Sunday, 13 June 2010

18 Dazzle Ships - Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark

Purchased : 5th March 1983

Tracks : Radio Prague / Genetic Engineering / ABC Auto-Industry / Telegraph / This Is Helena / International / Dazzle Ships (Parts ll, lll & Vll) / The Romance of the Telescope / Silent Running / Radio Waves / Time Zones / Of All The Things We've Made

This was the first of a number of albums purchased from Oldham. I think the original impetus was my friend Anthony mentioning a good record stall at the market. I first visited early in February with Helen and also noticed that the HMV shop had a chart return machine on the counter suggesting it would be a good place for discounts and special offers. Oldham also offered an interesting journey as it involved changing trains at Rochdale.

The title (and indeed Peter Saville's cover design) refer to the camouflage paint employed by the navies in WWI to break up their ship's lines and make them more difficult to attack. It's a fairly appropriate metaphor for an album which was attempting to disguise a bad case of writer's block by raiding the vaults for outtakes and re-usable B-sides and filling the gaps with sampled sounds in a way that prefigures Roger Waters' solo career. It only partially worked; the contemporary press seemed prepared to accept its claim to be the new OMD album but a lot of their fans were disappointed and second single "Telegraph" failed to make the Top 40. With three big hits from "Architecture And Morality" (not featured here for a long time because Helen had it on tape !) they were on the verge of superstardom but this put an end to that. Thereafter they were liked but not loved with a hit and miss track record in the singles charts

That doesn’t mean I thought it was atrocious then or think that now. It’s a bookend to the first stage of the band’s career (1979-82) during which they made their most exciting, rewarding and enduring music. Thereafter they became a more conventional pop band with variable results but didn’t inspire the same affection. As the actual songs on this album date come from the same period they are all pretty good. The sampling stuff, very obviously indebted to Kraftwerk’s “Radioctivity” and Pink Floyd, is superficial and doesn’t seem like more than an afternoon’s work.

It kicks off with "Radio Prague" which is just a recording of the call signs from an East European radio station. Comprising mostly of a Purcell-like brass fanfare it actually works quite well as an introduction to "Genetic Engineering" the only Top 40 hit on the album.

It originally featured in a 1979 John Peel session so must have been considered for the first LP. Beginning with a neat call -and - answer percussion routine on a typewriter, the main keyboard refrain -which does sound very similar to the theme from "The Magic Roundabout" - then comes in followed by a pro-science mantra spoken in quick alternation by McCluskey, Humphreys and, in optimistic American tones, Humphreys' wife Maureen. Then Malcolm Holmes's bass drum kicks in together with a thrashing detuned guitar and a child's Speak and Spell machine (perhaps a cheeky nod to Depeche Mode ?) starts spewing out words like "butcher" and "engineer". Above this cacophony McCluskey sings in semi-hysterical fashion of the future prospects of this new science. It wouldn't have disgraced their first LP (it's much better than "Dancing" for example) but it's not one of their best singles either.

Then we have "ABC Auto-Industry" which starts with McCluskey on a loop chanting "ABC" then answering himself with "1-2 -3". A thick bass drum starts pounding and a man who sounds a lot like Brian Cant starts reading out some key phrases associated with auto-production while the chants are speeded up to sound like Pinky and Perky. The key phrase "Frankenstein's Monster" is repeated amidst Kratwerkian bleeps. There's no real song here and it soon outstays its welcome.

Next up is "Telegraph" a song from the "Architecture And Morality" sessions. A xylophone-like synth goes up and down the scales while a synthetic flute plays the main melody. It's an attractive song about the impact of the telegraph but what makes it challenging and may well have accounted for its poor showing as a single is McCluskey's unhinged vocal performance. The subject matter doesn't seem suited to such rage; towards the end there's some actual screaming and you wonder what exactly they're trying to do with it.

A warm female voice redolent of Radio Four then announces "Music for your tape recorder" and Holmes is let loose for once to play a hard rock beat on the slight "This Is Helena" which is basically an instrumental with recorded interjections from the eponymous announcer and a brief snatch of stadium noise.

That's over very quickly and a macabre snatch of reportage about an atrocity in Nicaragua leads into "International" which, by contrast, McCluskey sings very carefully in his lowest register. The lyrics are quite vague but appear to be a criticism of the international community - "There we sit on a line wasting fortunes at a time". Like "Maid Of Orleans" it's in waltz time and would have fitted very neatly on "Architecture And Morality". The middle eight has a lovely melody picked out on the mellotron before a last impassioned verse which appears to be about a female infatuation with Hitler then a closing melody which veers , perhaps deliberately, very close to "Ten Green Bottles". It's the album's best track.

Side Two commences with "Dazzle Ships" itself which is just a sampling of ship noises ending annoyingly with a sonic boom which continues to sound into the beginning of "The Romance of the Telescope" a sombre ballad which previously appeared as the B-side to "Joan of Arc" and is very clearly a product of the same sessions with its stately mellotrons and Holmes's miltary tattoos on the latter part of the song. Here the band actually address the lack of easy answers in their songs- "Someone promised there'd be answers if we stayed around".

Next up is "Silent Running" a slighly more uptempo song with similarities to "She's Leaving" from "A & M". There are no obvious links to the eco-warning science fiction film of the same name the lyrics being typical sub-Ian Curtis fatalism. It's pleasant enough but a bit vapid.

A splurge of white noise leads us into "Radio Waves" the only uptempo song on this side. It is a re-recording of a song from their earlier incarnation as The Id and very obviously takes its cues from Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity". This takes us right back to their earliest recordings like "Electricity" and their childlike joy at the wonders and potential of technology. The warm synth melodies and sense of humour in the couplet "Over Reagan's head, under Moscow's bed" are a reminder of this side of the band.

It's always tempting to skip over "Time Zones" a tiresome montage of various speaking clocks like an update to the intro of Pink Floyd's "Time" without the song to follow.

Fortunately there is a good song to conclude the album. "Of All The Things We've Made" was originally on the 12 inch of "Maid of Orleans" and sees them stripping the sound down to one snare drum, an atonal one-note guitar thrash and a single sad keyboard melody. The lyrics are sparse, simply a lament for the failure of something that "always worked before today". It's quite affecting, especially in hindsight with the relative failure of the LP commercially forcing them to rethink their approach.

Something ended here even though the band didn't, which made this a fitting purchase for the ebbing tide of my school days. By the time of their next release -which I loathed - I was at university and we were all learning new ways of making our way in the world. That's why despite its flaws I still hold this LP in great affection.

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