OMD (photo: Patric Carver)
Journalist George Mikes famously said, “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.”
Our neighbors in the North Atlantic are known for their love of a line. An hour and a half before Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark went on stage, you could feel the British influence over the evening at the Regency Ballroom, for the grand space was filled with so many people waiting in some sort of line. There were lines for merch, as well as at every one of the Regency’s many bars. There was even a group of die-hard fans lined neatly up at the front of the stage – even though the ballroom was otherwise empty at that point.
The pre-show line in the women’s restroom was predictably long as devoted fans waited to void their cocktail-hour gin and tonics before settling in for the show. What it was not typical was the 1980s Top-of-the-Pops-style dance party. I half expected Mike Read and Richard Skinner to come popping out of the commodes to announce the next song as women waiting in line did the Molly Ringwald to “Tesla Girls” and “Locomotion.”
The merch was sold, the drinks were bought, and the ballroom was filled. The dance party dissipated, or at least relocated. OMD entered the stage with great fanfare and a few intro notes from “Dazzle Ships” before torpedoing into the more accessible “Messages.” Even though I grew up listening to them, this was my first time seeing OMD perform live. I was struck by how joyous they were on stage. Andy McCluskey smiled like a child as he danced around with his bass; Paul Humphreys and Martin Cooper beamed from behind their stations. I’d always thought that the reputation of electronic music as being too cold was undeserved, akin to creating sci-fi cyborgs out of musicians; their hearts and souls replaced with synthesizers. As the only species to really capitalize on technology’s potential, human beings really have an ironically Luddite attitude when it comes to new ways of making art and sound. There was no denying that pulsing beats of OMD contained an actual pulse behind them. There was nothing frigid, nothing insensate.
The only robotic thing about their set was perhaps the incredible amount of precision with which they played. Drummer Stuart Kershaw was an absolute machine, laying down powerful hot time that was positively emotive in its perfection. Sadly, it was not as imaginative as predecessor Malcolm Holmes’, missing some of those beautiful fills and seemingly exploratory moments that I love. After Holmes’ 2013 heart attack, though, he’s the only man in the saddle, so I can’t really expect the pony show to be the same. It might even be a fallacy to compare them, as I doubt ears fresh to OMD would have a single negative thing to say about Kershaw behind the kit.
The very makeup of this band is something that deserves championing. I’ve seen a rash of groups lately playing with a guitar, keys, and some sort of percussion. The bass is absent. The result is something beautiful, but it lacks substance. McCluskey and company whipped out this sonically beautiful vibration on the low end that was gorgeous, rattling the synapses of every audience member and supercharging those neural electrical impulses that make up our everything. During “Messages,” “Tesla Girls,” and “Enola Gay,” the bassline rumbled like a beast restrained on a chain. There was a dangerous tension between the spunk and fervor of these songs and that anchoring bass. It was lovely.
The crowd seemed to agree, growing stronger in their fury with every heavy note. Lighter songs like the pop-pap voyage “If You Leave,” from the “Pretty in Pink” soundtrack had their effect, too. Though it’s never been my favorite side of OMD, I can’t deny that it was remarkable to hear this classic of ’80s romanticism. It was simply identical to its original release; I felt the whoosh of the imaginary time machine as the people in the crowd at the Regency that night were transported back to their teenage bedrooms. Whether those bedrooms were decorated with Laura Ashley style, Patrick Nagel prints, or punk rock anti-décor, the rush of nostalgia had the same effect. A heavily tattooed man in a Motörhead shirt clutched both hands to his chest, swaying back and forth while mouthing the words. I’m pretty sure nearly every straight woman in the room spontaneously ovulated imagining themselves in Blane McDonnagh’s arms. Even though the song isn’t my proverbial cup of tea, it wasn’t a lull in the show. There weren’t any real lows. Only higher highs.
The zenith moment for me came with their bombastic version of “Radio Waves,” the only song from their deliciously strange album “Dazzle Ships.” Charging and challenging, the charm of this song is how the playful is smashed head-on with the powerful. The feel of the chorus is wailing and desperate, but melody of the verse is absorbing and adorable. This balancing act seems as relevant as ever when we exist in chaotic times peppered by sociopathic world leaders, rising cancer rates, and looming global warming that are, in a lot of ways thanks to smart phones and streaming media, easier to live through than ever.
This was one of the most alive and vibrant performances I’ve ever seen. I felt more alive for being there. McCluskey ended the show by waving to the crowd and saying, “See you next year!” Given that OMD only played three North American dates this tour, I can’t say that they’ll be back to the Bay Area for sure any time soon, but I’m hopeful.