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Dazzle Ships Revisited
on 14 November 2010
Once these Dazzle Ships were shiny and new, raising their proud pæans against the world and his or her dog, and boldly going where no sampler had gone before. Now do these vessels lie rusting on the scrap heap of musical history? Were they mere folly all along? A silly diversion best turned to plantpots like Grandad's 78s?
Listen to this:
"It was a crashing disaster." Andy McCluskey, Vox, July '93
"...the whole concept of the album lacked vision and cohesion." J. Waller / M. Humphreys, Messages (the official biography), 1987
"...shorter tracks... frustrating irritations..." Messages again.
Even it's creators, perhaps in a conscious or unconscious effort to retain credibility with an apparently hostile public, denied it thrice.
Messages suggests the `failure' of the album was due to a confused record buying public. Was the album synth-pop or was it avant-garde? This of course is twaddle. People don't buy albums because they are a `cohesive end product'. Some buy albums because they saw and liked the band live, but that's a relatively small number of people most of whom are already converts. Some buy because the songs have had lots of exposure on the radio, thanks to a very small but powerful group of DJs. Others buy because a very small but powerful group of reviewers have said nice things about the album. Neither of the latter things happened in the case of Dazzle Ships, hence low sales.
O.K., so low sales don't prove an album is bilge-water, but can we ever prove that Dazzle Ships isn't bilge-water? Aha, here we've hit the conundrum, since the whole thing about art of any kind is that, of course, there is no good or bad. Art is purely subjective. You either like a song or you don't, and the logic of getting someone who's never liked a particular band to `review' (i.e. `slate mercilessly') one of the band's albums is incomprehensible. This is neither a service to fans, nor to people who would be fans given the opportunity of hearing the music. Further, it will surely alienate readers who have bought the album and liked it.
A review should be descriptive of the music, comparative with bands of a similar ilk perhaps, and analytical with reference to past work if any, but any judgemental stuff should be clearly stated as personal opinion, and the reviewer must have some modicum of respect for and relate in some way to the artist or the whole thing's a waste of time. There is, after saying all that, one circumstance in which we should be prepared to condone the slagging off of an artist's work, and that is when the motivation behind his/her work is not the desire to create something of lasting interest, but merely the desire to create the perfect commercial product of the moment. But this was never the case with OMD. What I'm really trying to say here, in a very roundabout way, is that inappropriate reviewers and their inappropriate words have infected our attitude, and maybe even the attitude of the band, towards the monumentally unfortunate Dazzle Ships album.
The album was put together at a difficult time for the band, but it's amazing to this day that they could ever have disowned it to such an extent. The bulk of this article and review was written in 1993 and was never published, the result of an idealistic compulsion to redress the balance, but today I'm so pleased to see the beginnings of a movement to rehabilitate this fine album as a lost masterpiece.
So dust off your semaphore flags, fondle that fine cover with its playful cut-outs and interesting folds, place the vinyl lovingly on the turntable (or slide that thrilling, re-mastered, extra-tracked CD reverently into your Bang and Olufsen), think positive thoughts ("I DO like my Dazzle Ships album!!"), and embark on a voyage of rediscovery!
* RADIO PRAGUE: Sets the scene nicely, letting you know you're in for something different. Throughout most of the 80s Radio Prague was an instrument of Communist repression, but finally in 1988 Czechoslovakia switched off the jammers which were used to block western radio stations. This track is a sample of Radio Prague's foreign service call sign.
* GENETIC ENGINEERING: Rhythmic invention, spiralling, bell-like sequences, compelling dynamics, and, my goodness, is that a guitar!? An OMD classic without a doubt, and as fine a slice of synthpop perfection as you're likely to find.
* ABC AUTO-INDUSTRY: One of the supposedly `irritating' bits, but you need to work with it. Beautiful tuned percussion, the Emulator again perhaps, and unsettling samples. Samplers can do much more these days, but the sheer audacious poignancy of this piece proves that less can be more.
* TELEGRAPH: More timeless pop with some deceptively simple campanological sequences - bells to you. The primal bassline drives the thing. The live rendition on the Tesla Girls B side is THE version to have imho, and I'm willing to bet it's a long time since Andy's attempted the larynx-destroying high notes live.
* THIS IS HELENA: It's like the Emulator exploded and all the little short-wave samples came tumbling out, soundtracked by Mal's dynamic, rifle-shot drumming. Infectious and spacious, this piece has so much going on you forget there's no vocal!
* INTERNATIONAL: When journalists ask what the hell a song's supposed to be about (and I think it would be the same for a statue or painting) there's no need to defend the way it hangs. It's their problem if they haven't the imagination to interpret. What a song means to the audience is their own private affair, their interpretation becomes their property, and the writer has no business in that. What a piece means to the writer is a nice-to-know for the audience, not a need-to-know. This song is very special to me, and to many people no doubt, in its frozen, crystalline wonderfulness, and there's really no need to say any more than that. Other than you have to love OMD's waltzes! More please...
* DAZZLE SHIPS: People have been seen pogoing around the place screaming "Dive! Dive! Dive!" to this. However, as with all concrete music, this track is best enjoyed at three in the morning, after one too many snakebites, lying on your back under a starlit sky.
* THE ROMANCE OF THE TELESCOPE: Stunningly handsome detuned synthbrass and synthchoir highlights a lush, reverb-drenched mix. This is utterly original, and still largely uncharted, territory. One of the band's own favourites, and vying with anything as the Greatest Song Ever Written. You will never hear this on Radio One of course.
* SILENT RUNNING: Simplicity is the key here. Another timeless, mesmerising masterpiece with the wistful, dewy-eyed quality that seems to pervade this album. It has to be said that an irresistible feature of OMD's ouvre is the headstrong monosynth contrapuntal sub-melody that never seems to clutter a piece or collide with the vocal. But what is this song about? Could it be the band's insecurity at the time manifesting itself in something very precious that, with hindsight, could never have been consciously engineered in the vast uncharted sea that these Dazzle Ships found themselves adrift in? Probably not, but it's a nice thought.
* RADIO WAVES: More acerbic pop. Play LOUD! More driving, Kraftwerkian bass, a remarkable intro, and the kind of organ you won't ever hear played in church. Who cares if it was an old Id number as long as it sounds this good?
* TIME ZONES: A throwaway folly, or a morphing, fluid, revolving sculpture in sound? This, and the whole album, is a well-deserved nod to sound pioneer Pierre Schaeffer. The abrupt shift into the next piece is effective every time...
* OF ALL THE THINGS WE'VE MADE: This was nearly OMD's last song, and what a way to go it would have been. The drone, a technique often put to good use by OMD, is this time a jangly, shiny guitar chord, constantly insisting beneath a simple, two-fingered piano theme. The drum sounds are unusual and doleful and create an atmosphere of finality.
Dazzle Ships is an album set within a context. That context is 1983, the tail end of New Wave, and the Brave New World of mass high-technology, with a band unsure of its direction and motivation, and all of us many years younger. The music itself cannot be criticised for being disjointed or lacking direction. It is what it is - criticism is inappropriate. Dazzle Ships is something beautiful that a talented group of young artists constructed whilst influenced by their circumstances. And isn't that what all art is? Where is the crime? The album, any album, is a living testament and monument to the context from which it grew, and there's deep interest and value in that alone.
If you're still not convinced, think of the pile of bricks that once graced the Tate. The pile in itself, taken out of context, is possibly uninteresting. However, when you consider that the artist had previously shown himself to be capable of conventional art of the highest order the bricks take on a whole new value and meaning. Think about that. And while you're at it, let's listen to Dazzle Ships just one more time...