Rewind: Terre Thaemlitz on “Dazzle Ships”

Posted: August 31st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

In discussion with Terre Thaemlitz about the album “Dazzle Ships” by Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (1983).

A lot of interesting electronic music was produced in 1983, the year “Dazzle Ships” was released. What drew you to Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, and this album in particular?

To be honest, I don’t recall exactly how I came to own this record. I think it was probably the usual budgetary situation where I had heard about OMD, I wanted to buy a record to check them out, and “Dazzle Ships” was the cheapest album to buy. As a teen, my record collection was built on unpopular records from the $1.00 bin. This was economically unavoidable. It also meant my point of entry for a lot of bands was through their “commercial flops”. And as an “outsider” who did not fit in with others and was therefore a flop of sorts myself, I found resonance with these failures at assimilation. Gary Numan’s “Dance” is a brilliant example – thinking back, to be 13 years old in Springfield, Missouri, and really into that album, it really signifies a kind of social isolation. A “normal” or “healthy” 13 year old could not be into that album. Impossible. So I believe this entire process of arriving at an album like “Dazzle Ships” must never be reduced to a simple matter of taste. It’s tied to issues of economics, class, socialization… in the US it is also tied to race and the divide between “black music” and “white music,” etc.

With this album, OMD experimented with elements beyond their Pop abilities, like shortwave recordings, sound collages and cold war/eastern bloc imagery. How would you describe the concept of this album?

I think “Architecture & Morality” already introduced a lot of those elements. I don’t know for sure, but as a producer myself I imagine this is partly related to the emergence of better sampling technology. They could use samplers to play back all kinds of sound elements, rather than being limited to synths and multi-track recording. I also imagine, drawing from my own experiences, that “Dazzle Ships” (like Numan’s “Dance”) represents a crisis in their relationships to their record labels and Pop music generally. A crisis with capitalism, the demand for sales, demand for audio conformity… and in this way the socialist imagery of the album is perhaps a reflection of their struggling against these processes. I remember reading some article – which I have no idea if it was trustworthy or not, but – it talked about the tremendous pressure labels put on OMD to become more Pop. I believe they were asked to finally decide if they wanted to be the new “Abba” or not, and if so, to change their style accordingly. This was a brutal trend in UK new wave. It destroyed the Eurythmics, The Human League, Gary Numan, OMD, Depeche Mode, and on and on… These are all UK bands, all extremely influential, and all totally boring in the end. Very few groups came out of these struggles for the better – one exception being Talk Talk, who did abandon their synth sound but became something marvelously unmarketable in another way. All of these New Wave bands had to become Rock bands capable of penetrating the US market, blah, blah – dumb American Dreams. Techno-Pop was dismissed as a fad by industry, and the artists seem to have gotten swept up in the hype of possible “success”. Ironically, of course, even if they got a brief flash of super-Pop success they alienated their core fans who had been drawn to them as other than Pop. I know I felt extremely betrayed. I still do, at age 41. When I was young, it was a personal betrayal, now it strikes me as a cultural betrayal. I could be totally wrong, but I guess for me, all of this feeds into the concept of “Dazzle Ships”, the title being a reference to massive battle ships. The idea of sending this album afloat in the marketplace, poised to attack and conquer as the label wants – but stylistically it also clearly sabotages any prospect of popularity. I think it was OMD’s attack on the labels that released it – a final kick in resistance before transforming into the Pop band that produced “Junk Culture” (although it could have also been a tremendous extension of A&R pampering in which the label let their artists run amuck – but that is so much less inspiring to me). And you have to forgive me, coming from the US, I have no idea how these records operated in Europe. I can imagine they got radio play. But not in the US. So my view is slanted by this. In the US these were all anti-Pop albums with no airplay, except in a few major cities. They had to be hunted down. And this camouflaged cover, in a way, also carried this metaphor of a product hidden in the marketplace, hard to find, elusive. But present. I like this metaphor – it predates the queer motto “We are everywhere” by a good number of years.

In the career of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, “Dazzle Ships” was a crucial point. They considerably failed to repeat the success of its predecessor “Architecture & Morality”, both in critical and commercial reception, and from then on they shied from combining Pop and experimental aspects, like they did on earlier albums. Could you imagine how they would have developed if they would have maintained commercial success with their ideas on this album? Or is that even possible in a longer run?

No, I don’t think it can be sustained in terms of economic success. I think that kind of question – the thinking behind it – is inherently flawed. I think this kind of electronic music was a reaction against Pop culture, in the same way Rock once was, and Punk, and so on. And in all of these cases, it is when the idea of reaction is transformed into status quo that it loses impact. In talking about my own projects, I’ve said many times that if everyone were listening to Computer Music I would not go near the genre, because its relationships to dominant culture would be totally different. And having everybody listen to it would not make dominant culture more interesting. It would simply be dominant culture, in which case Computer Music would be less interesting. The sound of the periphery would be something else. In a way, I am glad I grew up in the US rather than Europe, since these lines are much more blurred for Europeans. You have MTV2 or whatever playing techno music videos all day, etc. Maybe they do in the US now, too. I don’t know. But it is totally alien to my experiences with electronic music. When it comes to this kind of music, I think we need to separate the idea of “success” from financial success. I am heavily invested in failure. Absolutely. The terms of success offered by dominant culture and capitalism only destroy. Our daily destruction is inevitable, so to try to envision ways of being successful with “experimental” electronic music involves too much self-deception. And in that self-deception, we lose what little focus we had to begin with. So, for me, “Dazzle Ships” is the sign of OMD’s impending transformative death. As a music collector, one can recognize this sound before the follow-up album is released. The band will either disappear due to unpopularity, or come out with “Junk Culture” (clearly named by OMD out of self-critical awareness). It’s the gap between Depeche Mode’s “Construction Time Again” and “Some Great Reward” (or “Black Celebration” and “Music for the Masses” – Depeche Mode is one of those bands that went through several nuanced deaths), or Yello’s “You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess” and “Stella,” or the Eurythmics’ “Touch” and “Be Yourself Tonight”… From a sales perspective, the latter albums were “successful”, but from my view they were the harshest of failures. So it is not important to imagine how OMD could have sustained the direction. In the world of major label releases, the direction itself was symptomatic of a context of inevitable destruction. It was an omen.

Even if the album was generally considered a failure by all means upon the time of its original release, it has aged really well, quite in contrast to later albums that are now mostly remembered for their hit singles. Is the test of time always valid for more daring productions?

The problem with time, and memory, is that it carries with it a process of recontextualization. For example, those market dynamics I have been speaking of are largely forgotten, or at least omitted from conversations. That is another death, in which the executioner is the consumer. We kill for the marketplace. We kill in order to enjoy. If we don’t kill, we are denied a kind of juvenile pleasure response in music. We ignore the possibility of deeper pleasures. But I think an album like “Dazzle Ships” begins to stand out with time simply because it contains a sound that was not marketable. Its failure is what sets it apart as “other”. To recognize it as “other” is vital. To not romanticize that otherness in relation to “success” is our challenge.

Do you think there is a musical tradition OMD took up with this album? Are there other albums of that or any other era you think are comparable?

It’s absolutely combining Musique Concréte, Electroacoustique, and other high Modernist Avant-Garde sounds. And many of these genres also carried the histories and languages of socialism, communism, constructivism, etc. In a way, the melancholic tone of many of the songs reminds me of Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity”, which was 10 years earlier (in fact, the lyrics to the song “Radio Waves” are very close to a lot of Kraftwerk’s lyrics). And OMD’s contemporaries Yello were also using a lot of tape sounds in their recordings, before Carlos Peron left the group – although to a different effect. There is something very English about OMD and the way they approach these themes with a kind of distance and aestheticism that perhaps, at that time, a German or Austrian could not.

Are there aspects to the album important to you that maybe were not originally intended, but are influenced by your own interests or other cultural contexts?

As I mentioned, I think the US context has totally tainted the way I listen to this album. It was one of those records that I could not play in front of friends… unless they had heard “So In Love” or some other hit, then they might listen and say some fucked up comment like how much better OMD had gotten over the years. “International” was always my favorite song from “Dazzle Ships”. The intro news clip about a girl having her hands cut off by former Samosa guards, and lyrics about random violence… A truly “soulful” sound for me. As an object of continual senseless fag bashing, I understood it in my own little way.

The sleeve of the album was designed by Peter Saville, who was responsible for many seminal artworks. How do you rate his designs here?

Don’t laugh, but I actually have five copies of this album (4 vinyl and 1 CD), and each one is different. My first copy was the US print, which had no die cuts. Then I have what I think is an Italian pressing with die cuts and a matte black inner sleeve that visually looks like the US release with black circles. Given the naval camouflage theme, I assume the die cuts are like porthole windows in a ship. Then I have what I think is the original UK release with a gatefold cover, and the die cuts look into smaller camouflage textures – it’s a more elaborate cover, but I think not as visually coherent from the outside. But the inside has some nice surprises with additional die cuts. And I have a Japanese vinyl that is visually like the Italian, but in classic Japanese fastidious fashion it actually contains a lyric sheet! That’s amazing, and so helpful since the singing can sometimes be so hard to follow. And of course, I have the CD issue where the green is changed to blue. For a long time I wondered why they used green on the album covers, since it made no sense in naval camouflage. It could have just been a contrast inserted by Saville, or perhaps it was a reference to money – “green” (US dollars) – again leading back to my theory about this album as some secret vessel set afloat in the Pop marketplace. If that is the case, then the later CD release using blue instead of green could be seen as the loss of that critical message – the death of the album as it became simply one more item in the back catalog of super group OMD. To be honest, visually I don’t think it’s the greatest design. The outer sleeve and inner sleeve continuity is a bit lacking. Maybe 6 out of 10. I’d probably like it more if some info on the design was included in the album, since it’s a bit too vague for most people to get (including me). I’d like to think it has all of these contents and implications I’m talking about, but… I’m probably just projecting. I want confirmation, and I’m not getting it from the package.

Do you think there is a reason why so many Synthpop bands of the 80’s have this combination of electronic instruments and very distinctive voices?

It’s a very British male vocal reminiscent of Gary Numan, Pet Shop Boys, etc. Actually, my own voice is very similar to these voices, and listening to their records tends to make me uneasy in the way hearing one’s own voice is uneasy. In fact, it’s one very private reason I have just always fucking hated the Pet Shop Boys. I can’t get over it. But I think OMD really do a great job, incorporating all the dramatic signifiers of “singing” without every really singing… or totally doing it without success… or some other fantastic blend of chaos. Embarrassingly sincere at times. Sincerely parodying at others. It’s very similar to how I feel Mick Jagger approaches singing as a joke, but with completely different results. And I think part of the joke is about Brits trying to figure out their relationship to US soul music, which they so desperately adore and find so “authentic”, which makes them see themselves as terminally “inauthentic”. As a teen struggling with identities, I found this confusion of identity more “authentic” than US vocalists belting it out “from the heart”. Whiney white-guy vocals are also a kind of anti-Pop statement, clearly coming out of Punk and the “fuck your music training” attitude that swept the UK in the 70s. But it simultaneously is about that Punk approach having been co-opted by the music industry so that New Wave was a kind of Pop-marketed anti-Pop. I like this conundrum. I would like to think if I ever did vocal tracks I would have the courage to sing like OMD. I miss this in today’s music. So embarrassing that it’s totally fucking cool.

You have re-interpreted the music of Kraftwerk, Devo and Gary Numan with solo piano. Would it tempt you to work on “Dazzle Ships” in that way or another?

Actually, OMD are at the top of my list for possible piano interpretations, although the Rubato series is on hiatus for the time being. Essays on gender are a big part of those projects, and thematically I am just not sure how to tie OMD into my issues of transgenderism. Thematically, it almost requires another series. And nobody wants to release those types of projects. Electronica labels don’t want piano, and piano labels (which are usually New Age or New Music) don’t want transgendered content. The old Mille Plateaux label was special in that way. In their relation to the Electronica scene, you might say my Rubato CDs were strategically somehow my own “Dazzle Ships” guaranteed to sink or be lost at sea.

Sounds Like Me 08/09

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