ATndy McCluskey remembers vividly the first time he came up close and personal with a Maurice Wade painting. The Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark co-founder was at a gallery in Hale, Cheshire, inquiring about a different artwork altogether when it stopped him in his tracks. “I walked in and there it was, BOOM!” he says. “His paintings have a resonance for me on so many levels: the stark sense of black and white, the industrial landscapes, the melancholy … I just went, ‘Woooah.’”
“And then I got a bit carried away.”
In the decade since that first encounter, McCluskey has snapped up 21 works by the little-known British painter. They currently cover pretty much all the wall space in his house (“I have no need for wallpaper”), although they’re about to leave home to appear in a new exhibition, Silent Landscapes: The Andy McCluskey Collection. It’s only the second exhibition of Wade’s work in the past 30 years and one that McCluskey hopes will bring the late oil painter some much deserved attention.
“It’s difficult to find out much about him,” says McCluskey. “Nobody can even find a photograph of him. He’s quite mysterious.”
What he does know is that Wade was born in 1917 in Newcastle-under-Lyme. After serving in the second world war, he returned to the Potteries to teach art before becoming a full-time painter, exhibiting at the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon. Yet, save for a handful of commissions, his 320-odd paintings were all produced within five miles of his home in Longport. And what paintings they are: towering kilns and chimneys, rows of old houses, crystal-clear reflections in the canal water, meticulously studied paint trowelled on thickly with a palette knife.
“The stillness in his canals,” marvels McCluskey. “They really are the absolute pinnacle.”
In a sense these paintings work as historical records of a bygone Britain – the houses on 1961’s Hot Lane, for instance, are no longer there. But McCluskey is keen to point out that Wade is not a “northern artist” in the tradition of LS Lowry: “The way he painted was, frankly, just less sentimental.”
He’s hoping the noise around this exhibition may help to reveal where more of Wade’s paintings are hiding. “I am hoping people will read this article and go, ‘I think my nan’s got one like that over her mantelpiece,’” he grins, before telling a story about a framer at a gallery who thought he might have framed a couple of Wades for another Stoke native, Robbie Williams. McCluskey shares an agent with Williams so got in touch to ask. “Straight back I get an email from him going, ‘All right mate! I don’t actually own anything by Maurice Wade but why don’t I? I need to get one of these yesterday! Where can I get one?’ We’ve told him if any more come in he can have first dibs.”
McCluskey grew up with painting. He describes Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery as his “home from home” and as a teenager he would finger-paint his own swirling, psychedelic oil paintings in homage to JMW Turner (you can see a couple of these in the exhibition catalogue).
“My son asked why all my paintings were done in 1974 and 1975,” he says. “That’s because on 24 June 1975, on my 16th birthday, I took all my money and bought a bass guitar: end of painting!”
But McCluskey did complete his A-level art in which he got an E after writing an essay declaring all wall-hung art to be dead. (Another essay on Dada, which was written in a dadaist style, also failed to impress the teachers.) He toyed with the idea of studying fine art at Leeds, and recently realized that if he had done he would have been there at the same time as Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, and Dave Ball and Marc Almond of Soft Cell – who knows what band may have emerged? Instead he formed OMD with his friend Paul Humphreys: McCluskey on a cheap left-handed bass played upside down, Humphreys making weird noises from machines built out of his auntie’s dismantled radios.
“Everyone said it was future pop, but the only synth we had was from my mother’s catalogue,” says McCluskey. “Still, one of the things I loved about Brian Eno is that he said, ‘If you’ve only got a load of cheap junk, the chances are you’re the only people with that particular collection of cheap junk … that’s your sound, so celebrate it.’ And so that’s what we did.”
They were only ever going to play one gig (“that’s why we had such a stupid name”). And in a way they should never have been pop stars – compared to the cool customers on the Liverpool scene that formed around Eric’s club (Echo and the Bunnymen, Dead or Alive, Teardrop Explodes), McCluskey stood out with his huge afro and baggy clothes . But their music – romantic melodies aligned with icy, robotic backdrops – caught the attention of Factory records. McCluskey laughs recalling how the label’s famous designer Peter Saville took him to one side and said: “Your music sounds like the future but you look terrible … cut your hair!”
Yet this was actually the start of a great working relationship between the two men, with McCluskey describing him as the “artistic big brother I never had”.
In fact, he thinks his love of Wade’s paintings might be connected to the black, thermographic design Saville produced for their debut single, Electricity, which shared not just a starkness but also a three-dimensional quality thanks to the way Wade applied his paint.
Saville’s artistic influence over OMD is a great story in itself. McCluskey recalls him being so inspired by Edward Wadsworth’s 1919 vorticist painting Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool that he asked them if they could write a song and album of the same name to match his sleeve idea. “I just said, yeah,” McCluskey admitted. “It was definitely the tail wagging the dog.”
That album, Dazzle Ships, stands out now as OMD’s most bold and bizarre, one in which they moved away from their synth-pop roots to a more avant-garde approach that incorporated concrete music and bursts of shortwave radio. But at the time the reception was muted. “It was almost career-ending,” says McCluskey. “Virgin Records joked at the time that it was their only record that shipped gold and returned platinum.”
Nowadays it’s regarded by many fans as their masterpiece, with some comparing it to Kid A in the way it attempted to dismantle pop and rebuild it as something altogether new. The live shows around the album were just as artfully ambitious. “It was like a Russian constructivist ballet set, with bits that moved and the drums six foot in the air,” says McCluskey. “For a couple of songs the stage set played the songs. It was a complete bloody pain in the arse to be honest – but it did mess with people’s heads.”
Two years ago, OMD were preparing to go on a 40th anniversary tour in the US but the pandemic put a halt on things; instead they will be fulfilling those commitments next month. Looking back on four decades of the group, does McCluskey consider them pioneers?
“We do get called that and I am certainly not going to say, ‘No, we weren’t’. Nobody works in a vacuum, of course. But in the days before the internet, when it was just the press, we knew nothing of the Human League and Cabaret Voltaire. And our little hobby turned out to be on the rise and crest of a wave.”
OMD’s best known song, of course, is a sprightly pop number about the atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima. When McCluskey wrote Enola Gay, the cold war was still to thaw.
“People of my generation were entirely sure that at some point someone would press the red button and we’d all go to hell,” he says. “It was just a matter of time.”
How does he view the current re-emergence of a global nuclear threat?
“I thought I’d never see warfare in Europe in my lifetime,” he says. “So, sadly, my fascination with warfare is still relevant. I wish it wasn’t.”
It’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to wonder if the frantic pace of the modern world, with its 24/7 information overload of scandals and division, may make it a ripe time for people to fall in love with Maurice Wade. His unpeopled paintings possess a calm quite at odds with the chaotic Britain of today.
“I completely agree,” says McCluskey. “If you stand in front of one of those paintings you can immerse yourself in this hushed tranquility. In these hectic times, that’s not a bad kind of escape.”