VL Manifesto #2: When Machines Rock

Submitted by vostoklake on Wed, 11/07/2012 - 16:21
Gary Numan - Replicas

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” – 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.