The Aural Thrills of Electronic Music Manoeuvres in the Dark, Starring OMD

It’s an intriguing concept: Get a number of recordings artists who made their initial impact in the 1980s to record new music in the style of that decade for Fly: Songs Inspired by the Film Eddie the Eagle (UMC), an album to accompany a movie directed by Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kingsman: The Secret Service) and starring Hugh Jackman and Taron Egerton about the titular, underdog British ski-jumper who gave his all at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.

Helming the project was Gary Barlow, one of Britain’s biggest songwriters and a longtime Vaughn collaborator and confidant. To date, Barlow, 45, has penned 14 Number 1 singles and 24 Top 10 hits, and he’s also sold over 50 million records worldwide as both a solo artist and a member of Take That. Barlow personally recruited many ’80s heavy hitters for the Fly project including Howard Jones, Paul Young, Nik Kershaw, ABC, Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Midge Ure of Ultravox. “We all got very romantic talking about getting the old hardware synth sounds,” Barlow reports. “It’s all become a bit too easy the last few years with computers being at the heart of our studios, so I think many of these artists were excited to revisit those old skills that seemed forgotten.”

Among those up for the challenge were Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys of OMD, a.k.a. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. OMD helped usher in the electronic age, right from the initial crackling impact of their first single in 1979, “Electricity,” to the Top 5 success of “If You Leave,” a pivotal song from the popular 1986 John Hughes/Molly Ringwald coming-of-age movie, Pretty in Pink.

After an initial feel-out meeting in London, Barlow and McCluskey co-wrote “Thrill Me,” the song that was also turned into a cool video featuring many of the artists on Fly. McCluskey, 56, at left in the above photo, called from across The Pond to discuss the genesis of “Thrill Me,” why electronic music continues to thrive and how they get modern/retro synth sounds, and wrestling with the concept of streaming. It’s the ultimate discovery.

Mike Mettler: Tell me what Gary Barlow wanted you to do musically for “Thrill Me.”

Andy McCluskey: Gary was very specific in what he said: “I’d like you to actually consciously try to write in the style of and with the sounds of something from the early 1980s.” That was interesting — and it was quite a challenge, really, because OMD, and many of the artists who are on the record, have quite distinctive sounds and styles. And we’ve been trying to avoid “pastiching” ourselves; we’re always trying to go forward. To be asked to do exactly the opposite was quite a challenge. I thought, “Right, Gary wants it to sound like our early stuff.” And back then, we usually had me playing bass guitar.

Mettler: And you play your bass upside-down without restringing it, right?

McCluskey: Yes. I learned left-handed bass; that’s correct. All I knew when I was 16 was I was right-handed, so I turned it upside-down and learned with the strings upside-down so that the E string is at the bottom for me. And now that I play a right-handed bass, I have to cut the nut above the head and turn it over so that the strings are upside-down. That’s how I play to this day, and I’m still playing the same bass I’ve had since 1979 — a 1974 Fender Jazz.

So “Thrill Me” started out with the bass. I wrote a series of notes on the bass, then we went for a drum sound that was more of a “clicky” bass drum rather than a “round” one — and a big fat snare drum going, “boooshhh!” like we used to do in the ’80s. The bass and the drums are driving the track, really.

Mettler: Gary told me one of his favorite OMD tracks almost since Day 1 is “Enola Gay” [the influential single from the band’s second album, Organisation, which was released in October 1980], and there almost seems to be a thread between the two tracks.

McCluskey: I think when you start with the driving bass sound and it’s at the same tempo as “Enola Gay,” and then if you do the next step — the distinctive OMD thing where you play an 8-bar melody — you’re in the ballpark of “Enola Gay.” So you’re right; that’s why it’s got the connection there.

Mettler: And that’s one of your hallmarks. As a listener, you sing that instantly upon repeat listens because the melody catches you that quickly. I was already singing “feel the blood rush ’round the body” the second time I played it.

McCluskey: That was the job that Gary did on top of the music I wrote. Actually, I wrote it, and then sat on it a couple of months. Gary sort of chased me and said, “How are you getting on?” Strangely enough, the music came together fairly quickly, but I hadn’t got a vocal melody or a lyric in place. So I said, “Do you want to have a go?” And he said, “Yeah, great!” He then came up with the lyric to go on top of my music.

Mettler: It’s a nice mesh of being modern with a retro feel. And it seems a lot of modern electronic artists are looking back at the work you did back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “Electricity” is often mentioned by current artists who are in their 20s as a song they go back to. [“Electricity,” OMD’s aforementioned 1979 debut single, later appeared on their debut self-titled February 1980 album, and it’s a track that’s often cited as influencing the early sound of Depeche Mode and Simple Minds.]

McCluskey: That does seem to be happening, yes. It’s interesting you would say that. There is still a section of the music community that is inspired to do electronic music. Very often, it’s people who are looking to do something that’s a little bit different. By using electronic instruments, you have a broader palette. You’re not just restricted to guitar, bass, and drums. And we do get a number of younger artists who namecheck us, which is very nice, and very flattering.

Mettler: Do you feel it’s a generational thing, where people like us who grew up in the ’80s looked fondly back on the ’50s and ’60s, and people growing up today go back to the ’80s as their touchstone for that kind of inspiration?

McCluskey: I think that we’re now in the post-modern era of all popular culture, not just music — fashion, film, architecture, and art. It’s eating its own history. You do get people who are consciously looking backwards, and consciously influenced from things from the past.

Mettler: Is it an embarrassment of riches to be able to have everything you want to listen to at your fingertips?

McCluskey: Absolutely. It’s Pandora’s Box when you go on the Internet these days. When I was a kid, you had to go find things yourself. You had to dig into the limited number of magazines and newspapers there were, or passionately listen to the one or two DJs who would play something different, not just the chart music. You were on a pilgrimage; a mission. Now you can wander the Internet and find all sorts of things. (chuckles)

Mettler: Is vinyl still important to you as a listener?

McCluskey: I’m quite comfortable in the digital age. I know that most people buy things in MP3 — and they’re lacking. They lose something. But the convenience of them makes up for the hassle of having to put vinyl on.

I guess, in that respect, I’m not a great lover of the past. The only thing I really like about vinyl is the size of the sleeve, to do more interesting artwork. I miss that with vinyl. I’m grateful for the people who love to collect vinyl, because it allows you to do some special limited editions, where you can play around.

It’s strange, of course, since digital downloads, to use an English phrase, are as cheap as chips. They can be copied and pirated very easily. Who knew that, 30 years ago when CD came out and people started predicting the demise of vinyl — and it did look like it was going to go away completely — who knew it was going to come back and “save” the music industry? (both laugh)

Mettler: Do you send digital files to your collaborators?

McCluskey: That’s how I did it with Gary for that song [i.e., “Thrill Me”], yes. And I work with [OMD partner] Paul Humphreys digitally. I live in the beautiful countryside out here in England, and I have an appalling Internet connection where we don’t have fiber optics or anything, so trying to download large files is a nightmare! (laughs) I’m stuck with MP3s, I’m afraid.

But we do find that, when we start on a project, we like to sit in a room together and bat ideas off each other, and have those instant ideas. That’s the real chemistry — the initial idea we find that works best when we’re in the room together. It’s much faster: “Oh, hey, I have an idea.” “Yeah yeah yeah — change this, then do that.”

But when you’re remotely sending things up and down the Internet, the geography and the time delay between sending it, bouncing it down, trying it — there’s no immediacy to it. But once we’ve got the idea, we’ll send files up and down to each other since we’ve both got practically identical Pro Tools rigs.

One of the other things is, the younger musicians are almost amusingly purist: “Oh yeah, man, I really love the sound of the Jupiter-8 [the polyphonic Roland analog subtractive synthesizer]. Do you still use those analog mono synths?” And we’re like, “Nahhhh. We’re quite happy to use virtual synths. Those heavy, big analog synths from 30 years ago — no, we don’t miss carrying them around. We can play them by hand and MIDI them up now. We use soft synths inside the Mac, thank you very much!” (chuckles)

Mettler: It’s also easier on the back, I understand. Do you still have any of that vintage gear around at all?

McCluskey: We do have some of it. When the band reformed to play live [in 2007], since many of our songs are quite sound-specific, we had to go out there and buy some of the vintage synths we no longer owned in order to get the exact sounds we wanted that we used on the old recordings.

Mettler: Did you have to go buy the gear back in order for you to play “If You Leave” the way it was recorded?

McCluskey: Actually no, because “If You Leave” was more mid-’80s than early-’80s. It was a lot more digital with samples. The sounds for “If You Leave” had already been translated into Emulator audio samples because we were using Emulators onstage in the late-’80s, so we already had them. We’d just play them out of the Emulators into the new format.

For a lot of what we did in the past, we had to go back to the 2-inch multitrack master tapes, have them baked so we didn’t oxidize them and damage them, and then transfer them. We then had to go in and multisample it all note by note and recreate them across key groups in order to use them in the keyboards onstage.

When we work on new material, we use completely new integral analog soft synths in the computer. When we play the old songs live, we believe you have a responsibility to be, quite frankly, respectful of the song and the audience’s recollection of it, and to play it as you wrote it and recorded it.

I really have no interest in bands who say, “Oh well, we’re bored with our song, so we’re going to rearrange it and do an acoustic version, or a medley of our hits.” Screw that! Play the song properly, just like you wrote it! That’s the way people want to hear it!

Mettler: You’re probably also seeing a younger generation showing up in your crowd now. I’m wondering if, whenever somebody sees Pretty in Pink on cable or on Netflix, do they go back and Google “OMD” and come across all the other things you’ve done, and learn about things like “Romance of the Telescope” [from 1983’s Dazzle Ships]?

McCluskey: Yes, we do see that. Particularly, in fact, in the States. The American audience seems to have become more cross-generational than I think any other country for us. There are a lot of younger kids who have discovered us either through younger electronic bands namechecking us, like you say, or they’ve discovered us through some of the film soundtracks — or just through the Internet. So at our shows, you get the originals who are in their late 40s or early 50s, right there with those in their 30s, 20s, and even the odd teen.

Mettler: That shows what I always say — quality endures. And maybe they hear that drum-machine sound they first heard more likely though plug-ins by watching some of the people who pioneered some of that stuff, and maybe they’ll investigate further.

McCluskey: I’m delighted, because that still means we have a live audience, and we still have people who want to hear our old records — and our new records as well.

Mettler: As a digital man, are you OK with the streaming universe?

McCluskey: Well, I must admit, streaming pays utterly appalling royalties. It’s another way the value of music has been greatly reduced. But I don’t really know what the answer is. I can see where it means people don’t have to own things. It means you don’t have to buy it. It also means listening to music is more universal and more democratic. But obviously, for the people who wrote it, the payback is very poor.

Mettler: I feel I must pay the premium on Spotify so artists can get something out of it. Hopefully, a better subscription model will come into play at some point.

McCluskey: I think the problem is the music industry didn’t take Internet digital very seriously. Then they panicked when they realized piracy was going on, and they sold off the intellectual property rights far too cheaply. They’re playing catch-up now — and they never will catch-up, because there are a couple of generations of music listeners who don’t see music as having an intrinsic value. They won’t steal a vinyl or a CD out of a store, but an MP3 on a laptop or an iPhone doesn’t seem to have a perceived value: “I can download it, I can delete it, I can transfer it, I can share it.” A lot of it has to do with it being an MP3, which is almost nothing, you know.

Mettler: And like you were saying earlier, having the bigger, physical vinyl format gives people a direct interaction with something that does have value, including the artwork as well as the music.

McCluskey: You have to make it worth people’s while. You make a sleeve that’s powerful and is interesting to look at, and is also worth reading and pouring over. But more importantly, if you make a complete album that is a collection of ideas and is a fulfilling journey, then it’s worth having the whole album.

What we’ve seen in the last 20 years, particularly in the pop end of the industry, is that manufactured popular music, by default — you get a couple of good hit singles on a record, and then you get a load of absolute rubbish, because that stuff is on there to satisfy people’s greed. The songwriters pull their stuff out of the bottom drawer and they make you take it, because you get one good song and two bad ones to go with it.

So, surprise, surprise — when you get to the digital age, people are very happy to cherrypick. “We’ll take the hit singles and we won’t bother with the rubbish, thank you.” The industry shot itself in the foot there.

Mettler: For you personally, what was the first album that had impact on you where every song counted and really meant something?

McCluskey: Ohhh, probably some of the early [David] Bowie albums, like Ziggy Stardust (1972) and Aladdin Sane (1973). Those were some of the first albums I ever bought where I felt I got a complete album.

Mettler: Did you ever get a chance to meet David?

McCluskey: I never did, no. He was one of my literal handful of heroes in the ’70s, and he changed my life. But I never got to meet him. And for various reasons, he’d obviously gone quiet before he released the last two albums [2013’s The Next Day and 2016’s Blackstar]. But the work he did throughout the ’70s was utterly stunning.

Mettler: Especially the Berlin/Brian Eno period, which I think is in the OMD DNA in a lot of ways.

McCluskey: Oh, absolutely. I think, particularly, Low and “Heroes” [two Bowie albums released in 1977] — both influenced us hugely.

Mettler: You can put both of those albums on today, and they don’t feel “of-era.” They’re unto themselves.

McCluskey: They were playing by their own rules, and that’s why they’re timeless.

Mettler: I think Dazzle Ships (1983) may fit into that category. I don’t think other people were playing by your rules either.

McCluskey: Well, at the time, that one was a critical and commercial disaster, but certainly it has since been incredibly well-received and rehabilitated. In fact, we just sold out the Royal Albert Hall [in London, on May 9, 2016], playing the album in its entirety.

Mettler: Considering the reaction you’ve been getting from the younger generations, do you guys consider yourselves pioneers in the electronic field?

McCluskey: Not for me to say, but certainly what we did still resonates now across the generations. That’s very flattering, and I’m very happy about that.

I’m also happy that we’re still able to play live — the old songs, and the new songs. And we’re still making records as well, and that’s the important thing. When we reformed 9 years ago, we didn’t want to be a tribute band to ourselves.

You know what? It’s important that, if you’re going to make new records, you make them for the right reasons. Unfortunately, there are some of our contemporaries who seem to make an album just so they have a title for this year’s tour — and they actually didn’t have any hunger or desire or ideas in the album. It’s a shame.

But we will not allow ourselves to do that — make a record unless we think it’s got something worth saying. For visual artists, filmmakers, and writers, they do seem to be able to sustain their output. But many musicians and songwriters do seem to peak in their 20s, and go off the boil. I don’t know whether they get lazy or drug-addled or are too rich to keep the hunger going; I just don’t know. But that is probably a conversation for another day.