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Arts + CultureMusicOMD: Still orchestrating superb synth-pop manoeuvres, with a bigger...

OMD: Still orchestrating superb synth-pop manoeuvres, with a bigger light show

The '80s UK heros will celebrate 40+ years of irresistible hits— 'Enola Gay,' 'If You Leave'—and deeper cuts at the Fox

“We were supposed to be celebrating the 40th anniversary two years ago, so now it’s actually the 42nd and, well, here we are,” says the incredibly familiar voice on the other end of the line, which seems very strange to hear without an irresistibly plucky synthesizer arrangement accompanying it.

That ~40th anniversary celebration is ostensibly for the band’s 1980 one-two punch of spiky, groundbreaking self-titled debut album Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and international breakthrough Organisation (which brought us undeniable earworm “Enola Gay”), although there are four decades of hits and favorites packed in there as well. The voice? Andy McCluskey, all the jaunty romanticism and winking good humor shining through, speaking of the Souvenir: OMD 40 Years Tour, coming to Fox Theater, Oakland, Tue/24 at 8pm. (A greatest hits box set called Souvenir came out in 2019.)

“It’s just such a pleasure to finally be here in the States,” McCluskey said from Miami, where he had arrived a couple days before kicking the tour off, to quash any jet lag. “We’ve already done the UK leg, in the bubble between Delta and Omicron, tested everyday and quarantined in our little bus. The response has been really wonderful. Despite the delay, it’s come together so well.

“We’ve been playing all the hits, of course, as well as some deeper cuts for the fans, who have been delightful. When we haul out to SF, we’ll play a few rare tracks from our early work, one that we haven’t played in 35 years. When we first tried it out again, we said to each other, it’s been a long damn time since we’ve done this one, hasn’t it! We’re also bringing out our terrific light show. The Fox Theatre is going to look spectacular.”

OMD’s early albums, including Architecture & Morality and Dazzle Ships, stretched the boundaries of electronic music, combining foreboding industrial soundscapes with a burgeoning pop sensibility into delectable documents of synth-pop’s evolution. (Dazzle Ships, the “ABBA meets Stockhausen” platter once thought head-scratchingly experimental at the time of its 1983 release, has since been reevaluated by critics as a Cold War classic and high point of their catalogue.)

Those early albums were so stunning to listeners at the time: I’ve heard a gay Detroit DJ talk about how he would let entire albums play out on the dance floor in the early hours of a night, when fans of all persuasions would show up just to hear them played on a large sound system. After an atmospherically ear-catching transition period (esoteric albums Junk Culture and Crush anchor my own sonic youth), the bright pop side eventually won out, with melodic bulldozers like “If You Leave,” from the era-defining Pretty in Pink soundtrack, “So in Love,” “Secret,” and “Forever (Live and Die)” lodging them firmly at the top of the charts wearing synth-pop crowns.

The band—McCluskey and co-founder Paul Humphreys along with original member Martin Cooper and longtime drummer Stuart Kershaw, all excitingly reunited—have been anything but inactive since their heyday, putting out well-received The Punishment of Luxury album in 2017 and releasing single “Don’t Go” in 2020. (It should be said, too, that McCluskey and the band are in ripping form, his soaring vocals undiminished.) But it still must be be a trip to reach back 40 years and pull out some bangers—and, with such an expansive catalogue, a challenge.

“We appeared at Royal Albert Hall which was great fun, but I had to play songs I haven’t played in decades. I had to relearn several of them. It was a bit embarrassing, but my memory was just gone,” McCluskey laughs. “Don’t worry, though, I’ve practiced for this show!”

Their illustrious history includes fun facts like Gary Numan giving them their first big break by inviting them out on tour in 1979 (after seeng them open for Joy Division), cannibalizing Humphreys’ aunt’s radios for circuit boards to fashion their early equipment, and their start at Liverpool’s epochal Eric’s Club, which also spawned Dead or Alive, Echo and the Bunnymen (coming for their own 40th anniversary tour in August), and The Teardrop Explodes.

More than just music has changed in the past four decades, however. How does McCluskey compare making music now to back then?

“It’s certainly a lot different from when Andy and I first started making songs with a tape recorder in Andy’s mum’s basement,” McCluskey said. “Obviously it’s all on computer now. The computer in my bedroom is one million times more powerful than the walls of equipment we were working in the 1980s. With cut and paste, I can move things around in great blocks. That’s made songwriting easier, although the transition was never that difficult, since Paul and I had already developed a linear method of writing that fit very well into the Digital Age.

“The hardest part now is being ruthless at editing once you’ve got something, it’s a tyranny of choice. With four snare drums and 15 snare patterns each, I can’t make mind up! Paul actually moved to France during COVID. although we work best in the same room, we have similar systems so we can send to each other what we’re working on, it’s been amazing during these past years,” McCluskey said.

“One of the biggest differences for me is in terms of touring. You used to have to load massive amounts of sound and lighting equipment up for each date and spend hours doing tech and soundcheck. Now it just basically fits in your pocket, you show up and check a few things and you’re ready. Of course, since it’s all in place, that means if anything fucks up it’s on us,” he laughed.

Beyond the synthetic pleasures of OMD, McCluskey has been a musical maverick in his own right, starting with the house-influenced album he released in 1991 after Humphreys took a break from the band, called Sugar Tax. Because we live in gay fanboy central, I had to ask about McCluskey’s famous side project as creator and Svengali of UK girl group sensation Atomic Kitten, which he founded with drummer Kershaw in 1998—and which finally gave him his first UK number one, with anthemic shuffle-bop “Whole Again.”

“That was a real fun time in my life,” he said. “I had retired from performing because my son was born, and the conceit was that I could still write songs. To be honest we were just making it up as we went along. I met the girls when they were teenagers and it was a rollercoaster from the start. I’m not involved with them now, but I’m glad they’re touring again and I still speak with Liz [McClarnon, singer] quite a lot.

“Looking back, it’s been quite a career for me, hasn’t it?” McCluskey says, again eliciting laughs. “I’m just so happy to still be at it, bringing this music to our friends.”

OMD plays Tue/24, 8pm at Fox Theatre, Oakland. Tickets and more info here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Marke B.
Marke Bieschke is the publisher and arts and culture editor of 48 Hills. He co-owns the Stud bar in SoMa. Reach him at marke (at) 48hills.org, follow @supermarke on Twitter.

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