Two of the five audio discs are live show recordings, and from virtually opposite sides of OMD’s long career. The earlier recorded of the two discs comprises tracks recorded live in 1983, at London Hammersmith Odeon and at the end of their tour campaign for the then-critically-maligned “Dazzle Ships”. While we can now enjoy the audio mixed by Paul Humphreys, Andy McCluskey reports that sadly, the accompanying film footage that was shot that night has unfortunately been lost. For anyone lucky enough to have been in the audience for this show, you may notice there is a track missing from the set.
It’s only human nature to remember, with often great and excruciating detail, the moments where we have failed. Despite the event occurring over 30 years ago, both Andy and Paul remembered that ‘Genetic Engineering’ went off that night in an utter shambles, so they chose to omit it from this release. “What happened was we came in out of time with the click track. Throughout the whole song, we knew we were out of time, and each of us kept trying to stop and come back in, instead of all stopping and starting the track again. Nowadays, [if] we screw something up, we just start again. We tried to get to the end of the song, and it sounded like World War III!”
Since its release in 1983, “Dazzle Ships” has enjoyed retrospective positive appraisals from music critics, as well as gained enthusiastic fans. Says Andy, “The rest of it [the concert] is as we played it, and it’s an interesting and unusual show for a band who was at the top of its game but had just released an album that caused us problems commercially but which is now considered a kind of masterpiece.” Given the background, you can’t help but muse over what concerns and anxiety might have been burbling in their early 20-something heads before and during the gig.
Andy’s comment also drives home the fact that they have always taken great pride in their live performances, even from the very early days. “Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were a live band. Paul and I were experimenting in his mother’s back room. But we took those experiments and went to play [them] live. We were always a band who played live. It was always part of the ethos. So it’s important for us to demonstrate the energy, the emotion and the feel of a live show. I love live shows because you can’t actually change anything about it, you know? It’s done, it’s gone into the ether.”
While he concedes studio recordings are polished and “perfectly presented” these days and live recordings are not, “[a live recording] has much more energy and humanity, specifically for that reason. It’s something that you did that one night, in that one room, to those people and those people only. You may have played the same set the night before in a different city. But every, every concert has a different feel because it’s a different venue and it’s different people. It’s very much a document of a specific moment, and that’s what gives a live recording its charm.”
Those reading this who have seen OMD live will agree with me that Andy, and the whole band, clearly have a great time performing for their fans. The ability to interface with the people who love their music is absolutely priceless to him. “I think it’s the human and emotional connection with the audience in the hall. It’s a special event to go and see people presenting their art to you. The interaction you get between the band and the audience is visceral. When an audience is enjoying themselves, when they’re applauding, they’re cheering, clapping and dancing, there’s a buzz. You get something back.
“We’ve sold millions of records, but I wasn’t in the shop where every record was sold, you know? I wasn’t sitting in the car when somebody heard it on the radio and turned to their friend and said, ‘hey, I really like this song!’ I can’t share that with people. But when we stand onstage and play it that one time, in that city, to that group of people, then we see what they feel. Then we see how they respond. And they get us to play it to them personally, [it’s] not just the recording that everyone else got when they bought the CD or the record or listened to the download. They get the one performance we’re doing that night in their town, and it’s individual. It’s special. That’s what gives it a frisson, an energy.”
The other live audio recording is a BBC Radio 2 In Concert special from 2011, hosted by Jo Whiley. “It’s a more recent live recording. It was broadcast and went out into the ether live, but no-one’s ever heard it since. So we just thought it would be a nice opportunity for people to have a different document of the same band, the same four people, playing whatever it was 27 years later.” It is, indeed, a nice closing of the loop, a lovely reminder that four people who played music together as young men and shared so many stages could reunite after some time of estrangement, then return and perform together as a cohesive unit, as if little or no time had passed at all. The music industry is littered with stories of band members falling out with each other, never to speak again. OMD’s story is a rare one where outside forces may have conspired against them, but friendships and musical bonds have endured.
One of the two European-coded DVDs in the “Souvenir” deluxe boxset are a blistering array of the band’s live performances from 1980 to 2013. The majority of the performances are taken from the BBC’s Top of the Pops, whose influence on British life Andy was keen to impress on this Yank. “Top of the Pops, for British kids, is iconic. It’s our American Bandstand. We grew up watching it, it’s often where we heard a track for the first time before it became a hit or while it was climbing the charts. To do Top of the Pops, for British bands, it was really a stamp of, ‘oh my god, we’ve arrived. This is really incredible.’ It was exciting. It was terrifying!”
OMD’s first performance for the BBC series was a bit of a baptism by fire. “Actually, the first time we did Top of the Pops with ‘Messages’, it was the first time I’d ever flown in an aeroplane. We were in Belgium, and we were supposed to get the ferry back after a European tour. We get a phone call, ‘quick, get back to the UK, you got Top of the Pops!’ It was quite weird because I had just been on this plane…then, of course, our equipment was still coming back on the ferry, so we were playing rented equipment, which weren’t our own instruments, so we all felt rather uncomfortable.” With a chuckle and I’m sure a smile on the other end of the line, he adds, “Sometimes it’s not as glamorous as you think it is!”
Still, despite the nerve-inducing events before they even got in front of a camera, he has overwhelmingly fond memories of going to the BBC Television Centre in Shepherd’s Bush to record their live appearances. “It was a great, big circular building. Every studio was divided [into two] and so had pairs, so when you came out of the dressing room, the two studios would share this cafe and tea shop. And the great thing about recording and rehearsing for Top of the Pops, because you were there all day, there was a very large likelihood that the adjacent twin studio could be doing anything from a period drama to Doctor Who. You could be sitting down, having a cup of tea with someone who looked like they were Jane Austen or [with] Doctor Who and the Daleks, or god knows what!”
Further, for its time, the BBC tv programme had incredible reach and influence on music listeners and the music-buying public, unlikely to be rivalled in Britain again. “There were only three tv channels, and so everybody watched [Top of the Pops]. It was the one concession parents would make to their children, ‘okay, it’s Thursday night, it’s 7 o’clock. You all can watch Top of the Pops.’ Twenty million people would watch it, of a population of 50 [million]. That’s how big it was. If you were on Top of the Pops, it was the biggest advertisement you could ever get for your song. That was really amazing, and I think it made it hugely important and exciting to do.”
During my research for this interview, I considered that the “Sugar Tax” single ‘Pandora’s Box’, appearing twice on the tv programme appearances DVD, might have a more personal angle to Andy and OMD than might have been initially apparent. He considers my suggestion. “I don’t think I ever saw [American twenties silent film actress] Louise Brooks and her career trajectory as a metaphor for OMD…certainly, she was precocious, she was young and talented, she was a teenager when she first came to people’s attention as being successful, so there are some similarities with OMD. I think she refused to play the game. We refused to play the game, but we were fortunate that we managed to sell records by creating our own set of rules, whereas Louise Brooks ultimately was cast out of the film industry because she was not abiding by their rules and doing what she was told. So there were huge differences.”
In any event, Louise Brooks must have been a major influence on Andy at the time, as her memory stayed on his mind. He reveals to me something that I had missed upon my audio inspection of the unreleased tracks. “I don’t know if you’ve made the connection there, but the ‘American Venus’ that’s on the unreleased CD was my first attempt to write a song about Louise Brooks because ‘American Venus’ is another one of her film titles [like ‘Pandora’s Box’]. When I later went back and listened to ‘American Venus’ after our conversation, I realised why it hadn’t registered: Andy’s voice is so processed on it that I wouldn’t have made out the word “Kansas” if Andy had not brought it to my attention. “‘American Venus’, when I heard it, the lyrics, ‘born in Kansas, from the tender prairie, to New York City’, that’s me trying to write a song about Louise Brooks, and it didn’t work. And then I went away to write ’Pandora’s Box’ instead! Basically, I kept a couple of the lyrics but utterly abandoned all the music.”
Such deconstructing, then rebuilding, has been a successful approach for him in some cases. He relates a story to me about how the second Joan of Arc-themed OMD song ‘Maid of Orleans (The Waltz Joan of Arc)’ came about, and from a previously discarded idea. “Paul and Malcolm [then-drummer Holmes], they came into the studio when we were packing up to go to the Manor [Studio in Oxfordshire], and they both said, ‘whatever happened to that waltzy one?’ And I said, ‘it doesn’t work.’ Mal said, “if you let me play drums on it, it might.’ And it did!”
Hearing more about the OMD modus operandi to songcraft, I was struck by the elements of hard work, experimentation and fate that have played a part in creating the songs we hold so dear in our hearts. Despite the numerous detractors of electronic music who hounded OMD and their eighties contemporaries for not being real songwriters, the truth of the matter is that they are an act whose magic moments in the studio may have been hard-fought, and the proof is in the memorable end product.
Mary L. Chang is an American freelance music journalist. She was the Editor-in-Chief of the UK/U.S./Irish music website There Goes the Fear from 2010 to 2019 and has contributed to international music outlets including DIY, Click Music and PopWreckoning.