At school I was always told that OMD’s Dazzle Ships was a rubbish album and it wasn’t worth listening to. This, at a time when the band were riding high in the charts with songs like Joan of Arc and Locomotion.
So I loved OMD, but never bothered with this album for a good twenty years. What I had been missing was an ‘experimental’ album full of eclectic songs with a few singalong hits thrown in. Here I want to set the record straight and suggest why Dazzle Ships is worth a listen.
Dazzle Ships was released In 1983, their fourth album. It came a year after their third album ‘Architecture & Morality’ had achieved great commercial and critical success with tracks including Joan of Arc and Souvenir.
What is a Dazzle Ship?
The name dazzle ships refers to the painting of merchant vessels in the first world war. The ships have been painted with sharp diagonal shapes of varying colours as a means of camouflage on the open seas.
OMD had been formed across the Mersey in the Wirral and identified with Liverpool as their home city. The artist Peter Saville created the album cover taking inspiration from the camouflage and the paining ‘Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool‘ by Edward Wadsworth.
The Dazzle ship convoys had started from Liverpool and became ingrained in the city’s identity and culture. Even today you can see a [brighter] dazzle ship sail as part of the Mersey Ferries fleet.
Going Back to their Roots
Despite chart success of their first two albums, the commercial reception for Architecture & Morality their third album was muted. This confused founders Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys forcing them to reconsider their approach to music. For their fourth album they OMD chose to go back to their original influences to create an album that passed more than a nod to their love of German bands Kraftwerk and Neu!
If their audience had been weaned on easily accessible opening tracks (Bunker Soldiers, Enola Gay and The New Stone Age opened their first three albums) then Dazzle Ships was set to be a shock. ‘Radio Prague’ is the actual interval signal of the Czechoslovak Radio foreign service , including the time signal and station ID spoken in Czech . Not an obvious pop intro!
The second track, Genectic Engineering is a more accessible pop track followed by another experimental number ABC Auto Industry.
If the first side (remember this was in the time of Vinyl) was deemed experimental, then the opening of side two would be even more confusing. Titled, Dazzle Ships (Parts II, III & VII) this two and half minute track starts with nautical sounds, emergency sirens and spoken snippets before calm down to an atmospheric keyboards track.
Ballads & Singles
For me, Romance of the Telescope is one of the band’s stand-out tracks. In parts melodic and melancholy
Genetic Engineering and Telegraph were the pop ‘singles’ still performed live in concerts whilst much of the album was instrumental or sampled. “Time Zones” is a sample of international speaking clocks and “This is Helena” is sampled voices set to OMD music.
When put together we have a truly great album – in parts experimental and introspective and in other parts world class pop.
The Dazzle lives on
I won’t be the first writer to dust off an old album and call it a classic, but despite its cold war influence, the album does stand up to current and repeated listens. Artists as diverse as Mark Ronson, Death Cab for Cutie and Saint Etienne. It was this album, say Etienne that inspired Foxbase Alpha, their debut that included sound clips, noises and some beautiful songs.
Do go and have a listen!