VL Manifesto #2: When Machines Rock

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.

No computer stands in my way!

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.

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Where. Do we go. From Here?

So. It’s my sad duty to mention that the Auckland Electric Salon has gone into indefinite recess. Great apologies to all our fans, supporters, and insane participants. The decision is due to a mix of (a) organiser burnout; (b) steadily declining interest from both performers and audience.

This of course leaves Vostok Lake in a particularly precarious place, because the Salon was the only place where we really felt that our “act” really made sense, in the context of other camp electronic art-comedy-music. To go back to the world of “rock gigs” with guitar-and-drum bands who don’t even understand what we’re about is a little disheartening, but we all do what we can.

Vostok Lake has the songs for about half a new album complete, and others could be whipped into shape given a few weeks to dedicate to it. And of course, I have that “opera” project on the boil as well. Watch this space.

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Electric Salon V promotional video

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Electric Salon IV promotional video

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The present and future of the Electric Salon

Comments on ES #3:

  • “The most surreal night of my life” – Tim Batt
  • “…the whole night was so perfect!!! Stand Up comic an all… so many people missed such a cool show…. what other gig is as sexy and insane?? None I have seen…” – Jarad Bryant of New Hang Ups

The next gigs:

  • AUCKLAND, October 14: The Lucha Lounge, York Street, Newmarket. With Horatio Crane, Scarlett Lashes, Vostok Lake, comedy, burlesque and inexplicable dance moves.
  • WELLINGTON, November 5: Bar Medusa, Vivian Street, CBD. With both imported and local content. That’s right, we’re taking the show on the road.
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Propaganda and news

Our beautiful poster for Electric Salon III

Our posters keep getting better.

Auckland’s #1 underground camp electronic variety night! An unscripted musical theatre total immersion experience, like the Muppet Show meets the Mighty Boosh IN A STEEL CAGE and the referee is the ghost of Bill Hicks.

Music from:

X-Ray Fiends
Scarlett Lashes (prepared to get whipped, rubbed and lashed by the queen of trash)
Vostok Lake (androgynous cyber power-prog-pop)
New Hang Ups (Macintosh computers and TRAMPOLINES)

Comedy from Tim Batt, the terror of the Classic Comedy Theatre!

Burlesque from the sextacular Dolly Destory and the spanklicious Miss Phloss.

Performances from:

Erika Strata (Lady Gaga does opera! Truly remarkable)
Sarah Houboult and Edward (sensual Kama Sutra adagio acrobatics)

MC the Divine Mizz Kita Mean (Princess to Queen winner 2010, the Hostess with the Mostest, larger than life and twice as natural)

$10 on the door. It just gets better all the time. You know you want it.


Not much else to report. Hoping to debut one new song at the above gig; working on a composition in “dots”, doing a kind of Frank Zappa electronic-classical thing. We’ll see how it works.

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Melodramatic electroclash progressive-darkwave act is looking for backing singers/dancers and film-makers/animators to produce live projections for our shows. Can’t promise any money, but if the chance to be part of the Vostok Lake experience appeals to you… you know where to find us.

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