OMD – ON A SHIP TO NOWHERE – UNIVERSAL REVISITED

An in-depth look at OMD’s tenth studio album

With rave reviews – and a top five placing – for their latest album The Punishment Of Luxury, a near sell-out UK tour, plus long-overdue recognition for their pioneering synth-pop work, it’s been an incredible turnaround in fortunes for Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, who reformed in 2005.

Back in the summer of 1996, it was a vastly different story, as singer Andy McCluskey prepared to release Universal, his third – and final – solo album under the OMD banner. Both McCluskey and Virgin Records had shifted the bulk of their chips in the direction of the album’s first single ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ but, by the time of its release, OMD were deemed to be past their sell-by date and Radio 1 passed on adding it to their playlist; causing a knock-on effect that would effectively sink its parent album. Shortly afterwards, a depressed McCluskey would slip into the shadows, before officially ending OMD in 1998.

Like the band’s previous album Liberator, it’s an album that has divided fan opinion over the years; whilst its lack of commercial success has somewhat coloured McCluskey’s own opinion of it. But this lyrically focused and well-produced collection has actually aged very well, and stands up against the best of the band’s back catalogue.

In this article we take an in-depth look at the making of OMD’s often overlooked tenth studio album, using archived material and some exclusive new reminiscences from Andy McCluskey and some of the album’s key personnel.


THAT WAS THEN

The critical and commercial failure of the Liberator album meant that, by the spring of 1994, OMD’s Andy McCluskey had reached the third crisis of his music career; following the commercial failure of Dazzle Ships in 1983 and the acrimonious split of the classic 4-piece line-up in 1989.

The beginning of the year had started well with the band bringing the Liberator tour to a close with some well received shows in South Africa, but little did McCluskey know that the show in Pretoria on the 15th January 1994 would be OMD’s last show for over 22 years. In an interview for the Messages magazine in 2002, McCluskey reflected on this show, as well as his decision to end the band: “I didn’t know that Pretoria in South Africa was going to be the last OMD gig. It was like, did The Beatles know that Candlestick Park was going to be their last ever gig? At the time, you’re not planning to stop, but when you do stop that’s it, you bring down the curtain.”

Whilst McCluskey had plans to utilise the services of the members of OMD’s touring band for his next album, Nigel Ipinson, Phil Coxon and Stuart Kershaw drifted into other projects once they’d returned to Liverpool. Kershaw hooked up with bass player – and college friend – Keith Small, while Phil Coxon formed Isha-D with Beverley Reppion (who’d sang backing vocals on OMD’s hit ‘Pandora’s Box’ in 1991). But it was Ipinson who would eventually land the highest profile job, playing keyboards for The Stone Roses in a new line-up that reunited him with his old Rebel MC bandmates Robbie Maddix and Aziz Ibrahim (the trio had previously played on the rapper’s 1991 album Black Meaning Good).

By and large the tour had been a success, but its fortunes contrasted sharply with that of the Liberator album itself – attracting criticism from both fans and journalists, one reviewer described it as a “collection of featherweight pop doodles”. Whilst the success of 1991’s Sugar Tax and its attendant singles had reinvigorated the OMD brand, it’s somewhat rushed successor was unable to replicate its success, with much of the blame laying at the feet of its techno-styled production. McCluskey recently explained to The Electricity Club: “The problem with Liberator was that I invited Phil Coxon to work on the production but wouldn’t relinquish my own programming, so we basically ended up with an album full of songs with two sets of often conflicted programming. Also, whilst Phil programmed I was bored so I played video games instead of keeping an eye on things! It was then too late to steer him in a different direction when he had done a couple of days work on a song.”

By this stage, the musical landscape was changing, and a new breed of guitar-based acts (Blur, Oasis, Suede, Pulp, et al) were spearheading a new movement that would eventually become known as Britpop. Fearing that OMD’s brand of synth-pop was becoming dated, McCluskey made a conscious decision to adapt to the changing climate and freshen up the act’s sound. “It was important for me to abandon some of the electronic stuff,” he confirmed. “Nobody in the mid-1990s really wanted ’80s synth-pop any more, which is essentially how OMD were perceived, whether correctly or not.”

And there was to be a further change as McCluskey decided to shake up his songwriting routine, abandoning his usual rehearsal space at The Ministry in Preston Street, Liverpool. “I’ve worked in the same room now for four and a half years,” he told the Telegraph fanzine that year. “I’ll be living in Dublin – admittedly not far from home, but far enough to break my usual habits.” McCluskey rented a house in Dublin and transferred his mixing desk, computer, speakers and rig to a room in a studio named The Factory.


THE DEMOS

Whilst work on the new demos was largely done independently, he was occasionally joined by Stuart Kershaw – tracks such as ‘Too Late’ stemmed from these sessions. Kershaw also accompanied McCluskey on a 3-week road trip across the USA; hiring a car in Washington D.C. and clocking up 6,500 miles on an indirect journey to Los Angeles. “We went north to Gettysburg,” McCluskey told The Travel Almanac in 2011. “Then back down all the way to New Orleans, then to NASA and to Tucson, Arizona…it was fantastic. When we got to Las Vegas we’d already done 5,500 miles and the valet guy wanted to take the car away: ‘I’ll get this washed for you, Sir!,’ he said. We asked him not to, of course, as we wanted to take a picture of the dirty car once we had made it to L.A.!”

By mid-1994, ‘The New Dark Age’, ‘Too Late’, ‘Universal’ and ‘That Was Then’ had been demoed, and the band’s information service also reported that the new album would include an updated version of ‘Resist The Sex Act’. This was a track that had been heavily influenced by Lil Louis’ club classic ‘French Kiss’, and originally considered for inclusion on 1991’s Sugar Tax album. “It’s now like a slowed-down house song built around a repeated bass riff which continues for six minutes with ambient choral sections floating in and out,” explained McCluskey. Whilst it was reported that the track would ‘definitely’ be on the album, it was eventually consigned to the archives.

Work on the album ceased as McCluskey convalesced following a collar bone break sustained whilst playing 5-a-side football. OMD’s peripatetic frontman also set off on holiday again; this time journeying with his then 70-year old father, Jimmy. “I flew with him into Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, and spent a couple of days with him there and in Samarkand,” McCluskey told The Travel Almanac. “Then we took a train across the border into China, through China and all the way to Singapore.” McCluskey added: “When I was young, I didn’t see my father that much. He was always working. And when he wasn’t working, he was out wasting his money on greyhound racing. When you become an adult, you reassess your relationship with your parents. This was my opportunity to go away with my father as an adult, one on one, and talk to him about us, about his history, to learn something about him. I’m glad I did it.”

By the end of the year the new album, provisionally titled Universal, was making good progress and Virgin Records were reportedly pleased with the demos that McCluskey had sent them. “I’m increasingly excited about the way this album is progressing,” said McCluskey. “It really is going to sound different.” The singer later told Sound On Sound that he was concerned about “getting a bit laid-back in Ireland”, and he relocated to Los Angeles for several months. After renting a house in Hollywood Hills West and a studio room at J.E. Sound, McCluskey was able to complete the album’s demos, which now included ‘If You’re Still In Love With Me’, ‘The Chosen One’ – not to be confused with ‘Sister Marie Says’ – and ‘Oboe Song’.

But there was one particular song that really excited OMD fans, after it was reported in mid-1995 that McCluskey had been working with his old bandmate Paul Humphreys in Los Angeles. Although Humphreys was committed to both The Listening Pool (who were working on a follow-up to debut album Still Life, provisionally titled Natural) and his Telegraph Records venture, the pair had remained good friends and seized the opportunity to work together again. “We wrote three or four pieces, but this one piece – ‘Very Close To Far Away’ – was by far the most exciting of the ones we’d written,” said an enthused McCluskey. “We specially set out to write a psychedelic pop song – it was quite interesting.”

PRODUCTION AND RECORDING

“The songs were 80 to 90 percent there – it was the last 15 to 20 percent, which is always the best bit, converting the good-sounding demo into the great-sounding finished record.” – Andy McCluskey

With the demos now completed, McCluskey was finally ready to begin recording the new album. Whilst the Sugar Tax and Liberator albums had largely been recorded at his co-owned Pink Museum studio in Liverpool, McCluskey was keen for a further change to his routine, and opted to record Universal at the then EMI-owned Townhouse Studios in London (the Shepherd’s Bush studio had been a popular facility with many high profile artists over the years, including Kate Bush, XTC, Simple Minds, Queen and The Jam). A change of recording environment had certainly paid off in the previous decade as the original OMD line-up sought to put the commercial failure of the Dazzle Ships album behind them. Switching from the confines of their self-built Gramophone Suite studio to Highland Studios in Inverness – and, later, the more exotic climes of Air Studios in Montserrat – the band returned in 1984 with a glossier pop sound and the reward of a successful album, Junk Culture, plus three hit singles.

With a change of studio there also came a change in production team, with McCluskey employing the services of both David Nicholas and Matthew Vaughan to co-produce with him. “When I got back from America, I had everything pretty much demoed,” McCluskey told Sound On Sound, “and having changed the way I wrote the album, I wanted to change the way I was going to record the album; it was quite important for me to find the right people to work with.” ARIA award winner David Nicholas was an experienced producer and recording engineer who had worked on landmark albums by Midnight Oil and INXS (notably 1987’s multi-platinum Kick) in his home country of Australia. Prior to his work on Universal he had also worked on albums by Elton John, Ash and Marcella Detroit, as well as Liverpool-based River City People, who had supported OMD on the second wave of the Sugar Tax tour in 1991.

Also boasting an impressive CV was Matthew Vaughan, an experienced musician and programmer who had featured on albums by Elton John, The Christians and Terence Trent D’Arby. In the early 1990s Vaughan had also co-written tracks and played on two albums by Bassomatic (a project masterminded by William Orbit, who had remixed OMD’s 1988 single ‘Dreaming’ for the 10″ format) and, in 1993, was credited with additional programming on two remixes of Depeche Mode’s ‘I Feel You’ single. His versatile musicianship would be called upon during the making of OMD’s new album, as he added guitar and keyboard parts to several tracks.

Prior to Universal, both Vaughan and Nicholas had completed programming and engineering duties, respectively, on Marcella Detroit’s Jewel album, and they had also commenced work on Pulp’s fifth studio album Different Class (by Christmas 1994, future smash hit ‘Common People’ was already in the can). “They were the right and left-hand men for that record, with [producer] Chris Thomas sitting on the couch doing the crossword and I thought, that’s the way I want to do it!” McCluskey told Sound On Sound. “So I spent three months in The Town House doing the crossword on the couch! It took a bit of the pressure off me, because I could delegate things to them and trust that they would do things I would be happy with – they were very much on my wavelength.” Whilst Nicholas and Vaughan were committed to working on the Sheffield band’s breakthrough opus, they were able to put in some preliminary work on the Universal album, picking two songs – ‘Very Close To Far Away’ and ‘The Chosen One’ – from McCluskey’s demos that they were particularly impressed with.

“I think it was my (and Dave’s) manager Barbara Jeffries who got us introduced to the gig,” Matthew Vaughan told The Electricity Club. “I remember going to the [Virgin] record company offices in Kensal Rise for a meeting, and we got the gig. What I knew of OMD’s catalogue extended not much further than ‘Enola Gay’, ‘Messages’, ‘Joan Of Arc’ and ‘Maid Of Orleans’ at the time, to be honest. I do remember that, between me and David, we thought there wouldn’t be much point in trying to recreate the sound of those records, given that that particular zeitgeist had passed (little did we know it was soon about to rush past us on its return journey). So we opted for live drums and bass and very little use of the old synthesisers that had characterised the OMD sound – this proved critically unpopular at the time as I recall. Andy had quite meticulously constructed demos already that we were keen to keep to the spirit of – the demos were what attracted us to the project really. So we went into a few weeks of pre-production in one of the basement rooms at the Town House studios in Goldhawk Road W14. We tarted up the sounds and some of the parts using various synth modules, and then started recording in the main studios upstairs – I think it was Studio 4 mainly. I remember doing the first track, ‘The Chosen One’ (which was a bit Roy Orbison), in Studio 1 and it going down well with members of staff. You should know that Studio 2 did not exist in the same building – that was the old Ramport Studios in Battersea, formerly owned by The Who. Studio 3 was the legendary ‘drum room’ at Townhouse used to record Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’.

“It was the first time Matt and I had teamed up as co-producers,” explained David Nicholas to The Electricity Club. “Before that we had worked together many times for producer Chris Thomas as engineer (me) and programmer (Matt). To be honest, I had not heard any of [OMD’s] music other than singles I had heard on the radio back in the ’80s when they were quite big in Australia. I loved working on the record. Matt, Andy and I made a good team and it was also the first time I/we had attempted to do a tapeless album (which in those days was very new). We decided to work from Andy’s demos which were well advanced and all on Logic [Audio], which Matt was very familiar with. So we decided to just add live drums, bass and strings, and the odd guitar to the files that already existed in Logic using the first generation of digital audio computer hardware. It was very scary as that technology was very new and quite unstable. But we persevered and almost the entire album was done without using any tape. Now it’s the norm, but back then it was almost unheard of… and not without some major crashes and some very late nights! But a great learning curve and an achievement I’m proud of. I have very fond memories of the recording sessions, too. It was a very creative, happy and fulfilling record to work on as we all got on very well, both personally and creatively – which always make the music better, from my experience.”

Vaughan adds: “I remember Andy raising an eyebrow at me and Dave’s consumption of the classic Town House full English breakfast every morning, saying something like: ‘It’s all very well if you’re going out for a day’s worth of honest physical toil, less appropriate if you’re going to sit on your arse all day fiddling with a piano part’. I can’t swear that’s verbatim, but that’s the gist!”

The use of session players – particularly the rhythm section – marks Universal out as a unique album in OMD’s back catalogue. Bassist Phil Spalding was a vastly experienced musician who had worked with artists including Toyah and Mike Oldfield during the 1980s, and he’d also been a member of Original Mirrors, along with Ian Broudie (a former member of the legendary Liverpudlian ensemble Big In Japan who would later form Care with Paul Simpson and, more successfully, The Lightning Seeds). Spalding had played on Original Mirrors’ self-titled debut album, and performed live with the band (notably as support for Roxy Music on their Flesh And Blood tour), before being sacked for reasons he explains on his website: “I was too loud, too opinionated, too arrogant, too paranoid, too high (definitely!), and just too much of a pain in the arse, no matter how good I was!”

In the lead-up to his work on Universal, Spalding had completed a plethora of sessions for acts such as Chris de Burgh, Elton John, Right Said Fred, Jimmy Somerville and Dubstar, and was well acquainted with producers David Nicholas and Matthew Vaughan, having played on Marcella Detroit’s Jewel album. In a very honest account about his contribution to Universal, he told The Electricity Club: “My part in the making of this album – whilst there are a couple of incidents that are quite clear to me – is largely very foggy as I was deeply entrenched in heroin and crack addiction at the time. My friends Dave ‘Chipper’ Nicholas and Matt Vaughan, who were producing the album, had asked me to play bass for them and I ended up doing some backing vocals and playing some guitar – some of which is on ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, but has gone uncredited for some reason.

“I’d got myself into such a muddle as I was, at the same time as this album was recorded, also on tour with Alison Moyet, supporting her greatest hits release [Singles – TEC]. I was trying to do sessions at the Town House, in between coming and going for Alison; which in itself turned out to be a nightmare of scoring loads of drugs, running out of drugs, leaving the tour in way-off parts of the UK to get back and score, going into heavy withdrawals on the road and having to do gigs in that terrible condition. You see, when you’re drug-dependant you can’t take your dealers on the road with you! I really should never have committed to going on tour with Alison but I really didn’t know what I was doing. It would have been much safer to stay at home and do OMD’s album and stay close to my drug source and at least stay ‘well’ whilst recording.

“I remember one incident when I’d played a couple of nights in Glasgow with Alison, which were recorded for her live album [included as part of the 1996 reissue of Singles – TEC]. I was in such a state of panic, having been sick since Dublin a few days before, that I left the Glasgow hotel first thing the morning after the gigs, got a cab to the airport and took a plane to Heathrow. I landed at Heathrow and went straight to Twickenham to score heroin and then went straight to the Town House for an OMD session. That’s how I was living during the recording of Universal – I was completely mad!

“The album itself is, for my part, a miracle. I love this album, particularly the title track… Everything was usually done in a very short space of time, once I’d got the part, feel and sound right. Chipper and Matt were great, too – very supportive, even knowing the state I was in. I wondered why Andy wasn’t playing bass, but didn’t ask too many questions. I think Andy wanted someone who could approach the songs a bit more technically and, for all my faults, I could at least still play great.”

Drummer Chuck Sabo was an American-born musician, who had previously played in an unsuccessful band named Sonny Lucas with then-wife Jeanette Landray (best remembered for her brief stint in The Glove, a side project of The Cure’s Robert Smith). Sabo gained his first big break when he played on British Electric Foundation’s Music Of Quality And Distinction, Volume Two album in 1991. “Very much a soul record,” Sabo told XTC fan site Chalkhills. “He [Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware] gathered up a bunch of artists and did cover songs with them. So, just within that one album, I played with Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, Terence Trent D’Arby, Billy Preston and more… An artist named Tashan also sang on that album, and I later went on to do an album by him [For The Sake Of Love], which Martyn Ware also produced.”

“I met the producers of the OMD Universal LP, Dave Nicholas and Matt Vaughan, when I was recording drums on Marcella Detroit’s LP,” Sabo told The Electricity Club. “Chris Thomas was producing, Dave was engineering and Matt was programming. After that we did The Lion King with Elton John as well. Then Dave and Matt got the production job for Andy’s next OMD LP and called me in to record drums. I was familiar with the OMD hits, but not too familiar with the whole back catalogue. The bass player Phil Spalding and I were working on lots of records together at that time, so we all knew each other very well, and enjoyed working together.”

The bulk of the album was recorded during a 3-month period at the end of 1995, with McCluskey renting an apartment in Chelsea by the River Thames during its making. There would be one further delay, though, as McCluskey explained to The Electricity Club: “I made that album just after James was born in San Diego [in September]. He was almost four weeks early and I had to cancel pre-production in London and fly to the US – I missed his birth by four hours!” He added: “When recording the album I would take the train home every weekend to paint and work on the new house that I had bought for the family to move into when [partner] Toni and James finally came back to the UK. It was exhausting!”

Sixteen songs had been recorded during the Universal sessions but, as the album approached the mixing stage, McCluskey ended up tagging on a pair of self-produced tracks. ‘Too Late’ was one of the first songs I wrote in Ireland,” McCluskey explained to Sound On Sound, “and Chip [David Nicholas] and Matt ganged up on me and said they didn’t want to record that – neither of them happened to get off on that song. Once we finished the album, though, I was adamant that something was missing, and that that track needed to be on too.” The other addition was ‘The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You’, which McCluskey wrote in December 1995 and recorded the following month. “I just fancied doing another uptempo one,” explained McCluskey. “Strangely, of all the songs, it’s the one that sounds the most analogue and old-fashioned OMD.”

An early, provisional 13-track listing for Universal also included an experimental track titled ‘GTR 9’ that was built around a sampled guitar riff of Stuart Kershaw’s. “It was pretty good really,” Vaughan recalls. “A bit like ‘Song 2’ by Blur”. This was eventually dropped, while there were some tracks that didn’t make it beyond the demo stage. ‘Sister Maria Gabriel’ had, bizarrely, been rejected by McCluskey for sounding ‘too much like OMD’ as he sought a grander, more organic sound. McCluskey recalled the writing of the song years later in an interview with The Arts Desk: “When I was living in Ireland there was a Polish nun called Sister Marie Gabriel who was taking out full-page adverts in The Times and The Independent – which can’t have been cheap – saying that the Hale Bopp Comet was a harbinger of the end of the world, that we should all be repenting and turning to Jesus, that she’d had revelations and knew what the third revelation of Fatima of Lourdes was, that the Catholic Church had tried to suppress this. I’d written songs about Joan of Arc and this just hooked me.” The track eventually received a well received airing at a fan convention in 2005, and had even been considered for a single release to promote an album of unreleased material. The project was abandoned, but eventually morphed into 2010’s History Of Modern album, which included a revamped version of the track (retitled ‘Sister Marie Says’). Other tracks considered for inclusion on Universal included ‘Yellow Press’ and ‘Thank You’.


TRACK-BY-TRACK
Universal

One of the first songs McCluskey worked on in his Dublin rehearsal room was Universal’s title track, which represented something of a return to the sound of some of the band’s longer, more epic tracks. “I like the idea of songs like ‘Sealand’ and ‘Stanlow’, where there is an intro, a sung section, and an outro,” he confirmed in 1994. “I feel it’s been missing from the last two albums – the bigger songs with more complex arrangements.” Originally described as “a cross between Architecture & Morality and Pink Floyd”, the track originally sprawled to over nine minutes, but its original five-minute intro was eventually edited down to two minutes – the production team were also presented with the challenge of segueing the song’s stunning industrial-tinged, prog rock intro (in D sharp) into the actual song, which was in McCluskey’s favoured key of C. “You can imagine Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson playing it in a stadium,” he told Sound On Sound. “I was having fun, basically, and trying to knock down some of my own personally-imposed boundaries with a prog-rock intro.” Lyrically, the track saw McCluskey brazenly airing his atheist views (“When we die there’s no heaven above”), but with a defiant “We all bleed the same blood/ We all need the same love” message that transcended colour and creed.

Walking On The Milky Way

The opening lines of OMD’s first single in three years – “When I was only seventeen/ My head was full of brilliant dreams” – were a good indicator of Universal’s generally autobiographical and reflective lyrics. “[It’s] about growing up,” said McCluskey, “having confidence and energy but, as you get older, the reality of life grinds you down.” Its huge production, meanwhile, showcased a fuller and rockier sound that harked back to albums such as Crush (see ‘The Native Daughters Of The Golden West’). However, whilst there was certainly more of a ‘live’ feel to the recording, with its live drums and vintage keyboard sounds – a million miles away from the busy, techno-stylings of Liberator – McCluskey was still determined to make use of more up-to-date technology. “CD-ROMs are great – you can now get things like a choir of nuns singing block chords, which we used on the middle eight of ‘Walking On The Milky Way’,” he told Sound On Sound. “You’re using real organic sounds, but you’re using technology to access them. I think we struck a really effective balance.” In terms of its melody, it subtly borrowed from the David Bowie-penned ‘All The Young Dudes’ (popularised by Mott The Hoople’ in 1972), a song that Noel Gallagher would later admit to plagiarising for the Oasis hits ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ and, more obviously, ‘Stand By Me’. “He’s still not sued me yet!” the musician joked to Q magazine in 1997.

Aside from his competent keyboard work on tour, Nigel Ipinson had also contributed the impressive glockenspiel arrangement of ‘Sunday Morning’ to Liberator. It was a chance visit to McCluskey’s Hesketh Street studio that resulted in his contribution to the writing of ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, as he recently told The Electricity Club: “After the Liberator tour, I moved house and was living pretty close to the Pink Museum recording studio. I was playing session keyboards on a variety of different albums, and I actually got to do a brief tour with Hot Chocolate. When I returned, I started to think about what I was going to do next, and it was actually on the advice of Errol Brown (the lead singer of Hot Chocolate) that I got heavily involved in songwriting and production. I had a small home studio set up, and I was pretty much doing that every day. One day, I decided to pop in to the Pink Museum and Andy was in there working on the next album and I hung around just catching up on what we had both been up to. The song that is now ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ was on cycle on the software, and we started talking about it. And, if I recall correctly, Andy was working on the verse section. The idea at the time was to develop a section that would link the verse to the chorus. Andy asked me what I would do, and the way that I tend to work means that I like to provide options. So I played a few options that would provide the link and the option he went for is the musical sequence that sits under the lyrics “I don’t believe in destiny/ I don’t believe in love/ I don’t believe that anything will ever be enough”. We then proceeded to work on the bridge, and the process was exactly the same. I looped different options and Andy made the choice of the musical sequence he liked best and what we now hear – I loved the final version; in particular, the sound that was selected for the solo in the bridge.”

“‘Walking On The Milky Way was a very hard song to write,” McCluskey told The Electricity Club. “I had the verse, but just could not get the chorus. I was planning to save the song as it had no chorus, until one day I was driving from my home to the supermarket and totally out of the blue I sang “Man you should have seen us on the way to Venus, walking on the Milky Way”, and realised that it fit the chorus chords! It had come to me when I least expected. I rushed to my rehearsal room and cut a quick guide vocal so I didn’t forget it.”

The recording also featured young singer Hannah Clive on backing vocals. Prior to her work on the track, the daughter of film and TV actor John Clive (who sadly died in 2012), had completed session work for a number of artists whilst still in her teens; including Right Said Fred (1993’s Sex And Travel), Chris de Burgh (1994’s This Way Up) and Ray Charles (1996’s Strong Love Affair). “Hannah Clive was Phil Spalding’s girlfriend and always came with him when he played bass at the studio,” McCluskey told us. “She just piped up one day, ‘I have a crazy idea of the end of ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ – can I try it?’. So we set up a mic and told her to do it. It was the fantastic countermelody vocal at the end of the song – I loved it and kept it!”

The Moon And The Sun

Completing a triumvirate of epic, guitar-based tracks was ‘The Moon And The Sun’, which – both musically and thematically – wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Tears For Fears’ similarly ’60s-flavoured album, The Seeds Of Love. Embroidered with some effective slide guitar and choral sounds, the track saw McCluskey continuing the album’s reflective theme (“It always seemed so easy/ When we watched it while we’re young”), whilst also throwing in some Wildean paraphrasing (“The energy of arrogance/ Is wasted on the young”).

The track was co-written with former Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos, who he’d previously collaborated with on both ‘Kissing The Machine’ and ‘Show Business’ for 1993’s excellent Elektric Music album Esperanto. “I always find it intimidating working with other people, especially ones I don’t know very well,” admitted McCluskey. “I’m not a very competent musician so if I work with people who are really good musicians, it frightens me! I was very nervous working with Karl but everything turned out fine.” The track saw Bartos continuing a guitar-influenced journey that had begun with Electronic’s Raise The Pressure album. Released just weeks prior to Universal, in July 1996, Bartos had contributed six co-written songs – including the memorable singles ‘Forbidden City’ and ‘For You’ – to Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s second album. (Two years later, Bartos’ second album under the Elektric Music banner – though confusingly rebranded as Electric Music – saw the German musician continuing his flirtation with ’60s-influenced music).

The Black Sea

There was a change of pace and mood on ‘The Black Sea’, a more introspective – and simpler – piece. One of the first tracks to be written for the album, it was based on an oboe riff that Stuart Kershaw had written, hence its original title of ‘Oboe Song’. “I thought that it sounded like the swell of the sea,” recalled McCluskey. “So that’s where the idea for the aquatic content came from.” Like The Beach Boys’ stunning ”Til I Die’, which saw Brian Wilson using metaphorical phrasing (“I’m a cork on the ocean/ Floating over the raging sea”) to highlight his inner turmoil, McCluskey utilised similar vignettes (“On a ship to nowhere/ On a dark and tranquil sea/ I’m sinking with a cargo”) to convey emotional struggle. Structurally, this was a classic major-minor chord progression, and the track included some effective mellotron sounds to give it something of a late-period Beatles feel.

Very Close To Far Away

McCluskey’s collaboration with Paul Humphreys on ‘Very Close To Far Away’ marked the first time the duo had worked together since the late 1980s. “The idea developed from a sample drum loop,” explained McCluskey. “Paul wrote the bass line and I put in some chords. Then we just started throwing in weird noises and samples to create this ambient texture. At the end of the day I gave the song its title which I had seen as part of a TV advert. I continued to arrange the song after Paul left so that I could sing on it.” McCluskey added: “It’s hard to say what it’s about – just an abstract train of thought about trying to communicate with someone who won’t listen. Even though they’re with you, they’re far away because they don’t understand what you’re trying to say to them.” The psychedelic track’s distinctive backing vocals were provided by renowned session singer Carol Kenyon, whose numerous credits included recordings by Pet Shop Boys, Ultravox, Mike Oldfield, Tears For Fears, Simple Minds, Duran Duran, Pink Floyd and many others. But it’s perhaps her performance on Heaven 17’s biggest hit, ‘Temptation’, that she’s best remembered for. In an interview with The Guardian, Glenn Gregory described her style as “stratospheric”.

The Gospel Of St Jude

Boasting something of an ‘Amazing Grace’ feel to it was ‘The Gospel Of St Jude’ (formerly titled ‘Gospel Song’), which saw McCluskey continuing his fascination with religion, and turning in perhaps the most spiritual track in the OMD catalogue. The track contained a sample of the Richard Allen Singers’ interpretation of Isaac Watts’ 18th century hymn, ‘Early, My God, Without Delay’ (available on the 1994 album Wade In The Water, Volume II: African American Congregational Singing), with McCluskey overlaying it with his own introspective ruminations. “[It’s] about searching but not finding what you’re looking for,” he said. “It’s about the struggle to achieve happiness but no matter what you do and what you change, you can never attain it.” (The song’s title was derived from St Jude, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, who has often been referred to as the patron saint of lost causes). Like ‘Pulse’ – from 2010’s History Of Modern album – it’s a track that has divided fan opinion over the years; one that the NME described at the time, somewhat cruelly, as “piss awful”.

That Was Then

Utilising a simple four-chord progression (G-F-C-D), ‘That Was Then’ saw McCluskey in soul-searching mood, reflecting on his journey throughout adulthood, with a suitably powerful vocal to match the intensity of the lyrics. “It echoes how your life and attitude towards it change as you grow older,” explained McCluskey. “Just through the pressure of living.” With hindsight we can see portents of the future within the lyrics, as McCluskey bared his soul (“And only memories are left with me/ This shallow history becomes my destiny”). Indeed, during a Q&A at the Pink Museum in 1997 he admitted that the album was almost the epitaph of OMD: “There are a lot of lyrics on the Universal album that are very specifically me talking about the possible end,” he said. “It’s kind of about the end of a journey, if you like. I was really thinking a lot about how long it had been, and the journey I’ve travelled down to get to where I have.”

Too Late

Once touted as a potential single, ‘Too Late’ dated back to McCluskey’s writing sessions in Dublin, but was added to the album almost at the last minute. “It’s about regretting the end of a relationship,” he explained. “But, no matter how much you regret it, it’s too late to start it again.” Something of an internal monologue, the track fitted in with the album’s generally reflective theme, but its all-too-familiar chord progression (G-Em-C-D) was more synonymous with the rock ‘n’ roll era, and co-producers David Nicholas and Matthew Vaughan were arguably correct in recommending its exclusion.

The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You

The final track to be written for Universal, ‘The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You’, was inspired by one of McCluskey’s art gallery visits. “It came from seeing a sculpture which shows a Barnardo’s collecting box of a handicapped boy positioned behind a frosted glass door,” he confirmed. “I thought of an inanimate object arriving at someone’s house from outside the chemist shop where he’d been positioned and asking why they hadn’t given him a penny. I carried the image on to apply to all sorts of people you may have upset in your life coming back to get their revenge on you.” Whilst the lyrical theme was somewhat unusual, there was certainly some familiarity in the music itself, as McCluskey reverted to a more synth-pop based sound. Whilst it took its obvious cue from Pulp, who had just enjoyed huge success with the Different Class album and its attendant singles (notably ‘Common People’ and ‘Disco 2000’), a somewhat defensive McCluskey was keen to dismiss the comparison: “I’m returning the compliment, quite frankly,” he told Sound On Sound. “Because as far as I’m concerned, some of Pulp’s stuff sounds like late Pulp playing OMD doing early Roxy Music. So this is late OMD, doing late Pulp, doing early Roxy Music! ‘The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You’ – and a lot of Pulp stuff – has that two-chord piano, much the same as Roxy’s ‘Virginia Plain’.” Listening to Pulp cuts such as ‘Babies’ and ‘Inside Susan’, McCluskey certainly had a point, but the song still sounded out of place on Universal.

If You’re Still In Love With Me

The stunning, Beatles-esque ‘If You’re Still In Love With Me’ had originally been written with Paul Humphreys in 1987. “[It] was originally a reggae song,” McCluskey revealed. “It’s essentially about trying to escape from a relationship someone won’t let you out of.” According to the official information service, OMD had recorded a version of the track following the German leg of the Liberator tour in 1993, and presented it to Virgin as a potential single (they declined). During his sojourn to Los Angeles the following year, McCluskey worked on a new string arrangement of the track with Stuart Kershaw, which Anne Dudley eventually scored for a 12-piece string section. Dudley was a classically trained musician – and a founder member of The Art Of Noise – who was renowned for her pop-classical crossover work. The multi-award winner (who was recently presented with an Ivor Novello award for her outstanding contribution to music) had worked on albums such as ABC’s The Lexicon Of Love and orchestrated the intro on Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s huge hit ‘Two Tribes’.

“Andy introduced us to Anne Dudley,” recalled David Nicholas. “As a result of that session, I put her forward to do the orchestral arrangements for the Pulp album Different Class – both sessions were amazing! She then went on to win an Oscar for a film score – the name of which escapes me [The Full Monty – TEC] – but suffice it to say, after the Oscar I could no longer afford her… or even get her on the phone anymore!”

New Head

The most abstract and experimental track on Universal was conceived ten minutes prior to leaving the studio one evening. “I got the loop… and I just thought, ‘I’ll put this on tape’,” explained McCluskey in 1997. “And I plugged the mic in and I just sang something… When I came in the next day I thought, ‘this is great’. I actually sat down and tried to work out what it was I might have been singing, phonetically sort of… that’s why the words make no sense at all!” Co-credited to multi-instrumentalist Simon Fung (a member of the duo China Black, who had a big hit with ‘Searching’ in 1994), the track’s use of oriental sounds added a psychedelic dimension to the track.

Victory Waltz

Closing the album in style was the beautiful ‘Victory Waltz’, a plaintive 3-chord ballad, featuring just piano and choral presets in a simple arrangement. “It’s about the last day of a relationship that’s ending and the thoughts that are running through your head at the time,” said McCluskey. Whilst Universal has often been described as the ‘anti-OMD’ album, tracks such as ‘New Head’ and ‘Victory Waltz’ still managed to showcase the band’s experimental side, as well as their undoubted gift for fusing melody with melancholia.


WALKING ON THE MILKY WAY Single, August 1996

“I thought that was quite a good record, actually” – Paul Humphreys, 2005

The album’s first single had originally been scheduled for release in March 1996 but wasn’t released until August. The video, filmed in July, echoed the song’s lyrics, as McCluskey confirmed: “The images show a combination of performances and surreal landscape. It also has close-ups and character studies of people of different ages to reflect the passage of time”. It was filmed at Canvey Island, near Southend-on-Sea, and directed by Howard Greenhalgh (who had also worked on promos for Pet Shop Boys, a-ha, George Michael, Suede and many others).

‘Walking On The Milky Way’ has the distinction of being the first OMD release not to be released on 7″. As per previous OMD releases (from the Sugar Tax album), there was a pair of CD singles and a cassette single (often referred to as a ‘cassingle’) that featured a brace of non-album tracks. Nestling in neatly with the lead track’s nostalgic sentiments was b-side ‘Mathew Street’. “It parallels the history of The Beatles and OMD on the two sides of the street,” explained McCluskey. “On the left is the Cavern, on the right is Eric’s and The Gramophone Suite.” The recording featured Keith Small (who had co-written ‘Walking On The Milky Way’) on bass and Stuart Kershaw on drums, and was an obvious Beatles pastiche, heavily weighted towards the melody of 1967’s ‘I Am The Walrus’. Whilst, ultimately, it was the music of acts such as Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno that would influence the aspiring musician during his formative years, McCluskey had grown up listening to The Beatles. “I knew their music because most of the singles in the house were Beatles records,” he recalled in 1987’s Messages biography. “But I was only ten or eleven when they split up – I can just about remember them doing ‘All You Need Is Love’ on Top Of The Pops.” Years later, in July 2008, OMD would perform a version of ‘Across The Universe’ for Beatles Day at the Liverpool Echo.

Second b-side – and former album contender – ‘The New Dark Age’, meanwhile, was a more abstract, experimental piece, and something of a throwback to the band’s imperial phase in the early 1980s. “[It] sounds a bit like the old song ‘Statues’,” confirmed McCluskey in 1994. “For those people who know The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, it’s a cabaret-type song about the end of Western Society – just the song to be played at Milliways!”

Whilst one reviewer described the single as “middle-of-the-road Beatles-flavoured nostalgia pop”, there was very little coverage in the music press about ‘Walking On The Milky Way’. The biggest problem, though, was that the UK’s biggest station, Radio 1 – who in those days could effectively make or break a single – refused to play the song. A change of playlist policy in the mid-1990s had seen the popular station phasing out ‘heritage’ artists; instead favouring the guitar-based music that was heavily in vogue at the time. Earlier in 1996 there had been a well-publicised court action by rock veterans Status Quo, following Radio 1’s decision not to add ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ – a collaboration with The Beach Boys – to their playlist. The action was virtually laughed off by the station, who described the band as ‘too dull’. “There have been a number of occasions in the past two years where we have not playlisted records in the charts, including Mr Blobby, Michael Barrymore, Michael Ball, Robson & Jerome and Cliff Richard,” a Radio 1 spokeswoman said. “Unlike everyone else, Status Quo don’t seem to have noticed that there have been a few changes at Radio 1…We do not slavishly follow the Top 40.”

Whilst OMD were obvious victims of Radio 1’s new playlist policy, fortunately, local radio stations were more enthused about the song and the band were rewarded with their 12th Top 20 single. “I thought [it] was about as good a song as I could write, ” McCluskey reflected to The Guardian in 2001. “Radio 1 wouldn’t play it, because it wasn’t perceived as trendy by their target audience. Because Radio 1 wouldn’t play it, Woolworths wouldn’t stock it. The upshot of it was that one of the best songs I’d ever written struggled to get to number 17 in the charts.” The song did, however, receive some welcome exposure via Top Of The Pops, and an assortment of players duly mimed to the track – these included a hirsute Stuart Kershaw on drums and Carlo Bowry on keyboards (Nigel Ipinson was unavailable due to his touring commitments with The Stone Roses). The chart that particular week included an eclectic mix of tracks from artists such as Robbie Williams, Eternal, Underworld, Suede and chart-toppers, the Spice Girls (the manufactured girl group that would heavily influence McCluskey in his post-OMD career). But there was one particular act in that chart that stood out, albeit for the wrong reasons. Whilst, in his own words, McCluskey had “sweated blood” to write ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ and re-establish the OMD brand, it probably didn’t help that there was an act named OMC climbing the charts during this period with the song ‘How Bizarre’. And the team behind the popular Now That’s What I Call Music series also thought that it might be funny to place OMC and OMD side-by-side on that summer’s Now 34 compilation! In the end, OMC’s sleeper hit ‘How Bizarre’ peaked at number 5, whilst ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ slipped to number 23 in its second week, soon disappearing from the charts altogether. Not the start McCluskey was looking for as he prepared to release his new album that had been two years in the making…

UNIVERSAL Album, September 1996

“The mood is more ethereal than electronic, favouring strings and choirs to synths and sampled voices. Lyrically, this is a collection of songs about lost youth, doomed love and broken dreams…and yet the music is wonderfully uplifting.” – Q

“Bears all the hallmarks of the classic OMD sound with trademark downbeat lyrics and soaring pop melodies… Probably won’t take the charts by storm but it should prove to be a steady seller.” – Music Week

“Crispy, clear, serenely syrupy, occasionally spiritual, frequently lovelorn, comically old fashioned and extremely expensive-sounding.” – NME

The much-delayed Universal album was finally released in the first week of September 1996; on the same day as Pet Shop Boys’ Bilingual album. The rather uninspiring artwork, featuring computer generated water molecules, was based on a concept by Peter Saville (who had worked on several OMD designs in the previous decade). “Instead of going huge and galactic for Universal, I decided to go microscopic and find something small that has universal implications,” explained McCluskey. “Water is the most important molecule for life.”

BUY NOW

Promotional items included a 5-track sampler on CD and cassette (featuring ‘Universal’, ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, ‘New Head’, ‘Too Late’ and ‘The Black Sea’), and a 10-track compilation – unimaginatively titled The Collection – that rounded up hits from both the ’80s and ’90s. The album was released on CD, cassette and vinyl, though there was a very limited number of copies pressed for the latter (today it’s a highly sought-after collector’s item).

Somewhat bizarrely, one of the press advertisements bore the Woolworths logo, and the now-defunct retailer – who had refused to stock the single – used a tag line that declared ‘The new album from OMD is Universal. (So you should all like it.)’. Sadly, whilst the album was well received by both fans and critics, the failure of the single to crack the Top Ten effectively buried the album, and it limped to a first week position of number 24, plummeting to number 52 the following week. Whilst there were some big hitters in the album chart at the time, including Oasis, Suede, Celine Dion and Manic Street Preachers, when your album is being outsold by titles such as Smurfs Go Pop!, you know you’re in trouble! “I think if ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ had been a top 3 hit you would have seen the album sell very well,” lamented McCluskey to Messages magazine in 2002. “I mean, I’ve said before, if Oasis had released ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, it would have sold all over the world… I just think that OMD was out of fashion and nothing I could have done – I could have gone techno, I could have gone hip-hop – nothing I could have done would have actually made Universal sell more.”

UNIVERSAL Single, October 1996

“The title track from the latest OMD album is a big unrestrained anthemic pop song befitting the title…its bright guitar and huge drums make it a potential chart hit.” – Music Week review

Until the release of ‘If You Want It’ in 2010, the title track from Universal would be the last single by OMD to feature original material. Released in a heavily edited version that featured Dublin singer Breda Dunne’s backing vocals in the intro, the single – like ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ – was released on CD (x2) and cassette only.

There were no exclusive tracks to entice potential buyers; just a handful of live tracks culled from a Liberator tour show at the Birmingham NEC. Once again there was a Howard Greenhalgh-directed video, but the song lacked the commercial appeal of its predecessor and it peaked at a lowly number 55.
 


FINAL SUNSETS FALL The Solo Era Ends

The failure of the ‘Universal’ single to hit the upper echelons of the charts effectively brought the album campaign to a conclusion – an appearance by McCluskey at the end of November on TV show Never Mind The Buzzcocks was largely a futile exercise as there was nothing to promote. A tour – which had largely been dependant on the success of the album – had long since been abandoned. “In Britain at least there has always been a resistance to the band in much of the media,” bemoaned McCluskey at the end of the year. “It seems that finally even the quality of the music was unable to overcome the problems.” McCluskey did consider a tour in 1998 to celebrate 20 years of OMD, and there was even talk of including a brand new song on The OMD Singles (a second retrospective that included hits old and new), but in the end the band – which saw him briefly reunited with Paul Humphreys – limped over the finishing line with an EP of remixes. By this stage, McCluskey was already committed to the idea of writing for other acts. There was something of a false start with the group Honeyhead, but he and Stuart Kershaw eventually found the perfect vehicle for their songwriting with girl group Atomic Kitten. He later told Paul du Noyer, the author of Liverpool – Wondrous Place: From the Cavern to the Capital of Culture: “I was still conceited enough to believe that I could write songs, and that it was just the OMD vehicle that was dated. So I thought, screw it. I’m gonna get someone who will be well-received because they’re young and good-looking. And I’m gonna write songs and prove, if only to myself, that I can still do it, and fuck Radio 1 and all the rest!” McCluskey added: “Atomic Kitten had been my knee-jerk response. I’d felt jilted by the music industry when OMD came to an end, so I went off and found another lover.”

In a frank interview for an OMD fan event magazine in 2005, McCluskey told Paul Browne: “I think I made a mistake. I consciously tried to sound organic, using traditional instruments because I was worrying about sounding too ’80s electro in the mid-90s. And I think the album suffered for it. I think a lot of people like the feeling of the tracks, but I listen to them now and I just think I was thinking in a way that I wish I hadn’t been. I think tracks like ‘The Moon And The Sun’ don’t work; doesn’t do anything for me anymore. I like ‘New Head’. I like some of the other songs. I think ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ is one of the best songs I ever wrote in my life. But there’d be other tracks in there now that just remind me of the difficult time and the confusion, so I cannot dissociate the recording of the songs from the memories which may not be the most positive for me.”

THIS IS NOW

The Town House (where the bulk of Universal was recorded) sadly closed in 2008. The studios, where Elton John recorded one of the UK’s best selling singles (the re-recorded ‘Candle In The Wind’), were eventually converted into luxury houses.

One particular demo from 1994 – titled ‘Green’ – was given a new lease of life by Paul Humphreys, who transformed the McCluskey/Kershaw composition into one of the best tracks on 2010’s History Of Modern. From the same album, comeback single ‘If You Want It’ has more than faint echoes of ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, while more recently, on the band’s latest album, The Punishment Of Luxury, the track ‘Kiss Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Bang’ recycles part of the melody from ‘The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You’.

Since their comeback shows in 2007, OMD have regularly included ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ in their hit-packed sets which, up until recently, had included a sample of Hannah Clive’s original backing vocal part. Clive herself retreated from session work in the late ’90s as she focused on becoming a singer-songwriter. In recent years she has been working with Brian Tench, who co-produced OMD’s Junk Culture. She released a critically acclaimed single, ‘Remember To Breathe’, in November 2017, and also manages electro-rock band (I Am) Warface, who are planning to release their debut album Atomic White Gold in the summer.

Nigel Ipinson (now Ipinson-Fleming), the co-writer of ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, played on Stone Roses singer Ian Brown’s debut solo album Unfinished Monkey Business in 1998, also contributing the songs ‘Nah Nah’ and ‘What Happened To Ya (Parts 1 and 2)’. He has continued writing and producing music, though mainly via the gospel community. Aside from running web design service UKChurches, he also presents gospel radio show ‘Soul Food’, and is the Senior Pastor at Bethlehem Church Life Centre in Mid Glamorgan. He is proud of his contribution to Universal: “One of the challenges of a band like OMD is translating the band’s natural sound through the technology of the day, and that is something that the guys have done successfully from decade to decade. I really liked the final sound of the album, and ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ is my favourite for obvious reasons.”

David Nicholas, who co-produced, engineered and mixed a large percentage of the Universal album, returned to his native Australia in 2000. He worked on Delta Goodrem’s successful debut album Innocent Eyes, and a plethora of recordings for other Australian acts; including Drag, whose second album The Way Out gained him his third ARIA award. In recent years he has launched independent record label and publishing company, Rhinoceros; and, in addition to producing, mixing and engineering, has been helping to develop studio hardware. He still looks fondly back on his time making Universal: “I have revisited the record a few time over the years and it always makes me feel good,” he told The Electricity Club. “[It] brings back a flood of nice memories. I’m proud of what we achieved and the songs still resonate with me as much now as they did then. And, as one of my first gigs as a producer, a pretty pleasing result.”

“It’s always difficult to listen to something for a while after you’ve finished working on it, having listened to the same songs over and over again,” recalls the album’s co-producer and musician, Matthew Vaughan. “But I’ve often revisited this record, and I’m very, very proud of it. I remember it as a wonderful time; we all got on like a house on fire as I remember, and I thoroughly enjoyed it and still enjoy listening to the result of our efforts now.” Following the Universal album, Vaughan worked on Marcella Detroit’s Feeler album (1996), as well as Pulp’s This Is Hardcore (1998). He has since contributed to recordings by Monaco, Mike + The Mechanics, Texas, XTC, Delta Goodrem and many others. More recently, as a member of the band Wild Honey, he released a charity single (‘Love All The People’), with proceeds going towards Aleppo.

“Andy was great to work with,” adds drummer Chuck Sabo. “And the Town House in Shepherd’s Bush was a great studio to work in, so the whole LP was very enjoyable to record. I liked the songs, and the vibe of what was going down on to tape. I’m now doing a lot of online drumming, mixing and mastering sessions from my studio, Big Sound; meeting lots of great songwriters from around the world. I’m also writing music for other artists, and sync music for film and TV.” Sabo’s numerous credits include Natalie Imbruglia’s hugely successful debut Left Of The Middle and XTC’s final album, Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Volume 2).

Andy McCluskey was less enamoured with the studio, as he told The Electricity Club. “I really disliked working in the Town House. I never felt comfortable with the atmosphere in there but we couldn’t record in a residential country studio because Matt Vaughan was married with young child and needed to go home at nights and weekends.” He adds: “I had never worked before in the way that I did on Universal. Using session musicians and just sitting at the back on the sofa reading the paper and smoking small cigars (which totally stank the place out) whilst the programmer and production engineer did all the work trying to translate my demos into a new recording. In hindsight it was very alienating. Even though I recognise that Matt and Chipper were doing a great job in their way – and in the way that they knew – I had decided to shake things up and work with others as I was losing my self-confidence.”

Phil Spalding has consolidated his reputation as a highly skilled musician, playing on a huge number of recordings since Universal; including albums by Electronic, Dubstar, Kylie Minogue, Mick Jagger and many others. In addition to his session work, he also teaches and lectures. “After all this time I still listen to Universal in my own time for fun,” he says. “I shudder when I think of what I was putting myself through at the time, but I had to learn the hard way like most addicts. I’ll be forever grateful to Andy, Matt and Chipper for having faith in me and letting me do this album. ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ is still played a lot on the radio, so I’m still getting paid after over 20 years – can’t be bad!”


Suggested alternative tracklisting: Universal / Walking On The Milky Way / The Moon And The Sun / The Black Sea / That Was Then / If You’re Still In Love With Me / Very Close To Far Away / New Head / Victory Waltz


The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Andy McCluskey, Nigel Ipinson-Fleming, David Nicholas, Matthew Vaughan, Chuck Sabo and Phil Spalding for their contributions to this feature

Thanks also to Hannah Clive, Paul Browne, Sara Page and Imogen Bebb.

An unedited version of Phil Spalding’s account of the Universal sessions can be located via http://www.philspalding.com/music-and-mayhem/story/omd-universal-1995

www.omd.uk.com
www.omd-messages.co.uk/
www.nigelipinsonfleming.com
www.rhinocerosmusic.com
www.philspalding.com
www.chucksabo.com
www.hannahclive.com


English Electric – ANDY McCLUSKEY Interview

Over the past 35 years Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark have written songs covering a vast and eclectic range of topics, creating both catchy and poignant melodies to go with them.

These melodies often belie the serious issues which have been covered; ‘Enola Gay’ being the most well-known of this genre, however others such as ‘Genetic Engineering’ and ’88 Seconds In Greensboro’ have equally weighty topics. Other subjects would initially appear rather ‘strange’ to contemplate writing a song about e.g. telephone boxes in ‘Red Frame/White Light’ or an oil refinery as in ‘Stanlow’. Yet between them, Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey have somehow managed to produce in their writing and finished products some emotionally powerful songs, which have on the whole survived the test of time remaining fresh with the ability to still push the boundaries as to what sounds can be effectively used to create a ‘catchy pop tune’.

Having decided to reform in 2005, we were treated to a number of well received tours over the intervening years. 2010 heralded the release of new material in the form of an excellent album entitled History of Modern as well as an energising promotional tour. Now, with their eagerly anticipated 12th album English Electric due out on 8th April this year I had the opportunity to put some questions to Andy McCluskey about, amongst other things, touring and whether “a bunch of fifty year olds” can actually push the boundaries and expand musical tastes and parameters with English Electric.

Andy McCluskey said of ‘Enola Gay’ being played at the Olympics: “I never believe anything is going to happen in the music industry until it happens.” Well unsurprisingly similar thoughts were passing through my head whilst waiting for him to call me… Luckily just like ‘Enola Gay’ being played during the opening ceremony of the Olympics last year, my phone did in fact ring!

What influences your decisions regarding the geographic regions and specifically venues you choose to play when you’re planning a tour?

In terms of where we play and venues also to be honest, it’s largely influenced by the promoter, because ultimately they are the people who are taking the risk. We may want to play everywhere, we may have certain people around the world who want us to come and play here there and everywhere, but the reality of a concert is that some promoter has to take a chance on renting a venue, guaranteeing us some money, and hoping they can sell enough tickets, so when people throw their toys out of the pram because we’re not coming to their town or we haven’t played in Italy or we’ve not got to Australia… I understand their frustration. If I wanted to see my favourite band and they weren’t coming to England or to Liverpool, it would be frustrating, but there is a simple economic reality that we can only play where somebody thinks we can sell sufficient tickets to make it worth their while and then ultimately worth our while. We have a problem with America, you know we played twice in 2011 and we lost money on both tours. People want us to come and play again, but we have to really balance the books so they are, I hate to say it, they are the overriding concerns because you know we can go out on the road and it costs depending on what we are carrying in terms of production and crew it costs anywhere between £10 and £25 thousand pounds a day. So I would love to play all sorts of places around the world but I can’t do it and lose that kind of money on a daily basis. We just can’t do it so that unfortunately is the reality of the decision making process.

Can you give an overview of the preparations you make prior to touring? If there are any!?

We just throw ourselves on the stage the day before and have a little rehearsal, say there, that’ll do!! There’s several elements. There’s decisions about what songs we’re going to play, particularly when we have a new album we are now about to release our 12th album, so what songs do you play and what songs do you not play? And again there’s 90% of the audience want us to play the hits, that’s the reality of it, the other 10% rabidly want us to play all the B-sides and the album tracks and ‘Love and Violence’ and their favourites. I get it, you know, if I go to see Roxy Music I’d love them to play ‘The Bogus Man’ and ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’ and tracks like that, but most of the audience want to hear the singles. That’s what they have paid their money for, so, again it’s another one of those horrible compromises that you have to make which are based upon the reality of the situation. So there’s that decision to make.

And I guess there’s a compromise between the ones the four of you would like to play does that come in to it?

Well there are elements because we’re four different human beings with different tastes, although we are all in the same band. Yes there are different people who enjoy certain songs more than others to be honest, I’m not going to tell you which…

I guess the other important one is remembering all the words!!

Well I’m still working on that as you probably know! Malcolm and I have to get fit. I mean it’s a very different gig really, Malcolm and I have to be physically fit and Paul and Martin, their concert is much more just specifically technical they have to play the right notes. There’s all the budgeting, there’s all getting the crew…

Have you used generally the same crew over the years or is it a different crew?

We have generally been quite conservative and stick to people that we know and like. They’re not always available, because of course when we’re not on the road they have to make a living by going out with other bands, sometimes those other bands’ tours clash with ours, so we’ve got a group of people from whom we choose one of each type of crew member we like. Ideally we’d use the same people all the time.

How has your preparation for touring changed over the years for the band do you think?

The technical side of it has altered greatly, in so much as the equipment that we utilise is very different now, particularly the keyboards, we no longer use the four track tape machine, we’ve got pro-tools running off laptops for the backing tracks and sequencers and things so. That’s great because that’s much more efficient and also in the old days we’d make up a backing track go into rehearsal rooms or get down to production rehearsal rooms and somebody would go… “Oh the bass is too loud… the bottom end is not bassy enough, or it’s too bassy…” OK go back to the studio, re-record it, change it, you know, splice it back into the tape again. Whereas now on the pro-tools you go “OK what do you want me to do to it?”… So I’ll take some of the bottom end out and I’ll save it. “Is that how you want it?” Great sorted. Saved. The flexibility is wonderful. The keyboards that Paul and Martin use are wonderful machines, but they’re very complicated so it’s slow to play. There’s an awful lot of programming goes in. We actually have our first rehearsal on 28th January, we’re going to spend five days working on the new songs, and Malcolm and I know that it’s going to be five days when we’re going to be twiddling our thumbs, because the keyboard boys will just be fiddling with their sounds.

I bet it’s been steep learning curves with all the technology has it… or maybe not so much for you!?

Well you know on stage I’m singing and playing the bass, that hasn’t changed an awful lot, (laughs)

…Nor’s the dancing!!

Well the dancing has actually been reeled in, from the way it was in the 90’s. It got more exaggerated in the 90’s than it was in the 80’s. I have actually analysed myself, and I had a different style in the 80’s to the one I had in the 90’s and I’ve got a different style now.

From a casual observer I wouldn’t say it’s that obvious, maybe you’re just being very… err… I don’t know…

Well my left knee certainly knows it’s done far too much.

Pic by Richard Price
Pic by Richard Price

How is it?

At the moment its pretty good, but then that’s because I’ve had a rather lazy physical three months in the run up to the end of the year because I was concentrating on getting the album finished. Now I’ve started going back to the gym 3 days a week on Monday, today’s my day off, I’ll be going tomorrow night, also I’ll be cycling more and more. That is part of the problem, by the time I’ve got myself fit to tour my knee is already complaining. So I will be off to see my pet knee doctor for a cortisone injection at the end of March.

…getting back on track… With regards to riders, so in the early years you were asking I assume for more alcohol and junk food, is it more now coffee and fruit?!! Are there any specific riders you’ve asked for or, what’s the most outrageous or adventurous riders you as a band or other bands you have worked with have requested?

Erm…we’ve all heard the stories about, you know, ‘I want MM’s with the blue ones taken out, blah blah blah. We’ve never, never been silly or extravagant with riders. Basically the rider is usually put in by the caterers who you carry on tour and effectively it comes out of your money, it comes out of some of the money the promoters are giving you, so effectively you’re spending your own money, so there’s no point in being silly and extravagant and wasting stuff. I wouldn’t say we have more or less alcohol actually, we have a few beers that usually go to guests or are left at the end of the night for the crew to put on their bus, a lot of water and just some snacks, but again you see, we very often have catering at the venue anyway, so we don’t really need the snacks. I will often eat things after I come off stage, sometimes after the sound check there isn’t a lot of time before the gig, so I don’t really want to have a heavy dinner less than 2 and a half – 3 hours before the gig, so I’m often starving when I come off stage…

Yeah I’m not surprised…

Yeah but, no there’s nothing… we did go through you know We went through a phase I think in the early years of just being decadent. Our one concession to rock and roll decadence was that we wanted a bottle of Champagne, just so that we could say “We get a bottle of Champagne every night”. I can remember we were playing in some absolute dump in Austin Texas, a corrugated iron club, and there was a knock on the door and in comes Sting, and we get talking to him and he looks on the dressing table and he goes “Bloody hell you’ve got Champagne on your rider you decadent bastards!” and he was taking the piss out of us, you know, and just at that moment there’s a following knock on the door and this bouncer puts his head in and goes “Ah, Mr Sting your limo’s here”. We just went “Yeah Champagne, fuck off limo!” (laughs). No we never, we will usually have, I think there’s we rotate it, We usually have I think a bottle of vodka, a bottle of gin or a bottle of rum, you know, one on a different night, no we don’t, we’re not particularly heavy drinkers in the dressing room.

So who in the band is renowned for being the practical joker?

Do you know what? We’re terribly dull on the road, the band tend not to be the jokers, I mean the biggest jokes are usually played by the crew on the band on the last night of the tour, I mean, there have been a myriad of those over the years that have been highly amusing and sometimes irritating, but I wouldn’t say that we’ve ever really bothered much with practical jokes. We sound terribly boring don’t we? No extravagant rider, no practical jokes. The Weir brothers used to be quite entertaining, that was usually for their rather mad and extreme behaviour rather than practical joking.

Pic by Richard Price

So what’s the most memorable one that’s been played then?

Because Malcolm is by the very nature of his job stationary he usually gets picked on so… there’s been some simple classics like when he goes off stage at the end of the last song and towels off before coming on for the encore, he will come on in the darkness and he will start to play his drums and he will hit the snare drum and somebody’s put a load of flour on it so that he’s covered in a cloud of flour. My particular favourite was in the old days he had a round top stool, now he has more like a big bicycle seat, they would put an inch of raised black gaffer tape around the top of the stool, and they would mix black paint into cold rice pudding to make it look black and they’d fill the top of his stool with black rice pudding, cold rice pudding, so again he’d come out and sit on it and he couldn’t do anything about moving cause we’d start the song… (laughs)

and were you, were the rest of you party to this?

No, no, the crew don’t tell you anything (laughs) so we had no idea what had happened until we got off stage.

He covers it up very well then…

Well you know what? The show must go on.

What sorts of things do you as a band look for in a support act for OMD?

Primarily we like to have a band that we actually like their music and them as people, but of course you generally don’t know if you’re gonna like them as people until you’ve met them, and you don’t normally meet them until the first gig. Yes it’s the music really, I mean, there have been occasions when the promoters, you know they’ve been cut a deal with the record company to try to get a band on tour with another band and so we’ve been asked by promoters “Will you take such and such a band?” or the agents have said “Will you take such and such a band and we’ll reduce our commission or something”. It’s been nice; we’ve specifically asked China Crisis, we’ve specifically asked Mirrors. Gone are the days where you know, people are offering you money to come and support you, so ideally we usually choose somebody we like the music of. At the moment Paul and I are arguing about the support band on this tour…

I was just going to say is this one sorted for this tour or not

Mmm it actually isn’t, no we’ve got several candidates and we’re kind of umming and ahhing about the various credentials of them, but erm… it’ll have to be done soon.

So you’re sort of thinking of trying to get somebody to support the whole tour, or is it going to be different for UK and Europe?

At the moment it’s looking like we’re gonna have one band throughout the UK and we may go to local bands in the European countries.

So are there any rituals you go through prior to going on stage?

Yep.

Are you going to share any of them or not?

Erm… Well I can’t tell you about slaughtering the 47 virgins and drinking their blood!!!!… There are a few – I generally, actually Malcolm and I generally have a shower before we go on stage it kind of warms us up and loosens us up and we invariably have a shower when we come off stage. I am usually the last one out of the dressing room, that’s a ritual and I have a ritual with the other 3 where I shake each ones hand and say “Have a good one” and I go round in a clockwise direction, and nobody can break that circle as I shake each hand. If somebody comes across me or goes around I have to start again, that is a little sort of ritual and then the other 3 all have their own where they all shake hands together after I’ve shaken their hands, so there are some little traditions, yes.

And they haven’t changed over the years then?

Yeah, they have these traditions, we didn’t have them in the 80’s, they only started more recently. We’ve only once gone on stage in the last 5 years without doing that tho’ and the gig wasn’t a bad gig. We played in Miami in the Autumn of 2011, and we were in the dressing room and in fact, I think Malcolm was in the bathroom, and Paul turned to me and he said “Is that the intro tape?” and I went “Oh yeah” someone started the intro tape, (laughs) and we were all still in the dressing room not ready at all, we went screaming down the stairs. So yeah… but no… generally we are out of the dressing room and standing by the side of the stage before the lights go down.

So with regard to the History of Modern album, you have said “I’m very happy with History of Modern considering it was a ‘cleaning of the decks’ a clearing of the decks album, and called it a ‘John the Baptist’ album… it’s the one that speaks of the one who will come after!” I’m intrigued by that, can you tell me a bit more?

I think that we were aware of the fact that when you haven’t worked for a long time and you suddenly sort of get back in the car and try to fire up the engine and start driving again it takes a little time to really hit your stride. We were happy with the collection of songs; I thought they were a very good collection of songs…

I did too.

Thank you… But we were also aware we are a band that you know …how can I put this?… we are one of the very few bands who because of our history, because of the intellectual content and commitment that we have had over the years, that there is a certain section of our audience who cherish that commitment to intelligence and endeavour to do something different…

Yeah, your speaking to one of them I’m afraid…

That’s OK. We are very glad and honoured to have people who took our music as seriously as we took it ourselves. But it is something of erm… frankly it’s a strange burden that most bands don’t have, that not only do you have to write a very good song, but it has to stand up to intellectual and historical context criticism…and in a sense it’s nice that we have that because we’ve created that for ourselves because of what we have done in the past, but I know why History of Modern didn’t tick everybody’s boxes, they weren’t listening to it as… As a collection of songs it was I think excellent. Was it Architecture and Morality or Dazzle Ships all over again? – No it wasn’t…

Yeah, but then you don’t want to do the same thing over again do you?

You know what I mean – was it pushing the boundaries? Was it expanding musical tastes and parameters? but then again can a bunch of fifty year olds actually do that?

And do you really want to do that though when you’re just trying to make a sort of an album that is a… comeback album? So you know, I think maybe people were expecting too much if they’re trying to keep comparing it with…

Well listen, the vast majority of people really liked that album because they were quite content with some really, really good songs in the styles of OMD. I mean if I have a criticism of History of Modern it’s that it… By comparison I think English Electric is much more of a homogenised album because essentially, baring ‘Kissing The Machine’, all of the songs have been written and created in the last few years all together so they hold together as a body of work from a particular period and ‘Kissing The Machine’ has been completely re-worked by Paul.

I was wondering how that had been changed.

I think there’s going to be further news released about that either tomorrow or Monday just to clarify ‘Kissing The Machine’ is a complete re-working of the track, it’s not a re-mix or re-hash apart from the vocal melody and the synth melody everything else has been replaced.

I was going to say how much has been kept or is it just… the lyrics I guess?

Virtually none…The Lyrics, vocal melody and synth melody are the same, they’ve been redone but they are the same vocal melody and same synth melody, the same sound, cause we’ve got the same synth, but everything else has been completely re… well the whole thing has been completely re- recorded, but only two elements will remain the same as they were originally.

You’re bound to get loads of criticism over that aren’t you!!!?

We’ll have some people who’ll say it’s not as good as the original, I mean you can’t win – this is the one thing you realise you know, if you stick your head above the trench you get shot at!!!

Exactly. So how, was the process of writing English Electric compared to writing the other albums? How’s it been?

Well it was more like the old days when we spent time together in the studio bouncing ideas off each other’s heads, and working together, you know Paul spent a lot more time in Liverpool. He’d come to my house on Monday, we’d go into my studio every day, we’d come home and you know have something to eat. He was living in my spare room in my attic, the self-contained apartment at the top of my house, and it was great, much more so than History of Modern, You know Paul was… Paul has been more involved in this album, which I think is also going to be something that people will be able to hear.

Ah right. That’s good. So… ‘Metroland’ is due to be the next single… it’s a longish single is it?

No, there’ll be an edit; there’s a four minute edit. The full track is 7 and a half minutes long.

So how did that come to be the first single?

Everybody loves it! And also it’s a statement, it’s very minimal, very electronic, you know, it’s not ‘If You Want It’, you know ‘Dresden’ is the logical pop song, we just decided that we wanted to make more of a statement of intent. I think ‘Metroland’ says more about what’s on the album than ‘Dresden’ does. ‘Dresden’ would be like the ‘Enola Gay’ on Organisation kind of like the only possible single on it kind of thing.

So what’s the statement you’re hoping this will achieve?

Well, possibly in the same way that we’ve released ‘Decimal’ early that it’s just letting people know that there’s an overriding feeling on this which is that its more minimal, more electronic, more intellectual, if you like, a lot more conceptual stuff on it and I’ve already been quoted as saying that you know that there’s an overriding kind of view that the future that we anticipated has not arrived.

You’ve also mentioned ….I think you’ve said “The overarching feel tends to be a sense of loss, of melancholia…” Was this the original intention for the feel of English Electric or did it just evolve within the process of writing the songs?

In terms of the feel and the lyrics you often don’t normally start out knowing exactly how an album is going to feel. It does tend to take on a life of its own; you know it’s an accumulation of just however it turned out. The one thing is you start on the journey but you don’t know exactly where it’s going to take you. I think it does reflect, intellectually it reflects a lot of the thoughts that have been going on, I mean Paul and I have been asking ourselves about the passage of time, how things have changed in our lives, how things have changed in the world, how we’ve gone from you know, we grew up in the post war euphoria of ‘science is going to make everything right’ and we’ve all realised it hasn’t quite turned out that way and also as well it’s been an incredibly difficult year for me the last two years… and I think that’s reflected in a lot of the lyrics.

So anyway I think you’ve previously mentioned about ‘The Great White Silence’ and ‘Thank You’ they’ve obviously not made it onto the album…

‘The Great White Silence’ will be an extra track somewhere a B-side or an iTunes track or something like that. And probably there will be two other tracks that will be appearing that will be ‘No Man’s Land’ and a song called ‘Artillery’. ‘Thank You’ is not going to be heard this time round.

So there might be another time round then?

You never know… People seem to think we’re treating this as our last ever album.

Yeah, well things can be read that way can’t they so…

Well you never know -I mean we intended to stop after Architecture and Morality, that’s what ‘Of All the Things We’ve Made’ was supposed to be an epitaph, that was in 1981…so umm…

I’m glad you didn’t.

So am I… I have to say that ultimately we write music for ourselves, it’s our own conversation with ourselves, and its often quite cathartic but I think the songs that are often the most emotionally cathartic often register with other people… It’s one of the great delights that I find is my ultimate bonus when somebody takes the time to say, “What you did was important to me, it helped me”.

For me, just going slightly off track, some of it… it’s the raw emotion that comes through and that just touches you doesn’t it?

I hope it does because I’m endeavouring to convey it. I mean, I think that that’s one of the things we quite quickly chose to do. We didn’t want to be sort of robot voices, singing about electronics and the future. Ours was an emotional response even to the intellectual things and the theories we were expounding and writing about, but there’s a couple of extremely raw songs on this album. I think a lot of people will understand the sentiments of songs like ‘Final Song’ and ‘Night Café’ probably.

I look forward to hearing them then. I was surfing around trying to find out stuff about you that I wasn’t aware of and came up against you’ve been an Ivor Novello award nominated songwriter in the past-Is that right?

Indeed I’ve been nominated for 3 and I haven’t won any of them!!! (laughs)

So what were they for?

Paul and I were nominated for ‘If You Leave’ actually, for international sales, but we were beaten by something else – but I can’t remember what it was now…and I got two nominations for ‘Whole Again’…and I won neither!!! I was up for international sales again, and that I lost out to Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’, because that was even bigger than ‘Whole Again’. I always seem to be in categories which are specifically monitored so I can’t really complain cause it’s not like I can say the panel was bent judged against me. The other one was Biggest Selling Record of the Year, again it was the second one, because that Hearsay track beat it, so there you go, anyway it was written by Betty Boo so I got to talk to her… The Ivor Novellos are an incredible award ceremony, they are more so than any of the other things. They are a celebration of the songwriters art, so there’s less music industry politics involved in it and I’ve always enjoyed going to the Ivors, it’s a fabulous, fabulous thing… To be in the room with so many other incredible song writers is just a complete honour, to look around the room and go oh my God there’s Benny and Bjorn… There’s you know Blur, there’s U2, there’s so and so, there’s bloody hell there’s Paul McCartney and Elton John and I got to meet Steve Harley for the first time in person in my life at the Ivor Novellos – He was my hero as a kid.

So it must have been quite a proud time when you’re nominated for these -so which was the better thing for you The Ivor Novellos or having ‘Enola Gay’ played at the Olympics?

‘Enola Gay’!!!

Why would you say that?

It’s just a buzz to think that 20% of the people on the planet have just heard your song right there and then and, live. It was incredible; you know I never believe anything is going to happen in the music industry until it happens. I had been asked if I would sanction it and I said yes and I thought they’re never going to use it, even though I know Danny Boyle is a fan, I just thought they’ll never use it and the fact that they actually used it sort of pretty much right up at the front of the whole music section and it wasn’t just in the 80s synthpop section was really cool. I mean my phone just exploded (laughs), the number of people who texted me and called me you know…

So… erm… it hasn’t caused any consternation between you and Paul that it was that one that was played?

No. I think he’s written some beautiful songs, I think ‘Enola Gay’ was just up tempo and extremely catchy and a lot of people already knew it anyway so it was a logical choice, but no, had it been ‘Souvenir’ I would have been very happy for Paul in the same way I’m sure he’s happy for me, and listen I might have written it but it’s an Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark song.

Yeah, although erm the topic of it was a bit erm… not suspect but dodgy I suppose for something like this?

Not suspect but dodgy, yeah, yeah, I won’t throw the bacon at him I’ll throw the pork instead!!! I was wondering whether they would use any of the lyrics and unsurprisingly they didn’t. I did wonder if the Japanese had known what it was about whether they would have you know decided not to march in. It was erm…yeah I mean again interesting lyrical choice, but then to be honest Danny Boyle, there were a few interesting songs in there that were quite interesting choices if you knew what the song was about and this is always one of the interesting things about how things get absorbed into general culture, is that at the time people might go “Oh, that’s a radically different song”, or “Ooh that lyric, ooh are they allowed to say that on the radio?” and then after a period of time when the specific cultural context is no longer remembered, then it just falls into ‘is it a tune?’ category and that’s in the same way as ‘Tainted Love’ and ‘Come on Eileen’ and ‘Baby Love’ and you know, ‘I want to hold Your Hand’, nobody knows anymore about what people thought about them when they first heard them on the radio. If you play it at a party people just go ‘JUNE’ and get up and dance so…

So can you describe a typical day in the life of Andy McCluskey?

It’s entirely dependent upon which section of my life I’m involved in. I mean at the moment I’m very much wearing my ‘pop star as business man’ hat. I spend the whole day wading through over 100 emails, lots of phone calls, “Yes we’re going to do that, no I don’t want it that colour – can we change this? What does Paul think about that? How much publishing are we going to give up on this?” Talking to lawyers, talking to managers. Agreeing to do different interviews and setting up schedules. So I have spent my whole day today from 8am until 6pm when I bailed out and had a sit down. No I lie, actually 7pm. I went and had a sit down and actually fell asleep at 7pm watching Time Team. So I did 11 hours sat in my kitchen with my laptop and my phone. On tour it’s completely different – I will sleep as much as I can, I will go to the odd museum and I will save my energy for the stage. Christmas time I had my ‘pop star’ hat off and had my ‘Dad’ hat on and I was being parent to my two youngest kids and doing that, so it’s all different. There’s days when I’m down at the super market and washing the car just like anybody else’s day… and then there’s other days, that’s the amazing thing… I could be on stage in front of 20,000 at Rewind, and then the next day I’m at Sainsburys…

Down with a bump!

Not down with a bump, I can go easily between the two it doesn’t bother me at all – That’s just the way my life is – Its nice I love all the variety, I think more than anything else it’s the variety I really enjoy, I love traveling as well. I’ve always loved traveling that’s been one of the great bonuses as well. As well as people telling me the music has meant something to them, but the traveling has been a great bonus.

The actual process of travelling, is that enjoyable or is it the…?

No, that’s generally bloody horrible, particularly airports and airplanes I’m not a huge fan of long- haul flights at all. It was great to play in America again, it was great to be back in New York, I mean, the song ‘Night Café’ was really inspired by me – I flew into New York all on my own for two days before we played Toronto back 2 years ago, and it was the first time I’d been in New York in 19 years.

So did you make the most of it? Or was it jet lag…

No cause I literally had one day and it was -11 degrees (laughs)… But really my head just exploded into thoughts about being in New York in the past and how I felt, you know I was actually sitting in a restaurant up on the Upper West side in the darkness and I was just thinking about Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks painting, and that’s where the inspiration for the song came from. There’s actually reference to 8 other Hopper paintings in the lyrics, but I bet nobody fuck spots them all!!!

You never know there’s going to be someone trying to spot them…

Mmm it’ll be like a little treasure hunt for people.

A little forum… forum… err…

Yeah, I’m sure that’ll be a thread on the Forum, somebody will be going ‘No, no, that’s not a title’.

You’ve just got the world wide publishing deal with BMG, how you think that will affect OMD as a band and the record sales.

I hope it’s going to be very positive for us and for them. We did everything independently last time and we signed 13 different deals, we actually signed to BMG for publishing of History of Modern, but the record distribution side of it was 13 separate deals with 13 different distribution companies…

That must have been a nightmare to manage wasn’t it?

Tell me about it, yeah, so this is different. Basically the record industry has been looking for the last 10 years for a new model, a new business model. This is the new business model; this is major record company, but not acting as a major record company. This is major record company acting as intellectual property owner, who don’t have a great big office block with 300 people in it, to pay the overheads of. They have an office with a small group of people in, and they sign you for a short term and they employ independent people to work on that project for as long as they need to and then the contract terminates, so they don’t have the massive overheads and they just take on each project as it comes and they design a bespoke budget and marketing plan for each artist and each album as it comes. It’s a new concept and we’re very excited to be one of the guinea pigs. Ideally it’s going to combine the best of both worlds, we have the size of the weight and the clout of a major record company and the money they can put up front to guarantee all of these, you know distribution and marketing deals and promotion companies, but individually, territory by territory they say “Well, these are the people that we would like to work with, what do you think?” And we go “Yes we like them, we worked with them on the last album, actually we’ve got some really great radio promotion people can we work with them instead?” And so they will tailor-make a custom deal for you in each territory. Instead of when I was signed to Virgin, or when OMD from day one were signed to Virgin and just because Virgin in London like the album and like you and think they are going to sell lots, it doesn’t mean that Virgin in Italy want to even release the bloody thing, and that’s the dilemma of being on a label across the whole world is you never could control what territory by territory people wanted to do, so this is an opportunity to hopefully strike a balance between the best of both worlds.

So hopefully the marketing will be a bit more specific?

We shall see. You have to realise though Kathryn that the music industry has changed. We are not The Killers, or Coldplay, or Rihanna, we don’t sell millions, we don’t expect to, we can’t make a video that costs £200,000, we can’t employ people who can get us onto every TV show and ‘A’ listed every radio show…

Would you want that though?

Well… Yes I think we’ve done a great album and I want the bloody world to hear it, but the reality is, we can’t do it, you know I thought that the videos for ‘If You Want It’ and ‘Sister Marie Says’, and ‘History of Modern (Part I)’ were extremely good for the budgets. Were they great… well ‘History of Modern’ was a great video by Bo, anyway that’s a separate issue, but the other two were exceptionally good videos for £5,000, but were they great videos?… maybe not, but you know the video for ‘Walking on the Milky Way’ cost £250,000, you know, so it cost 50 times more than the video for ‘Sister Marie Says’, that’s something we just can’t expect to have anymore. But people complain, “Why haven’t you done this?” and “Why aren’t you doing that?” and “You’re not on the radio” and “I couldn’t buy it in such and such…” It’s like well I’m sorry, I wish we were everywhere and I wish we sold millions and I wish we were on the radio all the time, but it’s just the way it is you know.

So just going back to English Electric, and going back to something you mentioned previously calling it a “definitive statement” there has been loads of discussion that this could be your final album if that was the case would you think it would be the end to OMD touring?… or do you not want to say?

I don’t know. When I say it’s a definitive statement, both Paul and I believe it’s an incredibly strong statement, this is a very strong album; I don’t think we’re deluding ourselves. I would never say it’s better than Dazzle Ships or Architecture and Morality but I think it stands on its own two feet next to them. It’s been a very hard album to make for a number of reasons, I think both Paul and I feel this album has been torn out and I think we’re feeling exhausted and raw at the moment… so maybe at the end of the year we’ll go “That was great, we loved it lets do it again” or maybe we’ll go “Phew couldn’t do that again”.

The passage of time diminishes the pain doesn’t it? Or so they say…

I’m not a woman I’ve never given birth to a human, but I’ve given birth to albums and they are painful but with the passage of time you’re usually glad that you’ve done it.

I also just have to ask the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra… is it likely to happen again or… I know there’s been talk…

I hope so. We tried to make it happen this year, for various reasons we couldn’t, but the RLPO definitely want to work with us again and we definitely want to work with them. Actually the problem was venue, we were trying to get it to happen this year but there was a problem with the venue but both parties want to make it happen. I would say that whatever happens with full OMD touring and whatever happens with OMD making records in the future I would say that the chances of us in the next two years of doing something else with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra are very high. I enjoyed it…

I’ll have to ask you one last question, cause you’ve been fantastically patient with me. One of my daughters was wondering what is your favourite OMD track? I know it probably changes over time.

Well I think even though the new album is very raw, there’s two tracks on this album, which currently because they’re brand new, so I haven’t heard them for 30 years, 20 years or 10 years, I think there are two tracks on this album which I will hold close to my heart for years and years to come. ‘Final Song’, ‘Final Song’ is absolutely beautiful and totally heart rendering I think…

Sounds quite a personal one?

It is. And strangely enough the one song that is sort of unheralded, nobody’s talking about yet because they haven’t heard the album. But Paul and I and management and the English label all just think it’s the best song on the album, one called ‘Our System’ and its very unusual and very beautiful, that’s all I’ll say and it’s about the difference and the contrast between, the beauty and affection of the instruments that we send into space, like the interplanetary probes, because the Voyager probes have now left our system, they’ve gone out into broader space. So it’s contrasting that perfection with the imperfections of the humans here on the planet.

Right. So just something fairly bog standard, nothing very deep or meaningful quite fluffy…?

The usual OMD bog standard (laughs) Right now I would touch on those which of course is horrible for me to say. …Well I think it’s common knowledge that ‘Romance of the Telescope’ has always been my favourite song, but I found myself listening to some of our old albums recently and I’ve become a huge fan of 2nd Thought – another bloody miserable song.


Interview by Kathryn Hooper
14th March 2013
Note: This interview was conducted prior to the announcements regarding ‘Metroland’ and ‘Kissing The Machine’.
This interview originaly featured on the Messages website.