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Ahead of a forthcoming site-specific audio walking tour, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Andy McCluskey talks Wirral, Eric’s and DIY beginnings.
Something is stirring on the Leisure Peninsula. The Wirral has long been a hotbed of creative talent with a roll call of pop culture legends which include Malcolm Lowry, Elvis Costello and Eric Idle all hailing from over the water. But few have stayed to make their name plying their artistic trade within the CH postcode. With more and more organisations establishing themselves to nurture local talent, that may be changing. What won’t change is how the region has moulded creative outliers for generations.
With a new sound installation exploring the Wirral’s artistic legacy and more artists speaking up about their Wirralian roots, the oblong of dreams is finally being celebrated. Quickly claimed by Liverpool but born-and-bred on the Wirral, ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK embody the area’s idiosyncratic worldview. Frontman Andy McCluskey recently contributed to the Leftbank Soundtrack, a walking audio tour of Birkenhead with new pieces of music responding to the environment and landmarks. The 80s icon spoke to Craig G Pennington about the importance of local spaces generating the worldwide sounds of tomorrow as well as OMD’s DIY origins on the other side of the water.
It was clearly vital for artists from the Wirral to make the trip to Liverpool for the opportunities there in the days of punk and post-punk, but just how important was Eric’s in OMD’s story?
[Eric’s] was a big step up for us to go from youth clubs on the Wirral to actually playing a named venue on the rock circuit. I mean, The Clash played there, the Sex Pistols played there. You know, I saw the first ever UK Devo gig there. Pere Ubu, XTC, The Cure, it was a name place. So, it was like, ‘Can I really play in a place that’s actually in the gig guide in [weekly music mag] Sounds?’ I can remember making a call from a phone box to the Sounds gig guide going, ‘Hi, I’m in a band. We’re playing Eric’s in Liverpool, can you put us in your gig guide?’ He went, ‘Yes, Eric’s? Yes, OK, yes, yes, we do them, yes. What date is it? Right, OK. What are you called?’ ‘Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’. He just went, ‘Fuck off, you’ll never get anywhere with a name like that’.
But yes, we felt very much like outsiders in Eric’s because we looked different, we played different music, because it was all guitar bands. I liked the Bunnymen because they had a drum machine to begin with. There was something a bit different about them.
Everybody in Eric’s was an alternative. It really was a case of, like, they built it and all the strange people came. It was an escape for all the outcasts and the people who didn’t fit gender-wise, or sex-wise, or artistic-wise, or looks-wise. I mean, as I say, Paul and I just looked like hippies. Everybody else looked so cool. I mean Jayne Casey looked amazing. I’ve never seen such a beautiful girl. Shaved head and jet-black lipstick. Tears painted on. Everybody was in love with Jayne Casey. And Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford. Everybody was just cool looking, except for us. And there was Roger Eagle, who was, like, 10-foot tall and smoked like a chimney. Terrifying.
I never met Roger, but you get the impression of what a shaping force he must have been.
You know, he’d been a promoter in Manchester and Liverpool. I mean, I didn’t know all of this, all I knew was that he was running this club. This was the club we went to. If you see those flyers from Eric’s, 77, 78, 79, 80, every month there were three or four bands who are world famous now. We went there three, four times a month. You had to keep up. There was always something on that was really amazing. To get to play there was amazing. But of course, there was about 15 of our family and friends in the crowd, and about 15 of the locals who were all the same people you always saw all the time. Like the [Echo and the Bunnymen frontman] Ian McCullochs and everybody. Everybody just leaning against the pillar, trying to feign no interest whatsoever.
I’m always interested in how musicians used to make music compared to now, with the world of technology that’s available. Are the core of ideas still the same, it’s just that it’s much, much easier to make it happen now?
It cuts both ways. The technology now is unbelievable. Back then, we were trying to be the future with equipment salvaged out of a skip. We did six gigs before we owned a synthesizer. We had to borrow one off friends. We could only be a band because our mate Paul Collister, who lived in West Kirby, had aspirations to work in sound and had built a home studio in his garage. He had a four-track and a two-track and a little desk. And we put together our backing tracks on this four-track table TEAC called Winston. He called it Winston after Winston Smith from Orwell’s 1984. And so the band was me and Paul, with Winston playing everything else.
What kind of records do you think you would have made if you’d been making those for the first time now? Do you think it would have changed what you were?
One of the reasons we had a distinctive sound was because of the shit gear we had. I mean, I remember reading an article by Brian Eno that said: ‘If all you’ve got is a pile of junk, you’re probably the only people who’ve got that specific pile of junk. That’s your sound’. And we went, ‘Phew. OK. Thanks, Brian’. The organ was the electric piano and the cheap synth that we finally bought off my mother’s catalogue for £7.76 a week for 36 weeks taken out of our dole money. That was it. And that was our sound. It was a very simple, primitive sound that was on the first album. It was garage synth punk. We had a pile of crap, and we built our own studio where the hotel now is on Stanley Street, looking out over the back of Probe and the White Star pub on Button Street. We rented the back half of one empty flat on one of five empty floors above Curly Music. Built our own studio and recorded the album in three weeks and that was it, handed it to the record company. It went gold. Just like that. So easy…
That quote from Eno is absolutely right, that necessity shapes the parameters that you’ve got to work within. But is a world of infinite possibility and not having those boundaries a good thing creatively?
No, because the more possibilities you have, the more difficult it becomes. Paul and I have this phrase, ‘the tyranny of choice’. I think Electricity is 11 tracks, and five of them are kicks in air and white noise. With more and more technology you end up with the big stodgy thing that’s got far too many tracks in it. And it’s usually so many tracks because you haven’t actually got one little diamond gold nugget in there. It’s actually lots of averageness. One of our sayings is, ‘You don’t need a million quid of varnish if you don‘t start with a turd and try and polish it’. Electricity is just words, driving bass, end. No backwards cymbals, no splashes, no dynamics. That’s it, that’s all you get. ‘Is it good enough?’ Yes. ‘That’ll do then’.
That’s not even a conversation about the production values, that’s just asking yourself is that idea, is that lick, is that hook, is that melody as strong as it can be.
That’s what we didn’t realise when we first started out, because we were experimental, in the sense that we didn’t have anything we could play a melody on, to begin with, other than my bass. We were just making ambient noise. So gradually, and totally unconsciously, we refined our desire to be different into a melodic version of a desire to be different. We had no idea. Electricity is basically a punk version of Radioactivity by Kraftwerk. I admitted it to Kraftwerk years later and they all went, ‘Yes, we know’. We hadn’t realised we’d unconsciously taken all that glam rock from when we were 12 watching Top Of The Pops – Slade, T. Rex – added it to the German electric of Neu! and Kraftwerk and a bit of punk, and somehow accidentally we distilled this into these little three-and-a-half minute, like, catchy tunes. We had no idea what we were doing.
You mentioned before about if it wasn’t for Eric’s then OMD wouldn’t have been a thing because you formed effectively to play that show. Reflecting on that time, and the shaping influence that that club had on the band and your career, how important are places like that, that give people license to experiment, test themselves, challenge themselves?
I think it’s very simple. Without people opening doors for you and giving you encouragement and saying, ‘Yes, come and do it. Do whatever you want. Do your thing’, it doesn’t happen. You’ve got to have a place to play, you’ve got to have people who will let you play, you’ve got to have people who will give you the PA and people who will lend you some equipment. We did six gigs without even owning a synth. You have to borrow a bit. It’s just you need other people. One of the reasons why I said yes to being involved at Future Yard, because without Eric’s my band wouldn’t exist. Without Birkenhead Art College in Whetstone Lane owning the Roland SH-1000, we wouldn’t have had a synthesizer to borrow when Dalek I Love You wouldn’t lend us theirs. These places had a vision of being creative and would let two loonies borrow their very expensive synthesizer for the night and trust that they were going to return it so that we could go and play our weird songs – that even our best friends thought were shit – in a club that, you know, the night before, Blondie had played at, or something. I think that, particularly because we are from Wirral, nothing grows in a vacuum, nothing blossoms. I think that you have to provide the place, you have to provide the encouragement. I’m hoping the Future Yard project will be something that offers an opportunity for creative kids on Wirral – like we were 41 years ago – to dream and try their dream out in reality.
Read more about The Leftbank Project here