Shot! Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark live in Brighton

It’s November 16th in Brighton and Liverpool’s OMD are in town to promote their latest album Architecture & Morality.

Fast forward forty years to the day and once again it’s November 16th and OMD are in town to promote that very same album.

The American baseball coach Yogi Berra once famously quipped it’s “deja vu all over again!” although it’s hard to think that OMD founders Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys could ever have imagined that precisely four decades after performing their new album at the Brighton Dome they’d be back playing it again in full, this time at the city’s biggest venue, the Brighton Centre.

Indeed back in 1981, they were probably surprised that they were still together having formed three years earlier. In fact, when they christened themselves Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, it was a meaningless name chosen as it was only going to be used for one gig (to around 30 people at Erics in Liverpool).

All these years later, the pair have grown their audience and grown to like their name, although McCluskey admits preferring the full title rather than the abbreviated initials.

Name aside, it wasn’t that long ago that heritage acts like OMD were consigned to playing revival shows alongside a bunch of ageing contemporaries. Thankfully for them, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. A ruby anniversary — as it’s known — is all about celebrating devotion and passion. Apparently, the inner fire of the red gemstone represents the burning flame of passion in the hearts of a couple who’ve been together for 40 years.

If truth be told, OMD’s co-founders haven’t actually been together for quite that long. They formed the band three year’s before releasing Architecture & Morality, but in 1989 Humphreys left and by 1996 McCluskey disbanded OMD to focus on songwriting and giving us Atomic Kitten. The separation lasted some 17 years until the pair renewed their partnership in 2006. To date, they’ve sold over 15 million albums and 25 million singles and are now considered one of the pioneers of electro pop.

On its release, Architecture & Morality met with mixed reviews. Although it reached No 3 in the UK album charts, it failed to even break the Billboard 200 in America. Later however it would be recognised as one of the most influential works of its era, with one publication proclaiming it was ‘the blueprint for synth-pop.’

Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for OMD. To me they were ahead of their time musically, and visually I was a big fan of their cover art (The legendary graphic designer Peter Saville was responsible for Architecture & Morality). I also bought most of their albums and in April 1983 I saw them at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on the last night of their Dazzle Ships tour.

Now, with their return to Brighton as part of their Architecture & More tour, the opportunity of seeing OMD again after a 38-year gap was too good to miss, although frankly I wasn’t expecting much more than their putting on a professional hit job.

If I’ve got my facts right, this was OMD’s 8th time in Brighton since they first played there in 1979. All their previous shows were at the Dome, with the exception of that Dazzle Ships tour in 1983 when they headlined the Brighton Centre.

Things didn’t bode well when I walked into the auditorium. The sparse crowd made me think that they really should have played the Dome. And judging by the advanced age of those who’d come to see them this time, I wondered whether the standing area would’ve been better occupied with seats.

It was also a very unusual room layout with a smaller than usual standing area and swathes of empty seats available for standing ticket-holders to sit down if they wished. I can’t recall ever seeing the venue configured this way before.

Although the concert wasn’t a sell-out, by the time OMD took the stage, the standing area had filled up and there were quite a few times when the audience were jumping like they were in their twenties. Evidence — if it were needed — that nostalgic music has the effect of taking you back to your youth.

While much of OMD’s back catalogue has aged remarkably well, the same can’t be said for its two co-founders. Despite both being just into their sixties, there’s no getting away from it that they look a lot older. But appearances aside, it’s how they perform that matters most. And, save for McCluskey’s cringe-inducing dad dancing, I have to say they did a really good job.

Most impressive is that McCluskey’s voice is still in fine form. His vocals are in many ways what makes OMD’s sound quite so distinctive and sonically he couldn’t be faulted. The same goes for the sound in the venue. From where I was sitting, it was excellent.

Stuart Kershaw’s powerful drumming was on point throughout and Martin Cooper on keyboards and occasional saxophone, added much to the performance.

Oddly, whenever McCluskey strapped on a guitar, I couldn’t detect any change whatsoever in the overall sound. At least playing one gave him something to do with his hands, which otherwise seemed to have a life of their own.

Whilst on the subject of sound, there were times when it was obvious that there were backing tracks in operation, as backing vocals could be heard when there were no backing vocalists on stage, or a song started, yet no one was playing their instruments.

Something else that leads me to think they were playing to a track, is the way all the songs ended. Having watched other recent OMD performances on YouTube, the songs sound almost identical, their length pre-determined. Sadly, so are many of McCluskey’s ad libs. Personally, it really irks when I hear musicians repeat verbatim the same comments between songs they did on previous nights. That, coupled with a slavish adherence to the on-screen graphics, results in a lack of spontaneity and can only lead to the feeling that they’re literally going through the motions.

Talking of the screens, although the resolution was razor sharp, the visuals were a bit underwhelming and repetitive — a reliance on largely abstract graphics, pleasant enough to look at, but somewhat lazy in their creation. The stage lighting — bar that first song — was impressive, without being inspired, although anyone suffering from epilepsy would have wished they’d been warned of the strobes ahead of time.

Proceedings opened with a slow-moving video, showing — I think — close-up black and white images of brutalist buildings, set to a pre-recorded track. Fortunately, such a dull opening wasn’t a harbinger for what was to come. Things got underway with the playing of Architecture & Morality in its entirety, although curiously, not in its original order.

If, like me, you were wondering about the pretentious album name, like so many OMD songs it was inspired by a book title. In this case, David Watkin’s Morality and Architecture.

Standout tracks were the three singles that album spawned, namely the ethereal Souvenir (with Humphreys, its composer, taking over lead vocals) Joan of Arc and Maid of Orleans.

(iPhone 12)

And with that completed, OMD went into the ‘& More’ part of the show. When you’ve been around for as long as they have, you’ve got a lot of material to choose from with quite a few hits among your back catalogue. Somewhat tellingly, most were from the early part of their career.

To my ears, none of the hits showed their age, a testimony to just how progressive McCluskey and Humphreys were sonically. When they formed, their inspiration was unashamedly copying Kraftwerk and although they never reached the same lofty heights as the Düsseldorf quartet, at times they got close. Perhaps that’s down to the pop-sensitivity of their short songs and that they never could quite emulate the image or the intrigue of the Germans.

(iPhone 12)

On (Forever) Live And Die, McCluskey and Humphreys again swapped places, with the synth player now taking centre stage to sing the song. This was followed by 2019’s retro-sounding Don’t Go, OMD’s newest song and what was their 40th single release.

Things then livened up with a string of hits: Locomotion, Sailing on the Seven Seas and the explosive Enola Gay from 1980, before ending the show with a three-song encore that included Electricity, their self-confessed teenage ‘tribute’ to Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity, and the very first song they ever wrote when they were just seventeen.

So what did I like and what would I have liked to be different? Well, as I’ve already mentioned, sonically things were excellent, whether it was the playing of the songs, McCluskey’s vocals and the abundance of hits.

Personally, I’d have done away with the support act and divided the show into two halves: playing Architecture & Morality in full, then returning after a break to play the other hits. As well as playing for longer, that would’ve allowed them to have two distinct looks and even a costume change.

Perhaps more than anything, I would’ve liked to see them be more experimental with the song treatments, not sticking so rigidly in recreating them as they were originally recorded. With room for a little more spontaneity, they could have reinterpreted some of their songs, even given fans at each venue the opportunity to choose a particular deep cut to play.

And, it goes without saying that I would’ve definitely had a word with Mr McCluskey about his dubious dance moves — it was never a good look back in the day, and should have been consigned to the history books long ago. His habit of repeatedly punching his left shoulder with his right hand is another annoying trait he should dispense with.

In spite of those shortcomings, I enjoyed the show far more than I expected to. And judging by those around me, those in the audience had a great night, too.

In closing, there can be no doubt that OMD are the architects of their very lengthy career and the moral of the story is good songs will always endure.

Setlist: Sealand | Georgia | The New Stone Age | She’s Leaving | Souvenir | Joan of Arc | Maid of Orleans | The Beginning and the End | Atomic Ranch | Messages | Tesla Girls | History of Modern | (Forever) Live and Die | Don’t Go | So In Love | Locomotion | Pandora’s Box | Sailing on the Seven Seas | Enola Gay | | If You Leave | Electricity | The Romance of the Telescope

“To me, shooting live music is all about capturing the personality of the performer and the emotion of their performance. And then creating an iconic image.”

Behind the shot: These portraits were taken using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 with the M Zuiko 1.8 75mm lens. I was only able to shoot the first three songs from the pit. The challenge as always was to come away with a set of interesting images that were different from those taken by all the other photographers shooting the tour, but OMD were tricky to shoot. Throughout the opening song, they performed in almost complete darkness with Andy or Paul hardly moving. That they were clad in all-black, didn’t help either. For the other two songs, Paul remained static and dimly lit behind his keyboard, while Andy sped across the stage, rarely staying still. And, surprise surprise, the lighting only really got interesting on song four! The wider stage shots were taken from my seat with the iPhone 12. Photographed in Brighton on 16 November 2021

About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens. With no concerts or major events taking place during lockdown, Gary turned his attention to creatively capturing the landscapes of West Sussex. On the writing side, he also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs beginning with Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and ‘All The Young Dudes’ by Mott the Hoople. Most recently, he has written a biography of Robert Palmer and the story behind Whitesnake’s ‘Still Of The Night’. All these can be found here on Medium, along with his reviews of gigs and events and chats with musicians.

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Creator of images that are out of the ordinary, reviewer of live music and live events and interviewer of interesting people

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Gary Marlowe

Gary Marlowe

Creator of images that are out of the ordinary, reviewer of live music and live events and interviewer of interesting people

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