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The Why & The How

OMD’s Andy McCluskey Talks “If You Leave,” Pretty in Pink & New Album

"John Hughes was obviously an anglophile"
OMD in the '80s (Credit: Graham Tucker/Redferns)

“We seem to have become what appears to be the victims of making a very, very well-received new album,” Andy McCluskey tells me, of OMD’s newest, Bauhaus Staircase, released October 27th. “You’ve sweat blood into making it,” he says of the duo’s 14th studio LP, created during the 2020 lockdown and inspired by, as Andy puts it, “fuck all else to do.” 

The biggest challenge was being separated from OMD co-founder Paul Humphreys, who was on lockdown in France. “I found myself in this room,” he says, of his home-based studio. “This is my programming room at home, and I just went and fired up the computer and said, ‘All right, Andrew, you’re totally bored. There’s nothing else to do. You can’t go out. You better start doing music.’”

Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey (Credit: Ed Miles)

Bauhaus Staircase is an edgy, powerful, electro-pop triumph – fulfilling all your house/techno/EDM dreams. Andy says the album touches on issues he was “angry about,” topical songs being a tradition for OMD, dating back to the ‘80s. “Listen, [1980’s] ‘Enola Gay’ is exploring the morality – or immorality – of dropping atom bombs,” he explains. “We do this kind of stuff. Dazzle Ships [the band’s 4th album, 1983] was all about the Cold War, which we thought had gone away, but hey, it’s back. Look at Ukraine. Putin is in Ukraine. There’s things that needed to be talked about.”

Since their start in the late-‘70s, the synth pioneers are consistently credited as one of the bands who brought electronic music into the mainstream. “When we first started out — we did our first gig in 1978 — and for a year or two particularly, we felt like we were swimming against the tide.” The tide changed completely when Director John Hughes asked OMD to write a song for his new Molly Ringwald vehicle/teen-angst title, 1986’s Pretty in Pink. Until then, as Andy recalls, “American radio stations were not interested in us. It was like banging our heads against a brick wall.” 

To date, “If You Leave” is OMD’s highest-charting single, climbing to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Even more, “If You Leave” catapulted the band into the hearts of sentimentalists, forever associating them with swelling symphonic strings of young love. 

Read on to hear, in Andy’s own words, the story of “If You Leave,” the song created in a just a day, and how it “divided” the OMD community. 

For a start, John Hughes was obviously an anglophile when it came to his music choices for his films and I have a theory about this. If you think about John Hughes’ what they call Brat Pack movies, all the kids who are the stars of the movies, the storyline always revolves around people who were outsiders. They weren’t the cheerleaders. They weren’t the jocks. They weren’t the popular, pretty people. They were the weirdos and the misfits.

Those kids were probably listening to [alternative rock], which is in the movie. Those kids were listening to English imports. That was great for us. John specifically asks us to write him a song. We are excited because we’ve just seen the success of Simple Minds in The Breakfast Club with “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” We said, “Yes.” We went down to Paramount Studios. We met Molly and John Cryer on the set. They were like, “Oh, we love you.” We’re like, “How do you even know us?” “Oh, we listen to KROQ.” John said, “I want the song for the end of the film for the prom scene. Here’s the script. Write me a song for the prom scene,” so we did. We came back to LA with our two-inch tape, with our song that we’d written that was called “Goddess of Love.”

We arrive in LA, and John says, “Listen, bit of a problem. We’ve test-screened the movie. All the teenage girls love the movie, but not the ending,” because the original ending – do you know this? the original ending? – Molly [Andie] ends up at the prom with Duckie, her friend. Not with Andrew McCarthy, Blane, the pretty boy. All the teen girls went, “No, no, no, no. We love Duckie, but no, no, she’s got to end up with the good-looking guy,” so they re-shot the end of the movie. John just said, “Listen, I love your song, but lyrically it doesn’t make sense. Can you write me a new one?” We were like, “You are kidding. We’ve just got off a plane. Our equipment is still in the air coming over. We’ve got two days till we start touring with the Thompson Twins.” 

Yes, of course, we’ll [go back into the] studio in LA. We’ve hired in some equipment. Our engineer, Tom Lord-Alge, had flown over from New York because he was going to do the mix with us. We just sat down. For the first time in our lives, we sat at a piano because we had none of our equipment. Paul started playing chords, and I started writing lyrics. It was like old Tin Pan Alley-style of songwriting. It was nuts. 

Andy and Paul Humphreys in 1981 (Credit: Chris Walter/WireImage)

By the end of the day, we got in Fairlight computer equipment. We’d laid down the track. I’d cut a guide vocal, and I don’t know, about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, we sent a cassette of the demo to Paramount Pictures on a motorcycle.

Nine o’clock the next morning, our manager phones up and says, “John loves the song. Can you go in and complete it?” We’re like, “Fuck.” We’d only just got to bed. [laughs] We went and finished it off. Then we mixed it about 10 days later when we had a window on the Thompson Twins tour we were doing. Little did we know that it was going to become huge.

We had an album out and we had a song called “Secret” that was just starting to really build at radio. Then Paramount said, “We want to go with “If You Leave” as the first single.” We’re like, “Great, but we’ve just got a record that’s just gone to radio.” Our label went, “Listen, the push behind the film is going to be huge. We got to get with this.” We actually pulled “Secret” off the radio. Everybody in the States knows “Secret.” Nobody ever bought it because it was never actually released.

We play it live in the States, and everybody goes nuts for it, but nobody bought it because it was pulled off the radio and out comes “If You Leave.” The next thing we know, it’s everywhere. I can remember driving around LA and going, “Oh, it’s on that station. Oh, it’s on that station. We never got played on that station before. It’s on four radio stations simultaneously. Wow, I think this could be a hit.” [laughs]

We went to the Pretty in Pink premiere. We got in the limo. We walked up the red carpet, all the paparazzi and flashing. We were there with all the actors and all the other bands. We’d flown over on a flight from London with the guys from New Order, who we knew from the days of Factory Records when they were in Joy Division. We’d known them since 1978. It was a big English party there. We all got hammered at the premiere. I just remember thinking, the only thing we were told, the only parameter was, “We’ve recorded the kids dancing to “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” so can you write a song that’s a 120 beats a minute, the same as the Simple Minds track so that we can edit on the beats.” We’re like, “We’ll do it, 120 beats a minute.”

We sit through the whole movie, waiting for our song to arrive, and finally… We’re like, “Here we go.” About 20 seconds in, we went, “Who the fuck edited this? Nobody’s dancing on the beat at all. It could’ve been any fucking tempo.” [laughs]

Yes, there you go, but anyway. It was still a hit and nobody seemed to notice the prom scene were all dancing out of time to it. The amazing thing is that I think because it’s associated with that movie and the prom scene, it seems to have been played at every prom for the last 36 years. It seems to be also synonymous with the ’80s. Whenever a company wants to reach out with a TV commercial to the Gen X demographic, they ask for “If You Leave” to be the soundtrack to the commercial.

We just got lucky. Normally, not everything you do is gold, and nine out of 10 times, you’ll make a dog’s dinner out of trying to do something in one day. We have this knack of doing things that can be quite emotional, quite melancholy, but soaring melancholy. It’s sad, but it’s also uplifting at the same time. We just seem to happen to do that.

That song seems to have divided the OMD community, which we expected it would. I’ve described it as, like, synthesizer, glam-rock stomp.

There have been quite a lot of criticisms of it when we released it on YouTube. Lots of people love it, but a few people are just like, “This is not OMD. Why does it sound like this?” 

What you realize is if you are lucky enough to do something, when you write songs, you are engaging with your own self. You’re trying to draw something out of yourself, fashion it into something the best it can be. It’s a conversation with yourself. Now, when you release it publicly, sometimes, if you’re lucky, lots of other people go, “Oh, they’re talking my language. I totally get what they’re saying. Oh, my God, somebody understands me.” Which is great. Until you release a piece of music that’s slightly different, and then they go, “How fucking dare you stop talking to me. Why are you not speaking my language anymore? I hate you.” I say, “I speak different languages to myself. I’m exploring different ideas. I’m sorry it didn’t talk to you. Maybe the next one will.”