Enola Gay: how OMD made poignant pop from the ashes of Hiroshima
When Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark ’s Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys played their weird new song for their record label, the suits immediately heard the chiming of cash tills. OMD were, by contrast, hugely ambivalent about Enola Gay.
Yes it was catchy, that heavenly synth line spiralling toward the troposphere. But it was also a lament for the destruction of Hiroshima by a nuclear bomb in 1945.
“The record company instantly thought, 'oh we’ve got a potential hit',” recalls McCluskey. "The contention was within the band and within our own management. It was our first song that wasn’t written by us both. For Paul it was a little strange – like trying to adopt a stepchild. It wasn’t his baby. Our manager at the time thought it was cheesy pop crap.”
The manager threatened to quit. However, he had a dramatic change of heart as in the autumn of 1980 Enola Gay rocketed up the charts, reaching number eight in the UK and number one in Spain and Italy.
McCluskey himself has gone back and forth over the years about Enola Gay, named for the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that dropped the bomb in August 1945. As the world marks the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima this week, his feelings remain nuanced.
“I’ve always had an ambivalence regarding the dropping of the bomb,” says McCluskey a history nerd and World War 2 buff going back to his adolescence on the Wirral. “I’ve been fascinated – but not in a celebratory way – about the moral dilemmas that occur in warfare.
“I’m not a black and white person: it’s always fascinated me…you are actively encouraged to do things in a time of war that would get you locked up for [in peace time]. It’s a moral maze.
“And of course, there is no more greater moral dilemma than whether you should drop an atomic bomb that kills 140,000 people in the hope that it might save five million. The pilot, Paul Tibbets, always felt that he had done the right thing."
McCluskey had long intended writing about the dawn of the atomic age. He carried with him a folder of lyrics ideas and had spent time reading up on the subject in Liverpool’s grand old Central Library on William Brown Street.
“There are so many different angles. So many contradictions and different points of view as to whether the Japanese would have surrendered because the Russians were about to come into the war…[Or that] the dropping of the bomb was actually to demonstrate to the Russians what the Americans could do. There are so many questions that hang over the dropping of the bomb. But one thing you cannot deny is that it was an absolute atrocious thing to do.
“The song is not in any way, shape or form a celebration,” McCluskey continues. “It’s really a discussion. It’s about the moral dilemma. It’s about what happened – and how it happened.”
The song itself had come together relatively quickly. McCluskey, then a gawky 20 year-old peeking out through spirals of curly hair, was at Humphrey’s house, where the duo, who had met in primary school in Meols, wrote much of their early material.
“It was quite a slog collecting the lyrics. I’m a complete geek. When it comes to a particular subject I want to know everything about it. As you may know, I don’t always write 'I love you baby'. I had actually researched it. It was like I was writing a dissertation or something.”
Humphreys was out helping to repair a public swimming pool at nearby Hoylake as part of a back to worth scheme (he was living on benefits trying to get OMD up and running). And his mother was at work. It was just McCluskey, a binder stuffed with jottings about Hiroshima and four-engine heavy bombers, and a rudimentary keyboard.
“Paul had been on the dole for a year when the band got started. He kept turning down jobs so he could sit in his mum’s room and write songs with me,” McCluskey remembers. “He finally couldn’t turn one down any more. He had to go on some work employment scheme. So he wasn’t there. It was just me at the back of his mum’s house. That’s when I wrote the music. I thought - 'oh maybe I could sing about that Enola Gay plane'."
“I got out my book of words and look at my research,” he reflects. “I don’t ever want to write lyrics completely before I’ve got my music. Then you make boring music to carry a lyric, instead of writing interesting music and putting the lyric in later.”
This was a tumultuous year for OMD. The band had started as a bit of a pretentious jape. Emerging from the ashes of their previous group Hitlerz Underpantz, McCluskey and Humphreys formed the duo with the intention of playing just one gig. It was meant to be a lark – hence their relatively inelegant name, cobbled together in haste from song ideas scribbled on McCluskey’s bedroom wall (OMD won out over “Margaret Thatcher’s Afterbirth”).
But OMD had taken off immediately. Within a few weeks of that first show supporting a stand-up comic at Eric’s in Liverpool, Tony Wilson of trendy Factory Records up the road in Manchester, told them they were the future of pop.
Wilson had been persuaded to listen to their demo tape by his wife, Lindsay, who found it chucked in a bag of cast-offs in his glove box. She was entranced by Electricity, their jittery homage to Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity and insisted they were simply too catchy for Wilson to pass over. Later, when Peter Saville, designer of record sleeves for OMD and Joy Division, heard Enola Gay he told them they had to put their misgivings about pop to one side and run with it.
“It’s funny just yesterday I was having a conversation with Peter," says McCluskey. "We were talking about the anniversary. And he said, 'I remember you telling me you had written a song. You had this dilemma that it turned out to be poppier than you had anticipated [but] the lyrics are quite dark. When I heard it, I thought it was a hit. You’ve got to release this, despite the subject matter;.”
The journey from the Wirral to the charts wasn’t straightforward, though. During their brief spell under Wilson’s wings, McCluskey and Humphreys had toured as a Factory package with Joy Division and A Certain Ratio. They weren’t especially close but had found the Macclesfield band polite (each evening Joy Division would ask if OMD wanted to headline).
They had moved on by the time McCluskey wrote Enola Gay, to Virgin imprint DinDisc. The label was run by Carol Wilson, and was essentially a thank you gift to her from Richard Branson after she had discovered Sting and the Police. OMD were one of her first signings. They inked a seven album deal worth £250,000 – a mind-blowing figure at the time. She saw McCluskey and Humphreys as the perfect synthesis of pop and pretension. They would bring credibility to DinDisc whilst also, she anticipated, shifting a spectacular number of records.
“OMD were a perfect fit for what I had in mind for DinDisc — they had a serious, artistic side with real depth, as well as a commercial, pop side,” she would say. “That duality was reflected in all the early DinDisc signings, like Martha and the Muffins, and then the Monochrome Set.”
But then, in May 1980, Ian Curtis had killed himself. The independent rock scene the north of England was plunged into mourning. The sense of loss was still heavy in the air that summer as OMD retreated to Ridge Farm Studio in West Sussex to record their Organisation album (named for the Düsseldorf collective that spawned Kraftwerk), and with it Enola Gay.
“I had written it before Ian died,” says McCluskey. “But it was recorded just a few months after [the suicide] It was quite devastating. We weren’t particularly close. But we were huge fans of their music. If you compare our first two albums… the first was very simple garage electro pop. The second was a much darker and melancholy sound. We were definitely influenced by the production and the darkness of Joy Division – it started to infuse our own music.”
“We discussed the irony of the lyric in the studio. Such a dark subject matter, but at first listen seemingly just a 'silly' love song and with the simple pop chord structure,” remembers album producer Mike Howlett (a member of English-French proggers Gong and of Police forerunners Strontium 90). He would later write his PhD thesis about Enola Gay and several other OMD songs.
“I definitely thought it was a hit,” he continues. “I was working very closely with Carol Wilson, who created the DinDisc record label and we both agreed this had real hit potential. Partly because of the catchy repeating three-note synth melody running throughout the song, as well as the classic chord cycle. There must be dozens of classic Fifties hits with this same cycle. Stand By Me comes to mind. And, of course, the way the song title starts every verse.”
“The band were at this point confident in their writing and compositional capabilities,” says Howlett. “There was no issue or structural change required from my point of view. The aim was simply to make a good sounding recording of the song.”
Despite the shadow cast by Ian Curtis’s passing and the label’s high expectations for Enola Gay, band and producer just got on with it. “Overall, this whole album recording was a very happy collaboration,” says Howlett. “The studio was in a lovely bucolic setting with a swimming pool and the weather was lovely too.
“The only toil was that we weren't satisfied that we had caught Andy's best vocal there and when we had finished mixing the album we went back to Advision Studios in London, where we had recorded [previous single] Messages, and re-recorded the vocals. Andy was much more comfortable singing there and they also had a particular old valve Neumann microphone – an M49 if you want to get technical – that suited Andy well for this song.”
Organisation met with largely approving reviews. Enola Gay, meanwhile, was a sensation from the outset. Yet at the time its lyrics were sometimes misunderstood. Because of the title Enola Gay was thought by some to be a gay anthem. This being the Eighties it was consequently banned from the BBC’s Swap Shop, according to Johnny Waller’s 1987 OMD biography, Messages. Yet such silliness was quickly forgotten and it today stands tall as one of the most poignant pop songs ever.
“On the one hand it feels like an upbeat catchy synth pop tune with a vintage early drum machine vibe,” says Hal St John of London synth duo Ooberfuse, who have recorded a haunting cover of Enola Gay in collaboration with Japanese musician Hibari for the 75th anniversary.
“On the other, when you look into what Enola Gay means, you are transported to the nightmare horrors of apocalyptic nuclear holocaust.”
The story had an slightly uncomfortable postscript when OMD played their first Japanese concert, in Osaka in 1984. Should they perform OMD, one of their biggest hits, or drop it?
“I had some reservations as to how it would be received,” says McCluskey. “But we played it. And there were no issues.”
He is obviously proud of the song today. To convey the moral greyness of life during wartime in a pop ditty, without compromising either the art or the pop, is a historic achievement. It is a sign of its stature that it featured in Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. The line “Enola Gay, is mother proud of little boy today?”, in particular, functions at several levels, says McCluskey.
“Paul Tibbets, the pilot, named the plane after his mum. What a lovely way to commemorate good old mum. And of course the bomb was code-named Little Boy. 'Is Mother Proud of Little Boy Today?' It has at least three layers of meaning.”