“We’re just waiting, looking skyward”: Interviewing Andy McCluskey of OMD

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It’s been a few interesting months since I last posted here, to say the least. I’m choosing to focus on the positives. I can’t remember who it was who first said to me, “God only gives us what we can handle.” That’s the explanation some people give on why some of us have been “blessed” with infirmities, illnesses, and other trials in our lives, while other people appear to have gotten away scot-free, unfettered by the things that have brought the rest of us afflicted so many tears. At the time I was given this religious chestnut, I was a convinced atheist.

Even if you’re not religious, I think you can still apply this as true somewhere in your own life. Be honest. There must be at least a few things that have happened to you over the years that seem…a bit too weird and too odd to simply be coincidental. Within 4 days in September, I saw two artists from Merseyside, both who use capital letters in their names: OMD (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) and BANNERS. That, in itself, isn’t so strange for me, since I like a whole lot of English and Northern bands. Then things took an interesting turn…

I’d been working on something for a few weeks through normal press channels. That is, normal for someone who had run an internationally-read music Web site for nearly a decade. Things had stalled, and it looks like I was going nowhere fast. I wracked my brain about how else I could take the bull by the horns and do something that might change the situation for the better. I took a chance, not at the high school dance, but at the merch desk of the OMD show. I left the venue and tried to put it out of my head. I’d exhausted all the ideas I had. If nothing came of it, that was okay. The important thing was that I tried.

A common question that people have asked me over the years is, “How did you land that interview with Artist X?” This is how it happens most of the time. As the writer or editor, you put in a request, and then you wait, sometimes for a long time. It is a combination of behind the scenes machinations and sheer luck as to whether your request is granted. Annoyingly, sometimes you think you’ve bagged a fantastic interview and you spend an inordinate time preparing for it, only to be cancelled on because of the dreaded unforeseen circumstances. Neil Hannon and Tim Rice-Oxley, I’m still waiting…

Last month, I was given the wonderful opportunity to interview OMD cofounder Andy McCluskey. To call the band electronic and synth pioneers of the late ’70s and ’80s is describing their influence mildly. In the way that acknowledging pop in 2019 would have been very different if the Beatles had never existed, the electronic artists hotting up the charts these days owe OMD and the acts who followed them a great debt. I’m a fan of electronic music running the gamut from the experimental to the overtly, commercially poppy, so this was a Big Thing Indeed.

OMD is celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, so the focus of my interview with Andy was the special anniversary box set the band released last month. When a band of their kind of stature reaches a major milestone like this, there is an incredible amount of history, experiences, and music that can be revisited. Having been given most of the box set’s contents ahead time so that I could do the appropriate research for my interview, I was impressed by what Andy and Paul Humphreys decided to include. Instead of taking the far easier route to produce something quickly to sell their fans, they chose to curate and offer up a lot of cool stuff in a massive, beautiful package. By doing this, it shows how much OMD respect the nerdy electronic music fans who make up their core fan base. “Nerdy” is not derogatory. When music is important to you, you pay attention to detail.

Needless to say, Andy has done a lot of interviews over the years, even surprising me in 2013 in answering the TGTF Quickfire Questions. So you can imagine it was quite daunting to put together a list of questions that would let him shine and in a different way. One of the greatest compliments I got years ago following an interview in Denmark was “that was great, it was like talking to a therapist.” While Andy didn’t phrase it quite in that manner (ha!), he did appreciate the preparation I did, and I think you can read in the extended feature I developed that he felt comfortable in being candid with me about their career. Mission accomplished.

Part 1: I get Andy’s overview of the box set, a studio story about baking, and his thoughts on the immensely interesting unreleased tracks disc. I also got an unexpected singing lesson!
Part 2: Andy considers the two full audio recordings (1983 vs. 2011) included in the box set, how special live performances are to him, and their crazy first appearance on Top of the Pops. He also lets me in on the early lives of “Pandora’s Box” and “Maid of Orleans (The Waltz Joan of Arc).”
Part 3: Andy talks about how the band gained maturity in their live performances in the ’80s and the singles collection and the genesis of 40th single “Don’t Go.” He also considers what the 20-year old version of Andy McCluskey might be thinking about of all of this. Which is more funny now, as his son dressed up as him at 19-20 for Halloween.


photo of Andy McCluskey and bass at Gateshead Sage,
13 May 2013, by Martin Sharman for TGTF (my live review)

We Were Promised Jetpacks’ #thesefourwalls10 anniversary – my thoughts

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Last Tuesday, I went to go see a band I’d been a fan of for 10 years.

If you think about it, 10 years is a really long time.

Read more about We Were Promised Jetpacks, the 10th anniversary tour in North America for ‘These Four Walls’ (2009, FatCat Records), and my formula for longevity in the business through here at my other blog, The Practising Troublemaker.

Song Analysis #58: Duran Duran – Proposition (part 2)

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NB: This is part 2 of my song analysis of ‘Proposition’ from Duran Duran’s fourth album ‘Notorious’, released in 1986. I’ve decided to post this now, 2 days before the band perform at the Kennedy Space Center Tuesday night, 16 July 2019 (previewed on TGTF through here), as part of the festivities celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. I recommend reading part 1 through here before diving into part 2 below.

Title: ‘Proposition’
Where to find it: ‘Notorious’, (1986, EMI/Capitol)
Performed by: Duran Duran
Words by: Simon Le Bon

Verse 1
“Bring back that child,” she said.
“Spare me the price of freedom.
Cold is my baby’s head,
blown by the wind of reason.
Even the rage behind
cries out to see
we’re still standing
under the closing edge,
pay for the crime of feeling.”

Prechorus 1
When all your pride is dead,
you must be scared instead.

Chorus
A quiet word is my proposition,
a promise made of a fierce day.
A body bleeds for this coalition,
without surrender if you stay.

Verse 2
“Show me my youth,” she cried,
wasted for desolation.
Hold up the sacrifice,
pull down your institution.
Resting while anger flies,
question’s the same.
who’s deciding?
After the clouds have lain,
shame on your generation.”

Prechorus 2
When all your guilt lies dead,
you must be scared instead.

Chorus
A quiet word is my proposition,
a promise made of a fierce day.
A body bleeds for this coalition,
without surrender if you stay.

Instrumental bridge

Prechorus 3
When all your pain lies dead,
you must be scared instead.

Chorus 2X
A quiet word is my proposition,
a promise made of a fierce day.
A body bleeds for this coalition,
without surrender if you stay.

Proposition…
Proposition…

Quite simply at the time when they hit it big in the early ‘80s, there wasn’t another band like Duran Duran. They were the complete package: they were five gorgeous, trend-setting English boys whose music was neither punk, pop, or funk. Simon’s job was to provide the words that would overlay the sonic landscapes that the four others had already come up with in the studio. I’ve always been amazed by writers who do this, as it isn’t easy trying to fit lyrics onto an already established melody. It requires you to massage syllables, either by cutting them or adding more, so they’ll fit what you’ve been given. If you have ever written poetry to fit a certain meter, you know what I’m talking about. When I write poems, I like a formal structure, such as successive iambs arranged in couplets, because then you are assured that the final result will be nice and neat. That doesn’t necessarily happen in the world of pop music.

Further, lyrics in songs are most often telling a story, either complementing the story already told through the music or coming in fresh with a story because there isn’t one in the music just yet. In the early days of Duran Duran, there was a lot of color and flavor from Andy Taylor’s guitar lines and bursts and John Taylor’s bass lines. Still, it fell on Simon to write words that would connect the songs with their audience. For sure, his lyrics over the years have garnered more than a few head scratches. Let’s revisit some of his gems from 1980-1986, some possibly familiar, some not so much:

Am I alone, or is the river alive? (‘Night Boat’)

Don’t say you’re easy on me, you’re about as easy as a nuclear war. (‘Is There Something I Should Know?’)

Funny, it’s just like a scene out of Voltaire, twisting out of sight. (‘Last Chance on a Stairway’)

And if the fires burn out, there’s only fire to blame. (‘Hold Back the Rain’)

I’m on a ride and I wanna get off, but they won’t slow down the roundabout. (‘The Reflex’)

Show me your secret and tell me your name, catch me with your fizzy smile. (‘I Take the Dice’)

Would someone please explain the reason for this strange behavior? (‘Skin Trade’)

Use your lipstick line, to color fear and loathing with a pink disguise. (‘Meet El Presidente’)

Simon was one of the first lyricists I had encountered who taught me it was okay to be oblique with the words you chose.

A few days ago, I queued ‘Proposition’ on Spotify during work, listening intently to the words for the first time in years. Of course I knew all the words. It was my favorite on ‘Notorious,’ and I had sung along to the lyrics so many times before. I even remembered where in the song to air synth Nick’s chord progressions. I can hear them and see him play them in my mind. Then I came to a terrible realization and wanted to punch myself repeatedly following an ‘aha!’ moment. What on earth? How did I miss this deeper meaning before? It seems so obvious to me now, but there was no way when I was a naive girl raised in a middle class suburb that I would have seen it. Now that I can see what’s inside, the song is more beautiful to me than ever before.

Before a single word is spoken, ‘Proposition’ begins with a series of aggressive keyboard chords, brass notes, and guitar tones. The introduction is a fanfare for the serious nature of what’s come. It seems perfect for the song’s title. I mean, what does the word ‘proposition’ conjure up in your head? For me, it makes me think of business arrangements, often unsavory ones, and putting yourself in situations you’re trying to get out of.

Years ago, I thought verse 1 was describing a woman in the war-torn Eastern Bloc and the difficulties of raising a child in that environment. “Bring back that child,” she said. / “Spare me the price of freedom”: those are the words of a woman who has made a painful decision to keep her child despite the cost of raising said child in a dangerous place. The epiphany I had last week about ‘Proposition’ is this. It’s not about that rough-faced mother in behind the Berlin Wall at all. It’s about the fight for a child who was either going to be given up for adoption or may have been lost in an abortion.

A woman has just given up the baby she just gave birth to and is now having second thoughts about giving the child away. “Cold is my baby’s head / blown by the wind of reason”: the baby is being given up for adoption for “the reason” presumably that the young mother cannot reasonably take care of it. It’s unclear whose rage is noted: is it the rage of her own parents about the child being born out of wedlock, or of the mother being forced to give up her own child? Regardless of who’s rage it is, “we’re still standing / under the closing edge / pay for the crime of feeling.” The “crime of feeling”, doesn’t that get you right in the gut? A ‘close’, the conclusion of a prior agreement, is about to occur, and the feels are gut-wrenching.

Then we go into one of three prechoruses of the song, each of them structured similarly, but there’s one major difference in the first half of each. In prechorus 1, the lyrics are “When all your pride is dead, / you must be scared instead.” Let us go over the other two, as to illustrate the importance of word choice. Prechorus 2 stars, “When all your guilt lies dead.” Prechorus 3 starts, “When all your pain lies dead.” Pride, guilt, pain, these are all clearly terrible emotions. We’ll come back to these, as well as the chorus.

Verse 2 gives more credence to the idea of adoption and abortion. The young mother lost her childlike innocence when she became pregnant. “Show me my youth,” she cried, “wasted for desolation”: her youth is gone but now without her child, she is left desolate. Desolate is an interesting choice to describe a woman, too. When I think of a desolate landscape, I think of a barren desert. Did the young woman have complications during her pregnancy that have left her unable to have any more children? That would make the pain of separation from her child and the forced adoption that much more painful. “Who’s deciding? After the clouds have lain / shame on your generation”: this is an indictment of the woman’s parents and of the decision to put the child up for adoption was out of her hands and made without her consultation.

Let’s now tackle the chorus:
A quiet word is my proposition,
a promise made of a fierce day.
A body bleeds for this coalition,
without surrender if you stay.

A quiet word is my proposition” and “Without surrender if you stay”: is it possible that the young woman resigned herself to staying in a loveless relationship with the baby’s father in order to keep the baby and prevent the adoption? In political parlance, a coalition is an alliance. If “a body bleeds for this coalition,” meaning her body, does that mean that her heart was bleeding that she was placed in this awful position? Or is it literal, as in she would be bleeding and lose the baby if she was forced to have an abortion?

I want to revisit those three emotions in the prechoruses: pride, guilt, and pain. Regardless of the outcome for the woman, the prechoruses ensure a clear message: once you lie down and resign yourself to what has happened, e.g., “When all your pain lies dead,” that means you are no longer feeling anything. You are numb. You are dead inside. But why? Simon thinks, “you must be scared instead.” Too scared to admit the pride, guilt, and pain of this heart-wrenching situation. You’ve given up. I don’t think the word choice of ‘dead’ is a coincidence, lending further credence to the possible connection to abortion.

It might be a stretch to connect the two, but given the tumultuous time in Duran Duran with Andy and Roger leaving, I’m wondering if this song was an allegory written by Simon to reflect the desire to keep everyone together. He (and John and Nick?) cared too much and was holding on the emotional baggage, yet he knew, ultimately, that they were never going to keep Duran Duran the five-piece together.

Duran Duran were bleeding but when they came out of the other side of ‘Notorious’, they’d birthed a new lineup, and a fresh new era. Like the face of ‘Proposition’, the young woman who had given up her child, she had plenty of fight left in her. So did Duran Duran. And a global nation of Duranies is grateful.

Sadly, no video for this perfect song, so you’ll have to make do with a stream. Don’t let that stop you from discovering (or rediscovering) this ’80s gem.