Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
with Washington 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17
“Let’s be honest: With bands our age that are back, they are making records, and, quite frankly, they shouldn’t be allowed to, because they don’t have anything left to say,” Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Andy McCluskey says. Despite the graphic Peter Saville-drawn straight lines that defined their early output – or the career blueprint implied by mathematical early album titles like Architecture & Morality – the 30-plus-year path of OMD would prove to be an unpredictable mess of international proportions. Launched, as these things are, by the electro-noodling bipolarity of two young Liverpudlians in a Cold-War panic – Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys – OMD came on first as a four-track knee-jerk of Factory Records minimalism in 1978 via the studio twitches and spasms of their debut track, “Electricity.” The reaction was immediate, thrusting the duo (or perceived duo, as the band has been regularly augmented by a rotating cast of sonic support) into the blue smoke-machine breeze of fellow emerging U.K. acts like the Human League and Heaven 17. The obligatory Smash Hits magazine covers soon followed, as did the floor-filling cultish following that hits like “Enola Gay” and “Tesla Girls” would ultimately inspire. OMD, at least in Europe, grew into your little sister’s brooding Kraftwerk: sworn studio geeks with a knack for a dramatic chorus of desperation. Pretense, personified.
It wasn’t built to last. By the time the band made waves on American shores in the mid-’80s, much of the claustrophobic intensity had given way to pop’s more anthemic sensibilities and/or jean shorts. “If You Leave,” crafted for John Hughes’ seminal teen film Pretty in Pink, cracked the studio walls and, in turn, nearly ended the band. Just one underrated opus, 1986’s The Pacific Age, followed the chart success of that breakthrough before McCluskey was left in the lurch carrying on his commercial ambitions for OMD on his own, recording three albums – the arguably fantastic Sugar Tax, Liberator and Universal – as an over-named solo artist. The OMD moniker was put on the shelf in 1996.
But just a decade later, in 2006, McCluskey announced his intentions to reform the band – with its heyday lineup, including Humphreys, drummer Malcolm Holmes and keyboardist (and saxophonist) Martin Cooper – for a 2007 tour of 1981’s Architecture and Morality. The question was whether anybody would care.
“So we tentatively put a few gigs on sale in Europe, and they sold out,” McCluskey says. “We enjoyed it so much, we carried on touring and slowly, out of that, out of our sort of newly refound confidence, we dared to do the stupid and dangerous thing, which is actually consider making a new album.”
That album, History of Modern (released last year with a Peter Saville-designed cover), sits comfortably beside the band’s celebrated oeuvre, seamlessly combining the experimental excesses of early OMD with the pomp and circumstance that would define McCluskey’s later output. The absence of major-label pressure to A&R the band’s return to a swift nostalgia death – “We didn’t even think about talking to a major label,” McCluskey says – solidifies its relative timelessness. “Everything you say, everything you do/ All the things you own, all the things you knew/ Everyone you love, everyone you hate/ All will be erased and replaced,” McCluskey sings over the title track’s percolating synthesizer march, banging the drum for both OMD’s renaissance and its disposability. He’s not taking himself too seriously these days, after all.
“I had all these plans to have some dignity in my middle age onstage,” he says. “And I make a complete ass of myself. I still bounce around in my epileptic windmill way. It’s not dignified, but it’s what I do, and I love it. And it still seems to work.”