Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Rialto Theater, Tucson, USA - 22 January 2019

"The number of stone-cold classics was remarkable"

dsoaudio gig photo

A little more than 38 years after buying my first Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark 7" single, Enola Gay, I finally got to see them live. In the intervening time, I'd gone to college, moved to London, emigrated to Arizona and got married. Meanwhile, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys had gone their separate ways in 1989, eventually getting back together 17 years later. The success of that re-union led to the concert in Tucson.

It initially, seemed like a bit of an odd choice. Bands coming to Arizona might play Tucson AND Phoenix, but just playing Tucson is like having your only Scottish date be in Aberdeen. However, there was good reason for it. The Museum of Contemporary Art there was having an exhibition called 'Dazzled', on "the influence dazzle camouflage has had over designers, artists, and musicians of the past one hundred years". Part of that influence is OMD's somewhat notorious Dazzle Ships LP, which was commemorated by "an immersive installation with interactive video and sound components." And hence, the band themselves were in Tucson for the exhibit's opening.

Dazzle Ships was their fourth LP, released in 1983, and a commercial disaster. There's a reason The Guardian wrote an article in 2008 called "How to lose 3 million fans in one easy step", because it sold only one-tenth of its predecessor, Architecture and Morality. I must confess, it took me until the morning of the show to acquire my own copy. It's certainly... different. It's chewily electronic, using a lot of found audio, from a multinational collection of speaking clocks through to shortwave radio samples. I can completely see why it bombed, yet it has stood the test of time rather well. 

dsoaudio gig photo    dsoaudio gig photo

Still, I confess to some qualms when the show started with the four members of the group standing at the front of the stage, waving semaphore flags over the near-tuneless samples of ABC Auto Industry, followed by the almost as hard to listen to Radio Prague. Respite followed in the shape of Genetic Engineering, which remains perhaps my most beloved of their songs and the nearest to a conventional pop-tune this prickly release had to offer. But when lead singer Paul Humphreys said, "Don't worry - it's not all Dazzle Ships!", you could feel the audience exhaling in relief. 

While that did end up being the most-featured release - given the circumstances, hardly surprising - it was a broad-ranging set covering almost the entire history. I was struck by how many of the songs were simple, yet really effective and infectious: a basic melody, repeated with variation. It's the core of pop music, yet somehow often seems forgotten, and is an under-rated talent. McCluskey stood front and centre, and seemed genuinely pleased to be there. It was their first concert for several months, and I tend to prefer seeing bands when they're "fresh", rather than at the end of a 30-cities-in-33-days slog.

There was certainly no shortage of energy from him, and I got to experience his... uh, 'interesting' style of dancing. Imagine a stick insect having some kind of seizure, and you'll be in the right ballpark. It didn't take away from the music at all though, and it was nice also to see Humphreys get his songs as well, such as Souvenir. [It's one of the things I like about OMD, as opposed to, say, the Pet Shop Boys, who operate more like Penn & Teller!]

dsoaudio gig photo    dsoaudio gig photo

Having watched the BBC documentary on the band last year, McCluskey seemed potentially a bit spikey - the band's Jeremy Clarkson to Humphrey's Richard Hammond, perhaps. That really didn't seem the case here, bantering happily with the audience, whether marveling at their ability to bounce around to a song about the end of the universe (History of Modern), or promising to outlast them ("I do this professionally, y'know..."). I've found you can tell when a band are genuinely happy to be on stage: their attitude comes across to the audience, and makes a good time for all. That was definitely the case here, and a good time was had by all.

There was hardly a moment's slack: mind you, if you can't come up with a solid 90 minutes after forty years in the industry, you should probably go home! But damn, the number of stone-cold classics in this set was remarkable. They finished by turning the clock back to their first single - Electricity, composed according to McCluskey when they were still in their teens. A fitting way to end a night for which I had been waiting since I, too, was in my teens.  8/10

Setlist: ABC Auto Industry, Radio Prague, Genetic Engineering, Messages, Tesla Girls, History of Modern (Part 1), Radio Waves, (Forever) Live and Die, If You Leave, Souvenir Joan of Arc, Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans), Of All the Things We've Made, So In Love, Telegraph, The Punishment of Luxury, Dreaming, Locomotion, Sailing On The Seven Seas, Enola Gay Encore: Secrets, Electricity

Review + Photos: Jim McLennan