Dazzle Ships & Liverpool Connections

I am a big fan of the London based Architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM), who are widely respected for producing intelligent, considered and beautiful buildings, and I recently attended a seminar in which they talked about the in-situ concrete in their stunning new Angel Building in Islington.

Anyway I was looking at their website and was reminded of their Unity Building in Liverpool, where coincidentally me & A are heading for a long weekend soon (I haven’t been since the late 1980’s and she’s never been!!).

I remembered reading when it was completed, that the external cladding design was inspired by the camouflage patterns on the so called “Dazzle Ships” that were painted largely in the Liverpool Docks throughout WWI.

The idea for deceptive or dazzle camouflage is credited to the artist Norman Wilkinson and was based not on making the ships invisible, but making them difficult to accurately locate. The camouflage consisted of a complex pattern of geometric shapes in contrasting colours, that interrupted and intersected each other in order to disrupt the visual rangefinders that were in common use during WWI. These rangefinders were manually adjusted until two half-images of the target lined up to form a complete picture and the clashing dazzle patterns made this significantly more difficult.

The artist Edward Wadsworth, who along with Wyndham Lewis was one of the leading lights of the English abstract art movement known as Vorticism (which like the Futurists in Italy, held a pre WWI ideal of machine supremacy and efficiency that was terminally affected by the atrocities of the conflict) was  instrumental in designing many of the Dazzle patterns that were then transcribed onto the hulls of the ships by a whole army of painters. Wadsworth’s interest in ships and maritime themes continued after the war, an example being the wonderful “Dazzle Ships in Dry Dock, Liverpool from 1919.

I have been aware of much of this for many years, in fact since about 1983 when my interest was first aroused when I bought Dazzle Ships by OMD their fourth and arguably most difficult record, and which thanks to Spotify I have been able to revisit (I only ever had the cassette version, which is no good as I no longer have a cassette player…)

Whilst never the coolest band in the world, I was always impressed with OMD’s vision and almost fearless approach to pushing the boundaries of both pop music and electronic music. Parts of Dazzle Ships (and to some extent their previous Masterpiece Architecture & Morality) are pure experimentation. Check out Dazzle Ships (Parts II, III and VII) or ABC Auto-Industry for some of the oddest/ bravest noises to grace any record by an early 1980’s mainstream band. Whilst the album did not fare well at the time, (not enough hit singles I suspect) in retrospect it sounds far less dated than much of the output from bands of this time.

OMD were of course from Liverpool themselves and although I can’t find online who had the initial idea to use the  Dazzle Ships as a central concept for the record, I can only assume that one or both must have been familiar with local stories surrounding this long forgotten chapter.

The artwork for this album incidentally is by Peter Saville Associates, and if Wikipedia is to be believed, benefitted from the input of Malcolm Garrett (Assorted Images), Brett Wickens (Pentagram) and Peter Saville (Factory Records) himself. (Posts on both Garrett & Saville to follow…)

As an aside, in the course of looking for images for this post, I’ve come across this amazing site Hardformat which fills me with much happiness. Obviously produced by people after my own heart… it offers lots of lovely images of beautifully designed record sleeves to swoon over..

  1. John Phillips
    March 11, 2011 at 18:47

    Hi – You may like to read my blog about Dazzle Ships that I wrote last year!
    Best wishes from John P

    • March 12, 2011 at 11:47

      Good Morning John
      The Dazzle ships were a fascinating aspect of our history weren’t they.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment, its always good to get feedback.
      I’ll have a proper look around your blog when I have time.

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