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Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark
Dazzle Ships (reissue) Luke Turner , March 28th, 2008 00:00

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OMD - Dazzle Ships

In 1983, human civilisation came closer to disappearing in a compost heap of gracefully rising mushroom clouds than at any point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In March, the month that Dazzle Ships was released, President Regan gave the speech in which he called the Soviet Union the "evil Empire", days later announcing the infamous Strategic Defence Initiative. Behind the scenes, psychological warfare missions by NATO forces probed the Soviet defences, with bombers approaching restricted airspace before turning back at the last minute. In September the USSR shot down Korean Air flight 007, and at the end of the year NATO’s Exercise Able Archer was interpreted by the Soviets as a preparation for a pre-emptive nuclear strike, prompting them to place their forces on full alert.

After the astounding reception afforded to Architecture and Morality in 1981, Dazzle Ships was a commercial and critical failure for OMD. Yet it stands the test of time as a heroic statement, succeeding, from the tinny brass opening of 'Radio Prague' onwards, in walking a tightrope of arch camp aesthetics and a seriously-minded, yet ludicrously overblown experiment. Try reading Andy McCluskey’s lyrics in hard print and they at times feel as empty as a wide horizon. But when harnessed to the deeply elegiac melodies (those rich synth tones, slow-marching drums), and a battery of sounds evocative of war at sea and radio propaganda, the whole comes alive with undeniable panache.

Of course, it was never going to sell, no matter how exuberant a pop song 'Telegraph' might be. Cold War geopolitics appear in 'International', which opens with a news report telling of a girl from Nicaragua whose hands had been cut off at the wrists. 'ABC Auto-Industry', meanwhile, features a Czechoslovakian radio programme on the use of robots in factories. 'Dazzle Ships (Parts II, III And VII)' is a three part instrumental composed of the soundtrack samples of conflict above and below the waves, foghorns and sonar pings, the throbbing of engines heard underwater. This is followed by the preposterously-titled 'Romance Of The Telescope' with its dreamy elegance and chorus of processed voices. 'Silent Running' is so magisterially pompous it demands a half hour of enforced standing ovation, the first one to stop getting a firm hand on the shoulder on the way out of the State Opera.

When I saw the reunited OMD perform Architecture and Morality last year, they followed that set with a slew of greatest hits that included not one track from Dazzle Ships. Instead, the audience (who had remained subdued during the Architecture section of the evening) piled to the front for the suburban disco; 'Tesla Girls', 'Sailing On The Seven Seas' and so on. Perhaps this reissue might go some way to redress the balance. Dazzle Ships was a fine realisation of that desire to be both pop and important that OMD first hinted at with 'Enola Gay' and 'Electricity'. It was also, like the brightly painted vessels that gave the album its name, an idea that on paper should never really have worked. And more than that, a quarter of a century on it remains as a musical microfiche that almost unconsciously documents the underlying tensions of its era.

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark - 'Telegraph' video:

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mister laurie
Apr 16, 2008 8:15pm

I bought this album on the day it came out.
I was a bit baffled by it but was convinced that, cos OMD were titans of my world, the fault lay with me. So I dug in.

And in time I grew to love (most of) it. I still do. Although that ABC Auto-Industry one was a step too far for me.

Although I am aware that the album's contents are mental as mental can be for the most part and, I suppose, arrogant to the point of insanity.

But it stretched me and it surprised me and it made me wade in and get my ears dirty which Spandau Ballet never did.

An heroic failure is still heroic.

Same with the non single tracks on 7 And The Ragged Tiger; athough to a much lesser degree.

In those days pop stars, when greeted with huge fame and wedge, went crazy and recorded their nuttiest whims.

And that is why we made them pop stars.

Never mind making music for girls; make music for robots, for yourself, for no reason whatsoever: to see what you can do.

And if it fails, well it's all a laugh innit.

And, by the way, Junk Culture is good too.

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Timothy Gabriele
Apr 27, 2008 5:50pm

OMD were way before my time, but several years back when synthpop was begining to come back and fashion I bought the first OMD album on the strength of its singles. Not long after, I burned a copy of this disc from my college radio station and found it immediately superior to anything else they'd done.

I was disappointed when, as you mention here, the lyric sheet left much to be desired when seperated from the music contained therein. I think therein probably lied the album's commercial failure. It didn't necessary speak to anyone because it didn't have much to say. In this way, it was the most like OMD's late era kraut idols. "It's fun fun fun on the autobahn", "Dusseldorf", or "Radio Waves have life!" It was about simply existing in a changing, globalized world. The fact that you were paying attention at all rather than listening to silly love songs was a political statement in and of itself.

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Tim Russell
Jun 19, 2008 8:13am

Nice to see Dazzle Ships finally getting the praise it has always deserved. As a fan back in the day I didn't find it that much of a stylistic leap from Architecture & Morality, and rediscovering it a few months back I was pleasantly surprised by how well it has aged, especially compared to 1983 albums by contemporaries such as Depeche Mode or the Human League.

Amazing that just a mere 2 years after this they released the dismal AOR of Crush. Things moved fast in those days.

Great site by the way, as an only child the mid-late 80s Melody Maker was the big brother I never had & is responsible for much of the content of my music collection. Great to read Chris Roberts in full flow again.

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Dec 3, 2011 5:21am

I was about 16 or 17 when OMD hit the US. My first encounter with them was Crush, and I saw them on the Pacific Age tour. Back then those albums seemed fresh and modern while their early albums, which were big hits in Europe and Britain and I had to purchase as expensive imports, sounded primitive and dated. Looking back after all these years, I have to say that nowadays these early albums, especially Dazzle Ships and anything earlier, sound authentic and groundbreaking while later material like the Pacific Age sounds sterile, overproduced, and irrelevant. When I first bought Dazzle Ships back in the late eighties I had heard the warnings and gave it a shot but just didn't care for it. So there it sat on my CD shelf for over twenty years when one day on a while I grabbed it and give it a spin. I was stunned at how much I liked it and how amazing it was! Romance of the Telescope is one of their greatest songs. Silent Running pays tribute to Joy Division whom OMD used to do gigs with. Some wild experimentation here coupled with a first-rate pop sensibility and some great grooves. These were the days when sampling meant something other than stealing a song from somebody with more talent. As with all the old OMD CDs, be sure to get the remasters which are miles ahead in sound quality compared to the original CD masters. Today, my kids love OMD, they play songs like Electricity, Red Frame White Light, Messages, and Enola Gay over and over and over...

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Djordje Milinkovic
Apr 22, 2013 7:00pm

To me "Dazzle Ships" is their best album. Always loved that experimental feel of the album. Also I have to admit ABC Auto Industry is among top 5 songs they ever made. I remember back in 1983 as a 16 years kid I was floored when I heard this record.

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James Allen
Oct 18, 2014 6:00pm

This album rules. F_CK you all!

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