Dazzle Ships

There’s a distinct otherworldliness to Dazzle Ships, the 1983 album by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Part of it is down to the passage of time itself. The cold war context of the LP’s production, signaled by its opening track, a recording of the station identification and time signal of Radio Prague with a bit of shortwave noise thrown in for good measure, now seems, from the vantage point of 2012, like a different world altogether.

But historical distance alone does not account for the full sense of otherworldliness that characterizes and defines the album. Dazzle Ships is fundamentally about the imagination of different worlds, of new and transforming technologies, and other ways of life. The socialist world was the other space that was most readily available and one that, however degraded and corrupt it had become in reality, nevertheless served as the vehicle for western fantasies about a better future. Charity Scribner has written about this dynamic in her brilliant  Requiem for Communism (MIT Press, 2003). She argues,

In Britain and France oppositional writers, artists, and filmmakers fantasized about an “other” Europe, where men and women labored together to build a better future. This never-never land of the proletariat was charted on the cognitive map of left intellectuals but existed nowhere in reality. (63)

“Radio Prague” transmitted from this never-never land and facilitated the projection of hopes, desires, and fantasies. And even though the call sign of the station is delivered in a foreign voice, Dazzle Ships features two other tracks, “ABC Auto-Industry” and “This is Helena” that are drawn from the English-language side of Radio Prague. The first is structured around a recording of a Radio Prague programme about automation and industrial process. The presenter, apparently named Vladimir, conjures up a sense of  the marvels of socialist productivity and technological achievement. The latter features a female voice, also recorded off of Radio Prague, providing instruction on home taping technology and introducing “music for your tape recorder.” These tracks and voices in combination represent the fantasy that Scribner details of the fantasy space “where men and women labored together for a better future.”

The fanfare and pomp of the Radio Prague identification, consisting of the opening section of the Communist anthem Kupředu levá (Forward Left), seems slightly ridiculous today, emblematic of communist kitsch. Yet in the context of 1983, it would have had a whole other set of associations: of the bleak greyness of the late Brezhnev era, yes, but also the latent promises that the grim blocks and the bland uniformities of the Eastern Bloc had failed to extinguish entirely or fully expose as futile or fraudulent.

The key to the track, I think, is the shortwave interference and echo that slightly disrupts and partially obscures both the musical fanfare and the voice that announces the station as Radio Prague. This interference marks the distance between receiver and transmitter, helping transform both voice and anthem into the stuff of alluring otherworldliness and making the very act of listening itself seem transgressive.  Beginning an album with “Radio Prague” conceives of a kind of a political pop animated by a specifically utopian desire: to imagine another, better world.

But any such imagined world can only be projected out of the bits and pieces of one’s own that seem to bear within them some aspect or vision of the future, however partial or dimly perceived. The use of samples on Dazzle Ships exemplifies this process of projection from the partial, the snippets of foreign broadcasts representing the romance of the future, the allure of the elsewhere. As Fredric Jameson writes in The Seeds of Time, there’s an intrinsic connection between utopia and the limits of thought. He argues that the importance of utopian projections resides not in their actual content, but in what lies beyond the scope of their imaginings:

what we are unable to wish or to bring to the narrative figuration of the daydream or Utopian fantasy is far more significant and symptomatic than the impoverished actually-existing…wishes themselves…Historically, then, this is the sense in which the vocation of Utopia lies in failure; in which its epistemological value lies in the walls it allows us to feel around our minds, the invisible limits it gives us to detect by sheerest induction, the miring of our imaginations in the mode of production itself, the mud of the present age in which the winged Utopian shoes stick, imagining that to be the force of gravity itself. (75)

Incredible quote, that, and tempting to see Thatcherism as the very mud in which the shoes of Dazzle Ships are stuck. But even more than that, Jameson’s assessment explains why Dazzle Ships is such an exhilarating, joyous album: ambition itself generates a kind of pleasure, the exploration of the limits of the perceived possible and the sense that there is a space even beyond it.

When it was released on March 4, 1983 (twenty-nine years ago today!), the album received a frosty reception. Its lyrical and thematic ambition alienated critics, fans, and radio. This seems somewhat surprising given that OMD’s first three albums, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (1980), Organisation (1980), and Architecture and Morality (1981), all contain moments of experimentation and even their purest pop moments tackle serious historical subjects, from Joan of Arc to the Enola Gay. But despite the pop catchiness of both “Telegraph” and “Genetic Engineering,” Dazzle Ships was a step too far in the way that it blended musique concrete, sonar blips, snippets of shortwave radio, typewriters, a Speak and Spell machine, and a toy piano to generate a experimental soundscape that evoked a world caught between communism and the commodity.

As Bob Stanley explains in a Guardian article published around the time of the album’s rerelease in 2008, Dazzle Ships, in its scope and ambition, is very much of its historical moment, perched between punk and the banal mid-eighties soft pop that would follow:

As, of course, did the whole country. Dazzle Ships, falling between the Falklands war and the Tories’ emphatic re-election, sounded the bell for the new pop playground that the charts had become. An almost forgotten era, now lumped in with the ephemera that succeeded it- the likes of Johnny Hates Jazz – new pop was an attempt in 1981 and 82 to marry chart music to the avant garde. Incredibly, it succeeded. There was no manifesto, but the new generation – OMD, ABC, Soft Cell, the Teardrop Explodes, Dexys Midnight Runners – had lived through punk, understood its situationist leanings, and understood the real value of music. While OMD name-dropped Dancing Queen, Ian Curtis and Mies van der Rohe, ABC claimed they existed to write “a soundtrack for the 80s”.

As Andy McCluskey (who along with Paul Humphreys formed the core of OMD) tells Stanley, he thought that Dazzle Ships would fuse pop sensibility to avant-garde provocations: “It all made sense to us. We wanted to be Abba and Stockhausen.” The album entered the charts at number 5 only to drop off the very next week. After the commercial immensity of Architecture and Morality, Dazzle Ships was a monumental failure.

But the very elements that contributed to the sinking of Dazzle Ships in 1983 are what make it so engaging and exhilarating today. The album heralded the arrival of sampling culture, constituted a kind of English equivalent to Kraftwerk’s hymns to technology, and pushed English pop toward experimentation and away from the rigid conventions of the pop single. These facets perhaps weren’t appealing or apparent to most listeners in its day, which makes us, today, the proper recipients of an album that, as much as its own attachment to Radio Prague, seems like an alien transmission from a space beyond.

This entry was posted in 1980s, Memory, Modernity, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *