I discovered The Legendary Pink Dots through The Residents. An obscure Youtube artist going under the moniker of therezident (now renamed Virgil Pink) had been producing his own videos for Residents songs. Sometimes these videos would be cobbled together from cheap DV footage and google image search results, as in ‘Life Would Be Wonderful‘ and other times, in the case of ‘Dreaming of an Anthill‘, they would display remarkably accomplished sand animation reminiscent of German Expressionism and the inky grotesqueries of comic book artist Charles Burns. This slapdash approach that sometimes yielded moments of astonishing beauty seemed like a perfect fit for The Residents and I was thrilled by therezident’s ability to forge intuitive connections between found footage and the band’s music in the most seemingly unlikely of places. Having watched a bulk of videos based upon music by The Residents, I decided to investigate artists also represented on the channel. The Third Eye Foundation and Current 93 cropped up, but so did The Legendary Pink Dots and their lead singer named Edward Ka-Spel, both unknown to me. I was intrigued by the band’s inscrutable and, I felt, irritatingly portentous name. How could something as abstract as pink dots be legendary – and, moreover, wasn’t the name itself somewhat eye-rollingly self-promoting? I listened to a track. I believe it was ‘Of All The Girls‘. The video was underwhelming, but I found the music compelling. It was droning but propulsive and slightly nauseating; more threatening than The Residents. While the Residents at their best walk a indeterminate path between earnestness and sincerity, balancing unsettling melodies with daffy vocal deliveries, or vice versa, I sensed little of that playfulness in ‘Of All The Girls’. There were few concessions being made to the listener. One could easily have imagined that the composer (this Edward Ka-Spel) had produced the track for his own private enjoyment. I did not feel immediately invited into the world of The Legendary Pink Dots, but insidiously (because it was some weeks before I returned to their music) the music wormed its way into my brain until I felt all the more stubborn to discover more.
In some respects, my first instincts were correct. The Legendary Pink Dots do feel like an oddly private band – a means for communicating the esoteric and sometimes paranoid visions of Edward Ka-Spel with a full band in tow. As in the eccentric English composer tradition of Tim Smith and the Cardiacs, or even Syd Barrett and early Pink Floyd (perhaps the most apparent influence upon the Dots) Edward Ka-Spel is clearly the fountainhead from which the band’s musical and thematic ideas flow. Across the thirty plus years that the band have been active, the Dots’ albums have provided a rigorous exegesis of Ka-Spel’s own personal mythology. Some of the more convincing recurrent themes of the Dots’ discography listed by Wikipedia include: the number 834, apocalypse, Lisa (Ka-Spel’s female alter-ego), ‘our lady’ and divinations. In this sense, the Dots share a clear similarity with that band of prophetic folk menace, Current 93. However, while Daivd Tibet has the fervent sincerity of a street preacher, I was mistaken in thinking that Ka-Spel lacked playfulness. Although Ka-Spel’s lyrics provide some acidic social commentary (especially in The Tower‘s and Island of Jewel‘s bitter attacks on Thatcherism, presumably prompting the band’s departure from Britain to Holland) they also simultaneously exist within their own imagined world, so that the fantastical is intermixed with car-parks and housing estates. In a track from the wonderful Your Children Placate You from Premature Graves of 2006, Ka-Spel asks the listener – or some unknown character to whom the song is addressed – “How is life out there on the island? The island of our dreams within.” The project of Ka-Spel across thirty years have been to render this island of inner-dreams somehow tangible through music. As such, his best work takes the listener on a ‘trip’ – both in the psychedelic sense, but also in the terms of ‘psychogeography’. In his work Psychogeography Merlin Coverly informs the reader of Xavier de Maistre‘s A Nocturnal Investigation Around My Room, in which de Maistre, confined to his room after a duel, undertakes a journey of imaginary geographical discovery within his mind (66). Often Ka-Spel’s narrators, like de Maistre, are stuck in small hiding place, or claustrophobically confined within their own skull, whether due to imprisonment or madness. Ka-Spel’s brilliance is to introduce us to these isolated characters and then immerse us in their world-view through expansive and mysterious soundscapes. He begins with the most restricted, infinitesimal point of consciousness and then slowly expands it outward towards a state of ‘cosmic consciousness’ (to use the phrase of 1960s psychonauts). Musically, he often follows this template of expansion, with simple melody lines repeating and layering in increased complexity of texture. Much of the LPD’s music is an undertaking to help the listener (and perhaps composer) escape his/ her own head. Natural sounds (especially water) are as essential to achieving this effect as the synthesizers and keyboards the band heavily relies upon.
As the above might imply, with such a singular creative vision at the heart of proceedings, the band’s lineup has evolved through a bewildering number of metamorphoses. Indeed, there have been over 30 members over as many years. Phil Knight, a silvery electronic wizard, is the most constant member apart from Ka-Spel. The band’s own autobiographical page yields little light, taking the form of a whimsical and obscurantist creation myth involving “the traditional burning of Oogchuu, the fire baby” and a terrible curse delivered by The Terrible One upon the band that forces them to compose an ‘Infinity Waltz’, performed endlessly in ‘8-3-4, 8-3-4′ time. Amusingly, this speaks to the remarkable interconnectivity throughout the Dots’ output, despite numerous lineup changes. Not only do lyrical phrases, musical motifs, album titles and themes recur across decades, but tonal shifts between albums are slow and subtle. Sometimes one album might sound like a variant upon the last. Indeed, with such an enormous discography, filled with re-releases, live albums and mixes, it was an imposing task to choose the albums for this project that we deemed canonical or necessary. All the studio releases have been included, along with some important representative live albums, as well as the eps, singles and compilations with tracks unrepresented elsewhere. We haven’t even considered including any of Ka-Spel’s solo output at this stage. The fact that the Dots have re-released so much of their output is an immeasurable boon, especially since many of the albums were originally limited to a few hundred pressings or DIY cassette releases. Hopefully, this project will provide the keen reader and listener with a giddy entry-point into the Legendary Pink Dots’ musical world. I consider them to be a remarkably consistent and inventive band, though a difficult one to penetrate – hopefully, the reviews by myself, Matt and Tom over the coming year will inspire you to take the plunge into the proverbial plasma pool. Fulfil the prophecy!