Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys recall how they came to make a pop song about the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Andy McCluskey, singer, songwriter and bass-player
Paul Humphreys and I had been at school together and formed Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark in 1978. We were a pair of anoraks with a fascination for old trains and aeroplanes, which inevitably led me to write about Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. But the subject matter caused consternation within the band. Our manager even threatened to resign if we released it as a single.
I researched the subject in the library; it’s not the way most people write songs – but couched the lyric in metaphor and emotive language. I thought the line “Is mother proud of little boy today?” was so terribly clever, because it had several meanings. It referenced the fact that the plane was named after the pilot’s mother, and the bomb was codenamed “little boy” – while also asking whether a mother would be proud of what her son was doing. I was ambivalent about this: would you fly a plane to kill all those people because you thought you were going to save even more?
The emotional way I sang the song helped give it strength. I’m also proud of the fact that, although Paul and I were obsessed by technology and electronic sounds, we never wanted to do the silly we-are-robots thing that was fashionable in the early 80s. When it came to recording, the drum machine that you hear at the beginning was about the last thing to go on. It is now regarded as iconic, one of the signature elements of the song.
People couldn’t comprehend how this strange song about a plane that drops a bomb could be a hit, but it became an absolute monster, selling five million copies across Europe. It seems ridiculous in this age of the X Factor and manufactured pop stars that anybody could, almost by accident, get a song to the top of the charts that they considered to be art – but that’s where we were coming from. We still close our gigs with Enola Gay, leaving the stage with the drum machine playing. I never understand bands who tire of playing their biggest hit, the song that’s been the key to their entire life.
Paul Humphreys, keyboards
I was always uneasy about the fact that Enola Gay was a bright, perky pop song about a nuclear holocaust, but it was insanely catchy. We’d intended the song to go on our eponymously titled first album, but hadn’t quite got it right. When we signed to Virgin, they put us with producer Mike Howlett, ex-bass player with space rockers Gong, and he helped us improve it. He took us to this lovely studio, at Ridge Farm in Dorking, our first venture into proper recording. In those days, you didn’t have sequencers, where you can just chuck something in and edit it; it all had to be done manually. So, as I was a much better keyboardist than Andy at the time, I programmed the synths and played everything on the keyboards.
Our great inspiration was Kraftwerk, though we didn’t have the technology to emulate them. This helped us define our own sound. We were never purist and robotic, and there was a certain romance in our melodies. Today, making our new album, I’ve got about a billion synths and the possibilities are endless; but back then, proper synths cost thousands. Ours were really quite cheesy. Most of the melodic parts of Enola Gay were recorded on a Korg Micro-Preset bought from a mail order catalogue – the cheapest one you could buy.
Andy found the master tape recently . The single might sound big and grand, but when you listen to the solo parts on the master, everything is so small; 60 per cent of that sound must have come from the reverb effects we used in the studio. When we reformed the band a few years ago, we bought up a load of old synths on eBay; we didn’t want to come over like a band using modern instruments to try to sound like OMD. Songs are like capsules that catch a moment. When you perform them correctly, audiences are transported back to when they first heard them.
OMD’s new album English Electric is out on 8 April. They tour the UK from 28 April.