities, “Enola Gay” reflects bandmates Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys’ efforts to bring the cerebral and often, commonplace, into the mainstream. Taking a detour from the typical source of lyrical inspiration, love, and human experience, OMD lifted their songs from engineering handbooks, historical stories, and wartime politics.

The popular music of the 1970s as OMD saw it had become senseless and overblown with uninventive guitar-work, mythological narratives (looking at you, prog-rock), and financial barriers to entry. Listening out for a counter-narrative to everything they heard blaring from UK radios, they found what they were after in experimental German music.

German bands like Kraftwerk, Neu!, and Faust made heavy use of synthesizers, followed unconventional song structures, and seemed committed to unfashionable but relevant subject matter like urban development, technology, and the role of the individual in a mechanized society. The reliance upon synthesizers, instruments that were becoming increasingly affordable and required little knowledge to play, also meant that an artist’s traditional characteristics were being challenged. Anyone with an idea could produce it musically.

OMD adopted the conventions of German electronic music and applied them to catchy melodies, tying the two together in an act that went on to define the new pop of the 1980s. More than any of their other songs, “Enola Gay” is evidence of how OMD masterfully captured the concerns of the modern world and packaged them up in such a way that they won over the mainstream.

To celebrate the anniversary of a single that remains at the center of the band’s live set and recorded catalogue, PopMatters’ Max Shand met with Andy McCluskey to discuss a lifetime of making intelligent pop music, remaining innovative over a 40-year career, and how popular culture is eating its history.

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I’m here to talk to you about the 40th anniversary of “Enola Gay”, the lead single from your second album, Organisation. How do you feel about it turning 40?

It’s a double anniversary this year, which is quite strange because it’s the 40th anniversary of the release of the single. And it’s also the 75th anniversary of the airplane dropping the atom bomb. So that was a rather strange and sanguine realization this year, that actually the song was released 40 years ago, and at the time of release, the bomb had been dropped 35 years before. Amazingly, I was 20 years old when I wrote that song.

How has the track’s reception changed over time? From my knowledge, it didn’t even scrape the top 10 in the UK upon release, but over time it went on to sell five million copies and become a core staple of your live sets and the broader synthpop canon.

In terms of its release and climbing the charts, it wasn’t unusual. We’d only had one hit before, so we were still a fairly new band. We didn’t have a massive hardcore following, and so songs in the old days used to come into the chart slowly and climb up. It was very rare that something would go flying in and then fall down, which is what tended to happen if you had a big following.

It slowly crept up the chart, but particularly in places like Italy and France, once it got to the top of the chart, it didn’t go away. I mean, it was number one in both of those countries for over three months. And it’s incredible really, I mean, everywhere it was a hit, it was massive. And over the last 40 years, it’s become the most iconic track that we have. It’s the one that most people remember us by, except for the countries where “If You Leave” from the movie Pretty in Pink was big.

The lyrics and title of “Enola Gay” expose your love of history and efforts to make intelligent pop music. Leaving the 1970s and entering the 1980s, how did you feel about pop music, and what music trends were you rebelling against?

My stance began in the mid-1970s when I was around about 15. You know, in the days when music seemed to be linear in terms of style and this was new, and this was old, and that replaced that. This was before the postmodern era when all popular culture started eating its own history. When you were a teenager and became sufficiently self-aware, you wanted to design your sense of self and identity. Much of this was done with the three, you know, music, clothes, and hair. And the music that I was listening to was, I wanted it to be interesting. I really didn’t want to listen to what I thought were cliched lyrics. And I didn’t want to listen to music that I thought was just not very interesting.

I wanted music that challenged me, sounded different, and had lyrics that were interesting. So obviously, when I started writing and when Paul and I got together and started writing music, our plan was to be pretentious or arrogant enough or whatever words you want to choose to do something that was going to be different. Why do it if you didn’t have something individual and unique to say and speak about. The first real song we wrote that had lyrics and a melody was Electricity when we were 16 years old.

You mentioned how, at that point in time, music was progressing linearly until we reached the postmodern era. A while ago, I read a line where you said that the last modernist movement was English electronic pop music at the end of the 20th century. Can you walk me through your thinking with that line?

I may have been defending our own little corner of the musical world. Yes, I think it goes back to thinking about trying to do something new, something different. After the 1980s, I think probably the end of the 1980s kind of house and techno was the final flowering of novelty and doing something new. And a lot of it is down to the technology, quite frankly. You know, there hasn’t been a huge shift in technology ever since. The advent of the cheap electric guitar and amplifier changed music in the 1950s. And the advent of the cheap synthesizer in the late 1970s, early 1980s changed music again. But I think after that, once we got into the 1990s and you got Britpop and grunge, I didn’t understand this. I thought, hang on a minute, why is everything going backward now? We were trying to be the future, how come we’re now back in the past and sounding like heavy rock or the Beatles is suddenly the future again?

And what I didn’t realize was, that was the beginning of a new generation looking around going, where can I go that’s different? I can’t go anywhere brand new. The whole landscape is occupied by things that have been done. So, I will start recombining and creating something new. And if the most recent trend was synthesizers, then we will go back to the traditional rock band format. And so, I think that was the beginning of postmodernism. And now, whether you think it’s for better or for worse, it’s everywhere. And it’s not just music; I mean it’s in architecture, film, fashion, and art. In the long run, it’s turned out quite well for us, because if you’re considered to have a catalogue of music, and you can still play it and perform it, then you’re allowed to get up on stage, and different generations will accept what you’re doing now.

A bit on the newness of your music. Is the newness of the English modernist movement, as you’ve called it, leaving the 1970s, is that about humanizing German electronic music, or was it creating something substantially different?

If you look at the bands from the 1970s that influenced us, there’s quite a variety. One of the things that became evident to us over the years when asked to understand our music was that many people thought we combined the rigidity of process and concept from bands like Kraftwerk with a much more human and organic approach.

But what I don’t think we consciously realized until much later on, was that you could see those two elements in my two favorite bands, both from Germany, both from Dusseldorf, which was Kraftwerk and Neu! We certainly didn’t sit down at 16 and go, right, the next new thing is going to be a humanizing version of Teutonic electronics. This is going to be the boat that’s going to take us to the riches of pop stardom.

Leaving the 1980s and entering the 1990s, what do you consider your key contributions to house and techno?

It’s one of those things, if I start commenting on it, I probably sound very egotistical. Other people have said that electronic music in the 1970s was generally considered to be conceptual or experimental. When it did cross over, it was either a novelty or a rock band using a synthesizer to add a different texture other than guitar. Many of the rock bands who had synthesizers, the people playing them were the Keith Emerson’s or the Rick Wakeman’s. You know, they had banks and banks of expensive synthesizers.

So, in a sense, because this was just our hobby in the backroom of Paul’s mum’s house, it was just a little voyage of discovery by two nutty teenagers who had no money. Paul used to make what we call noise-making machines that cannibalized the circuits out of his auntie’s radios. I mean, after a while, they stopped lending us radios because they knew they were never going to get them back.

Once we got a keyboard, unconsciously, we welded our 12-year-old love of English glam-pop melody with the kind of concepts that we were trying to do ourselves. I think completely accidentally, we fell upon a way of working. Which now, in hindsight, when people look back at it, they say, well, you were the logical hybrid crossover between the conceptual or novelty electronic music of the 1970s and what would become the new pop music of the 1980s, which would be electronic pop music.

But we didn’t sit down to plan to do that. It just happened that we were doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. When people look back at our music now, particularly the early stuff, it’s pop music made out of things that wouldn’t normally be considered acceptable in pop music, in terms of the instrumentation and the lyrics. I will take that as a compliment all day long because that’s exactly what we were trying to do. But we never thought it would actually lead to us being professional musicians. Nobody was more surprised that than we were when that happened.

Moving back to your catalogue for a moment. You followed up “Enola Gay”/Organisation with Dazzle Ships, and it didn’t perform as well as you had hoped. I read that when you were writing the press release for the 25-year remastering of Dazzle Ships, you recast the album as your masterpiece. Seeing how you’ve affected your historical narrative, I wanted to get your thoughts around musical narratives more broadly.

To be honest, it was too honest and very naughty of me to have said that. When I was young, I didn’t consider how you’re perceived can be set up and manipulated. It was only later in life that I realized that certain things get remembered a certain way, and certain things get remembered a different way. And how are they influenced? Then you start, you know if you study your history, not just cultural history, but any kind of history, you realize that some things are remembered because of chance. Because somebody wrote about it in a book or it was used in a film, and then it suddenly became something people remember more than something else that slips through history that may at the time have been considered the height of fashion and hugely successful.

I was aware that once we got into the new millennium, a few people talked about our Dazzle Ship album like I always thought of OMD as being electropop. But then they discovered this album and asked, how the hell could a pop band make something like this? They were much more than just a pop band. How did they walk this tightrope between trying to be experimental and still making tunes that people could sing along to? And so there already was this underground swell of people talking about it.

So, I thought, well, they want me to write the press release. I’m going to take what is already starting to be said and crystallize it into the phrase, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s fractured masterpiece that nearly killed their commercial career at the time but is now considered to be their long lost work of art. And by the time we got to 15 years ago, there were an awful lot of very lazy journalists who just get an electronic press release, cut and paste, and, oh yes, it’s Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s fractured masterpiece. That’s how you do it, folks, you know.

Well, regardless of how you’ve manipulated my thoughts, “Of All the Things We’ve Made” remains my favorite song of yours.

Ah! That song was supposed to be our epitaph 39 years ago. We were sick and tired. We were fed up. We’d accidentally become a pop group. We were working really hard, and we were exhausted. Although we’d sold millions and millions of records, we didn’t seem to have changed the world. Of course, you know, that was our naivety, thinking that somehow doing something different and having everybody listen to it would change the world. So yes, we wrote “Of All Things We’ve Made” to say that this is the end. This is the last song we’re ever going to write. Bye-bye. Obviously, we changed our minds.

You clearly still enjoy Dazzle Ships, but I’m curious if it would make your top three OMD albums?

I won’t give you the cop-out line that I can’t choose my favorite child. Three together, Architecture & Morality, Dazzle Ships, and The Punishment of Luxury.

Punishment of Luxury stands right up there against the best things we’ve ever done. It’s got great ideas; it’s got modern production. It still sounds like us, but we’re not pastiching ourselves. The album’s three years old now, and I’m immensely proud of it. Every single thing on that album is interesting. I think that the last few OMD albums have gone a long way to contemporizing us. Although we’re in this postmodern era where people will look at music from different areas, and it can still be accepted and respected. I think the fact that we’re still making music and people go, “yes, but have you heard that last album, it’s as good as what they used to do 40 years ago”. It has really resonated with people and given us kudos. We didn’t want to make a new album just so that we’ve got a new logo for the t-shirt when we tour again.

What were you trying to achieve with your first new work in years?

The reason why the first four albums are often considered, particularly by Europeans, to be the great four OMD albums is that Paul and I were having a conversation with ourselves.

When we got back together again, we just said, well, you know, we can be teenagers again now. We can do what the fuck we want. We don’t have to sell records; we’re not necessarily going to go on tour every year. So, if we’re going to do it, let’s go back to when we were kids and just do what we want to do. Because that ultimately should be the purpose. You know, if you’re painting a picture, writing a book, choreographing a ballet, what you’re really doing is having a conversation with yourself. You’re trying to draw out elements of yourself that you could not express any other way. And then it’s a mirror to you; it might be cathartic, it might be educating yourself about your feelings. You’re having a conversation with yourself in your own language. Then when you present it publicly, if you want to make a career out of doing it, you hope somebody’s going to buy it.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark didn’t start because we wanted to be a band that made records to make a living. When we reformed, we went, we’re not going to do this because we want to go on stage and play all the time and we don’t need the money. We’ll do it because we think it’s great to have a conversation with ourselves once again. If there’s an audience for it, great, if there isn’t, fuck it. The only people we were trying to impress were ourselves.

Tell me how this links in with your recent remix of “Enola Gay”, the collaboration with Hot Chip, and putting out the 12-inch vinyl?

It’s a difficult thing to do to mess around with a song that’s 40 years old, you know. And you say to yourself, do we need to do a remix? You know, is this just a marketing tool? And, of course, the truth is yes, it is. Why are you releasing something? You want somebody to buy it? So, we thought, all right, if we’re going to mark this 40th anniversary by creating something that will draw attention to it, we want to work with a current band that we respect musically to make it worthwhile.

We’ve liked Hot Chip since they first came along. They made a totally different take. The first time I heard it was like, okay, that was not what I was expecting. But it’s great; they found a different way to reinterpret it. Now, a lot of people have gone, why are you messing with something that already works? We wanted somebody almost to do a cover version of it.

We also had fun ourselves. We never did an extended 12-inch mix of the track originally, so Paul and I went, let’s do a 40-year extended remix ourselves. We tried four ways of remixing and couldn’t come up with anything. So, we hatched the idea of slowing it down to half time and doing all the vocals through a vocoder and just really fucking with it. It’s just having fun. Nothing replaces the original. But you know, in the same way that Picasso used to do Picasso versions of famous paintings, and so did Lichtenstein, it’s nice to see a remix in a different style now and again. It was just a nice way of celebrating.

So, you’re touring Architecture & Morality next year. You’ve just done this collaboration with Hot Chip. You recently collaborated with Vince Clarke on an “Almost” remix. What else do you have planned in the way of creative projects?

I think by the end of this year, I’ll have spent enough time chilling out to want to get back on the road. I’ve been blessed in a sense by having to stop touring because I’ve rediscovered the creative power of boredom.

Now for the last two years, I’ve gone into my programming room, sat down, and thought, I haven’t any thoughts, tank’s empty. Rather than throwing a hook down an empty well and dragging up some dross, I just walked out and said, I’m not going to write anything. So, the last seven months, I’ve had some ideas, and I’m excited. I have tracks and thoughts for an album that’s going to open with a song called “Bauhaus Staircase”, bang! Big, fat 808 drums all over it. It’s going to happen. The song is already written; it’s exciting. And yet another lyrical lean on the 20th-century art by Mr. McCluskey.

There will be a new OMD album because I think there are sufficient good songs now. And if you don’t tell anybody, I think that album title might be Anthropocene.