Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Off for my spring break in the Lake District. Will return next week with posts on, amongst other things, the St Pancras Rent Strikes of the early 1960s, thoughts on the early chapters of Capital and (perhaps) a few choice words about Patrick Hamilton's Twenty thousand streets under the sky, which I began yesterday and am enjoying greatly.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

THE END OF THE LINE: King's Cross out of joint 7

Walking through the Northern outfall is a melancholy experience. The phantom of an invented, slickly choreographed future haunts the landscape. Where are those photoshopped families, the joyful inhabitants of the yuppiedromes? They are not here yet, but their avatars stalk us.

- Savage Messiah

Take a look at the future:

Looking at them, we wonder if we have visited these places before. The boy sitting by the fountain, a black book in his hand, looking at the camera like a rabbit in the headlights - is that me? Difficult to tell. The background's all hazy - a miasma wraps the horizon in a veil. And if it is me, when was it taken? Could be anytime in the last five, ten years - these days, the years all roll into one.

Those CGI impressions of how King's Cross Central will be redeveloped have a pallid, haunting quality. The theory is, if you convert enough historic buildings into shops selling useless nick-nacks and overpriced designer labels, you will preserve some of those buildings' authenticity. But it is authenticity in the service of a timeless, placeless, eventless future. Nothing will ever happen in these forecourts and parks.

So have we indeed reached the end of the world, the end of history? Is St Pancras the final terminus towards which human history has been heading? These lurid photoshopped visions have already happened - we see them on every high street - and yet they appear hopelessly outdated in this age of anxiety. The models who pose in these new horizons cannot quite manage to raise a smile. Even inertia will reach a climax.

Local historians have noted that for centuries, from Iceni battles to smallpox, from rent strikes to street work, King's Cross has always been rife with decadence and deliquency. Camden's local politicians would call this sort of thing anti-social behaviour and try to slap an order on it. If everybody who had ever been awarded an ASBO came down with a baseball ball to Pancras Square or Goods Street or Cubitt Park when their red ribbons are cut, the end of history may be further off than we think.


THE END OF THE LINE: King's Cross out of joint 6

Kings Cross, the fabled gateway to the city, and the yearned for exit route.

- Savage Messiah

The grand utilitarian hulk of King’s Cross Station was built in 1852, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, on the site of an old smallpox and fever hospital. Alongside the chest-beating St Pancras, King’s Cross looks like it has been trodden on and squashed. Its bricks are an ashen yellow, its arches are less piquant, and it is named after a statue which was so unpopular the authorities pulled it down ten years before the station was opened.

But King’s Cross sums what is wonderful up about this area better than its red-brick rival. You could hardly call it Modernist, but it does follow Modernism’s number one dictum: its form is determined by its function. King’s Cross has no ambitions to be anything else; it is not ashamed to be a mere railway station. The stoical countenance which Cubitt designed for it will be restored when Network Rail removes its flat-roof extension, which British Rail clumsily tacked onto it in the 1970s.

Its untidy, neglected surroundings suit it well – much better than the future that Argent have planned for it. On the whole, this is an area which has managed to elude the big corporations. The Big Issue was set up here. The radical bookshop Housmans is based in Caledonian Road, and is the place to go for more information on King’s Cross (its shelves and its staff provide a wealth of knowledge and curiosity). The NUJ, RMT, NUT, UNISON, Community and UCU all have their headquarters around Euston Road, and civil liberties and campaigning legal practices are scattered around Grays Inn Road. Not only does this suit the radical history of the area (I shall be writing about the St Pancras Rent Strikes soon), it produces a place which people want, and can afford, to live in.

But Argent isn’t interested in community development or local identity. It seeks to maximise income, and the best way to do this is by attracting larger corporations who can afford higher levels of rent. Despite the best efforts of local groups, the gentrification of King’s Cross Central is well underway. The self-contained communities which grew around King’s Cross have already vanished, their streets now mere skeletons.

Stanley Buildings and the Gymnasium - 2000 + 2008

Weller's Court - 2000 + 2008

Looking north from Cheney Street - 2000 + 2008


But never fear! After much umming and ahhing, Argent have worked out what we all want! Cafes! Bars! Restaurants! Water features! As far as the eye can see!

THE END OF THE LINE: King's Cross out of joint 5

Never mind. At least those displaced from their local area by poverty will be able to quaff prestige cuvee at Europe’s longest champagne bar, or sample continental themed patisseries from Crepeaffaire. For, aside from being Europe’s largest passenger interchange with 50m travellers passing through each year, St Pancras International is now a gigantic shopping mall.

It was originally built in 1868, and followed quickly on Euston and King’s Cross's heels. It became the London terminus for the Midland Railway, replacing a network of notorious slums (decades later, the area became the focus of Basil Jellicoe’s efforts to create decent public housing out of the obscene squalor of Somers Town). The train shed was laid out by the engineer William Barlow, and its 245 foot clear span roof remains its biggest attraction (bigger even than Yo! Sushi or Starbucks).

George Gilbert Scott’s ornate Gothic facade saved the station from closure in the 1960s, and it has become a London landmark – a sumptuous red-brick pile on the eastern end of a Euston Road whose architecture is otherwise rather ho-hum. Anywhere else it might be reasonably be considered a rather histrionic building, but if one forgets momentarily about its interior – a sterile, slimy, sticky and oddly transient orgy of shops, and arcticly cold to boot – it turns into a rather quaint old haunted house. Most of its Midland Road side is still derelict, and its dusty turrets, high windows, crooked crenelations, grey slate roofs, and faded roadsigns almost make one forget about the squeaky clean void on the other side.

St Pancras’s fortunes began to wane when the economy began to stagflate in the 1970s. It fell into disrepair, and by the late 1980s only a couple of trains left for the midlands each hour.


Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal shift brought stark changes to Camden: its Council housing (always in short supply) dwindled, market prices rose and the invasion of financial capital caused industrial areas like King’s Cross to decline further. Thatcher’s monetarist policies – economic liberalism mixed with centralist government – inevitably meant changes to planning. When the idea of a cross-channel rail link was first touted, the then nationalised British Rail was told that it would not be given a subsidy for building the rail-link or the terminal station. To raise the necessary cash, they would have to maximise income from the land around the site – in other words, sell it off.

Although the property slump of the early 1990s delayed its sign-off, plans for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link were finally rubber-stamped in 1996. The bid to design, construct, operate and finance the CTRL was won by London and Continental Railways, whose property subsidiary was given 67 acres of brownfield land at the back of King’s Cross, the station at Waterloo, 120 acres of land in Stratford and 635 properties along the CTRL route by the State to subsidise the cost of construction.

This is a truly extraordinary example of what David Harvey has called “accumulation by dispossession”. Quite simply, the State took public land of almost unimaginable value, expelled its tenants from that land, and sold it to a private company. The railways, shops, bars and restaurants, and most of the housing which will be built on that land will also be privately owned. It is unlikely that the people of Camden will ever get a glimpse of the vast profits which are bound to be realised there.

THE END OF THE LINE: King's Cross out of joint 4


It is difficult to understand why North London needs any more bars, cafes and restaurants. Nevertheless, anxiety about King’s Cross’s future should not make us nostalgic about its past. The current redevelopment of the area and its population echoes upheavals 150 years ago, when the stations were first built as monuments to industrial trade and power. They brought jobs to the area, and led to the demolition of notorious slum housing west of York Way and north of Euston Road.

The houses around King's Cross were also demolished, and so in 1865, in the spirit of Victorian paternalism, the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company (chaired by the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby) built five ultra-modern blocks, each five storeys high, of flats for local workers. The long stretch of Culross Buildings, with its communal staircases and wrought iron balustrades, was built on the other side of Cheney Street in the late 1800s to accommodate GNR workers. These buildings became the godfathers of social housing in London, and were for a century home to a stable population within the non-stop frenzy of King’s Cross.



Camden's dwindling supply and gigantic demand for public housing has saved neither. Nor have their popularity as film and music video locations. Three of the Stanley Buildings were destroyed in wars or demolished to make way for wider roads. A fourth, Stanley Buildings North, was controversially sold by Camden Council to Argent, the developers of the King’s Cross Central project, for £3m, though surveyors estimated their value to be nearer £7m. The fifth building still stands, but there is no pleasure to be had from looking at it. Developers were so embarrassed by its scowling presence at the entrance of St Pancras International, they covered it with an enormous Quentin Blake mural. Angela Inglis writes that “there are plans for Stanley Buildings South to be entombed in an eight-storey glass block, trapping the chimney pots, cast iron balconies and distinctive shape of the buildings in a sterile time capsule.”

Culross Buildings lays derelict and waits for a future. Its last residents left more than five years ago, but it gives the impression of having been evacuated in an emergency. There is still a noticeboard outside a bricked-up entrance to Culross Hall. Wires trail like washing lines, weeds grow from the gutters and the lampposts are bowed as if uprooted from the ground by an earthquake. There are still baskets of powdery earth teetering on the edges of window-sills.

Standing beside a building so dead to the world is eerie, especially when the huge sheets of plastic which cover the stairwells rattle in the wind. It’s not a happy experience, for in the abandonment of these buildings we see the contradictions of regeneration. After being decanted from their homes, it was unlikely these residents would remain Camden Council tenants because of the Borough’s double whammy of huge waiting lists and lack of stock. Yet the arrival of financial sector business and high-end retail is sure to push private rents up. Writing in 1964, the sociologist Ruth Glass wrote:

One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle-classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages—two rooms up and two down—have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences [...]. Once this process of 'gentrification' starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.

This is precisely what is happening to King’s Cross. The London Borough of Camden has huge social housing needs. Its waiting list for Council housing is around 16,000, yet it can only provide 1,600 new lets per year. 2,000 families live in temporary accommodation, and 5,000 live in properties which are considered over-crowded. Camden’s Unitary Development Plan states that 50% of new housing in Camden should be affordable, with 70% of that in the social rented market. Yet, Camden has agreed to Argent’s much more modest proposal that just 500 public housing units are built for the 20-year period of the contract.

The majority of housing planned for the site will be aimed at professionals who will work in the five million square feet of office space and shop in the 500,000 square feet of retail space planned by Argent. King’s Cross will not remain an affordable area to live in for much longer. The working class will have to move elsewhere.

THE END OF THE LINE: King's Cross out of joint 3

The 1882 Ordnance Survey Map of London shows nine gasholders just north of St Pancras. They were built by the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company. Although Imperial stopped making gas here in 1902, some of the holders continued to be used until 1999. Over the years, they were gradually dismantled. The famous “triplets” were taken down in 2002, their parts stacked along Goods Way to be rebuilt at a later date as a frame for new housing.


Now only Gasholder number 8 remains. It is an astonishingly beautiful structure. In a poem on the gasholders, Angela Inglis recalls how “when the sun broke through, a rainbow ran between your arcs and made the raindrops flicker on your metalwork.” The black paint on its stout Doric columns has been scorched by the sun and is peeling off like sunburned skin. Its heart has been cut out and now it lies open to the elements, disconnected gas pipes laying flaccidly in its distended interior. Clumps of daisies, dandelions and poppies blow in the breeze. But still Gasholder 8 stands there, impassive and stubborn, its pink, lacy steel twinkling.

Its future is uncertain, but it is likely to move further up the canal towards the natural park to become the skeleton for a children’s adventure park. The triplet of gasholders will be re-assembled nearby. Pancras Square will be roughly where Gasholder 8 is now – it will host water features, bars, cafes and restaurants.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

THE END OF THE LINE: King's Cross out of joint 2

“Old St Pancras Church Gardens in a snowfall, December 1986,” begins Angela Inglis’s elegy to King’s Cross and St Pancras, Railway Lands. “Dilapidated tombs with barely legible names. Through the gardens railings, seven gasholders in the distance. I am drawn to them. I walk through the gardens, turn right into Camley Street and enter Dickensian gloom beneath a rusting railway bridge where pigeon droppings fall onto sodden pavements.”

The tombs, which remain in the churchyard, tell a story of romance among the Romantics – William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft have a memorial tomb here, and their daughter Mary declared her love for Percy Shelley in the church’s gardens in 1814.

It is a peculiarly chameleonic place – radiant in the sun, but haunted by a spectral blue light at dusk. Its trees are extraordinary: aside from Hardy’s Tree, whose growth has unearthed row upon row of forgotten headstones, the limbs of the trees on the Euston Road side knot maniacally into one another, and the trees near the church are more like roods.

The memorial sundial, commissioned by the very charitable Baroness Burdett-Coutts, is like a decaying wedding cake – a wonderful Gothic monstrosity, overgrown with tiers of grass, yellowing weeds and dead flowers, surrounded by garish green rusted railings and guarded by four stone statues of lions and collie dogs, one of which has lost its face. The art-deco style Cecil Rhodes House on the other side of Pancras Road is one of the finest Council estates in London.

Yet twenty years on, the railings, the bridge and most of the gasholders in Inglis’s thumbnail have gone. Old St Pancras Churchyard welcomes you to a placeless place whose history is being erased.

A walk under the bridge takes you to Camley Street Natural Park, a sliver of land squeezed between rail, roads and canal. The park was landscaped on disused industrial wasteland in the mid 1980s by the GLC, which wanted to use the land for the local community. It is ingeniously laid out over two acres, so that you can sit at its edge, by the pond and alongside Regent’s Canal, and be almost surrounded by water. I was brought up in the country, but I still feel a bit jealous of the local children who get allured by its patchwork of grassy, cowslippy meadows, moist woodlands and reed-drenched ponds, its birds and bugs and sunbathing turtles.

Despite its tranquillity, it is perfectly attuned to the industrial landscape. Most of its surrounding gasholders have now been dismantled, but the bare brown brick coal and fish offices (designed and built by the Cubitts, the architects of King’s Cross) are still visible over the canal, their use to be decided by a boardroom of men in suits. Camley Street Natural Park, alone in this area in being largely unaffected by the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, is a safe haven for examining the landscape across the King’s Cross and St Pancras and plotting the journey ahead.

THE END OF THE LINE: King's Cross out of joint 1

Seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and head-lands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys ... I could almost have believed, at times, that I must be the first discoverer of some of these terrae incognitae, and doubted whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London.

- Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-eater

Early European explorers believed a sea-passage existed which would lead them from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, and thence west to Asia. There was and is no such passage of course, but the image stuck for Thomas De Quincey, who walked the streets of London to find a route which would lift him from the fierce travails of urban existence. 150 years later, the Situationists borrowed De Quincey’s nautical metaphor and added another. For them, the north-west passage was the real or imaginary channel through which one could evade the capitalist spectacle of the city – and the drift was the means of locating it.

Whether they would have found the north-west passage nearby is debatable, but De Quincey, the Situationists and the many other celebrated posses of urban drifters would have felt quite at home wandering the spaces in and around King’s Cross and St Pancras stations. Rimbaud and Verlaine, two celebrated flaneurs, lived in the neighbourhood for a few months in the summer of 1873.

Until recently, the area north of St Pancras and King’s Cross was an abandoned industrial wasteland with a reputation for drug-dealing and prostitution. A massive £2bn redevelopment – the biggest in Europe – is set to transform the area in the next 10-15 years. For now, “King’s Cross Central” is both out of time and out of place. Its industrial spine has mostly been ripped out to make way for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, and its local community has been uprooted and moved on. But they have not yet been replaced by the parasitic retail and business parks – these, thankfully, only exist in cyberspace at the moment. For now, though not for long, King’s Cross is yours for the taking.

Living and working so close to King’s Cross, I have taken to prowling around it during unoccupied afternoons. The northern sun bathes its one surviving gasholder and the ruins of old housing in a gorgeous orange glow. While frenzied commuters run along Euston Road or up the escalators at St Pancras, to be jolted about in heaving trains and tossed out into empty suburban platforms, the King’s Cross drifter can wander or sit unseen among the rubble of blown-up tenements and consider the view.

Its distinct zones call into question the purpose of urban space – a viable business environment, or a place for people to live? King’s Cross has evaded the advances of neoliberalism for so long, but is its future role to enhance the individual’s consumer power and line the corporate wallet, or are the malls and the office blocks really doomed? Will whatever we do end up being ruins?

That was the conclusion of Christopher Woodward’s lecture at the Hauntology Now! symposium on Monday. Woodward observed the nexus between the past and the future which ruins provide. We are haunted by what they once were, and fill their gaps with our own histories, but we are also haunted by their future, by the knowledge of what they will become.

A walking tour is an anathema to the psychogeographer, and one might say that King’s Cross is really too small to warrant one. I have merely picked a few points of interest and you can join the dots. I suppose it’s more of a loitering tour, a manual for the malingerer. I would urge you to go there before its history is completely erased, but one cannot appreciate King’s Cross without exploring the wider area: Somers Town’s philanthropic estates; the thundering ravine of Euston Road; Regent’s Canal and its idle narrowboats; Agar Town and the “greasy rebrandings” that Savage Messiah located along St Pancras Way. To describe these here would be too much. You can explore these for yourselves.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Some helpful advice: admiring railway architecture could lead to an arrest under anti-terrorism legislation.

Not too long ago, my flatmate was in Camden Town leading a group of mentally ill people on a photography course. He too was approached by a brace of friendly coppers who suggested that this sort of behaviour was not acceptable in such a high-profile crime area.

I’ve never been stopped in this way, but I do always feel rather awkward when I wander the streets of Camden or Hackney taking photos. The feeling is comparable to the one I get when I leave a shop without making a purchase: even though you haven’t bought anything, you still expect the security alarm to go off. The crime, in other words, is just being there.

It’s what Althusser has in mind when he speaks of interpellation. You become a subject by being guilty. Guilty of what? Of being a subject – of recognising that when the Big Other speaks, he is speaking to you. Taking a photograph literalises this. If you take a picture of a street or a building and passers-by happen to be in your photo, the implication is that the photo is actually of them. When the futile task of the subject is to keep his head down as much as possible and evade the scrutiny of the ever-present Big Other, taking a photograph is a particularly offensive gesture.

It also suggests a conspiracy, for there are places where it is expected that people take photos and there are places where it is not. Tourists taking pictures of Buckingham Palace – lovely. Boy in hoodie taking pictures of derelict buildings on the Hackney Road – bit sus. And, as Lenin points out, Kurdish student taking riverside pictures of the MI5 building – criminal. The Paraguayan dictator Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia punished anybody who dared to look at his Presidential Palace by shooting them on sight. We recognise this as being insane. So how is the story of Salam Abdulrahman any different?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive.

As a prelude to a substantial post on the undead space of the King's Cross Central development site, which should be online sometime next week, let's celebrate the 40th anniversary of 1968 by reminding ourselves that still our urban landscapes impose themselves upon us, rather than letting us find our own reflections in them, and still pissed-off people create poetry on walls in protest. The skeletal streets just north of St Pancras - Battle Bridge Road, Cheney Road, Wellers Court, Clarence Passage - have a proud tradition of graffiti and wall-paintings. These few lines, written carefully on the wall of Battle Bridge Road last week, are a welcome addition.



...here are some links:

1. "The role he seems most fitted to play – glowering just off centre stage, plotting behind the scenes – brought with it the rich, heady jouissance of resentment. Brown could relish this jouissance only while his official goal was thwarted". Be careful what you wish for - it may come true. K-Punk on Gordon Brown.

2. "Lookin’ at him, what got me hot was thinkin’ how excited he was, lookin’ back at me. Not his body, but how he wanted mine." Darling Vicarage on Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls.

3. “I cannot understand how some ambassadors dedicate themselves to politics, and not diplomacy, in our country. That is not called cooperation. That is called conspiracy." Nikolas Kozloff on America's distaste for democracy, secession in Bolivia, and its precedent in early 20th century Venezuela.

4. An awesome, awful slideshow of the Chilean volcano Chaiten erupting.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


While sunbathing in St James's Park late this afternoon, we turned to the subject of how people are governed, or how they govern themselves, in different societies. It was a mixture of welcoming in the summer, and desperately trying to extend the political boundaries beyond Johnson and his Tory-dominated London Assembly.

My opponent (for it was rather a clash of ideas) is, alas, a social democrat. Personally, I think he could do a lot more with his life - i.e. become a Marxist. But I must say, he raised rather a good question this evening, one that I was unable to bat away.

If Marx's theory of historical materialism states that human societies have moved from primitive communism to feudalism to capitalism, and are destined to progress via the dictatorship of the proletariat to advanced communism, what are the differences between primitive and advanced forms of communism which would preclude the circle simply re-commencing? Technology and knowledge would be two obvious starters. But how would they stop a latter-day communist society from returning to a feudalist or even capitalist structure? If you can enlighten me, please scribble away in the comments box.


As regular HL readers and other interested parties know, the Bolivian government under President Evo Morales is attempting to reduce the structural, racial and economic inequalities that have risen unchecked in the country for many decades.

One of the government's most important policies has been land reform. The land in eastern Bolivia hosts much of the country's subsoil resources and manufacturing industry. It is also owned by a tiny minority of people, which means profits quickly flow out of Bolivia and into the hands of the rich, rather than being shared by the whole country. The Morales government has gone some way in reforming these iniquities, but yesterday voters in the eastern Santa Cruz province voted overwhelmingly in favour of regional autonomy. Naturally, the citizens of this wealthy, mostly white province do not wish to share their riches with their poorer, darker skinned fellow citizens. The referendum was unofficial and probably illegal, but nevertheless If the bid for regional autonomy was successful, it would scupper Morales's plans for redistribution.

Such proprietorial apartheid is a natural result of the sort of capitalism which increases inequalities in wealth and opportunities (that's any sort of capitalism, right?). On a smaller scale, it can be seen in any western city's gated communities; on a larger scale, it can be seen in Israel which, in the words of Naomi Klein, "has turned itself into a fortified gated community, surrounded by locked-out people living in permanently excluded red zones."

All this is linked to my earlier question, for if Bolivia's elite will not give up even a small proportion of their wealthy, how might any positive form of Marxism ever be implemented, aside from a worldwide, systemic and nationally simultaneous eradication of the capitalist system?


Finally, on the subject of red and green zones, the logical end result of the Iraq War:

This is how some military planners in the US see the future of Baghdad's notorious Green Zone.

A $5bn (£2.5bn) tourism and development scheme for the Green Zone being hatched by the Pentagon and an international investment consortium would give the heavily fortified area on the banks of the Tigris a "dream" makeover that will become a magnet for Iraqis, tourists, business people and investors. About half of the area is now occupied by coalition forces, the US state department or private foreign companies.

The US military released the first tentative artists' impression yesterday. An army source said the barbed wire, concrete blast barriers and checkpoints that currently disfigure the 5 sq mile area would be replaced by shopping malls, hotels, elegant apartment blocks and leisure parks. "This is at the end of the day an Iraqi-owned area and we will give it back to them with added value," said the source, who requested anonymity.

There's the solution to Oriental barbarism in a nutshell: shopping malls, hotels, elegant apartment blocks and leisure parks. It sounds like the idea most people have of Dubai, where according to a colleague the government has done a fantastic job of hiding the very people who create this wealth and never see a penny of it. It also sounds like the proposals for the "regeneration" of the King's Cross / St Pancras site, on which I will write a lot more soon. That's because all three adhere to the logic of our times: the fading logic of neoliberalism, determined to heave one last hoorah before the whole farce comes crumbling to its knees.

Friday, May 02, 2008


Off to Torture Garden tonight. The dress-code is fetish or uniforms. I've tried the gimp look many-a-time, but it just doesn't suit my figure. So I've hired a military uniform.

Bit disappointed with it actually - I had ordered a Red Army uniform, but the jacket was too big for my puny little chest, so I've had to make do with a British squaddie's uniform. I was looking forward to fighting for world revolution and universal emancipation, but instead I'm defending empire and capital, and looking like a dickwit in the process.

Anyway, on an unrelated note, here are two gorgeous slices of early 90s techno, courtesy of Blissblog and Gutterbreakz:

CABARET VOLTAIRE, "Easy Life (Jive Turkey Mix)"

TUFF LITTLE UNIT, "Join the future"

Thursday, May 01, 2008


“With the third album they were over the moon. ‘Another one like Architecture and Morality and you could be the next Genesis!’ Wrong fuckin’ thing to say to us! Like all precious young men I felt our music was going to change the world. But even after selling three million you realise you’re not going to stop a war or cure a disease by writing songs about bloody Joan of Arc. I needed to be more political.”

Dazzle Ships was OMD’s career-suicide album. It sold a tenth of its predecessor, and forced Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys on the defensive. After its failure, OMD softened their edge with bland, conciliatory bluster. But Dazzle Ships has deservedly become the stuff of legend, a handbook for any pop group keen on flirting with the avant-garde. It has been compared to Kid A, but actually it’s far more interesting than that. Kid A did not, after all, fuck up Radiohead’s career.

Released in 1983, Dazzle Ships is a Cold War-era collage of sounds from the other side of the Iron Curtain. For all its sampling and robot noises, it is an immensely sad album: 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 futures. The words of the radio announcement which opens “International” set the tone:

The youth and the Imperialist Tribune was also addressed by a young girl from Nicaragua whose hands had been cut off at the wrists by the former Samosa guards. Veronica Merco, of the German Federal Republic, had this to say: Aber ich habe eine Ausbildung gemachtak Industrie Kaufmann und...

Like Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity (a frequent point of reference), Dazzle Ships poses the ultimate modernist question: can we master technology, or will it master us? The awe that Romantic man feels before the magnitude of Nature has been replaced, when faced with machines, by a kind of dull horror. “Radio Prague” is a burst of portentously glum Czech radio broadcasts; “ABC Auto-Industry” foresees a Frankenstein’s monster waiting to devour us; “Dazzle Ships” itself is a terrifying map of submarine groans, bleeps and screams. (Three excellent films have been made to accompany these musique concrete masterpieces here, here and here).

The album spawned two uneasy singles, the best of which is the giddily apocalyptic “Genetic Engineering,” with its mechanised chant celebrating the miracle of birth: “Babies – mother – hospital – scissors – creature – judgement – butcher – engineer”. “It starts with this toy piano and typewriter which sounded great,” says McCluskey, “but then the drums came in and ... Bwoaghgrr!. The song just vanished. After a run of four top 5 singles ... number 20. Architecture and Morality sold three million and Dazzle Ships sold 300,000. It was the beginning of Paul not trusting me.”

Released during the depths of Thatcherism, Dazzle Ships wears its sense of defeat on its sleeve. But, re-released in March this year, perhaps its time has now come. As one reviewer on a well-known online retailer writes, “Hearing these sounds now, I kind of pine for the Cold War - which is no doubt due to the current climate, and the fact that the Eastern Bloc had style...”

* in OMD's more experimental moments, Virgin Records would ask them, "Can you guys decide whether you want to be Throbbing Gristle or Abba?"