Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Dazzle Ships

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Dazzle Ships

It all made sense to us. We wanted to be Abba and Stockhausen. — Andy McCluskey, 2008

The youth anti-Imperialist Tribune was also addressed by a young girl from Nicaragua whose hands had been cut off at the wrists by the former Somoza guard.

If you’re a pop band looking to follow up a critically-acclaimed, three-million-selling hit album, sampling a disturbing news snippet about a Central American dictator probably isn’t the first tactic that comes to mind. But that’s exactly what OMD did on the track “International” from their fourth album Dazzle Ships. And “International” is one of the more accessible tracks on the album. Upon the release of Dazzle Ships in April 1983, its musical and conceptual experiments were seen as follies, and the album itself was viewed as one of the all-time flops.

Now, a quarter century later, both music and concept hold up as remarkably ahead of their time. Referring to Dazzle Ships as OMD’s Kid A is getting the right idea but ultimately sells the former album short. Given the context of its original release, Dazzle Ships is quite possibly the most unique, unexpected, and uncommercial album ever to make the UK Top Five. If it overreaches the standard paradigm of pop music by a mile, its grasp covers almost all that ground. It remains an imperfect but stunning and, crucially, enthralling experience.

In 1983, OMD were trying to figure out how to handle the sensation caused by the surprise smash success of 1981’s Architecture & Morality. That album matched religious imagery and impossibly ethereal electronic sounds with the band’s already-established knack for pop hooks. Anchored by superlative singles “Souvenir” and “Maid of Orleans”, Architecture & Morality would have been pretentious had it not delivered the goods so convincingly. Understandably, it was a hit everywhere but the US.

Faced with either feeding their newfound stardom with more in the same vein, or continuing to push the envelope, the band was paralyzed. Maybe art director Peter Saville tipped the scales when he suggested the Dazzle Ships concept. Dazzle camouflage was a visually striking technique used on British and American naval vessels in both World Wars. Graphic design professor Roy L. Behrens has described the technique as one “in which a single thing appears to be a hodgepodge of unrelated components”, and the same could be said of Dazzle Ships the album. Of the dozen tracks, eight were short wave radio recordings, previous b-sides, or re-recorded outtakes. Yet the themes of dangerous politics and the double-edged sword of technology are weaved throughout the album, and give it much of its present-day resonance.

The fanfare of “Radio Prague” announces the album’s onset, and then gives way to the typewriter-ticking of “Genetic Engineering”, the first single. The band members take turns proclaiming the benefits of this new science, “Efficient! Logical! Effective! And practical!” with what sounds like biting irony. McCluskey has said the song was meant to be irony-free, but the scratchy guitar and bounding, whimsical arrangement belie that notion. As a Speak & Spell toy doles out lines like “butcher engineer” in its synthesized voice, you wonder if Radiohead heard the track before composing “Fitter Happier”.

The question answers itself in the form of “ABC Auto Industry”. The most chilling moment in an album full of them, it at first consists of little more than interlocking samples of band member Paul Humphreys repeating “A, B, C” and “one, two, three”. Then, amid ominous timpani, an eerily disembodied, sampled voice comments on “robotics a science‚Ķtried in some factories” and the like. Terror sets in when the voice starts repeating “Frankenstein’s monster” while a computer self-destructs in the background. It’s a direct predecessor of OK Computer, and heady stuff coming barely a year after Thomas Dolby’s playful “She Blinded Me With Science”. And it’s miles away from “Souvenir” as well.

After such a harrowing opening, Dazzle Ships settles down a bit. With its chiming xylophone melody and driving rhythm, “Telegraph” actually predicts the more conventional direction OMD would eventually settle into. A trio of beautiful, haunting ballads makes up the album’s middle, Andy McCluskey’s emotive voice at times sounding on the verge of tears as he laments the world’s injustices. Disquieting sample aside, the waltz-time “International”, all layers of glacial synths, could be a sister to “Maid of Orleans”. And the stark, mantra-like, almost primitive “Of All the Things We’ve Made” is as affecting and inescapably sad a closer as Radiohead’s recent “Videotape”.

It’s true that some pieces of Dazzle Ships just barely fit into the puzzle. The title track; a long, multi-movement sound collage; pushes self-indulgence perilously close to the breaking point, and the listener along with it. On the flipside, “Radio Waves” and “This is Helena” are just silly. But even these seemingly inconsequential tracks serve to further the disorientation, to transport the listener to a world that is both timeless and frighteningly contemporary. The half-dozen b-sides and alternate mixes included with this newly-remastered reissue fit quite nicely into that world and possibly even enhance it.

The fallout from Dazzle Ships‘ monumental commercial failure was considerable. For better and worse, starting with 1984’s Junk Culture, OMD morphed from a risk-taking art-pop band to the still-inventive but commercially calculating act that found American success with the comparatively vapid “If You Leave”. “I wish we had made Architecture & Morality number two”, McCluskey said in 2002. Maybe OMD would have been superstars if they had. But then they and the world would have been deprived of Dazzle Ships‘ singular and lasting achievement.

RATING 8 / 10