It wasn't exactly Alexander weeping because he had no more worlds to conquer. But when Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark bandleader Andy McCluskey composed "Walking on the Milky Way" — the frothy synth-pop single from the group's ill-fated 1996 album, Universal — he viewed it as some sort of ultimate achievement.
"I didn't think I could write a better song than that," says the singer/multi-instrumentalist of the single that doomed a band best known for '80s staples like "Enola Gay" and "Souvenir." "I just thought that was — as we say over here in England — the dog's bollocks. But Radio 1 wouldn't play it in the U.K. because we were an old band, so we wouldn't be recognized by their target audience. And because Radio 1 wouldn't play it, many of the shops wouldn't stock it. So when it got to Number 17, with its arms tied behind its back, I just thought, 'I really am banging my head against the wall here, aren't I?' That made me realize it was time to retire."
For a while, that is. McCluskey reunited with original partner Paul Humphreys four years ago to play 40-odd concerts commemorating the 25th anniversary of their pioneering Architecture and Morality album, and then re-entered the studio to track a scintillating 2010 comeback, History of Modern, which they're currently backing via a stateside tour.
During the intervening years, as grunge and Britpop topped the charts, Humphreys busied himself with Onetwo — his experimental duo with Propaganda's Claudia Brucken. McCluskey, meanwhile, decided to take full advantage of the posh recording studio he'd purchased, then refurbished, in his native Liverpool. He formed his own label, White Noise Records, and set about creating two Phil Spector-ish girl groups, Atomic Kitten and the Genie Queen. Why?
McCluskey cackles impishly. "I was conceited enough to think that there was actually nothing wrong with my songwriting — it was the messenger that was being rejected, not the message," he declares. "So I invented a girl pop group to sing my songs, and with Atomic Kitten I actually managed to get my first-ever U.K. Number 1 with a song called 'Whole Again.' But I found out the hard way that developing young acts is difficult — everybody's your friend when you're helping them and putting your hand in your pocket. But as soon as you ask for something in return? They run a million miles away."
Yet eventually, there was a resurgence in OMD interest, with offers to tour, appear on TV, and produce some young electroclash artists. So they opted to test reactions with the Architecture tour. "It gave us a chance to play the whole album, live, and to remind people of our credibility," says McCluskey. "Because a lot of people either don't know or have forgotten that we started out as a really weird, cutting-edge, making-up-our-own-bloody-rules band. And just having Architecture re-released, and having the press go 'Fuck! Wasn't this brilliant?' was a great way to put our toes back in the water."
The only problem, as McCluskey saw it, was staying relevant with new Modern tracks like "Pulse," "Sister Marie Says" and "New Babies: New Toys." He thinks OMD nailed it. "Because let's be honest — there are contemporaries of ours who've made records recently just because it was the appropriate career move," he snipes. "But quite frankly, they shouldn't have been allowed back in the studio, because they had fuck-all to say!"