OMD's Dazzle Ships is indeed dazzling


After all these years, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark's 1983 album remains an intriguing gem.

by Allen Therisa in Pet Sounds

The OMD cool kids
The OMD cool kids

Dazzle Ships

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark


Virgin Records

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, or OMD as they are more widely known, was a trailblazer on the new romantic scene in the early 1980s. They were (and indeed remain to this day) very, very popular, both here and in that fabled territory over the seas, the US.

Originally from Scotland, and helmed by the partnership at the heart of the band, Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey, OMD put out the kind of music that epitomised the early 80s zeitgeist. Together with Depeche Mode, Spandau Ballet and The Human League, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark led the chart breakthrough for the sound of tomorrow, built on the emerging consumer technology of the time, and it was lapped up by consumers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Almost immediately, OMD charted big and then consistently, had slick videos just in time for the MTV explosion, and they were sort of, you know, "artistic".

Dazzle Ships was OMD's rather startling concept album and the band's unnervingly peculiar contribution to that great and intriguing cannon of Difficult Albums That Get Much Better Over Time.

After selling singles by a very large bucketload (Enola Gay, Joan Of Arc, Maid of Orleans) and lots of decently packaged and marketed albums between 1980 and 1983 (Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Organisation, Architecture And Morality), the group decided to release a long player which combined East European (i.e. communistic) radio broadcasts with the kinds of electronic doodling that Jean Michel Jarre had made a career out of.

Result: A begrudging Number 5 in the UK charts for the album, and general befuddlement all round at its single releases: The fantastic and weird Genetic Engineering limped in at number 20 in the UK chart, waited around for a bit, and then went away, while the sweet and melodic Telegraph died at number 42.

Oh, dear.

Dazzle Ships itself actually maintained a reasonable stint of 13 weeks in the album chart, and after peaking in the Top Ten, was not seen or heard of for a while, which is a shame.

And it is indeed an odd album; not so much a collection of songs, more a collage of sounds linked by signature tunes, station announcements and news broadcasts culled from those communist block airwaves. There are a couple of nice tunes in the mix (Telegraph, obviously, but also International and Radio Waves), but it is the weird "What is this?" quality of Dazzle Ships and its contamination with a culture which at the time (1983) was held up to be the absolute antithesis of everything that the West stood for which makes it the wonder it is.

OMD performed tracks from the album on The Tube once; a bad memory TV moment which features members of the group doing their best anti-performance performance, stone-faced, waving semaphore flags, serving up ABC Auto-Industry to the masses (beguiling, to put it mildly) and being very, well, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark.

To this day the blank, pissed-off faces of the audience that night remain a vision of what had gone wrong with the public's reception of the album.

Unfortunately, if you stream or even buy the CD today you are denied the sleeve that went with Dazzle Ships' original release; a toothpaste-shaded pull-apart cardboard contraption, full of art and beguiling graphic design.

For those enjoying the vinyl revival, look out for that originally packaged long-player.

Dazzle Ships: You upset the record-buying public and possibly made the record company despair. You were Plastic Fantastic, a little bit confusing in your oh-so-brave attempt to be non-commercial, and in your electronica soundscape you were a portent of what was to come.

In this album, however, there is also the secret as to why the West beat the East, and why we all ended up being little Thatcherites for a while before the current Woke wave arrived on the cultural scene. Dazzle Ships showed that the future could be bright and confident, and because of that, you optimistically, had the potential to do anything you wanted.

Which it was, for a while.

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