Hard as this may be to believe, those words weren’t written in 2012, but in 1985. Tinker away for a bit with some of the illustrative examples and the whole piece could have summed up the last twelve months for mainstream pop, which some might suggest needs taking to one side and given a bit of a talking to. Alexis Petridis commented on his guide to last year’s Mercury Award – and their lack of pop nominees - that “a cynical voice would say that’s probably because the charts are in a state of awfulness almost without precedent – they’ve been rotten before, but never this sonically homogeneous – and a cynic might have a point.” Elsewhere, Jude Rogers put the boot into Rihanna in a no less scathing piece, while Dorian Lynskey and Peter Robinson have also lined up to give mainstream pop the kick up the arse that some have felt it’s needed of late.
Each passing think-piece sent me towards Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s ‘Dazzle Ships’ with increasing frequency, each time marvelling simultaneously at how a record so gloriously, unapologetically batshit ever made top five in the albums chart upon its 1983 release. And, at how it continues to sound so startling and different as it reaches its 30th birthday.
With three records already under their belt, OMD had already established themselves as a one of the guiding lights of British synth-pop at the time of its release, albeit one with a disarming naivety and warm characterful nature at odds with the sleek, chic image cultivated by the likes of Human League and Depeche Mode. Fronted by the perpetually effervescent Andy McCluskey, they melded an innate pop nous to quirky lyrical topics to create tracks which celebrated telephone boxes (‘Red Frame White Light’), the WW2 American bombing raid on Japan (‘Enola Gay’), oil refineries (‘Stanlow’), North Sea republics (‘Sealand’) and Joan Of Arc (erm, ‘Joan Of Arc’, ‘Maid Of Orleans’).
But with a career that had progressed from their curious self-titled début via the introspective follow-up (anomalously buoyant ‘Enola Gay’ excepted) ‘Organisation’, culminating in 1981’s epic, choral masterpiece ‘Architecture And Morality’ the question remained, where next? Speaking to Richard Skinner during a radio interview just prior to the release of ‘Dazzle Ships’, Andy McCluskey gave an insight into the mindset that shaped the ensuing record. “You know us, we could sell 39 million records tomorrow and it wouldn’t convince us the song was any good. We’ve always been… stupid!” Speaking of the preceding ‘Architecture And Morality’ – a record which went top three in the UK charts, would go on to sell in the region of three million copies an in ‘She’s Leaving’ possesses arguably one of the finest non-singles in modern history – McCluskey continued “We didn’t think it got the respect it deserved. We put a lot into it and we really loved it and you know us, we worry at the best of times. So anything which undermined our own unstable balance creates a problem for us. So some of these worries we had after ‘Architecture and Morality ’ have forced us into new areas on this. Some areas I’m glad we moved into, others we might change our mind as we go along. Although I think the album on the whole is quite exciting.”
‘Wilful’ may have been the better adjective. Taking its name from an Edward Wadsworth painting which Peter Saville had taken an interest in (dazzle ships being WW1 battleships painted in disjointed, angular patterns in a bid to confuse the enemy as to their size and distance), the eventual record took the usual expectations of a record from an established mainstream chart presence, and threw them out of the window. What they instead presented their label Virgin, and the waiting public, with was a record where the even-numbered tracks (and for some reason track nine) were pop songs in the accepted sense of the word, while the odd-numbered tracks were a mish-mash of sound collages and mood pieces, aided by McCluskey and fellow band member Paul Humphreys having recently purchased an Emulator sampling keyboard which they proceeded to cram full of all manner of samples from the world of TV, radio, and even toys.
From the record’s curiously mournful opening salvo ‘Radio Prague’ – little more than a looped playback of the old Soviet station’s call-sign – there’s an innate feeling that you’re listening to something unpredictable and different. From there we have the Speak And Spell-sampling lead single ‘Genetic Engineering’, all brash vibrancy and pulsing rhythms, which in turn leads to the intricately arranged minimalist ode to car manufacture, ‘ABC Auto Industry’, built upon a series of looped, synchronised vocal melodies. With the juxtaposition between sound collage and chart-ready melodics established, the latter element throws up a spiritual successor to ‘Enola Gay’ in ‘Telegraph’, the infectious ‘Radio Waves’, the soaring, majestic ‘International’ and ‘Silent Running’ and the heartbreaking finale of a re-recorded ‘Of All Things We’ve Made’. Of the non-songs, there’s the staccato, striking ‘This Is Helena’, ahe bizarre overlapping multi-lingual talking clocks of ‘Time Zones’ and above all the downright unsettling title suite, designed to offer a sonic representation of two ships engaging in battle.
However unhinged that sounds on paper, it’s even more extraordinary on record. Like a strange piece of modernist architecture, it’s a collection of awkward, jagged polygons which come together to form a cohesive mass at the last possible moment. McCluskey himself admitted; “we originally thought this isn’t going to stick together, this is going to be a real hotch-potch. We had a lot of difficulty putting it together and ultimately it only seemed to gel together as an album in the studio. Only after a few trial runs and moving things around did we get some sort of running order.” Yet it’s this incessant barrage of oddity that in a way is one of the record’s strongest suits. In a chart landscape typified by accusations of being ‘the new beige’ or ‘going through the motions’, ‘Dazzle Ships” inherent unpredictably and the way it induces exclamations of ‘what’s going on now?!’ means it never risks seguing into the background or becoming background music. It demands attention.
How did it do, then? On the surface pretty well. Greatest hits releases excepted, it’s number five chart peak remains the band’s second-highest, while its thirteen week stay in the charts puts it mid-table in the back-catalogue. Compare that the era’s other great folly; The Clash’s 1981 effort ‘Sandinista!’ (two-and-a-half hours, 36 tracks, six sides of vinyl), which followed the top-10 ‘London Calling’ and limped to number 19 – their worst ever chart position for a studio - and it looks even better. But look a little deeper, and admittedly the results are a little less rosy. According to Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley in a piece he wrote around the time of the last reissue in 2008, ‘Architecture And Morality’ sold over three million while ‘Dazzle Ships’ sold 300,000. In today’s market that’s a staggering figure, but nonetheless represents a 90% loss of fanbase.
Stanley argued that ‘Dazzle Ships’, along with ABC’s ‘Beauty Stab’ and Dexys Midnight Runners’ ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’, were victims of a growing conservatism in the charts (a view which tallies with Reynolds’) that simply wasn’t there for their preceding records. He adds: “It was almost as if the country was tired of mavericks, had heard enough about unemployment figures and ghost towns and nuclear threat. They wanted glamour, in a Seaside Special way. Duran Duran had their first No 1 in 1983. Paul Young, Wham! and Howard Jones - considerably more pliable and predictable than OMD or ABC - were the year’s new stars.”
That’s not to say it ‘Dazzle Ships’ – ahem – sunk OMD’s career. Far from it, albeit by even McCluskey’s admission reigning in their experimental side somewhat. A quick glance at their chart history shows 1984’s ‘Junk Culture’ (led by shimmering, propulsive single ‘Tesla Girls’) may have only peaked at 9, it still hung around for 29 weeks, the same as their 1991 record ‘Sugar Tax’ which went top 3. They also recorded songs for a John Hughes film and had a successful career in America throughout the mid-late 1980s. Perhaps more importantly, ‘Dazzle Ships’ itself continued to intrigue and inspire well after its release date. Speaking in the sleevenotes for the expanded reissue of Saint Etienne’s Mercury-nominated 1991 debut, Bob Stanley said it; “was a big influence on the way ‘Foxbase Alpha is structured.’ Bandmate Pete Wiggs added: “Dazzle Ships was one of our favourite 80s albums. We loved the packaging, the mix of songs and strange bits – it was an influence on the longer, less song-y stuff. Obviously its colossal commercial failure didn’t stop us taking it as a model!”
To bring us full circle, what can modern pop learn from a record celebrating its 30th birthday? Rather a lot, as it happens. It demonstrates that expression and individuality is less a crime, and more a concept. Asked about the viability of challenging records, Saint Etienne’s Pete Wiggs argued: “There’s good challenging and bad challenging! When it’s good, it’s about pushing boundaries and experimenting, but the results are ultimately listenable. Both Bob and I rate ‘Dazzle Ships’ […] as one of our all-time and most influential faves.”
During the annual-if-tiresome post mortem of the state of guitar music, one of the more pertinent arguments tabled was the need to have characters at the forefront of the musical landscape such as your Jarvis’, for example, irrespective of choice of instrumentation. If you wanted to take that idea and run a mile with it, then ‘Dazzle Ships’ is the record for you. It may not have brought them the success they’d imagined, but as McCluskey admitted, over time it has gained them a certain respect.
“The album that almost completely killed our career seems to have become a work of dysfunctional genius. The reality is that it’s taken Paul [Humphreys] 25 years to forgive me for Dazzle Ships. But some people always hold it up as what we were all about, why they thought we were great.”