Very few artists have had a career trajectory quite as strange as Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark: forming in the creatively fertile Liverpool post-punk scene, they broke away and sided with Factory Records for their initial releases before very nearly out Closer-ing Joy Division with second album Organisation, receiving both critical acclaim and scorn in back-to-back increasingly left-field albums before moving into a slick, commercial mainstream pop sound that culminated with their appearance on the Pretty In Pink soundtrack which made them global stars despite diminishing returns as the decade came to an end.
A late-2000s resurgence led to a creative rejuvenation which has continued through to today and with the 40th anniversary of debut single “Electricity“, the band have released the sprawling multi-disc retrospective Souvenir and embarked on a huge european tour, with many dates selling out far in advance. The night begins, fittingly, with a look into the future- MiG-15’s panoramic electronic-tinged indie rock who have a sound approaching the harder end of new wave, a harder-edged take on new wave but with electronic effects bubbling underneath always threatening to break out. The band is the brainchild of bassist James McCluskey, son of OMD frontman Andy, and make no mistake there is not even the slightest idea of a helping hand at work here- MiG-15 are here on their own merits and fully deserve this spotlight.
Vocalist Adam Bray, dressed in a crushed velvet jacket and Wayfarers, is gifted with unparalleled levels of charisma, a powerful baritone that oftentimes feels like a John Hughes take on Roy Orbison and a look that could easily sit on a poster on Ione Skye’s wall in Say Anything. “It’s always been a dream to play the Apollo”, Bray muses as MiG-15 showcase their new EP Bite The Bullet, with anthemic synth-driven hits-to-be which go down incredibly well with the Manchester crowd- the powerful drums of Martin Gordon create a wall of sound along with the spacious, spacey guitar work of James Morris give a sheen to the bands sound that belies the fact they have only been a collective for a short period of time, the excitement from the four very clear throughout, and are met with huge deserving applause from the Apollo.
“There’ll be some old songs, there’ll be some new songs, there’ll be some weird songs, but there will be dancing.”
For a greatest hits victory lap, the decision to open with a solid minute of Dazzle Ships music concrète is a bold move- “ABC Auto-Industry” and “Radio Prague“‘s disembodied voice samples and radio waves colliding with one another as the stage springs into life with LED boards and multi-coloured lights. The stage darkens once again as Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark enter shrouded in fog to the aching, languid “Stanlow“, the greatest and possibly only song ever recorded about an oil refinery- a symbol of OMD’s early ‘industrial romanticism’- the warm melancholic yang of the cold, brutal yin of Iggy Pop’s “Mass Production“. From here, OMD jump across decades with ease, ranging from the angular post-punk of “Messages” through to the lush synthpop of “Forever (Live And Die)” (the first of many opportunities for keyboardsman and co-founder Paul Humphries to take centre stage) to the flesh-and-blood Kraftwerk of “Isotypes“- the Replicant to the Teutonic quartet’s robot- a machine body given a human heart and soul.
OMD have been able, most likely thanks to the continuous improvement of technology, to update their sound over time to better suit a live environment- the overtly-commercial mid-1980s material such as “Tesla Girls” given a subtle but telling makeover with Andy McCluskey’s bass guitar and Stuart Kershaw’s drumming giving the songs a muscular boost without altering the DNA of the material. This allows these songs to stand up perfectly alongside the Wirral outfit’s essential early works as well as their 21st century releases. A natural frontman, McCluskey is blessed with seemingly unlimited supplies of energy, bounding across the stage (and sweating buckets) all the while employing his infamous signature dance- imagine Yer Da after 4 pints at the wedding when the DJ puts some Donna Summer on, arms windmilling and fists dramatically puncturing the air in time with Stuart’s drumming as the capacity crowd are led through a night of non-stop ecstatic dancing, lapping up every second.
“The future you anticipated has been cancelled”- more ghostly voice samples from the once-despised-now-beloved “Dazzle Ships” ring out as OMD scale back at the front of the stage for a run-through Organisation deep-cut “Statues“- a song written in tribute to the great Ian Curtis, and cult classic Factory B-side “Almost“- which the Apollo are told is the song that eventually spawned Depeche Mode, as it was the first song Vince Clarke learned to play on a synthesiser back in the late 1970s. This stripped-back format acted as a cool-down between the more high-energy portions of the set, sandwiched between the spine of Architecture & Morality “Souvenir“-“Joan Of Arc“-“Maid Of Orleans” played in sequence (arguably the band’s critical peak while utilising a Mellotron, a prog-rock leftover, to provide an atonal choral backing- again, OMD have enjoyed a bizarre career path) and ‘So In Love’, one of their highest charting singles which, while very ‘pop’ in the mainstream sense, still holds up to this day thanks to the McCluskey-Humphries songwriting partnership’s keen ear for melody.
As is the custom when a long-standing artist releases a career retrospective, OMD have recorded a brand-new exclusive song- “Don’t Go“, which feels just as vital as the likes of “Locomotion” or “Dreaming“, chugging along to a Europe Endless rhythm, “Don’t Go” feels like a long-lost unearthed single from the band’s early Kraftwerk-indebted years, gliding along with aérodynamik grace and precision. When informed that “this is your last chance to dance”, the synthpop icons hurl themselves through “Enola Gay“, the roof practically blowing off the Apollo as the audience goes absolutely crazy. Of course, this is not the end as after a quick change of clothes for the frontman the venerated Manchester venue is metamorphosed into Shermer High School circa 1986 for Pretty In Pink climax scene show-stealer “If You Leave“, Martin Cooper’s saxophone solo still as beautiful as it was when it soundtracked Duckie finally letting Andie live her life the way she wants (fun fact- “If You Leave” was written in one night after a hasty rewrite of the final scene of the movie. The original plan was for Duckie and Andie to get together and the original song for this scene was to be the already recorded and released “Goddess Of Love” instead. A right call on both fronts here.)
“We’re going to end at the beginning. Written in 1976, recorded in 1979, three minutes and forty-two seconds. Our fastest song.”- what that, OMD lurch into a triumphant (to the point of giddiness) rendition of their debut single “Electricity“- pulsating with its namesake just as much as it did 40 years ago. Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark are one of the true icons of post-punk and this tour is truly a party, the smiles on the faces of the band just as wide as those in the crowd- never one to rest on their laurels, it would not be at all surprising that more new material will be forthcoming once this anniversary passes, and with that another tour.
Words by Liam Moody.