520. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Dazzle Ships (1983)
“It sounds strange, I know, but we had been trying to change the world,” Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Andy McCluskey explained to The Guardian several years after his band experienced a commercial breakthrough with their third album, Architecture & Morality. “It was the naive confidence of youth, the idea that music is that important. The music we made had to be interesting and different. And somehow we believed that would change the world, the way people think. So when we sold three million albums and the world didn’t change, we were scared.”
Charged with following up a big hit record, McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, the other major creative force in the band, were stuck. They couldn’t quite find their way to new material that sat comfortably in the mode of the sleek synth pop they made previously, so they instead let the weirdness in. Dazzle Ships isn’t really a concept album, but it sure feels like one, from the weird interstitial sonic tinkering to the cloak of Cold War dread that hangs over the music. Straining to find intellectual unity actually does a disservice to the better chunks of the album, such as the bright, bold “Genetic Engineering,” the luxuriant and intense “Silent Running,” and the complex, precise “This is Helena,” which basically gets to the Big Audio Dynamite sound a couple years before Mick Jones. These don’t sound like hit singles in waiting. Instead, they’re something better: tracks that take a mallet to pop music and then welds it back together into something odd and new.
Reflecting both the arduous process of revving up their creativity and the inclination towards wild-eye experiments, the highs of Dazzle Ships are countered by some dire lows. “The Romance of the Telescope” is inert, and “Telegraph” is so aggressively pure pop that it approaches self-parody. For fans who wanted Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark to stick with endless variations on “Enola Gay,” I’m sure the arch abstraction of “ABC (Auto Industry)” and “Time Zones” represented the real nadir of the album. Whatever the sticking point, Dazzle Ships was considered a commercial disaster, and the U.K. was only too happy to savage it. Fairly or not, McCluskey and Humphreys chose to take the album’s reception as a lesson to learn. For their next album, they decided to give the people what they want.
519. Hothouse Flowers, People (1988)
If the story involves an Irish rock band emerging during the latter half of the nineteen-eighties, there’s a good chance Bono is involved. From humble beginnings as Dublin street buskers (using the name the Incomparable Benzini Brothers for part of the time), Hothouse Flowers expanded their roster, sound, and ambition and started gigging across the country, building a reputation as a great live band. They were well known enough to land a television guest spot. Bono was among the viewers, and he offered to put out Hothouse Flowers’ first single on U2’s vanity label, Mother Records. That in turn led to the band snagging a major label deal with London Records and a trip into the studio with producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, famed for their work with the likes of Madness and Elvis Costello.
The resulting album, People, is one the great debuts of the era. Earthy and rollicking, Hothouse Flowers’ music is clearly road-tested, ready to grab the listener by the shoulder sand yank them in or insinuate itself slowly with the easy confidence of a slow build. It’s the former strategy that opens the album, with the formidable combination of “I’m Sorry” and “Don’t Go,” both barroom burners. There are hints of traditional Irish music to the band’s sound, but decisively repurposed with a modern rock flair without the stultifying slickness that was starting to overtake bands. On the aching ballad “If You Go,”Hothouse Flowers even manage to rescue the saxophone solo from its cloying eighties iteration but putting a dose of Clarence Clemons soul back into it.
Lead singer Liam Ó Maonlaí approaches Van Morrison levels of powerhouse vocalizing on “It’ll Be Easier in the Morning” and outdoes Bono himself with the snarled political insolence in “Feet on the Ground,” the line “I ain’t talkin’ ’bout jet fighters” sounding like it could have been snipped straight out of Rattle and Hum. “Hallelujah Jordan” and “The Older We Get” are demonstration of the forcefulness that can be generated in relatively straightforward, mid-tempo rock songs when everyone in the group is hitting their mark with pinpoint precision. Simply put, People is damn near perfect.
518. Suzanne Vega, Suzanne Vega (1985)
Suzanne Vega arrived at her self-titled debut with an almost comically cliched background for a singer-songwriter in the folk tradition. A English literature major at Barnard College, Vega regularly gigged in New York City’s Greenwich Village and got her first chance to record songs when the Fast Folk collective decided to press some compilation albums. Whether or not the collections were meant to be launching pads for artists, some of the contributors were able to stir up some interest, including Vega, who was signed to A&M Records at a time when the label was actively collecting meticulous, idiosyncratic songwriters.
Suzanne Vega is an exceedingly assured album, distinctive for the clear choice to largely forgo fussy adornments that might obscure the strength of Vega’s songwriting. The album doesn’t settle for spare recordings of Vega and her guitar, but the additions properly enhance her clear creative voice. There’s a lot of studio polish to “Marlene on the Wall,” all of it accentuating Vega’s strong perspective as she cleverly imagines a print of Marlene Dietrich as the voyeuristic observer to a woman’s romantic travails (“Marlene watches from the wall/ Her mocking smile says it all”). The magnificent “The Queen and the Soldier” is similarly fleshed out and yet fully preserves the sense of a performer finding greater truth through pointed folk storytelling (“A soldier came knocking upon the Queen’s door/ He said, ‘I am not fighting for you anymore'”).
There are certainly instances when the album is notably spare — as with the lovely and fragile “Small Blue Thing” — but Suzanne Vega has more varied texture than it is usually given credit for. “Cracking” and “Neighborhood Girls” even carry indications that Vega was paying attention to art rock of Laurie Anderson and her peers and figuring out how she could incorporate some of the unique sounds and cadences into her own work. Suggesting the totality of Vega as an artist, these tracks contain the first rumblings of the glorious storms that would come later in her career.
517. U.K., Danger Money (1979)
Taking the three members of U.K. on the album Danger Money, the sophomore outing under that name, and check their resumes. At the time the album was released, they’d collectively had stints in, Uriah Heep, King Crimson, Roxy Music, and various iterations of Franz Zappa’s backing bands. Extend to the years that followed and the list sees the additions of Yes, Jethro Tull, Wishbone Ash, and Asia. That festival lineup from Hell is an accurate indication of the material spread to agonizing running times on Danger Money. It’s all overly emotive singing and dumping-gravel drum fills, galumphing bass parts and headache-inducing synth lines. There are no guitars on the album, but there’s plenty of electric violin playing. Keyboardist (and electric violin perpetrator) Eddie Jobson proudly told Keyboard magazine that “Rendezvous 6:02” features a synthesizer solo with “all sixteen oscillators in monophonic unison,” so that’s exciting, I guess.
U.K. at least veered away from the warmed-over fantasy novel trappings and science fiction meandering that typified so much prog rock. “Caesar’s Palace Blues” draws its inspiration from the garish Las Vegas landmark venue (“They’ve cameras in the casino and bugs under your bed/ But all the gold in Reno couldn’t bring old Caesar back from dead”) and the title cut is the saga of a modern mercenary. The album closes with the requisite song stretching past the ten-minute mark, the ponderous, messy, and exhausting “Carrying No Cross.”
Danger Money was the last album by U.K., but few rock acts truly cease. Nearly thirty years later, Jobson pulled together a new band dubbed UKZ and then official reunion shows followed. I mean, why not.
To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs.