“Enola Gay” is a perky pop, energetic song with cheerful notes, but with a dramatic reference and skeptical message about the WW2 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; it has essentially pacifist, anti-war lyrics by the English synthpop, electronic band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), and the only single taken from their 1980 album Organisation. “Enola Gay” was written by founder/singer/bass guitarist Andy McCluskey, at the other OMD band member Paul Humphrey’s parents’ house. It refers to the atomic bombing by the aircraft named Enola Gay (the pilot Brigadier General’s mother’s name) on 6 August 1945, at the end of World War II,of Hiroshima, in Japan. It casts doubts about the necessity to bomb Hiroshima and cause so many victims with an atomic bomb, even if to save more as it is widely credited with forcing JApan to surrender rather than fight to the last man, and end WW2.
“Enola Gay” was met with largely positive feedback but wasn’t expected to be as successful as it turned out to be; aside from its controversial reference, the song faced some push back due to its being erroneously perceived as promoting homosexuality and it was banned from a popular children’s show on the BBC. It eventually reached #8 on the UK Singles Chart, becoming the band’s first top 10 entry in their home country. It was also a hit throughout continental Europe, reaching #1 in the charts in Italy, Portugal and Spain, and #2 in Switzerland. It achieved sales in excess of 5,000,000 copies. “Enola Gay” has been named as one of the best songs of its time and genre, and , is regarded as OMD‘s signature song along with 1986’s “If You Leave”.
The track went on to enjoy lasting popularity, including within the LGBT community. Eventually it was adopted as a sort of gay anthem as it was previously perceived and associated to LGBT culture. As time goes by and WW2 facts tend to drift into oblivion, together with a less than deep attention for lyrics and the background of the song, it’s ending up being associated to the “alternative” message of support for the LGBT community slowly moving away from the original message.
Typical of early Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark compositions, the track does not feature a vocal chorus, but rather a melodic synthesizer riff. It contributed to make it an infectious, danceable song as it didn’t present a language barrier in remembering the lyrics of the catchy hook, as it was not sung. It’s recognizable by its strong, distinctive lead synthesizer hook that made it so catchy and ambiguous lyrical content which created great contrast. It’s one of those songs that gets stuck in your mind.
Most of the melodic parts were recorded on a Korg Micro-Preset, and the drum machine sound was “about the last thing to go on” the track. The song is based on the 50s progression, which repeats throughout the entire song.
Keyboardist Paul Humphreys and OMD manager Paul Collister were not fans of “Enola Gay” (the latter originally threatened to resign if it were released as a single). Collister did, however, believe it was very viable commercially and a likely hit, however drummer Malcolm Holmes did not share the same opinion. Initially proud of the song, McCluskey’s confidence wavered: he re-recorded his vocal, but was dissatisfied with the final mix of the track.
Enola Gay, a B-29 Superfortress, inspired the name of the song. It was the bomber that carried Little Boy, the first atomic bomb to be used in war, dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, killing more than 100,000 of its citizens. The name of the bomber itself was chosen by its pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets, who named it after his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets.
In the lyrics is the phrase “Is mother proud of Little Boy today?”, with multiple meanings, it’s an allusion to both the nickname of the atomic bomb and pilot Paul Tibbets naming the aircraft after his mother Enola Gay. The phrase, “It’s 8:15, and that’s the time that it’s always been”, refers to the time of detonation over Hiroshima at 8:15 am; as many clocks and watches were “frozen” by the effects of the blast, it becomes “the time that it’s always been”. It is identified as an “anti-war” soundtrack, although McCluskey stated he “wasn’t really politically motivated to write the song”, which was inspired by a fascination with WW2 bomber planes and the fact that in wartime so much was allowed that wasn’t in peacetime.
Despite its subject matter, the single was released at a time of strong anti-nuclear sentiment in the UK. This, according to the BBC, helped it become an “unlikely hit”. The track reached a peak of #8 in the UK charts, becoming 1 of the 50 best-selling singles in their homeland in 1980.
Readers of NME, Record Mirror and Smash Hits voted “Enola Gay” one of the 10 best singles of 1980; it later placed 8th in a Slicing Up Eyeballs reader poll of the year’s best songs. The track has featured in critics’ lists such as NME’s “100 Best Songs of the 1980s”, Classic Pop’s “Top 100 Singles of the 80s”, PopMatters’ “100 Best Alternative Singles of the 1980s”, MusicRadar’s “40 Greatest Synth Tracks Ever” and Smooth Radio’s “25 Greatest 1980s Synthpop Songs”. It was selected by Danny Boyle for use during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The song became a Celtic FC anthem in the mid-to-late 2010s, with fans changing the lyrics to revolve around player Stuart Armstrong.
It is “about both coming out and nuclear destruction”, they said and that “It’s clear to see why a young gay or bisexual male can place a different meaning on a lyric about dropping the nuclear bomb through coming out to their own families.” OMD embraced their unexpected and unplanned fans, and added popularity, once aware that the LGBT community embraced the song and made it one of their anthems.
“Enola Gay” is popular with early home computer enthusiasts, being used in demos such as Swinth (Commodore 64). Hackers have also used the song extensively.
The music video was shot at the ITN studios in 3 hours in 1 afternoon. It begins by showing accelerated footage of clouds passing across the sky. After the opening riff, which is shown as the keyboardist’s hands playing whilst being animated using digital rotoscoping, it shows a transparent video image of McCluskey singing and playing bass guitar.