Sunday, August 02, 2009

Ocean FM

Julian Cope's Head-On is a fantastic book, proof that musical and literary talent have no necessary correspondence - whether krautrock or megalithic exploration, his books are invariably better than the records. Anyway - one of the many pleasures of Head-On is in its unsentimental but unashamedly mythic evocation of place - Liverpool - and time - 1978-82, to the point where it's hard to read without an intense historical jealousy taking over. It makes both seem shabby, petty and breathlessly exciting, a scene that combines the expansive, bohemian and bitterly provincial, which is Liverpool all over. Part of what is interesting in it is in seeing just how wrong the Liverpool in-crowd (of which Cope was unabashedly one) were, how their coolness and their talent were in inverse proportion. As a rule, if the young Cope dismisses a band - John Foxx's Ultravox, Visage, Japan, Orchestral Manoevres in the Dark - they will be very interesting, but if he takes them seriously - Echo and the Bunnymen, Wah!, his own group - then it's Merseybombast all the way. Until recently, conventional wisdom would seem to agree, and one of the most exciting things about the early, canon-forming days of K-Punk was that we were reminded that Visage presaged techno, while the Bunnymen merely presaged Oasis.

Efficient, logical, effective, and practical.
Using all resorces to the best of our ability.
Changing, designing, adapting our mentalities.
Improving our abilities for a better way of life.

The contempt in Head-On for OMD is very funny - pretentious ex-hippies fronted by 'Leo Sayer' with a risible name. Out of the list above, they're still relatively unhip, lacking any Sylvian panache, their rep marred by astounding lapses in taste (three words: Joan of Arc). They have an obvious appeal for me as poets of port cities, hymning the romance of the Wirral rather than the Cavern, observers rather than participants. The relationship of postpunk to Modernism and industrial decline is an odd one, with much of it missing the imminent shift to the post-industrial - making songs that evoked factories when the factories started disappearing. OMD's best work has an industrial melancholy to it, a sense of loss, of something ending - so Architecture and Morality, with its gorgeous Peter Saville cover of abstracted international style details, claims on the sleeve to have taken the term from arch anti-modernist David Watkin. Songs like 'Sealand' have an expansiveness, sense of transience and an overwhelming, abstract longing that seems to fit the experience of a major port as much as Joy Division incarnate a mythologised tower-and-motorway Manchester or Cabaret Voltaire steelworks and New Brutalism. This all comes together perfectly in Dazzle Ships, picked up by me a few days ago for a very reasonable sum and seldom off the stereo since. Unsurprisingly, as according to Paddington, what we have here is 'a farewell to a utopian period whose potential was never allowed to be realised, a recognition of the empty nothingness of the present, a grim forecast of tragic future.'

Machines are living too, they're working for me and you!

There is, or was, a radio station in Southampton and Portsmouth called 'Ocean FM'. It played the usual pish, but it should have played this - the sound of a bleak month on a container ship compacted into a half-hour. If Dazzle Ships is a concept album, the concept seems to be communication, travel and distribution as enabled by technology, something usually carried out dispassionately, but here made overwhelmingly romantic, a pathetic fallacy for obsolete machinery, with an underlying terror at the prospect of turning ourselves over to abstractions, whether technology or capital. So there's a willed innocence to much of it, with 'Telegram' making this wholly superseded technology wildly exciting - 'I've got a telegram!' he sings, attempting to tap into the joy of its early discovery. Elsewhere, it's about deception as much as communication. The Dazzle Ships of the title are perfectly chosen, as this experiment in warpaint for Great War battleships was, until after 1945 Britain's only major experiment with Modernist abstraction in public life, a utopian idea utilised for depressingly, if impressively atavistic purposes. The title track, with its collage of empty space, foghorns, forlorn drones and sudden, panicked alarms, is almost synaesthetic in its evocation of a locked-down landscape controlled by the defence industries, a blank lullaby to Cold War big tech.

The sound always returns to that pioneered on 'Sealand', a wistful industrial balladry, wrenched away from sentiment by the speak & spell tones, Czech radio announcers, crackles of noise, blank snatches of broadcasts on torture in Latin America. Each of them all but begs a listening position where one is surveying cranes, ships, silos, pylons, microwave receivers, an album permanently on the viewing platform by the docks but seldom allowed to come any closer. It's intensely sad, marked by the realisation that all the things that were supposed to bring us together and make us into more decent creatures - radio waves, international transport, communications technologies, automation - are easily used for less rationalist purposes. It's an album of laments by and for disappointed modernists. If it predicts any future at all, it's one where these technologies will have expanded exponentially, and where we will have drifted ever further apart. And with that, I'm off to Southampton for a week or so, and will be testing its synaesthetic properties when there.

(the fantastic videos here are taken from The People's Palace on YouTube)


Blogger Paul said...

I have heard that the initials OMD were also taken from Watkin : he dedicates his books with DOM: "Deo Optimo Maximo." But I have also heard that the title Architecture and Morality was chosen by one of the Marthas from Martha and the Muffin.

Great post.

10:17 am  
Blogger ZoneStyxTravelcard said...

Beautiful Dazzle Ships pix over at Hardformat:

4:19 pm  
Blogger ZoneStyxTravelcard said...

Did you get the edition of Head On which includes the sequel, Repossessed? Post-Teardrop years of acid paranoia... mattresses piled up against the front door... obsessive jogging... And obsessive collecting of matchbox cars.

12:34 pm  
Anonymous duncan said...

Interesting post. Linked to one of the videos myself...

4:47 pm  
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7:30 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liverpool at the beginnning of the 80s was a very, very grim place - much like Wirral is now...

1:30 am  
Blogger Julian said...

I had a similar feeling of envious nostalgia reading Bill Drummond's essay on managing Echo & The Bunnymen (I'm very much with Julian Cope on the merits of those Liverpool bands, I'm afraid; Visage still = vomit for me) in his book "45". Perhaps even sharper envy, because I was there, just a bit too young and far too unhip to get into Eric's, but I went to the cafes, walked the streets, restlessly trying to find the way out of my lately rural suburb and into that world going about its business somewhere near me.

There is indeed romance in the Wirral, but of an extraordinarily astringent kind. My mother lives there now.

10:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Older relatives of mine occasionally went to the 'legendary' club Eric's. They described it as inhabited by about about a dozen 'nobheads' discussing each other's haircuts, regarding each other as living legends. Dreadful new pop usually pointed everyone else to the exits.

Apart from one or two Teardrop tracks, I find ALL those bands awful. Cope and Drummond are only interesting for anything BUT music. There is a danger of anything 'post-punk' becoming blindly overrated in certain quarters.

There's currently a Liverpool pop exhibition in the museum, which funnily enough features Big in Japan and Jayne Casey prominently (I defy anyone to declare they'e ever listened to them). I'm sure her prominent role in the embarrassing, pathetic, yet economically/culturally devastating 'capital of culture' debacle has nothing to do with it.

1:34 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should also listen to 'Stanlow' on 'Organisation', about the oil refinery on the Wirral near Ellesmere Port if I am not mistaken.

8:28 pm  
Anonymous Barry Crocker said...

owen, did you know dazzle ships is a pastiche of kraftwerk's radio-activity album? some tracks are almost identical (in form, at least). would love to see you tackle a comparison of these two albums.

10:44 pm  
Anonymous Piotrek said...

This K-punk post is EPIC. What his other posts would you recommend?

12:12 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Thanks for all the comments, to think I had such a large ex-punk contingent reading this...

Zone Styx: yeah, have read Reposessed too - enormously enjoyable, but unlike Head-On I tend to be glad I wasn't there. Re: Eric's - yes, the poseurs and scenesters impression is suggested by the crapness of most of the actual music produced by the scene. I have indeed never heard Big in Japan, but I do have some a pretty good Pink Military EP, so she's not all bad...Incidentally, I read an interview t'other day with Florence of & The Machine where she talked about Trash as if it was some great mythical club of times past. In which case I'd like to point out now that I WAS THERE.

With ref to K-Punk, I'd just go through the archives, but the stuff I was referring to, the revalourisation of Sylvian, Visage and Numan, is from around 2003-5 or thereabouts, and is fantastic music writing...

Radioactivity/Dazzle Ships - well, there's an affinity, no doubt - and with Computerworld too, especially what with the speak & spell voices and all. But I don't think that another group making records about communications is 'pastiche' - we need more of them! More songs about buildings and food!

8:59 pm  
Anonymous Martin Wisse said...

I've tried my hand at answered your post over at my own blog, as I agree with you on Dazzle Ships, if not on Cope and the Bunnymen. All self promotion aside, I love the Teardrops' first album; great pop in the best sense of the word.

10:23 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Great stuff. I'm not absolutist on this btw - I like 'Treason' and some of Wilder, I like 'The Cutter' and the wonderfully overwrought 'Over the Wall' - but compared to the electropop 'Bowie heads' Cope derides - Foxx, OMD, Numan, early Simple Minds etc - it's all pretty indie.

11:11 pm  
Anonymous jannon said...

Always loved OMD since I was a kid, uh, I think the video for 'Seven Seas' ( that I saw when I had just moved from Los Angeles to Europe ca. '91 made me somehow envision the possibilities of the place I had just been in whole new light--the Death Valley-ish landscape depicted there was more camp, more sinister, more unstable and full of potential than I had been used to thinking of it. (But the song's not all that interesting, oh well.)

Anyway, really enjoyed that take on Dazzle Ships.

12:48 am  
Blogger Sylvia said...

Seriously-- I have LOVED OMD since I was a child. i've started my daughter on it too, she's quite amused. Good write up.
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