Edward Ka-Spel’s brilliance with The Legendary Pink Dots is to introduce us to 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. Lyrical phrases, musical motifs, albumtitles and themes recur across decades, but tonal shifts between albums are slow and subtle. Hopefully, The Legendary Dots Project, like the Residents and Sparks projects before, will provide the keen reader and listener with a giddy entry-point into the Legendary Pink Dots’ musical world. Fulfil the prophecy!—
Faces in the Fire (1984)
Tom: So, we enter 1984: the year of ‘99 Red Balloons’, Threads, perpetual Orwell-referencing and the start of the British Miners’ Strike. This is a LPD EP that swiftly satirises consumerism, with occasional hints of the sort of blissed-out parody and exaggeration deployed later in the decade by the excellent Sudden Sway.
‘Blasto’ charges out of the speakers likea Village morning tannoy announcement for Patrick McGoohan’s Number 6 in The Prisoner. This aurally garish, wakey-wakey call fades into syncopated yet calm rhythm. Ka-Spel outlines a scenario that could almost be Winston Smith in Thatcher’s 1984, with alienated skinheads bleeding him dry rather than the Party.
From 2:03 it picks up into a chord sequence that we might term absurdist anthemic. It is an amazingly winsome tune, as Ka-Spel croons about the eponymous product’s proficiency: “Even for the stubborn stains…” And a female vocalist sweetly coos: “blast away the stains!” We are in heavenly advert hell, as hymnal organ and plaintively melodious lead electric guitar connote a consumerist sublime veering into the absurd.
‘Love in a Plain Brown Envelope’ is a bizarre, sensual song of pistons and cyborgs and horniness. Revolving, percolating beats – dots? – anchor one of the oddest scenarios yet to emerge in the band’s catalogue: like William Gibson fed through a shredder. “And the grannies with the antelopes from Lapland! Oh, so… horny…!” Who else but Ka-Spel could come up with this?
‘Sleezo’ is one of those more distilled, anti-‘traditional’ LPD broadsides, moving from crystal-clear guitar opening to beat-less synth washes. A European female voice assumes the persona of the Sleezo brand, outlining its merits in an advertising mode: “We […] even sent the cameraman up a crane, to please YOU, the viewer! No minors, okay.” It isn’t far from the pointed, sweetly delivered irony of Sudden Sway. “Buy. Buy. Don’t be shy. Available from your local store…” – a plaintive, sinister vocoder intones. The Britain of David Sullivan and Richard Desmond is writ large.
We then get an elaborated ‘Neon Gladiators’, with a gleaming, surrealist-fairground synth cycle bursting from the chrysalis from 2:47. This is serene, unknowable stuff. A religious sample is inserted, to be followed by the returning, resplendent cyclical synth pattern, which mirrors the lyric: “Dance divine. Dance in sequins”. Next is the brief ‘Kitto’, a toy-town vaudevillian canter concerning a taciturn cat. The cat’s crazed cravings are for yet another cultural product with an ‘o’ on the end; not porn this time, but a cat-food Kitto, consisting of “chunky chicken […] marrow bone”.
The EP closes with the ominous, impressionistic psychedelia of ‘Eight Minutes to Live – “Your hand was freezing. I slipped it in my pocket…” The products all seem to have vanished, but then the colour-blind “Caroline” may be dreaming in a manner akin to advertising’s sublime: “She dreamed of golden sunsets and a sea of soldier blue”. The song resolves into nocturnal reverie and identity doubts: “Is the daytime just a dream? If you close your eyes, will I fade away?” The guitar is aching, yearning and altogether sunset-like in its sprawl.
Adam: The thing that immediately grabbed my attention about Faces in The Fire is the fact that its guest credits lists an obscene phone-call contributed by one John Whybrew! That’s almost my surname!! But it’s better than my surname since “why brew?” is a more intriguing question – one you might ask a witch – than “why bray?”, which is a question you would ask a horse.
In the last L.P.D. project review I made a lot of hoo-hah about Curse (1983) being the end of the era of the early Dots. True enough in terms of albums, but with April White and Roland Callaway still around, Faces in the Fire should truly be considered the last sneering gasp of the very first incarnation of the Dots – and what a soured note to end on! This is a sleazy, snarky, malevolent little beast of a 6-track EP.
Tom has already described the latter half of track 1 ‘Blasto’ beautifully as “a consumerist sublime veering into the absurd”, which strikes me as an apt microcosm for much of the album in total. In tone Faces in the Fire is as focused as the previous year’s Basilisk; thematically it is the most coherent statement the Dots had produced up to this point. The EP circles obsessively around the topic of consumerism and its psychosexual effects upon our private lives.
‘Blasto’ begins with two notes ringing out right behind the listener’s eyeballs before the game-show siren is a-rhythmically intruded upon by an insistent [though not very compelling IMHO] drum machine beat and stabs of post-punk guitar courtesy of “Stret Majest”. Of course there were many post-punk bands of the period (not least Gang of Four and Talking Heads) who combined oppressive, paranoid atmospherics with funky disco rhythms, all delivered with a cocked eyebrow; but L.P.D.’s material stands out in its defiant awkwardness and ability to find grace and beauty in the ugliest of sounds and images.1 Here, the different musical elements compliment and heighten each other, but never quite come into harmony. From a critical standpoint, this makes the track sound as though it weren’t performed by a band, but composed by a bunch of individuals each working in isolation (which we know not to be the case) but, more positively, it creates an arresting distance between the listener and the music because you never risk slipping into a trance state – an otherwise distinct possibility for an album that seeks to replicate some of the melodies of advertising jingles. Brechtian critical distance remains in tact, which strikes me as important for a political, satirical album.
Lyrically the song concerns a man violently assaulted and molested by a bunch of thugs: “Hunched up in a little ball. They fooled around and grabbed his balls, and called him names and bled him dry.” Eventually he finds his way to a “friendly doorbell” and is given solace with a glass of lemonade and a warm bed for the night. However, his blood soaks through his clothes and the sheets. Edward’s exhortation that he’d “better get the Blasto out to blast away the stains” sarcastically evidences the woeful inadequacy of consumerism to address trauma and suffering. The fact that this line is positioned as the cathartic Heaven-borne ending to a strung-out, discomforting narrative song just exposes the dreadful void – the lack – that Blasto can never fill. No wonder modern-day revolutionary, powerful cleaning formulas™ like Cillit Bang here in the U.K. have to resort to self-deprecating irony and purposeful naffness to negatively bolster their epic claims of ultimate, ideological filth removal! Lovely Nolan Cook-esque guitar at the end too!
Comparatively the lyrics to ‘Love in a Plain Brown Envelope’ are a bit too crude and on-the-nose for my liking but maybe that’s just my puritan impulses speaking! The song takes the form of an advertising spiel from, I believe, the “Sleezo” company. They seem to have had a stronghold in the 1980s porno racket, promising a “perfect land” of crannies and fannies and lubricated lips. In a great online essay on pornography and technology, Tina Kinsella writes of Jean-Luc Baudrillard: “For [him], desire has been divorced from the imaginary of the individual (person) and handcuffed to the productive imperative of the collective (market) and, therefore, individual agency is jeopardised. In short, Baudrillard argues that technology has a totalising effect on individuality as it leaves no room for the imaginary, for reciprocity or for agency; industry annihilates the world of symbolic inference then systematically re-invents it to service its own ends.” The too-muchness of pornography leaves no place for fantasy, aggressively replacing human desire with simulacra spewed forth from the cold, dead hand of the market!!
Musically this is represented by ‘Frankie Teardrop‘-like throbbing and mechanically lurching violins. The sound is arresting but nauseous. There is nothing much left of “vulnerable naïf” Edward Ka-Spel on Faces in the Fire. It’s presumably a matter of increased confidence, but over the 3 years of the Dots’ early existence much of his boyishness seems to have been shed. He’s become archer, more knowing and more in control. Even his emotional flailing on ‘Kitto’ later in the album is more ironically self-pitying and bitter than genuinely broken-hearted. Such gentler emotions will return, but for now Ka-Spel is the sleazy ringmaster. Later Jarvis Cocker would make a similar transition from the wry and wide-eyed social commentator of His ‘n’ Hers (1994) to the sticky trousered flesh-peddler of This is Hardcore (1998). The lyrics of that album’s title track: “Oh that goes in there; then that goes in there; then that goes in there; then it’s over” would slither in comfortably alongside the antelope shagging grannies of ‘Love in a Plain Brown Envelope’.
Still, the song doesn’t quite pack the hand-in-glove punch that it seems to aim for, coming across as a little too calculated and a little too silly. Ka-Spel will provide a much more disturbing and disquieting take on the porno industry with ‘The Dairy’ on 1986’s Island of Jewels (“keep them pumping at the dairy”). Personally I think the best post-modern examination of the aesthetics and ideology of porn came several years later with the release of the [NSFW!] sliding puzzle Amiga game Sexy Droids in 1992. “Oh, Cyborg!”
‘Sleezo’ starts with a lovely piece of finger-style guitar, plaintive but vaguely ominous. The fact that this is in combination with swampy electronic vocal sounds and washes of keyboard snyth, makes this sound like something from Air’s 2001 10 000 Hz Legend album. L.P.D. have done delicate, nostalgia-inducing acoustic guitar before, but it’s rather beautiful here and I think it is a shame to render that beauty ironic and ugly with the sudden recurrence of the Sleezo company’s sales pitch, this time voiced by a posh English woman credited as “Ignit”. Her delivery, though not the content of her speech, recalls the heartbreaking “I will think of England, of trees in summertime. Of leafy lanes, of daisy chains, of Grandad’s rhubarb wine” choruses of ‘Phallus Dei’ from the very first Chemical Playschool album. “You”ll love this product. We used keyholes, ladders, trees, even sent the cameraman up a crane just to please you” doesn’t quite have the same emotional impact on me, but it has a similar grubby melancholy to chatting with a Babestation employee on live TV at 3 o’clock in the morning in an empty apartment on the day your partner broke up with you. Still, I rather wish it’d just been pretty.
I prefer the original version of ‘Neon Gladiators’ that appeared on Chemical Playschool 3 & 4, which was a bit more glitchy and degraded than the cracking violin blitz we get here. Here the song is arguably less messy, but I find it less exciting. It’s harder to get lost in it. I do enjoy how glutted and obscene Edward’s voice is though! He definitely decided to keep it sleazy for this EP.
‘Kitto’ meanwhile is very slight… but ludicrous enough to make me laugh out loud and, indeed, my mum laugh out loud when I just tried to describe the song to her! The song’s premise seems to be an advertisement for cat food given from the point of view of a man who – his partner having left him and taken the cat with him/her – is the ecstatic owner of 27 cans of Kitto. “Mmmmmmmmmmm” moans Ka-Spel orgasmically, “Kitto’s nice. I love it!”, providing a new perspective on The Cure’s contemporaneous 1983 single ‘Love Cats’. Musically ‘Kitto’ is, similarly, a rink-a-dink knees up, performed with manic intensity. The Dots used a similar template for the 1985 track ‘The Hill’, but to a far more troubling end. ‘Kitto’ is one of those daft music-hall style 1-minute tracks that experimental artists occasionally like to write to entertain themselves – Cardiacs did it with ‘Plane Plane Against The Grain’; Zappa with ‘Evelyn, A Modified Dog’; Sparks with ‘Under the Table with Her’; Queen with ‘Bicycle’ and every other track; and the Dots with ‘Kitto’!
Finally, ‘Eight Minutes to Live’ might have been well-served by including the street preacher samples that instead garner ‘Neon Gladiators’. It seems to be about a couple at the end of the world and sounds more like something from previous album Curse than anything else on the EP. This is terrain the Dots have tread before with, in my view, stronger tracks like ‘The Glory, The Glory’, ‘Apocalypse Soon’ and ‘When the Clock Strikes 13’ (okay, about a third of Chemical Playschool 3 & 4!) It is pleasingly ominous though and a good appetiser for the brilliant work to come next with The Tower (1984).
1 The only comparison that came to mind was the juddering opening song of R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction, ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’, released a year after Faces in the Fire. However, Michael Stipe’s lyrical approach and concerns are so different to Ka-Spel’s own that any similarity is true in a technical sense, but not in the emotional or atmospheric effect upon the listener.