Klub Studio, Kraków, 3/2/20
It's been a while. Last time I ventured out into studentville in Kraków, longer ago than I care to remember, Klub Studio was a rather murky venue, blending in to the bland concrete blocks that surround it from the outside and unremarkable inside, a typical standing venue with a balcony above for the posh ones who want a seat. The thousand seat venue may have only changed cosmetically, but the atmosphere has been transformed. It now houses its own brewery, Browarze Górniczo-Hutniczym (Mining & Metalurgy Brewery), and boasts a fine selection of IPAs, APAs, stouts, wheat beers and many more to keep the beer snobs happy. The golden shell of a Maly Fiat Maluch (Fiat 126) adorns the bar area too, which should also keep the hipsters happy – a nod to Poland's Communist-era icon and the club's 1980's origins no doubt. Tickets for tonight's show were going for 120zl (30 Euro) a pop, which isn't bad for a band of OMD's standing. It was a sell-out, and as I scanned the crowd pre-gig, I felt unusually young – average age around 50-55. Not all that surprising, since the band are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year despite splitting for a decade in 1996, and founder members Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphries having recently turned 60.
When Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark emerged from the Wirral in 1979, they were never quite cool enough for the left-field synthesiser-music vanguard. Yes, they were signed to Factory Records and had a prerequisite arty name (chosen over Margaret Thatcher’s Afterbirth). They even put out an album entitled Architecture and Morality. But OMD dressed like suburban bank clerks and singer-bassist Andy McCluskey danced like someone at an office party who’d had one too many shandies. Even their more experimental tracks had pretty melodies. Factory supremo Tony Wilson was unfazed. He was bold enough to tell McCluskey that his band were “the future of pop music”.
Which indeed they were. After signing to Richard Branson’s label Virgin in the early 80s, the group racked up 13 Top 40 hits and sold 40m records. They were even immortalized in film, writing the hit If You Leave for the John Hughes classic high school drama The Breakfast Club in 1986. In 2020, McCluskey’s dancing has become more exaggerated and outrageous. He windmills and pulls crucifixion poses, careers around as if he’s at a vigorous aerobics class and at one point resembles a hippy undergoing a psychedelic experience. Titter we may, but McCluskey’s antics are part of OMD’s show: you could never accuse them of being one of those “blokes standing behind synthesizer” bands. (Although the four-piece lineup does include two blokes standing behind synthesizers.)
McCluskey, of course, is in on the joke, telling the audience not to replicate his moves in case they “hurt each other” and introducing the song Tesla Girls by saying: “And now the dancing really starts.” He describes the setlist as “old ones, new ones, weird ones and definitely dancey ones”. Tracks from 2017’s The Punishment of Luxury, which returned them to the Top 5, brilliantly retool their classic sound. Weird comes in the form of Factory B-side Almost, and Stanlow is an electronic elegy about the unlikely subject of an oil refinery in Liverpool. Messages and Souvenir – the latter sung by co-founder Paul Humphreys, stepping out from behind his keyboard – are electronic symphonies almost statuesque in their beauty. Joan of Arc and Maid of Orleans teleport the crowd back to the days when OMD made not one but two stellar pop singles about the French saint who was burned at the stake.
At one point, the band line up behind their keyboards and for all the world look like the band which inspired so many British electro bands of the era, Kraftwerk. It's an obvious and knowing parody though, and the audience are the ones in on the joke this time. McCluskey follows this up with a short vignette about how, on the release of their first single (Electricity), a young man called Vince heard and loved the B-side to it and learnt to play it on his Yamaha keyboard by heart. "That young man,” McCluskey smirks triumphantly, “went on to form a band called Depeche Mode.” Name-dropping is clearly another faux pas transformed into a strength for the lead singer/bassist, but the audience couldn't care less and they are lapping it up. “They like you more than me” he teases Humphries after they swap roles again and the keyboardist takes on vocal duties for Forever Live and Die. It's all getting a bit pantomime. I suppose it's still the season. Like the band, the genre is evergreen it seems.
McCluskey returns to the fray and the band end the set with Enola Gay, predictably enough. It's one of those singles from the 80s that you just can't help liking, and the bizarre incongruity of a bouncy pop song tackling the subject matter of a nuclear bombing is both amusing and disturbing. Is it a parody of seriousness or a genuine attempt to come to terms with the horrors of war through pop music?
I dunno. But the crowd aren't wasting time on such complexities.
“O-M-D, O-M-D, O-M-D!” they chant, ecstatically. The band predictably troop back on stage for an encore. “Paul, put a date in your diary. We are coming back to Kraków. SOON. This has been too much fun,” McCluskey beams. One feels as if he hasn't had this much fun since playing the Cavern Club in 1981. This much adulation, maybe never. “We’re going to end where we began,” he urges, introducing Electricity. Their debut single is now a timeless marvel – The Magic Roundabout theme played from outer space. The band have triumphed. “Kraków, we WILL return,” McCluskey promises as the band leave the stage. And I believe him. It shouldn't ever have to end this way.
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