Foolishly, my recent post on Dazzle Ships overlooked two things about the album that make it all the more intriguing and alluring.
The first is the title itself. It refers to a type of marine camouflage used extensively in World War I that consisted of intersecting geometric shapes of contrasting colours that formed a zigzag pattern. The aim of dazzle camouflage was not to render the ships invisible, but to make it difficult to gauge their size, shape, and speed. I’m not sure that there is a metaphor for the album lurking in there, but it does contain several nautical and naval references, most notably on “Dazzle Ships, Parts II, III, and VII”, which begins with sonar blips and proceeds with echos and resonances that conjure up the silence of a submarine or life below deck in the immense hull of a frigate. There’s also “Silent Running,” which refers to the stealth mode submarines adopt when evading sonar detection, but also brings outer space into the equation in its allusion to Douglas Trumbull’s tremendous 1971 ecological science fiction film of the same name. The early 80s was very much a time of naval intrigue and cold war antagonisms, amplified in large part due to the threat and menace of both the Soviet and American fleets of nuclear submarines that roamed the oceans undetected. Some of this certainly finds expression on Dazzle Ships, which, for me at least, conjoins the eerie silence of silent running to the geopolitical tensions that fueled and formed the era.
Peter Saville designed the cover for Dazzle Ships and it fits with his overall fascination with the bold geometries of modernism and the cleanness of modern type. Both the title of the album and Saville’s cover design refer specifically to a painting by Edward Wadsworth, Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool (1919). You can see the painting at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and it is quite remarkable for the way that it both documents a wartime practice and is a kind of modernist experiment in perception. There’s a riot of lines in Wadsworth’s painting, with the irregular asymmetries of the dazzle patterns set in juxtaposition to the straight lines of the drydocks themselves as well as the gasworks and industrial buildings that populate the background.
A common complaint about Dazzle Ships at the time of its release was that there wasn’t much new on it. There’s only six conventional songs on the album and two of them (“The Romance of the Telescope” and “Of All The Things We’ve Made”) were remixed or rerecorded versions of songs that had already appeared as b-sides. The remainder of the tracks were bits and pieces of found sounds, radio recordings, and musique concrete. One of these, “Time Zones”, may be my favorite track on the album. It’s perhaps an odd claim, given that it consists entirely of time signal announcements in several languages drawn from shortwave or public radio from around the world. Part of the attraction resides in how OMD arrange this musically, with the “pips” or “strokes” or “tones” that identify the exact time, coming into phase with one another over the course of the track itself. The contrast of languages and voices is rhythmic rather than cacophonous, and there is something of wonder in how this mechanical and formal broadcasting requirement also manages to conjure up a sense of a larger world ripe for discovery.
I’m fascinated by the elements of broadcasting, whether on television or radio, that falls beyond official programming: the station identifications, the public information films, the public service announcements, the end of the broadcast day. These infrastructural elements are frequently overlooked in the study of television and radio, but seem to me to key, not simply because they signal something of the mechanics of broadcasting (and of the sense that it is a public service), but also because they stick resolutely in memory in a fashion that is different to the way we remember actual programmes. I’m pretty sure I hear a Canadian voice mixed among all the others in “Time Zones”, a memory triggered by the grain of the voice and the feel of the radio space as much as by the accent or enunciation.
Dazzle Ships sits alongside other great albums such as Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity and Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha, which likewise mix full songs and ephemeral scraps. I don’t have a name for the category yet, but I’m taking suggestions.