Rock GPA: Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark [part 17]

OMD ca. 1983 – semaphore flags aloft

[continued from previous post]

After the “Dazzle Ships” campaign stalled with the non-hit status of “Telegraph,” the earmarked third single “Radio Waves” never had a chance of happening. Virgin must have had kittens because OMD, who had sold 3,000,000 copies of the challenging and idiosyncratic “Architecture + Morality,” had fallen flat on their faces with the album they had labored over the longest time. “Dazzle Ships” in its day sold about a tenth of that; 300,000 copies. Fine for a new band, but disastrous for a now established hitmaker. This band had managed at least an album per year [if not two] during ’80-’81. The band was out of the circuit for a full year making the follow-up. I maintain that during this time the market shifted radically beneath them.

The top 100 singles in the UK for 1981 paint as good a picture as they probably ever had [if you’re me]. The top 20 is instructive. You’ll find: The Specials, Soft Cell, Ultravox, Roxy Music, Dave Stewart + Barbara Gaskin, and lots of Adam + The Ants among the Shakin’ Stevens, Bucks Fizz, Julio Iglesias, and Stars On 45. In other words, dross was cheek-by-jowel with material that could be called Post-Punk influenced in surprisingly balanced amounts. But 1981 was like a decade earlier in the fast-moving Thatcher environment of curdled expectations plied with bread and circuses. A glance at the top 100 UK singles of 1983 reveals huge tectonic shifts having taken place as the market was streamlined for mind-numbing entertainment as opposed to more questioning New Pop which peaked in the ’81-’82 corridor of time.

The top 20 of 1983 contains a single song that I would call Post-Punk influenced: New Order’s “Blue Monday.” Everything else was chaff to me. Culture Club, Billy Joel, Paul Young, Men At Work, Phil Collins, Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson and Wham! [remember them?], who were naught but a shark fin protruding from the waters of pop in early 1983 but were top dog by year’s end. What was worse was that several of the artists on the 1981 top 100 chart [Spandau Ballet, David Bowie, The Police] who were on the side of the angels had switched colors to become oppressive establishment forces in the brief timespan.

For their part OMD had soldiered on piecing together an album that was to these ears, a logical follow through from the million selling “Architecture + Morality.” That album had tracks with twanging rhythm guitars, choral tapes, Mellotron, musique concrete, perky electropop with heavily ironic lyrics, and introspective melancholy. So too, did “Dazzle Ships.” The band’s hitting of the creative brick wall [as alluded in a recent comment from Richard Anvil on the last post] led to them retreating to their roots for material. Five of the dozen tracks were sound collage that barely crossed over into music. Gambits familiar to anyone with the “1978 Artifact” included in “Organisation.” Four of the actual songs on the album were retreads of earlier material. The band had written and recorded “Telegraph” previously during the “Architecture + Morality” sessions but found the results inconclusive. I must say the recording, which finally surfaced on the 2006 DLX RM of “Dazzle Ships” showed that the song always had the right stuff to these ears.

As did the triumphant “Radio Waves;” an uncanny pull from the songbook of The Id [possibly ca. 1977-1978] that fit into the thematic scope of this album like it was written specifically for it. I can understand collector fans [for I am one] grousing about B-sides re-jigged for inclusion on the next album. Such antics inevitably smack of desperation. That left only three new songs written specifically during these sessions: “Genetic Engineering,” “Silent Running,” and “International.” The album ran a trim 34-35 minutes. Inspiration could be said to have been thin on the ground, had not the end result been so powerfully compelling. At the end of the day, OMD might have been sweating bullets, but they delivered a thematic knockout that was actually more powerful for its ploys of desperation. It also helped that the new material included their best work ever with “International;” a song which added a new arrow of passion to their artistic quiver.

To my ears, “Dazzle Ships” sounded like the logical successor to “Architecture + Morality,” and I’d imagine that the band had reasonable expectation that it would maintain their commercial momentum. That it did not I put down to the shifting pop zeitgeist of the day, which saw the sort of passion on display in “International” dumped for the blue-eyed-soul platitudes of Paul Young/Spandau Ballet. The Pepsodent® white smiles of Wham! And the granny-friendly pop of Culture Club. In that seething cage of vicious banality, the political musings of science geeks like OMD were going to finish a distant second. What OMD considered “specifically political” content amounted to simply more of their obscure metaphors given some of their most abstract settings yet. The rarefied atmosphere of the Post-Punk era which had allowed quirky one-offs like OMD to flourish and prosper had all but evaporated by 1983. If the band were going to continue to compete in the “marketplace of ideas,” they would require a serious re-thinking to their mission statement.

Next: …Mission Accomplished

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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3 Responses to Rock GPA: Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark [part 17]

  1. Echorich says:

    I fully understand you final take on the status of Dazzle Ships and its relationship the band that made it, and their state of disrepair and with the state of Pop music, especially in the UK in 1983. I was among those listeners, a lover of Dazzle Ships – it remains my favorite OMD album – that was distracted and attracted to new sounds coming from the UK… The sophisticated pop of Everything But The Girl and The Style Council, the emerging intelligent Pop of bands like Talk Talk and Tears For Fears, the emergence of the Jangle Pop of Aztec Camera and The Smiths…all this competed with the experimentation and electronic vision of OMD. But I stayed the course, even if the next couple albums would fee like they were going off course – a bit.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – I hear you! Myself, I began to transition to the NWOBJP [New Wave Of British Jazz Pop] beginning then, and bands like Tears For Fears and Talk Talk had at least one foot still on the Post-Punk Parquet at that time. But the breaking wave of adventure that typified the ’79-’82 period of UK pop, that had culminated in the peaking of New Pop in that latter year, was by 1983 showing serious signs of ebbing. The rapid ascendancy of Wham! was definitely a harbinger of a retreat into orthodoxy that was to sap British pop of the artistic liveliness that it had shown in the aftermath of Punk.

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      • Echorich says:

        Yes Wham! have much to answer for, but so does Paul Young. They were both part of the blanding of New Pop into Corporate Pop. Goth became my refuge from the shiny emotionless Pop that would be controlling the charts by 84.

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