This year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of “Electricity,” the debut single for Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark (OMD). It was also the year the band first performed at a small yet iconic Liverpool club called Eric’s, which had become a home to rising, experimental acts the likes of the Buzzcocks, Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Ramones, Sex Pistols, and Joy Division, where new material was performed, songs that went on to become legendary classics.
But on this sunny Los Angeles day last year, I wasn’t meeting up with the Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys of OMD to discuss that particular career milestone with them. I was there to hear more about their thirteenth album, The Punishment of Luxury, while also getting at least a few stories of the early days.
“We love embracing our back catalog. We’re proud of our back catalog,” said Andy, while emphasizing that their main focus is on the new album during the current U.S. tour, which comes to L.A. March 29th night at the Wiltern, along with an iconic gig, celebrating 40 years with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on October 6.
Starting at the top of the Punishment of Luxury’s track list, the song’s music video personifies OMD retro-futurism DNA, with strands that wind around past cultural references with modern-day insights.
“Specifically, the title track, “Punishment of Luxury,” is really not political,” Andy explained. “It’s really just dealing with the situation that we seem to have found ourselves in the last few decades, which is, the original society forming, imagined orders of religion, royal decree, nationality, seemed to be abandoned and eroded for this new, kind of obsession and control, which is: consumerism.”
Think you’re right, think you’re free
Floating in your purgatory
But you made your choice
And you’re living it everyday
Lazy girl, dirty boy
Surrounded by your broken toys
And you don’t know how
To make the pain just go away
In comparison to how mass civilizations lived in the past, being impacted by war, disease, pestilence, “or some act of nature that was going to wipe you and your family out, you were very specifically living in the now. You didn’t have time to worry about the past or project fear into the future,” Andy continued. “Now we’ve got enough, but we’re told we’re not worthy of love or self-respect if your car is old, if your body doesn’t look like this. And it’s crushing. It’s no surprise that people in western societies are not able to sleep, unhappy, taking pain killers, and anti-depressions.”
The big pharma companies are more than happy to take advantage of the misery, inserting themselves into our view with YouTube pre-roll ads and TV ads, spending upwards of $5 billion a year in order to make many times more on the population’s obsessions and self-inflicted illnesses.
“It’s all tied into corporate greed,” said Paul, “and this gap between the rich and the poor,” which only seems to be increasing year after year.
It was also interesting to learn how much art continues to influence the cellular structure of their songs and album concepts. Plucking the title of the record from a Giovanni Segantini painting of the same name, originally known as The Punishment of Lust (it was renamed when the painting was exhibited in Liverpool in 1893 because the word ‘lust’ was thought to be a bit too sexy for the Victorian times), Andy had visually admired the painting for years. He stated that the artist’s original intent was to portray misogyny, “And we do not approve of that,” replied Paul emphatically, explaining how Segantini’s visuals represented bad mothers living in purgatory because they have dared to want more than motherhood or a life outside of kitchen.
The audacity. But good to know women were pulling such feministic ideals during the time of 1891, enough to cause an artistically inclined misogynist to take time to paint about it.
Yes, these are serious topics, which OMD has always personified in their songs, going back to the anti-war track, “Enola Gray.” The duo calls out the darker sides of human life and the state of our now humanity while juxtaposing the actual heartbeat of our innate desire for melody and rhythm, for those beats that get under skin, make us hum, and dance, and smile, even while contemplating the injustices of our civilization or that fact that there is an absolute nut bag, racist, sexual predator, lying ass hat in the U.S. oval office. Yes, we need our music more than ever these days.
From the beginning, the whole emphasis of OMD was to try to do different things with music, to challenge the status quo, and to spark discussions. What they released back in the ‘80s certainly fit the bill, and Andy expected most were thinking, “What is this crazy music?!” And he continued, stating from those early days until now, “It is essential for us to try to find new ways of saying things, expressing things, musically as well as lyrically, so we listen to stuff. A lot of dance music that is specifically and almost primarily only designed for dance, is interesting to us on a certain level; the way it’s constructed. But we always want to try more than just a beat to dance to. If you can have a melody you remember. An interesting, challenging lyrical content, some emotional resonance, AND a beat to dance to — let’s have all four of those!”
On “What Have We Done,” Paul takes the lead on vocals, singing with such effortless and floating beauty, “And when love seemed so heartless / When light turned to darkness / Now only her star can be seen / What have we done? (Done, done, done) / What have we done? (Done, done, done).”
Having listened to the album several times before meeting with the duo, I had to point out the timeless level of ingenuity they continue to resonate 40 years later and into our modern day by releasing new facets of dance music style.
“We try to keep going forward. We’re aware of what’s going on and we’re trying to use modern sounds and be part of the now,” Andy explained. “There’s a certain element of our songwriting and a certain way we work. We have a signature. We can’t divorce ourselves from our style. It’s not like we’re trying to relate to our earlier material. It seems to be a wholly natural thing.”
Tapping into the new musical technology as it continues to evolve decade after decade also provides the band with fresh channels for inspiration, “We’re not one of those bands that use the same synths from the early 80s. Most of them don’t work, anyway,” Andy said, laughing.
Paul, being the one who tends to tinker the most on behind the synth, believes that because there are so many choices available of what to use and how to use them, that it’s critical to begin the songwriting process with a clear idea of what they want to create; a clear vision of what path they want to take and a knowing of whether that’s working or not.
“If it’s not working, then you start throwing stuff at it. A bit more sugar, a bit more salt, more sugar, more flour, and you end up with a mess,” Andy states.
“So less is more, is what he’s saying,” Paul deadpans.
“There’s an old saying in Britain, ‘You can’t varnish a turd.’ If you don’t start with a turd, you don’t have to use much varnish,” Andy said, laughing.
One of Andy’s favorite turd-free tracks on the album, “As We Open So We Close,” opens with the rhythm of a modernized Pittsburgh steel factory, churning out robots and laser beams, with conveyor belts flowing softly to Andy’s beautiful harmony. Andy explained that they had wanted to tap into the Glitch style for some time, but found it challenging to bring that into their repertoire. To get to the point to where the song is now, “We threw away the entire backing track and started this completely dysfunctional, deconstructed, brutal, angular, crunching thing.”
On “Precision of Decay,” the influence actually was an American factory; the Ford plant to be exact. Once again, Andy connects art to music, and in particular the American art movement called the Precisionism (Elise Driggs and Georgia O’Keefe were also considered Precisionism painters). Charles Sheeler was commissioned to photograph and paint the River Rouge plant, “And he painted it in this very distilled, reductivist style with no people. Just the beautiful machines. It was beautiful, but now if you go to Detroit and to traditional Rust Belt manufacturing, it is decayed.”
He points out the utopian industrial vision portrayed in the painting, which today, no longer applies, “and all of those people in the Rust Belt who voted for Trump because he was going to bring back their jobs, which he is not, these people are going to have to be reeducated if they’re ever going to work again,” Andy states, frankly. Then asks rhetorically, “And do they really want to stand in a production line welding the same spot over and over all day long? Do they really want to go back down into the pit?”
Punishment… as whole reflects the organic and the mechanic simultaneously, in lyric and in the tones and beats, playing back to us this unusual time we’re in, where technology is infiltrating our society and culture, as automation and robotics will be running those factories and Amazon warehouses. “We’re now in a cross over where modern technology and computer programming and the technological algorithms are now getting so sophisticated. So dense. Very soon things we never thought could be mechanized will be. There will be billions of human beings who are no longer required. The people they just put out of jobs in manufacturing will still wish they had the money to purchase the goods they’re no longer making, which is going to be an interesting dilemma. This next 100 years is going to be quite a remarkable, transformative time. There’s seven and a half billion of us, and we don’t need each other anymore. Discuss!” Andy concluded, laughing.
When it comes to their own career and music business, they’re happy being in the driver’s seat after losing their power decades ago when the lack of time and money put a lot of pressure on OMD to produce the hits, cornering them into a Catch-22 situation. The stress of shit record deals, having sold 12 million albums yet owing Virgin Records £1 million pounds, plus the tax burdens not only stymied their creativity and ability to write music effectively, it also caused the split in 1988.
“We’ve come full circle where we don’t have a record company,” Paul explained. Instead, they complete an album and then shop it around; cutting one-album deals with the right record label that’s a fit for them. “So we don’t have any commercial pressures.”
I had to ask whether they’d ever cornered Richard Branson about the record deal they had with Dindisc Records, which was under the Virgin umbrella and eventually absorbed by the major, which put them in such a fucked up financial situation and if he’s able to sleep at night, half joking.
“He sells himself as the moral entrepreneur, but the reality is, like anybody else, you don’t become a billionaire by the time you’re 30 by being generous to people, do you?” said Andy. “We stupidly signed the first deal that came along because we wanted to make records. You make your money you make your choices. But we’re still here…”
“And we’ve had a career,” Paul said, despite those barriers.
Andy was quick to point out how that deal had affected their careers and their OMD business. Looking at Depeche Mode, as an example, “Because they had a 50/50 deal, when they sold millions of records, when the costs were paid for, the profits were massive.” DP was in a position, unlike OMD, to have financial control over their careers and the ability to continue through to the 1990s and to the present day with the money and freedom to write and release albums when it suited them, not because they were pressured to do so.
Although those pressures eventually led to a break up of the band and a 17-year gap before they came back together in 2006, the songwriting chemistry is as alive than ever. The first album after their reunion, History of Modern, Paul felt that got the engine running again as combination of songs they each wrote in a solo scenario. When it came to writing and recording English Electric, Andy and Paul were both back in the saddle, collaborating in the way they used to with a full well of ideas and song concepts.
During the tour for that album, their drummer, Malcom Holmes, had a cardiac arrest on stage. Thankfully, he recovered, but hung up his drumsticks in 2014.
At the time, English Electric had sold well and they started to find themselves in that pressure chamber again. “The music industry is a very selfish mistress if you let it be. You can get carried away with being here, there, and everywhere,” Andy explained. So they decided to take that time off to spend with family and breathe a bit, taking three more years before the next album, Punishment of Luxury, was released in 2017, “And in doing so, a well of ideas filled up at the same time.”
“So when we did get back together to start on the next album we had a lot of ideas of where we wanted to go,” Paul stated.
Andy, looking quite content, sitting next to his songwriting and musical partner of 40 years, reflects on the past and the present, “The great thing is, we do it when we want to do it. Would we like to sell millions of records like we used to? Yes, we would. Would we like to do big arena tours and make shit loads of money? Yes, we would. But we’re doing it on our own terms. We are happy with what we’ve got. We are trying not to be punished by a desire for more luxury and be grateful for what we have. We are still allowed to make records. People still listen to them. We can still talk to people, like yourself, who listen to it and come to talk to us about it.”
In January of this year OMD announced that there is a book in the works with a provisioned title, ‘Pretending To See The Future,’ with plans to publish later this year by Red Planet Publishing. They also made a request of fans, “We want you to be a part of it.” The book will be a collage of memories, stories, and photos from the very beginning to the present tour, but, “…we also want to hear your memories. Tell us how and when you discovered the band’s music and your concert memories, including where and when you saw them. We’ll feature the best stories in the book.” Send your story (long or short) along with pictures of yourself going to the show or scans of old ticket stubs (remember those? Screenshots of your mobile Ticketmaster bar code doesn’t count) or other memorabilia to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remaining U.S. Tour Dates:
3/29 Los Angeles, CA The Wiltern Theatre
3/30 Anaheim, CA, The House Of Blues
3/31 San Diego, CA, The House of Blues
4/2 Phoenix, AZ, The Van Buren
4/5 Dallas, TX, House Of Blues
4/6 Austin, TX, Emos
4/7 Houston, TX, House OF Blues
4/9 New Orleans, LA, Civic Theatre
4/10 Atlanta, GA, Center Stage
4/12 Orlando, FL The Beacham
4/13 St. Petersburg, FL The State Theatre
4/14 Ft. Lauderdale, FL Revolution Live