Reunion sparks renewed synths of purpose

ANDY McCluskey has mellowed.

Thirty years ago, the Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark singer would have danced on the grave of Margaret Thatcher. He sees things differently now.

“Some of the stuff she did — I suppose it had to be done,” says the 53-year-old, who grew up in a middle-class town on the outskirts of Liverpool. “Politics, back then, was a complete bloody mess. It used to take crazy people like that to change the world. They couldn’t do it nowadays. We live in a world ruled by multinational corporations.”

It’s April in Los Angeles. The former UK prime minister has died. McCluskey has followed the story at one remove: OMD are on a short US tour that will culminate in two dates at the Coachella rock festival. Their gigs here are sell-outs. In the ’80s, the synth-pop act couldn’t get arrested in the US.

“It is going well,” says McCluskey. “We certainly seem to be positively received. A few years ago, it dawned on us that, actually, OMD were terribly fashionable. The ’90s, post-modern guitar-band fad had faded away.”

It’s a dramatic turn around from the Britpop era, when OMD’s stock was so low that McCluskey’s songwriting partner, Paul Humphreys, gave up. McCluskey persisted for several years, but eventually went on hiatus. He is surprised their reunion, which began in 2007, has gone so well.

“We were rehabilitated, ” he says. “Our catalogue was considered credible, all of a sudden.” Initially, the reformed OMD were a nostalgia act. They toured their favourite LP, 1981’s Architecture and Morality, in a warmly received greatest hits show. OMD grew twitchy. Did they want to spend their career rehashing old glories? “It was enjoyable. And then we began to think, ‘hang on, we’re going to end up a tribute act to ourselves’. We started to get the itch to write new songs.”

McCluskey and Humphreys were cautious about going back to the studio. When a middle-aged band attempts to recapture their youthful swagger, the results are often an embarrassment. “I won’t name names. Quite frankly, though, many of our contemporaries have made new records with terrible results. It’s all about doing it for the right reasons. If you’ve done three reunion tours and your manager says, ‘oi, you need a new album so you can repackage your tour’… well, obviously, that’s a bad way to go. People go and create shadowy pastiches of their best stuff. They don’t have the ideas and they don’t have the energy. We didn’t want to fall into that trap.”

English Electric is comparable to OMD’s best work. It harks back to their classic ’80s electro-pop, adding an air of wistfulness. If their early music celebrated the boundless possibilities of technology, on English Electric McCluskey and Humphreys conclude that the future isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“There’s a sense of melancholy on the record, a mourning for a future that never panned out. Maybe it’s the fact we are middle-aged men reflecting on our own lives. Or else reflecting on the concept of a paradise unfulfilled. English Electric was a manufacturing company. They produced airplanes and computers. And now they’ve gone bust. I think there might be a metaphor in there somewhere,” McCluskey says.

English Electric steers a cautious course. With its vintage beats and melancholic melodies, it evokes past hits, such as the 1980 chart-topper, ‘Enola Gay’ and their break-out single, ‘Electricity’. But McCluskey and Humphreys are striving for fresh territory. “It’s a balancing act, isn’t it?” says McCluskey. “We are fortunate, in that we have a distinctive sound and it would be stupid to abandon that. That said, you don’t wish to pastiche yourself. You have to find a way to apply modern sounds and production techniques to your own ethos and concepts.”

It annoys McCluskey that OMD are regarded as pop, while peers, such as New Order and Depeche Mode, are treated more seriously by critics. “It sounds pretentious, but we were an accidental pop group,” he says. “When we started, there was no such thing as X Factor. I know it is ridiculous by today’s standards. We did, sort of, sell a million records without intending too. Our best ideas were always motivated by a concept.

“We couldn’t simply stand around a piano and bash out a tune. We wrote songs about ideas — that is where we got the energy and enthusiasm from.”

After placing OMD in mothballs in the ’90s, McCluskey had a brief flirtation with Simon Cowell svengali-dom. He put together the girl group, Atomic Kitten, writing and producing their first album. However, it turned sour quickly and the singer won’t be attending any of Atomic Kitten’s reunion concerts this year.

“I haven’t been invited,” he says. “Look, Atomic Kitten was great fun. I had no idea what I was doing. I loved those girls to pieces. I still do. What I learned is that as you are making the pie, putting all the ingredients in, everybody is your friend. As soon as the pie comes out of the oven and it is obvious that it is a finite thing, everyone starts elbowing for the biggest slice they can get.

“After two years, my contract was torn up. The girls were just pawns in the game. I wasn’t allowed talk to them for four years, except through my lawyers.

“The first album was a wonderful piece of disposable culture. I was not party to the next two records. I can’t be held responsible for the pastiche of themselves they eventually became.”

* Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark play Vicar Street, Dublin, Thursday May 30. English Electric is out now.

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