Melissa Blease reviews Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark live at The Pavillion, Bath
It’s a dreary Thursday evening in Liverpool, circa 1978/79. Rush is playing live at the Empire Theatre, Roxy Music is on their way to the same venue in time for their Friday gig and most of my mates are on their way to Huddersfield to see Siouxsie and the Banshees at the Poly. But I’m 14 years old: Rush are old men, I’ve yet to ‘get’ Roxy Music and I couldn’t afford the coach fare to Huddersfield. Ah well, at least I had whatever was going on at Eric’s – the now-legendary Liverpool ‘punk’ club – to keep me entertained. And anyway, rumour had it that the resident house band were actually very good – good, but not cool.
While it took a very long time for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark to be considered cool (in the days when PVC, heavy black eyeliner and bondage wear dominated the music scene wardrobe, OMD dressed like mortgage advisors and frontman Andy McCluskey danced like yer dad) it wasn’t long before audiences were expected to pay far more than 50p for an evening in their company.
Scroll forward four decades, and the mild-mannered Wirral boys with a fascination for electro-pop are celebrating their Ruby anniversary with a new box set and a nationwide tour, which pit-stopped in the Pavilion last Friday evening. “It’s nice to be playing at Bob and Sharon’s wedding,” frontman Andy McCluskey joked at the end of the opening number, making a cheeky reference to the venue’s ‘church hall done up for a special occasion’ décor; “I bet they didn’t expect their first dance to be a song about an oil refinery in Ellesmere Port, though…”
I bet, though, the fictitious Bob and Sharon wouldn’t have cared what they danced to, for McCluskey sure knows how to get a party started; he gloriously, wholly unselfconsciously celebrates himself and his band from the first bippety-boop-bleep from co-founder Paul Humphreys’ synth all the way through to the final melancholic strains of urgent post-punk synth-pop milestone Electricity – an anniversary gift saved until the very end of the show, and a climax for which we had to wait a rather long time – relentlessly windmilling his arms, punching the air, striking a pose, punctuating the beat. “Not bad for a 60-year-old!” he declares, midway through the set, before embarking on yet another on-stage workout while half of his audience (of a similar vintage) were wishing it was a seated venue. Anyway…
OMD spent much of their 1980s heyday poised on the bridge that linked avant-garde electro-pop side and mainstream commercial instincts; they were Kraftwerk lite for the Top Shop generation, easier to digest than Japan, never as brazenly ‘showy’ as Erasure… but never quite as dull as Tears for Fears. Die hard fans, however, may have found the celebratory setlist that the band are currently touring disappointingly light on the more obscure aspects of their back catalogue, with only a handful of more esoteric tracks such as the chilly throb of early B-side Almost – reportedly a key inspiration on the young Depeche Mode – sprinkled between former singles that haven’t aged gracefully, such as bland Eurovision-style plodders Dreaming and Pandora’s Box.
But if pop is where the band are (and perhaps always really were?) at, pop is what we got: an all-singing, all-dancing, crowd-pleasing greatest hits/memory lane spectacle liberally seasoned with enduringly memorable blasts from the past including the romantic, machine-dream ballad Souvenir, the smooth, magisterial Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans), hyperactive dance hit Tesla Girls, the breezy, effervescent Locomotion (nothing to do with Little Eva, but slightly Kylie in character) and the melodic white heat of Enola Gay – if “Sharon and Bob” didn’t expect their first dance to be to a song about an oil refinery in Ellesmere Port, many more of us never expected to be bopping along to a ditty about the Superfortress bomber that carried the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. But hey-ho, that’s classic 80’s synth-pop for you – and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are classic purveyors of the genre. Bring on the Golden Anniversary tour; my bet is that McCluskey will still be dancing himself dizzy at that party, too – expect to pay way more than 50p for a ticket.