THROBBING GRISTLE OR ABBA?*
“With the third album they were over the moon. ‘Another one like Architecture and Morality and you could be the next Genesis!’ Wrong fuckin’ thing to say to us! Like all precious young men I felt our music was going to change the world. But even after selling three million you realise you’re not going to stop a war or cure a disease by writing songs about bloody Joan of Arc. I needed to be more political.”
Dazzle Ships was OMD’s career-suicide album. It sold a tenth of its predecessor, and forced Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys on the defensive. After its failure, OMD softened their edge with bland, conciliatory bluster. But Dazzle Ships has deservedly become the stuff of legend, a handbook for any pop group keen on flirting with the avant-garde. It has been compared to Kid A, but actually it’s far more interesting than that. Kid A did not, after all, fuck up Radiohead’s career.
Released in 1983, Dazzle Ships is a Cold War-era collage of sounds from the other side of the Iron Curtain. For all its sampling and robot noises, it is an immensely sad album: a farewell to a utopian period whose potential was never allowed to be realised, a recognition of the empty nothingness of the present, a grim forecast of tragic futures. The words of the radio announcement which opens “International” set the tone:
The youth and the Imperialist Tribune was also addressed by a young girl from Nicaragua whose hands had been cut off at the wrists by the former Samosa guards. Veronica Merco, of the German Federal Republic, had this to say: Aber ich habe eine Ausbildung gemachtak Industrie Kaufmann und...
Like Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity (a frequent point of reference), Dazzle Ships poses the ultimate modernist question: can we master technology, or will it master us? The awe that Romantic man feels before the magnitude of Nature has been replaced, when faced with machines, by a kind of dull horror. “Radio Prague” is a burst of portentously glum Czech radio broadcasts; “ABC Auto-Industry” foresees a Frankenstein’s monster waiting to devour us; “Dazzle Ships” itself is a terrifying map of submarine groans, bleeps and screams. (Three excellent films have been made to accompany these musique concrete masterpieces here, here and here).
The album spawned two uneasy singles, the best of which is the giddily apocalyptic “Genetic Engineering,” with its mechanised chant celebrating the miracle of birth: “Babies – mother – hospital – scissors – creature – judgement – butcher – engineer”. “It starts with this toy piano and typewriter which sounded great,” says McCluskey, “but then the drums came in and ... Bwoaghgrr!. The song just vanished. After a run of four top 5 singles ... number 20. Architecture and Morality sold three million and Dazzle Ships sold 300,000. It was the beginning of Paul not trusting me.”
Released during the depths of Thatcherism, Dazzle Ships wears its sense of defeat on its sleeve. But, re-released in March this year, perhaps its time has now come. As one reviewer on a well-known online retailer writes, “Hearing these sounds now, I kind of pine for the Cold War - which is no doubt due to the current climate, and the fact that the Eastern Bloc had style...”
* in OMD's more experimental moments, Virgin Records would ask them, "Can you guys decide whether you want to be Throbbing Gristle or Abba?"