‘Enola Gay’

Andy McCluskey talks us through the making of OMD’s 1980 pop classic, ‘Enola Gay’

“I had wanted to write a song about Enola Gay, the aeroplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, for some time. Both Paul Humphreys and I grew up being complete Airfix anoraks, we were fascinated by Second World War aircraft. Anyone interested in the subject will eventually come across Enola Gay, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Despite being the most technologically advanced pressurised aircraft of its time, it was still somewhat primitive in comparison to modern planes and I think that was part of the fascination.

“When you start to research the story, it has a very complicated human and moral – some would say immoral – dimension. The most bizarre thing about it was that Enola Gay was the name of the pilot’s mother, which shows he believed he was doing something that was morally right. Things are done in warfare that are beyond the normal understanding of humanity, morals or ethics, which is where my whole interest lies.

The Enola Gay story was a very, very deep subject, but I was concerned not to deliver the lyrics in a purely didactic way. I wanted to make them more obscure. To this day, I don’t know why I chose to wrap the lyrics in what could be conceived as careful metaphor, to the point where some people thought it was a love song.

“I can’t read or write music, so it was all done by ear, completely intuitively. I sat down at an organ in Paul’s mum’s house – he was on a YTS scheme and had to go and rebuild a swimming pool – and I played the four chords in my usual three-fingered, crablike way, then started writing the melody. To this day, I still can’t play the melody at full speed because I’m not a good keyboard player. All of the harmonics were just the notes that sounded right to me.

“One of the most iconic parts of the song – the drum machine – was actually the very last thing that went on the track. I think maybe we thought it was a bit boring to have a straight drum kit, and what became the ‘Enola Gay’ pattern was completely programmed by us on the Roland CR-78, it wasn’t a preset. The CR-78 was the first programmable drum machine – most of them in those days had Rock 1, Rock 2, Waltz and so on, and you just pressed buttons and it played the rhythm.

“There are acoustic drums on the track, but they were not played as a live kit. Our poor drummer Malcolm Holmes was driven to distraction by this because we didn’t want the drums played in a clattered rock ’n’ roll style. No cymbals were allowed, and we insisted that he recorded each drum separately, so that took a long time. It created a problem for us because Malcolm made a mistake. He missed a beat and we had to add the big fill in the last melody. We refused to go back and fix it because it had taken so long to put the drums down.

“Everything on ‘Enola Gay’ was played by hand. It was before computers and sequencers, and before MIDI. It was all following the CR-78 drum machine. The melody is triple-tracked, which gives it its fat harmonic sound. Because of the way we did it, each note doesn’t land in exactly the same place, which means it’s got a slightly wandering, multi-timbral fuzziness to it.

“A Korg Micro-Preset and a Roland SH-09 were used for the melodies on ‘Enola Gay’. We also used an old 1960s Vox Jaguar organ, banged through a load of reverb and harmonisers to make it sound less tinny. We bought the Korg from my mother’s catalogue. It was £7.36 for 36 weeks, which was all we could afford out of our dole money. It is one of the most primitive synthesisers you will ever come across. It’s got a series of buttons for different instrument sounds, but it doesn’t matter what button you press, the synth just goes ‘ennnnhhhhhhhh’. That’s one of the reasons our early synth parts are triple-tracked and swamped in reverb, to try and make the sound slightly less like an electronic kazoo!

“We recorded the track with Mike Howlett. Mike was put in with us because we were a bit crash-bang-wallop in the early days. We didn’t really know what we were doing and so he was installed to slow us down. He did a good job, and he produced three of our biggest singles. He allowed us to do it our way, though – in a way that no other band would do – partly because we refused to follow what we perceived to be rock ’n’ roll cliches, and partly because we didn’t know any better! He didn’t come in and say, ‘That’s not the way you do it’, which was important. If a producer had tried to do that we’d have probably had an argument with them, and it wouldn’t have sounded nearly as distinctive.

“Saturday morning TV’s ‘Swap Shop’ banned the track. They couldn’t work out what the lyrics were about. They were concerned about the use of the word ‘gay’, and that the song might be some sort of surreptitious way of trying to corrupt the youth. They thought it was a homosexual anthem, masquerading as a pop song.

“Another issue we encountered at the time was people saying we had a song that was about something that was frankly appalling and immoral, and yet it was in the charts. People were dancing around to it, it had a jolly, bright, candyfloss melody, and how could I justify that? I said frankly, I couldn’t. My only defence in writing a cheerful pop song about such a dark period of human history was to say that it’s less strange and surreal than it is to drop an atom bomb from an aeroplane named after your mother.

“‘Enola Gay’ is a song I absolutely still enjoy. I don’t really understand the mentality of people who feel that their hits become some sort of albatross. It’s a blessing, you should celebrate it. And when you have an opportunity to play it live to people, you should treat it with the respect it deserves and which the audience are going to give it. Don’t go out there, make excuses and mess around with it by doing some acoustic version. Go out there and play it the way you wrote it and the way it’s supposed to be heard. I have no time at all for people who whinge that they’re bored of playing their hits. It’s like saying you’re bored of your eldest child. I don’t understand it at all.”

A limited edition 40th anniversary ‘Enola Gay’ 12-inch, featuring two new OMD remixes, is out now on UMC/EMI

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