Some works of genius are recognized right away, others take a bit of time. Whether or not the work released 38 years back was genius or not is debatable. What’s certain is that it was a work that took a long time to “dazzle” people. Riding high in their native Britain and one of the first UK New Wave acts to conquer North America, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark released their fourth album, Dazzle Ships on this day in 1983 – and by some estimates, quickly cut their audience by half or more.
Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys formed “OMD” (not to be confused with country-rock outfit Ozark Mountain Daredevils whose name was also sometimes shortened to those same three letters) in 1978, choosing the pompous name to ensure they weren’t confused with a punk rock outfit. Which is not something anyone who heard even a few bars of their music would have been confused about; the pair had known each other since they were schoolkids in the 1960s and had always disliked the guitar rock most of their friends adored. Instead, they were drawn to experimental, electronic music such as Kraftwerk and Eno. Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark drew heavily on synthesizers and unusual, yet often danceable, song structures. Fittingly, their first tour was opening for Gary Numan in 1979.
Garnering reasonable success in their homeland with their initial two albums (particularly the single “Enola Gay” which also gained them a foothold in North America on college stations) , their career took off with their third album, Architecture and Morality. That album took the increasingly popular synth-pop sound to different, unusual locations and took them to unexpected stardom. Melody Maker called it “the first true masterpiece of the Eighties” and garnered them three Top Five singles in Britain. Indicative of the quirkiness of the band, two of those singles were both initially entitled “Joan of Arc”. The record company and publisher balked and changed the name of the second one to “Maid of Orleans.” The song that kept the name was a surprise hit in Canada as well, and in the end OMD had an album that was platinum in a number of markets and sold over four million copies. Enter Dazzle Ships.
Their fourth album still drew heavily on synthesizers and electronics, but was decidedly colder and more detatched-sounding. Andy McCluskey said of it, “the machinery, bones and humanity were juxtaposed.” The first single, “Genetic Engineering” was an homage to Kraftwerk and many of the songs seemed inspired by bleak themes (The Guardian noted it “soundtracked the Cold War at its coldest.”). Although a few people loved it- Q magazine for example rated it a perfect 5-stars – most didn’t care much for it. BBC, for instance, called it “moribund and over-wrought.” Though it hit the charts at #5 in the UK it quickly sank and although they rebounded a bit in North America later in the decade with the single “If You Leave” from the Pretty In Pink soundtrack and poppier-sounding Junk Culture , they didn’t really have much success again in the UK until 1991 (after Paul Humphreys had quit the band.) As McCluskey noted 25 years later, it was “the album that almost killed our career.”
Time has been kind to the album however, At the same time McCluskey was admitting that the record nearly killed the band, he noted it “seems to have become a work of dysfunctional genius.” Vince Clarke (of Erasure and, briefly, Depeche Mode), Pet Shop Boys and Howard Jones are just three of many confirmed fans of the band and some specifically find Dazzle Ships , well, dazzling. Radiohead are fans and many point to their OK Computer as being an homage to this album as much as it was an homage to Kraftwerk. In 2011, Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla told the Salt Lake City Weekly that it was OMD’s “Magnum Opus. It’s a really gorgeous album. It’s daring and it’s weird.” Mojo listed it as a “buried treasure” in 2007.
OMD disbanded during grunge’s hay day, 1996, and reformed in 2006. Although their recent albums haven’t sold much, the band’s enjoyed success touring as more and more people look back on their back catalog with fondness. Whether or not Dazzle Ships was over-wrought, by 2007, the BBC declared OMD “deserve respect and adoration”. As The Quietus sum it up, “O.M.D. are not one of the best synth bands ever, they are one of the best bands ever.”