A walk on the mild side

IT'S fitting that Simple Minds and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) are currently on tour together. The two bands have obvious things in common – both spent their early years making experimental electronic music influenced by Kraftwerk (whose song Neon Lights they have been performing together on this tour).

• Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Both then had a radical change of direction, embracing big, anthemic choruses, and became very successful in America with help from 1980s Brat Pack movies – OMD's song If You Leave featured in Pretty in Pink, Simple Minds' Don't You Forget About Me was, famously, the theme tune to The Breakfast Club. And both, arguably, lost their way artistically afterwards, and have never quite found a route back to what made them interesting in the first place.

This was brought home to me two years ago, the first time the reformed OMD played a Scottish show. The gig at the SECC – where they will return with Simple Minds this weekend – was billed as "OMD play their classic, experimental pop album, Architecture and Morality", a treat for fans of their early records, such as me.

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But it was a peculiar show, an apparently under-rehearsed dash through Architecture and Morality followed by a greatest hits set that served as a depressing reminder of the decline of a once-fascinating band. How on earth did OMD go from the otherworldly Electricity to Walking on the Milky Way, a dreary 1990s minor hit that I'd completely forgotten (judging by the audience reaction, everyone else had too) and which still sounds like a misguided attempt to ape Oasis?

OMD's problem, of course, is that they are two different bands, with two different audiences. The first band were an eccentric, experimental outfit who proved you could make fantastically odd songs about Joan of Arc and still sell millions of records. Architecture and Morality did so well that their next album, Dazzleships, dared to be even more obtuse. A third of it isn't even music as such; instead you get samples from Radio Prague and the BBC, people reading out the time in various languages, and a song consisting entirely of the words "A-B-C, 1-2-3" (in, it should be explained, an unsettling sci-fi way rather than in a Jackson Five sort of way). It's eerie and moving.

That, however, was when everything changed. Dazzleships didn't sell – at least, not in the numbers that a follow-up to Architecture and Morality would be expected to sell – and OMD seemed to lose their nerve. They became a different band, one of those safe, daytime radio-friendly 1980s outfits who were popular at the time because radio stations played them constantly (a more successful Red Box or Cutting Crew, maybe) but are later forgotten because no-one really cared about them that much in the first place.

It was a hair-tearing, what-were-they-thinking-about shame. No more peculiar songs about Hiroshima, or genetic engineering. Instead, lots of bland, middle-of-the-road gush like Locomotion. And saxophone solos. If OMD don't have the reputation of, say, New Order or Kraftwerk, it has a lot to do with these records.

The fans who loved their early stuff got fed up of defending them, and the more fickle audience they found later slipped away too. And Andy McCluskey cut his losses and wrote songs for – as if to add insult to fan injury – the manufactured girl group Atomic Kitten.

So why would OMD want to play all this stuff again? My first thought was that this is what they thought people would want to hear, and that they were afraid of playing the earlier, more experimental music in case people didn't like it. I was infuriated by their loss of nerve; they set out to reclaim their reputation as pioneers, and just end up reminding us why we fell out of love with them.

Except that the "we" in this picture, perhaps, were the hardcore fans who could hardly bear to watch the show‚ like my friend Simon, who had booked his tickets months in advance and, on the night, looked like he wanted to weep. The rest of the audience – people in their forties who, at the risk of sounding like a terrible music snob, probably go to two or three gigs a year and discovered OMD via Forever Live and Die or If You Leave – seemed to be having a great time. And OMD did too, suggesting that actually they really like playing the later stuff, that they think it's good.

Simple Minds have had an oddly similar journey. Don't You Forget About Me may have won them a new audience in America, but it also marked the moment when they began, rather like their 1980s rivals U2, to become a bloated, over-earnest stadium rock act, albeit one with good political intentions. Later, when such music went out of fashion, U2 cannily reinvented themselves, embracing irony and wry humour, and somehow managed to remain successful and, in the eyes of most critics, culturally relevant.

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Simple Minds have tried to reinvent themselves too, embracing synthesisers again on their Neapolis album, for example, and discovering a little of their old energy on current album Graffiti Soul. They are still, undeniably, a successful band. But for all their efforts there is, in the eyes of most people, something slightly naff and hamfisted about them, and the reviews I've read of this latest tour have been more than a little snooty.

OMD can, I'm sure, relate to that, particularly if they read my damning review of that previous Glasgow show. However, given their singer's habit of dancing like your embarrassing uncle at a wedding, or introducing songs with the words "It's all boogying from now on," I suspect that they're having too much straightforward fun to care. And why should they? If they like saxophone solos and cheesy songs about lying in the grass with the sun on their backs, who am I to judge them? And if Simple Minds want to have foxy women singing "na na na na na" backing vocals, or release clunky, dated songs like recent single Rockets, who am I to judge them either?

OMD and Simple Minds might not make great records any more, but once upon a time they did, and that's more than most of us will achieve.

• OMD and Simple Minds play Glasgow SECC on Friday and Aberdeen AICC on Saturday.