VL @ BandPage
When David Bowie left us a couple of months ago, a lot of people talked about – quite apart from what his music meant to so many people – what his image, his personality, his presence meant for those of us who were growing up queer and/or gender-queer back before all the cool kids were doing it.
Keith Emerson was that, for keyboardists.
The guitarists have all the heroes – Hendrix, Zappa, Steve Vai, Clapton, etc etc etc, as do the drummers (Bonham, Moon, even Ringo). For the rock keyboardists, there was really only Emerson, and Rick Wakeman. Now, you see, I rate Wakeman as a raconteur, but not really as a keyboardist. Silver cape, King Arthur on Ice, endless twinkly arpeggios… all kind of fey, isn’t it?
Nothing fey about Emmo. Greg Lake referred to ELP as a “sabre-rattling band”, and Keith Emerson was the embodiment of keyboard playing with some chest hair. Knifing a Hammond organ to death, spinning grand pianos, modular synths shooting pyrotechnics out of the top… but aside from all the showmanship, Emerson’s compositional chops – heavily influenced by jazz and the twentieth-century avant-garde like Bartók or Janacek – were far more dissonant and interesting than Wakeman’s noodling. The quartile harmonies of “Tarkus”, the counterpoint of “Karn Evil 9” or the multilayered Mellotrons of “Abbaddon’s Bolero” have inspired many a young musician who wanted to do something interesting with the rock keyboards. Like me.
I came across Brain Salad Surgery in a used records bin in 1993, twenty years after it was produced. This was the heyday of grunge, where no-one was interested in rock keyboards any more. I chose a very unfashionable instrument for that period. So, I must admit, I was very excited about a band which gave me licence to say screw you, guitar snobs – give me the screaming analog synth over your six strings any day.
Yes. We all know, of course, how ELP made themselves the poster child for everything that was wrong with 70s progressive rock, too. Hubris, cocaine, hiring a 100-piece orchestra and having to lay them off halfway through a tour, and then making a god-awful piece of crap “easy listening” album out of contractual obligation. Well. There’s a rumour going around that no-one’s perfect.
Even from when I was first aware of him, Keith Emerson was beginning to have problems with his hands. A shock-horror cover story in Keyboard magazine in 1993 read: ‘Will Emerson Ever Play Again?’ It was Carpal Tunnel Syndrome at the time. At the last ELP gig in 2010, you could clearly see that he was having trouble with the twiddly bits, slurring his notes, but keeping going through sheer effort of will.
In daring, in bravado, in performance chops, in compositional uniqueness, and in sheer screw you opposition to guitar chauvinism, Keith Emerson was the best there ever was. And he blew his own brains out. Because he was 71 years old, and he couldn’t be the best any more, and he had nothing else.
I’m kind of having a hard time with that.
So, it’s probably time to give a proper news update, for those who are still friends of Vostok Lake music.
One reason for the delayed recording process has been a determination that the new album will sound “different and better”, while not really having the finances to upgrade our existing hardware. It’s much easier to be “progressive” in the old sense of the term when you have the means to buy shiny new toys every album to make new sounds on. Instead, we have to “salvage” every last bit of creativity we can from our 1988-1997 era hardware synths; while the progress of Weightless Music has not yet meant we can shift entirely to software synths altogether (among other things, a hardware synth is much less likely to crash in the middle of a live performance).
So, we move forward slowly. We are no longer young and were perhaps never relevant. But we move forward. “We do this because we are compelled.”
So I’m playing some gig in a dingy basement at 3am, and who should be in the audience but one of my greatest influences as a lyricist and performer, Andrew Eldritch from the Sisters of Mercy. So we go for a drink afterwards and he says he’s impressed by what I’ve done and he wants me to play a “live-in-the-studio” demo gig for some bigwigs in the music industry he knows, at his private studio. But on the day my equipment doesn’t work properly, my voice is shot and everyone walks out halfway through, and Eldritch tells me how disappointed he is in me. 😦
Sounds like those King Crimson anxiety dreams that Robert Fripp keeps having. It could be worse, it could be Kate Bush whom I let down.
The record of a conversation carried out with artist-novelist Lawrence Burton from Tuesday 24th February 2009 to Thursday 7th January 2010. Mainly interesting for biographical details, in-depth discussion of musical influences, and historically ironic comments about Amanda Fuckin’ Palmer.
Lawrence Burton: Okay, sorry in advance for any questions you’ve already been asked a million times before, and although I’m pretty certain this will be one of them, I notice you seem to have sung a couple of tracks in Esperanto, so what gives?
Daphne Lawless: Who can fail to be impressed by Esperanto? A language devised by an oculist untrained in linguistics, living in a backwater part of Poland-now-Belarus, made up out of whatever spare parts he could find lying around; and it has hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of speakers to this day, original literature, translations of most of the great works of the ethnic languages, even children being raised with it as their first language. Zamenhof actually made his language workable and useful, which, for example, Tolkien never did.
I’m not an active member of the movement at the moment because I have other things to do, but I must say that international Esperantist gatherings are actually quite incredible. You’ve got a Serbian, an Argentine, an Australian and a couple of Chinese over in a corner, and they’re talking the same language which doesn’t belong to any of them. They’re certainly talking with more fluency and mutual confidence than if they all started using what is actually the defacto international language, Bad English – aka Engrish.
Plus let’s be honest, it makes commercial sense. Esperantists will buy anything in Esperanto. Those two tracks on Undinal Songs have gotten orders from France and Slovakia, and those are only the ones that the record company tells me about. I actually got a front page positive review in one of the major Esperanto newspapers, no lie. A medium term project is an EP made up of Esperanto translations of Small Group Psychosis songs.
Lawrence Burton: I had no idea that it was effectively a working language and there’s something kind of inspiring about that; and I take the point about Tolkien whose Elvish I suppose I’d lump in with Klingon. Do people who learn Klingon use it to talk about anything other than Star Trek? I don’t think I’ve even had that many conversations about Star Trek in English.
Daphne Lawless: There’s one dude who tried raising his kid with Klingon as his first language. He got stuck because the Star Trek jx guys had forgotten to put useful words like table into the vocabulary; plus, it’s actually virtually impossible for humans to pronounce – all the sounds are possible but the combinations just hurt, so they don’t actually get it right on Star Trek most of the time.
Lawrence Burton: Language is fascinating, and particularly when it comes to things which just don’t translate that well. For example, there’s a Nahuatl verb which, I kid you not, is most closely rendered as to drop something upon the ground causing a slapping sound, so maybe Klingons just don’t have tables.
Anyway, why the change from Daphne Lawless to Vostok Lake? I had the impression of both being very much your own thing rather than collaborative efforts with other people.
Daphne Lawless: The adoption of a stage name that sounds like a band was due to the fact that it gets far more respect from venues. Singer-songwriters are expected to be rather fey young women – or occasionally men – handling an acoustic guitar and staring soulfully into the audience as they whinge about their love lives; and then I get up there with my array of electronics and screaming my head off as I whinge about my love life, and people don’t know how to handle it. The other factor is that I have other things to do with my life under my real name and I don’t particularly like the streams merging.
Lawrence Burton: I must admit Daphne Lawless does not suggest to me pastel songs about forgetting to send a birthday card, but point taken.
I have to ask: Faction Paradox opera – one hears rumours…
Daphne Lawless: Lawrence Miles has himself said that he thinks that the ideal format for Faction Paradox narratives would be opera, but he doesn’t think he could write appropriate words; but I should say no more until certain ideas I have have firmed up.
Lawrence Burton: I gather you perform live with some frequency. Would you regard that as the main thing, or is it more an extension of what you write and record? I mean what comes first, performance or putting out the CDs? I suppose I ask because of what I’ve heard by you, it seemed that something suddenly clicked for me as I watched Thank You, Magical Internet on YouTube. It seems like a song that needs to be done before an audience.
Daphne Lawless: Robert Fripp of King Crimson has said playing live is a hot date; recording is a love letter. I do think that live performance is really what music is all about, in the sense of communication on all frequencies at once – there are vocal notes I can hit in front of a generous audience that I can’t hit anywhere else. It’s also terrifying and expensive, and if I get it wrong it’s very embarrassing and can’t be wiped from the timestream. Come to think of it, the same can be said about hot dates.
I’m glad you like the performance video. The comedy gigs were a lot of fun, but I suppose I got annoyed after a while at the idea that people were digging the keyboard gymnastics rather than my words.
Lawrence Burton: I think you actually can wipe bad gigs from the timestream. Just tell everyone they were great until they can’t be bothered to argue any more.
I get the impression you keep quite busy what with Vostok Lake and The Stacks, and Chaos Marxism, and I’m pretty sure other stuff I don’t know about; so I was wondering how or if all these strands feed into each other?
Daphne Lawless: Certainly, everything I do is at least theoretically part of an interconnected great work of causing something real to change in our memetic environment. Whether it has a hope in hell of success is a different matter, but it keeps me off the streets. Have you read The Revolution of Weightless Music? It gives some clues as to how it might all fit together.
On stage at the Powertool Records Kaleidoscope showcase, UFO, New Lynn, Auckland, 2014 January 18. More at http://www.vostoklake.org/listen
Q. Jesus you really do like your synth-pop 80s music…
Well, yes. And I love my 70’s prog-rock as well. The two most Critically Incorrect music genres of them all! Let me be more precise – I love Sigue Sigue Sputnik, and – prepare to vomit – I think Emerson Lake and Palmer did some good work in their early years.
CONFUSED? Then let me explain the connection in greater detail…
One of the main secrets of rock music criticism is the genesis of the synthesizer. Of course, Blessed St Wendy Carlos proved that a synthesizer could play “music” as traditionally defined. But inspired by her, a young deranged organ player named Keith Emerson wondered whether he could take one of these huge Moogs which resembled a telephone exchange on steroids on tour with him? They laughed at his dumb ass. But he made it happen. The purists were shocked not only as he ripped out Bach and Chopin lines on this demonic apparatus, but quite literally wiped his ass on traditional ideas of how to use musical instruments. Yes, literally. His concert trick of taking the Moog’s ribbon controller, running upstage with it and rubbing portamenti out of it on his nether regions was known to the roadies as “Keith sandpapering his haemorrhoids”. Now if that isn’t Cleavage I don’t know what is.
Sadly, there is nothing more reactionary than a frightened revolutionary. By the time of the Brain Salad Surgery album (a blowjob reference, for those keeping score), Keith had gotten his hands on one of the early analogue sequencers. Ironically enough, it was first used on “Karn Evil 9”, a musical tale about computers making humans obsolete. Once Keith Emerson realised what he had done – in his own horrified words, “the machine would keep playing even when I walked away from it” (see video above) – it broke his spirit. He spent the next five years taking horse-doctor’s doses of cocaine and writing neo-classic, retro-ragtime shlock – pleasant to listen to if you like that sort of thing, which I do, but, yeah, completely reactionary. And it’s from that era that the real horror stories of ELP come.
In contrast, in about 1973 a bunch of Germans from Düsseldorf embraced the idea of machines playing for themselves. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Germany, Giorgio Moroder invented pretty much the next 40 years of pop music by using the machine to create a beat that even white people could dance to.
What the synthesizer had done was proletarianised keyboard playing. You didn’t need Rick freakin’ Wakeman, there was a machine that could do what he could do (i.e. PLAY REALLY FAST AND NOT MAKE MISTAKES). I do love prog in its classic era, but it’s really the music of vulgarised virtuosity. Being a “pretty good musician” had come out of the academy and into the Top 10, just fifteen or so years after the Beatles changed the world by actually playing on their own records. But in every form of production, mass-production and computerisation has a deskilling effect, as well as a democratising effect.
(I also think prog ceased being interesting once it became “prog”. In its early days, it was just “virtuoso musicians seeing how far they could push things”. Once it became a genre – once you got “second generation” bands like Triumvirat (sounds like ELP), Starcastle (sounds like Yes) or Marillion (sounds like Genesis) – with its own repertoire and conventions, it was dead, just like Goth at about the time that Fields of the Nephilim took it to its wacky pseudo-Sumerian conclusion. Note that the two “prog” bands whom I don’t think anyone should be embarrassed about loving – King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator – not only completely reject to this day the label of “prog” because they don’t want to be associated with the aforementioned stupidity, but never spawned “clone bands”, either because they didn’t stick with a recognizable style/shtick, or because they were frankly terrifying at their best and therefore didn’t inspire imitators.)
So yeah, Gary Numan walked into the studio in 1978 to make his demos, pressed a key on a Moog that someone had left plugged in, and “out came a noise like a hundred guitars” (emphasis added).
The synthesizer had made orchestras and virtuosity obsolete and therefore democratic. Whereas prog keyboardists were virtuosos, the people who came after it – 80s synthpop artists – were generally inspired amateurs. Remember this, tattoo it on your forehead if necessary – synthpop was punk. You didn’t need any musical talent to tap out a one finger monophonic riff. You didn’t need a van or roadies – you could take your keyboards on the bus, as Depeche Mode did.
So, in summary, the most virtuosic genre of pop music gave birth to the least. The authors of Rip It Up and Start Again go as far as to say that the arty current of New Wave / synthpop was the continuation of prog under another name, which I consider accurate. The only thing they had in common was no rules except those they made themselves. Rules (i.e. genre) kills the Holy Spirit, and of course synthpop died once “rules” started, once Giorgio Moroder’s creation took on a live of its own and was turned into a repulsive, all-consuming monster by Stock/Aitken/Waterman. The best that can be said about Vostok Lake is that we are attempting to fuse the best of these separated twins of music, prog-rock and synth-pop.