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. Read the rest of this entry »