The most extraordinary musical acts in modern pop history have emerged from groundbreaking scenes that imbue them with mythic powers. And so it was wholly satisfying to witness Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, one of the very finest UK bands, fully embrace their own mythology in a pandemic-delayed 40th-anniversary celebration of hits at DC’s Lincoln Theatre this week, when frontman Andy McCluskey and company smartly acknowledged the creative ground that forged OMD in late ’70s England.
In the concert’s most extraordinary moment, OMD reset their positions during the show’s midpoint to place the four band members at the lip of the stage in a Kraftwerk formation, whereupon Andy dedicated the live rarity “Statues” to the group’s long-departed friend Ian Curtis.
Over the decades, of course, Andy has cited a 1975 Kraftwerk show at the Empire Theatre, where he sat in Seat Q36, as leaving an indelible mark upon his musical consciousness. This show, among other influences, inspired Andy and his OMD co-founder Paul Humphreys to experiment with electronic sounds, leading to the release of their very Futurist and remarkable self-titled debut album in 1980.
Along the way, Liverpool-based OMD played some of their very first shows in 1978 and 1979 with Joy Division, the famed Mancunian post-punk quartet fronted by Ian, a tortured poet who soon took his own life. And so at the Lincoln Theatre on April 26, the surprising presentation of “Statues,” lifted from OMD’s 1980 sophomore album Organisation, neatly encapsulated some prominent aspects of the band’s fantastic origin story. (The audience knew this was a different sort of performance from the start when OMD played the equally rare “Stanlow,” also from Organisation, as the second number of the concert.)
In an amazing one-two tap to the ticklish underbelly of the new wave gestalt, Andy dropped that early OMD song “Almost,” another moving and arresting selection, inspired young Vince Clarke, another friend of the band, to experiment with synthesizers and then form Depeche Mode. The audience was thrilled by Andy’s casual sharing of this information right before OMD then performed “Almost,” still in Kraftwerk formation.
Watch OMD perform “Almost” Live for Palace One in 1983 via YouTube:
The four individuals who constitute Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark now cast iconic figures on stage as well as throughout modern pop history. Andy windmilled throughout the show in his awkward but charming “dad dance.” But his open stance and outspread arms invited the audience to soak up his lyrical genius and his melodic sophistication. Over the decades, Andy has emerged as the Indiana Jones of the First Wave set — a cosmopolitan who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty but is equally effective at holding court in intellectual discussions about art, history, and humanity. All sides of him were on display in DC as he softly intoned the words of the recent single “Don’t Go” and barreled through the upbeat classic “Locomotion.”
Paul, by appearances a bit centered, remained a magnetic presence on stage, hovering over his synthesizer but also tackling frontman duties for the beloved tunes “(Forever) Live and Die” and “Souvenir” at the show’s one-third mark (and again for “Secret” in the encore). Although lacking Andy’s more energized showmanship, Paul nonetheless exuded authority and grace. His power stemmed not only from his outstanding musicianship but also from his genuine kindness, a quality that manifests itself in the very best of OMD’s songs.
Watch the official music video for “Secret” by OMD on YouTube:
Martin Cooper, fellow synthesist to Paul, appeared stoic and focused for much of the show, but he often enjoyed a whimsical flourish and a broad smile during numbers like the zippy “Tesla Girls.” Martin also shined in an anticipated moment of glory when he reminded us of his range and multi-instrumentalist chops upon seizing the saxophone for “So in Love.” The song no doubt enjoyed status as a top USA hit for OMD due to Martin’s savvy and his enchanting saxophone assuredly transported many members of the audience mentally back to halcyon days of young romance.
Stuart Kershaw, who stepped in for legacy OMD drummer Malcolm Holmes in 2015, was as ever a powerhouse. Stuart was capable of coloring OMD’s songs with a variety of temperments, including the loose funkiness of “Sailing on the Seven Seas,” one of the very best OMD songs — a song that Stuart cowrote with Andy for 1991’s Sugar Tax and that the band played toward the end of the main set. A lively and gregarious musician, Stuart exploded into “Enola Gay,” perhaps the richest *and* catchiest pop tune of all time, to close the set with impressive vigor, installing the backbone to the spritely twists and turns of a number that manages to marry the thrill of ’80s-era romanticism to the European nuclear fears of the time.
Watch OMD perform “Enola Gay” live during SXSW 2011 for KEXP on YouTube:
OMD began the encore with “If You Leave,” the irresistible torch song Andy and Paul famously wrote over the course of 24 hours in a Los Angeles studio for Gen X superfilm “Pretty in Pink.” As far as mythmaking goes, we can forever thank that tune for imprinting OMD upon the psyche of many American teens in 1986!
And an audience cannot properly celebrate the history of OMD without the band’s very first, and highest BPM, single, “Electricity,” which closed the four-song encore with celebratory singalongs and madcap frolicking in the aisles. As Andy exhorted at the beginning of the show, “Just because we’re not at 9:30 Club doesn’t mean you cannot stand up and dance!” And dance the very crowded theatre did to all of the songs of OMD’s Souvenir Tour, celebrating 40 years of superb music and the exciting mythology of a band with yet more to give. May we see these legends return to US shores with Bauhaus Stairway, their slated 14th studio album, in 2023.
OMD now appear two nights — tonight and tomorrow — at Brooklyn Steel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City! Limited general admission tickets remain.
Here are some photos of OMD performing at the Lincoln Theatre in DC on April 26, 2022. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Jason Nicholson.