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, album titles 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!
Adam: 1988 was the busiest year for releases from the Dots since 1982 – though, while ‘82 numbered five studio records proper, the only studio record from ‘88 was the brilliant Any Day Now. Instead, the Dots released a 12” version of ‘Under Glass’ from that album as a single – personally I think there are far more riveting tracks the Dots might have chosen, but there aren’t many obvious club tunes on an album full of briny tone poems; the two previously reviewed Traumstadt collections; and two live albums, Dot-to-Dot and Traumstadt 3.
Traumstadt 3 is the more compelling of the two live albums, though both are sterling. Moreover, Dots-to-Dot captures just a single gig on the night of 10th February 1988 at ‘The Bad’ in Hannover while Traumstadt 3 is an amalgam of tracks played across several different shows from Rennes, Munich, France, and the Dots’ new home city of Amsterdam, so it is unsurprising that it has a slight edge over its twin volume. Predictably some tracks work better live than on their respective studio album homes, others less well. For instance, ‘I Am The Way, The Truth, The Light’ has a sinister mock-grandiosity that Asylum’s flatter stereo release from three years previous only hinted at; while ‘This Could Be The End’ lacks the cavernous atmospherics of the original, leaving it slightly bloodless.
Most interestingly, both live albums begin with a monologue of sorts by Ka-Spel seemingly devised specifically for live – not studio – performance.* Dot-to-Dot asks us to “go back 8 years” to the very beginning of the band’s life and feel the “familiar pitter-patter of little objects bouncing on the back of your head”… but then it seems to transform disturbingly into a tale of child abuse, dark shadows climbing down slimy walls… and then it goes back further still, a thousand, a million years, to an empty, all-consuming void. It starts off whispery and terrifying and ends ferocious and terrifying before the music meshes into the first song proper, a version of ‘True Love’ that chugs, wails and bleats until it has exhausted itself (but not the listener).
Dot-to-Dot’s opening monologue isn’t given a title; the monologue that begins Traumstadt 3 is titled ‘The Serviette’ and uses the same pitch modulation effect deployed in Asylum’s ‘A Message from Our Sponsor’ to a post-rock dirge that sounds as though the band had been listening to Slint’s debut album Tweez from the previous year. The relevance of the title becomes apparent when Edward pronounces that the band is not on stage to “serve” the audience, but to “get” it. “Do not expect entertainment” he stentoriously warns, “We will not jump through hoops for you.” It’s a riskily forbidding way of beginning a gig, but I suspect that most of the audience were in on the game – if game it was.
For such a prolific year as 1989 one would assume that the group were at their most internally stable… but this was far from the case! In fact, ‘89 saw the band essentially reduced to a core trio of Ka-Spel, Phil Knight and Patrick Q. Wright. Patrick’s violin had become more and more central to the band’s sound since The Tower in 1984, subtly moving the band away from the electronic murk of their early period to a more gothic, post-rock sound with arch chamber music flourishes. In the absence of Roland Calloway’s bass or Keith Thompon’s drums, Wright’s violin provides both the anchorage and momentum that anchors Ka-Spel and the Silverman’s more abstract impulses. He provides blistering contributions to 1989’s sole studio release The Golden Age and like the epoch that title implies, the band’s own Paganini bowed out on a high – the album would be Wright’s last with the band. [Or at least for quite some time… since when I saw Ka-Spel perform with Amanda Palmer at Charing Cross’s ‘Heaven’ club back in June of this year he was back on stage with the good Prophet as dexterous and brilliant as ever!]
For an album produced by a group whittled down from six members to three, this is a remarkably bustling affair, often frenetic despite its dour and morbid tones. Thus far it isn’t an album that I have found especially speaks to me on an emotional level, or at least not to the degree that the likes of Island Of Jewels (1986), The Maria Dimension (1991) and Your Children Placate You from Premature Graves (2006) do. This is perhaps due to the bulk of the songs being thinly-sketched character studies of serial killers, talent show contestants, and shut-ins, whom you never get to know quite well enough to relate to, and these characters are unanchored from a wider socio-political environment, the context which gave Asylum and Island of Jewels much of their allegorical power. Moreover, the album seems to share something of a pessimist philosophy with horror writer Thomas Ligotti – namely that we are all puppets pathetically treading water within a sea of meaningless cosmic horror. I’m constitutionally too much of a Catholic to be a nihilist, which may also explain why I’ve never quite been able to summon up the sartorial work ethic to become a goth.
And The Golden Age – at least in terms of tone and sensibility – is totally the most goth Pink Dots album thus far. Despite its often frenetic energy, it is an apologetically dour album. As someone who tends far more to hardcore neuroses than to depression, I needed an in.
I slunk my way into The Golden Age by using it to soundtrack Ice-Pick Lodge‘s 2005 plague simulator Pathologic. Pathologic is a game in which you have to trade needles you have found in the trash with small children for antibiotics in order to just live through the day. The houses in the streets that are stricken by the plague turn scabby and cancerous. However, it is not only the game’s relentless morbidity that makes it an appropriate companion for The Golden Age. Ice-Pick Lodge are a Russian studio and Pathologic is set in a Russian steppe town around the turn of the 19th century – the city is a cavalcade of spires and cattle. Mostly due to Patrick Q. Wright playing his violin as though t’were a fiddle, The Golden Age has, at times, a Slavic aesthetic – especially in the bridge of ‘Hotel Noir’ which marries New Orleans funeral brass** to traditional Russian folk music in 4/4 time.
I can’t say that I quite agree with Tom when he says that opening track ‘Maniac’ doesn’t bring anything new to the table because I don’t think the Dots have ever been so unabashedly trashy before as here. Tom knows can read British culture like a tasseograph can read teabags, but I think you have to dowse greasier waters than Hammer’s back catalogue to siphon the kind of putrid green waste Ka-Spel & co. are stirring up on this track! ‘Maniac’ aims straight for the direct-to-VHS market. Never mind the title [distributors just stick those on for sales!] ‘Maniac’ could be the opening credits music for The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), Blood Cult (1985), Woodchipper Massacre (1988)… or, indeed, Bill Lustig’s 1980 video nasty Maniac about a misogynist serial killer who adds his victim’s scalps to his mannequin collection.
‘Maniac’ flails about to no great import, but it paints a lurid picture of the very different band the Dots could have been were Ka-Spel not quite so literary. Bob Pistoor plays as though auditioning for a gig with Poison, his guitar snarling like a dog jacked-up on steroids. It sounds as though Edward and Phil are banging their heads against their keyboards. You can almost smell the stench of hair spray coming from your speakers. It’s utterly disposable trash, but on an album that quickly becomes very mordant, a necessary evil.
Accordingly, ‘The Talent Contest’ is more hushed, sounding like the music from the most sinister health resort imaginable. I rather wish it had been placed somewhere else in the album’s running order since having the portrait of a superficial beauty queen follow immediately after a song about a man with fantasies of murdering the woman he believes himself to be in love with gives proceedings a whiff of misogyny which I feel misrepresents Ka-Spel’s lyrical intentions. Lyrically Ka-Spel draws character portraits and he favours characters that are desperate and delusional. The woman profiled in ‘The Talent Contest’ is all lipstick smears and leopard skin, but if she is an object of horror it is due to the pathological direction in which patriarchal culture has channelled her energies…
Okay, so the song still seems a bit squicky.
‘The More It Changes’ presents a more sympathetic, less acerbic character portrait with its tale of urban alienation played upon the saddest of keyboards. The immaculate, melancholy melody of the song’s opening few bars sounds like the most bitter-sweet, crystalline electropop songs of the mid-1980s: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s ‘La Femme Accident’ (1985); Tears For Fears’ ‘Mad World’ (1982/1983); Flock of Seagulls’ ‘Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)’; Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Love Comes Quickly’ (1986). I generally love Ka-Spel’s reedy voice, but here I wish it was just an octave lower. Truthfully, I think it is a song that would be straight-forwardly heartbreaking if sung by a more conventional, less theatrical singer. Suzanne Vega or Alison Moyet singing it would just about destroy me. However, it is Ka-Spel’s intimation of ironic bemusement at the protagonist’s plight as he rots away in a high-rise flat that gives the song its edge while the music thrums with plaintive emotion below. I think the distanciation is partly effected by the way Ka-Spel spits out the monosyllabic rhymes (‘mat’ and ‘cat’) and partly by the curiously opaque but evocative metaphor of the sun being “a brat that spits then goes away”. However, in spite of all this odd and impressionistic malarkey, but the time Ka-Spel sings the repeated refrain “the more it changes, the more it stays the same” I can feel my throat tightening.
‘Hotel Noir’ has the aforementioned bridge that faintly recalls a New Orleans brass funeral procession. The song in total is a gothic drawing room dirge in minor key. Sadly the music in neither verses nor instrumental passages quite holds the intrigue that the lyrics stretch for. The ‘Hotel Noir’ itself seems to be some kind of purgatory for the infernally lovesick, which is an image that has lost its potency for me following the fifth season of American Horror Story (2015) set within such a hotel – A.H.S. being a series that has the canny ability to suck the horror out of any horrifying idea it encounters. Of course, Ka-Spel wasn’t to know back in 1989 how goth culture, like so many sub-cultures before it, would be emptied of its subversive value over the following decades by kitsch imitation and faux-ironic pastiche, but ‘Hotel Noir’ is one of the only Dots tracks in our journey thus far that doesn’t sound distinctly singular to my ears, but a black candle among many upon the Altar of Goth! In a review of Thomas Ligotti’s 2005 horror collection The Shadow at the Bottom of the World Jason Pettus argues that Ligotti’s work often seems to belong to a specific time and place: “that specific time and place being the ‘emo goth’ scene of the early 1990s, the same people who back in the day were obsessive fans of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and the music of Tori Amos, Kate Bush, Dead Can Dance and others. As a former industrial kid back in college, I had a sort of tangential relationship to this community, so I don’t exactly fault them their pop-culture loves […] but even then, and especially now, my tolerance is short for all the endless descriptions of lit candles and flowing curtains and masquerade masks and skinny pale dudes pondering the universe.”
Some of the lyrics in ‘Hotel Noir’ read like they could have come straight from a story by Ligotti (“Lights are low, the ashtray’s full. He talks of all his conquests – letters ringed with hearts and crosses”; “And there she’d sleep, and there she’d dream. And there she died. The tide rolled backwards and it dried and left a headstone made of salt. The warm breeze turned to steam”) but I don’t know if Ligotti ever wrote a fragment as chilling in its simplicity as: “And even the vegetables screamed”. The idea of something so horrible that even the insensate, material world seems to register it has been occupying my mind this week as I teach Holocaust documentaries to my class and so it is this sentence which, for me, suddenly elevates the song above cobwebbed clichés to a pitch of real horror.
Ka-Spel himself was obviously pleased with the line since it also provides the title for the 10th track on the album, which is an oppressive snippet of synthesised gloaming recalling in miniature Krzysztof Penderecki’s 1960 composition ‘Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima’, albeit at a much lower pitch. On Bandcamp ‘And Even the Vegetables Screamed’ is paired with ‘Regression’, which is even scarier. Truncated compared to the performance documented on Dot-to-Dot and somewhat less imposing, this 111-minute long piece manages to build a micro-cosmic horror from little more than a burbling synthesizer, some sound effects and a two-note motif banged out upon a keyboard. The song’s lyrics seem to suggest that if you try to dig down (as in regression therapy) to get to the root of a trauma, you/humanity just find yourself/itself digging further and further ever downwards into a mise-en-abyme empty of all sense, reason, or ultimate explanations. The horror lies at the very heart of existence itself [a sentiment that Mr. Thomas Ligotti would very much approve of].
‘Stille Nacht’ is another instrumental… of sorts. It contains some faintly demonic chanting, but I can’t say I’m able to make head nor tail of it. Also, while I am sure it is not, it begins sounding markedly like one of the Notre Dame field recordings from the Dots’ 1982 murky minor classic Basilisk played very loud through a cassette player. About a third of the way it, it becomes rather more industrial and driven. As with ‘Regression’, it’s a song best listened to with one’s eyes closed, in darkness. In attempting to pair the song up with the Quay Brothers’ short film series of the same name, I found that it worked most effectively soundtracked to Stille Nacht I: Dramolet (intriguingly, released in 1988), in which a desiccated china doll supping from a pot with a metal spoon seems to bear some unspoken relationship to the undulation of a carpet-full of iron fillings.
‘The Month After’ is the first point on the album where the fact that the band has been reduced to a much smaller unit is apparent from the music; which isn’t to say that the track feels under-cooked or thinly-sketched, just that it lacks the kind of organic textures that comes from varied instrumentation. However, countless hours spent in the auditory company of the Residents have made me more than receptive to MIDItastic compositions and ‘The Month After’ is a good one, coming out swinging with a paradoxically petulant yet boisterous melody from the first. [I don’t know how the Dots manage make such apparent tonal contradictions cohere, only that they do.] For what it’s worth, the central melody of the verses is highly similar to that of Kate Bush’s absolutely sterling 1982 tune ‘There Goes a Tenner’ from her unjustly over-looked masterpiece of the same year The Dreaming.
The next two tracks paired together on the Dots’ Bandcamp are ‘Lisa’s Separation’ and ‘The Golden Age’. The former track has one of those circling, repeated melodies that the Dots pen so very well, as in ‘The Shock of Contact’, recently re-recorded as ‘The Shock of Kontakt’ with Amanda Palmer on vocals for Ka-Spel and Palmer’s beguiling collaboration I Can Spin a Rainbow (2017). ‘Lisa’s Separation’ is definitely a “lighters waving in the dark” kind of song, but it’s just doesn’t quite catch me like I wish it did. The way Wright provides violin flourishes in order to illustrate the lyrics (for instance, a trill on the violin for “This one’s us in Paris [trill] / This one’s us in Rome”) is interesting in that it gives brings to the song the quality of being like a radio play – an aspect shared with the albums of the Residents’ so called ‘Storytelling’ period (2006-2009). Lyrically the song begins with the conventional terrain of an abandoned lover, Ka-Spel relating how the partner of the song’s protagonist simply “left without a word” on what “seemed like such an ordinary night”. In 21st century parlance this practice of vanishing from a relationship without providing a reason or any kind of break-up is referred to as ‘ghosting’, a concept that Ka-Spel seems to make play on as the song moves into weirder territory at the half-way mark. As the central keyboard cuts abruptly at the end of the bar, Ka-Spel maintains the rhythm of the song with his vocals as the music drops away into darkness, replaced by indistinct drones, a hollow percussive plunk-ing on the keyboard and a spectacularly inexplicable children’s cheer(!) The departed man haunts the lyrics by his absence as we get the deeply weird following lyrics:
They burned his few possessions and they buried him in sand. They spent his coins in coffee bars and calmly washed their hands. The only hint of retribution was a lack of intuition – left with dirty hands without a fight. How the curses flowed through the night. Made their escape, a fruitless mission…
As I write this review in the Autumn of 2017 I’m still haunted by this Summer’s viewing of Season 3 of Twin Peaks and because of this the above lyrics conjured the image of spirits of the show’s ‘Black Lodge’ into my mind – sinister woodsmen burying a feckless lover’s body, their hands filthy with soil and smeared blood as they go about their work.
But maybe Ka-Spel is merely waxing metaphorical and this is a more conventional tale of doomed romance. Certainly, “maybe it takes 40 years of patience, swimming through the tears. He’ll guard her each and every lonely night […] No escape, no separation” sounds like a gender-flipped Cathy and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. In these last lines that repeated, rolling melody of the song tinkles in the background like music from a mobile spinning above a child’s bed.
‘The Golden Age’ is little more than a portent – a herald delivered in ironic mode. The music is once again Residential – specifically in the vein of the soundtrack the eyeball-headed ones devised for their 1995 iNSCAPE produced CD-ROM game ‘Bad Day at the Midway’. If this is The ‘Golden Age’ prophesised long ago by the Prophet Q’Sepel, as far back as 1984’s The Tower, then its arrival is something of a disappointment! The lyrics provide only platitudes and clichés (the tiger hides its claws; the world is our oyster; fists raised high…) and when ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Golden Age’ is announced, Wright’s rhetorical flourish upon the violin [or perhaps it is merely a digital simulacrum here?] we might as well be hearing the badum tssh of a snare drum and a cymbal.
‘Black Castles’ (or ‘Shiny, Shiny Black Castles’ on the LP versions and the SPV cassette) is probably the song on the album that best meets CMJ New Music Report’s beautiful description of the Dots ‘knitting synthetic fibers into organic opiates with The Golden Age, slicing through their ghostly frail weave with cynical razors.’ It beguiles swampily with odd drifting harmonies. After a moment of creepy repose with what sounds like a children’s music-box, the song springs back to life with a parping sax courtesy of Hanz Myre and Bob Pistoor’s electric guitar is faintly discernible within the heady brew. In spite of this delectable tonal chaos, I am not, however, as besotted with the track as Tom as… I find it all a little daft! Thus preventing me from fully investing in its surrealist darkness! It *is* an enjoyably ludicrous thing to come adrift with though and if you like the Dots and that most unapologetically barmy, you’ll love this!
The Bandcamp 2016 remaster of The Golden Age tags on the ‘Blacklist’ 12″ single for a bonus three tracks. ‘Black List’ itself could conceivably be played in a club and may well have been so in Belgium, where it was released. It’s a slick exhibit of 1980s paranoid electropop, its only weirdness being an electric guitar played like a musical saw. If it weren’t for Edward’s ever-singular vocals, it might not even be distinguishable as The Dots, such is its conventionality. It could have done with being 4-minutes rather than 6, but that’s a minor quibble about a solid track (which is, after all, a 12” mix and DJs need time to line up their next record). ‘Methods’ assembles a bunch of really gratifying noises into a fairly unmemorable melody. Ka-Spel sings at a lower pitch than usual which makes him sound rather than John Maus! It has a really tasty bass sound and an orientalist tinkling motif that would sound at home on The Cure’s ‘Kyoto Song’ (1985). ‘Our Lady in Cervetori’ continues the ‘Our Lady’ series from Island of Jewels (1986). Musically it is closest to the velvety gloaming of ‘Our Lady in Kharki’ & ‘Our Lady in Darkness’, though with an additional regality given by the prominence given to Patrick Q. (Paganini) Wright’s violin. He will be missed.
*Actually it turns out that the Dot-to-Dot monologue is an extended/ slightly altered version of ‘Regression’.
**By which I really mean ‘Cemetery Polka’ from Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs (1985), which one of the Dots must surely have owned.
Tom: I’m submitting this review in a different format. I wrote about this album originally in note form in a mobile phone ‘memo’ while sitting by a swimming pool in a distant corner of Tuscany this last July. This was during a wonderful just-under-two-week holiday, wherein we travelled via train from Newcastle upon Tyne to Siena and then travelled to our smaller destination. Towards the end of the holiday, near the start of an evening meal at our outdoor hotel restaurant, I proposed to my finest person and guiding influence, Rachel. This was after the previous evening where I’d planned to propose but been put off by an annoying British yuppie at the next table who had just proposed to his non-British girlfriend, and seemed intent on boasting of connoisseurship and status. It wasn’t the moment for me to ask the question… The following evening was, though. Following a little shock, she said yes. This was a holiday where we talked, relaxed, read our various books. I swam (a bit) and listened to the LPDs (as well as Hyperdub’s splendid Jessy Lanza album Oh No, on a bizarre and misguided four-hour roadside walk and unsuccessfully searching Tuscany for shops open on a Sunday for food and drink stuffs! Never have I been gladder for a chilled coke can than when I got back to the hotel). We sampled and shared fine Italian foods and wines, we shared the holiday of our lives and, as the academic year gears up yet again, I look forward to many more such shared times in the future.
As The Golden Age now seems bound up with my memories from this holiday, I submit this review with the original notes as they were but with my more considered later reflections and asides added within square brackets. In an LPD project novelty, you will see that I rated the tracks out of ten.
- ‘Maniac’ *6/10
Hammer film title? [Yes, a 1962 Michael Carreras-directed X-rated horror where ‘a man is crazed with desire for an unsuspecting girl and the aftermath where a kindly man turned into a raving maniac’; it features Nadia Gray five years before The Prisoner. I haven’t seen it, and really should watch more Hammer films than I actually have…] “She whispers sweet delirium”. “She teases from the TV, spreads her legs in magazines.” This is doom-pop, another horror film psychodrama. There’s a repeated “kiss the ground she walks on…” Not bad but not up to the similar ‘Casting the Runes’, say… [Okay, but not too interesting. either – not treading new ground].
- ‘The Talent Contest’ *8.5/10
Cantering [almost arthritic], euro-rail lounge music… A drifting mini-Kraftwerk express across the continent.
[There’s eastern philosophy and circus sideshows, this latter making me think of Christian Marnham’s seedy, compelling 1970 short film The Showman about the last of the old travelling showmen, Wally Shufflebottom, made available on the BFI’s release of The Orchard End Murder, a properly improper early 80s British horror film. This latter 1980 film is flawed but with great music as you’d expect, plus a masterly performance of rustic malevolence from Bill Wallis]
“10/10s” [Ah, now that’s why I am rating the tracks on this album!].
“She’d do anything. Yes, anything, to win…” Hazy, rather glacial chords score the empty sadness of win obsession and the titular cultural practice [the talent contest, made to seem part of Western culture’s arid preoccupation with competitiveness].
“Mild applause and 5.4s”. A shimmering, John Barry-esque sound comes in. [I meant the Hungarian hammered dulcimer, folks; we’re given the merest hints of Barry’s great Ipcress File soundscape. This is a fine tune, overall.]
- ‘The More It Changes’ *8/10
Oh, hark! Synth cor anglais [Tremendous stuff]. “Reminders of bills, they smell of cat”.
“Three starving cats”… “Scratching him and biting him but he lost the will to fight…” [Great, plucked pizzicato type effect here, musically, along with the plangent, circling tides of synth]
“Sun is just a brat that spits and goes away…”
Multi-tracked vocals and a [fine, fine] chorus to end: “Oh, the more it changes the more it stays the same”. With eruptions of giddy, archaic organ [Which provide a splendid accompaniment to the ending of a concise, exquisite song].
- ‘Hotel Noir’ *5/10
Stately, even *middlebrow* music to this one. Perhaps anticipates the cultural mainstreaming of Gothic to come [Your Tim Burtons and Neil Gaimans et al… I really didn’t like Gaiman’s second Doctor Who scripted adventure which I watched recently, ‘Nightmare in Silver’. Part of the show’s big ‘last-2-seasons-of-Matt-Smith’ slump].
A synth double bass prowls. Violin prominent. Overlong at 6 mins 45. [I haven’t really changed my mind on this one. It’s quite a mannered take on Edgar Allan Poe territory… It would be much more tolerable at 2-3 minutes of length!]
- ‘Stille Nacht’ *7/10
Opens with a distant choral sample, submerged in sounds and slowing down. German or Russian voice sampled. Which?? [Still don’t know this] In come, harsher, grid-like sound structures. Syncopated, machinery-like repetitions of thechugging theme [Works nicely; seems very in keeping with ‘The Talent Show’, sonically].
6. ‘The Month Affair’ *7/10
“On the spoons, you made rhythm” – McCoy! [Sylvester McCoy: well-known member of Ken Campbell’s anarcho-left-wing theatre troupe, erstwhile Time Lord and spoons player. When on this holiday, I was reading a book by Andrew Cartmel about script-editing McCoy’s three seasons of Doctor Who – Cartmel is a bit arrogant but justifiably so in that he did turn an ailing show around, quality wise]. Very late-80s keyboard sounds.
A “tablet sent in the post”. Is there something of the [R.D.] Laing about this? “I feel nothing at all.” The victim of pills and conventional psychiatry? [On this holiday, I’d also read Tony Garnett’s memoir, The Day The Music Died, which discusses his work with David Mercer about the ills of the psychiatric system, as well as the tragic, haunting real life events surrounding his first wife Topsy, promising actress in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, who had a nervous breakdown while signed up for Billy Liar film]
“I loved when you called me ‘The Snail’…” “You’re not such a picture yourself!”
“Do you think there’s a Heaven?” Those backwards-vocal sounds [Good tune, a minor delight].
- ‘Lisa’s Separation’ *9/10
“Leeza” [That long-vowel /i:/ again]
Evocative synth tones here. Amid a plaintive, even Schubertian circling melody. Tale of a seemingly random relationship break-up. “Paris”. “Rome”. [Pictures of them, from past holidays] “Plasticine”. “Stone” [Material artefacts, snatches of memory].
This has a grand, and very European, hope and despair-balancing melody. Grave, classical sounding.
Then, starker drum thuds. “Left with dirty hands, without a fight.”
Lyrical, melancholy stuff [Saxophone glides into view, with that archetypally LPD melodic blend of the serenely beautifully and the uneasy. This ends very evocatively, too].
- ‘The Golden Age’ *[didn’t rate it at the time – now *6.5/10]
Odd, synthetic sounds found in the inner space. Germanic-style female spoken words. [There’s an urgent desperation and reference to an “angel”]
Most prominent PQW violin yet on this LP. Which takes us out of this section…
Then, an announcement: “Ladies and Gentlemen – The Golden Age” [Not a bad track, but not especially memorable].
- ‘Black Castles’ *9/10
“In the streets they’re drilling holes and in the sinks they’re swilling coal-tar baby”. [Wow]
“They’re waiting for the Gasman goo goo goo choo […] Goo goo goo choo train claims its fifteenth victim in an average week”. I AM THE WALRUS ref. [Lennon’s finest, defining moment, surely? Also, maybe:] THE GAS MAN COMETH [A tune from now somewhat lesser known 1950s-60s recording artists Flanders and Swann].
“Made it to page 53. They wrapped him round the fish and threw him in the stew goo goo goo choo.” [That’s “chew”, actually! Of course it is, you can never underestimate a Ka-Spel pun] Chip paper wrapping for… [Which evokes the British tabloid “gutter” press]
“Rubber masks on, they torched the lot”.
“Sweet soul music on the tannoy”.
“Chew your gum and close your eyes and nothing can annoy you” – [this is] repeated, as child’s music box melody comes in. Violin accompanies it, idyllic. Sounds vaguely like a HCE tune. [I’m referring here to the Hello Children Everywhere compilations, featuring 1930s-early 70s recordings that I listened to probably far too much in my childhood, especially on summer holidays in Europe in my tent] “I’ll always find you / wherever you may be…” [I’ve located this track: ‘Whistle My Love’, a 1952 Elton Dean song originally from a bygone Robin Hood film] A three decades’ past archaic simplicity [which cuts through into the 1988 now, and the 2017 now. The ED tune has a strange, naïve charm and archaic use of the second-person pronoun “thee”; for me, this is all somehow evoked by the lyrical section of ‘Black Castles’].
Then, a clean break into jazz craziness and a return to the main tune.
Out into dissonance. [Concluding what, for me, is a total highlight of a, well, The Golden Age…]
- ‘And Even The Vegetables Screamed’ *6.5/10
Pink Floyd / Syd Barrett?? A clearly outer space evocation: full juddering dissonance and craterous drama. Intriguing. Brief [Not really enough here to comment in much depth, but a good fragment].
- ‘Regression’ *8/10
Psychoanalyst-on-a-couch type EK-S spoken-word excursion [or is that incursion?]. There’s pomp and melodrama to the musical backing: synth timpani and crazed orchestra hit. [I like my orchestra hit keyboard sounds; always have!] “8 years”. “Tell me about the black dog…” “Go back FIVE HUNDRED YEARS!” “A THOUSAND A MILLION YEARS, WHAT DO YOU SEE!?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all”. / “Tell me, is it better that way?” Deadpan. Ends. [Another somewhat R.D. Laing-inflected scenario; good and very concise, as with all here but ‘Hotel Noir’]
In addition, I’d somehow not heard the last three tracks – missing from the version I listened to on holiday. ‘Black List’ plays on the association with paranoid McCarthyism. Richard Norton-Taylor and Mark Hollingsworth’s book Blacklist: The Inside Story of Political Vetting had been published in 1988, which documented the political vetting of employees not just by the British government but by the BBC. This had the impact of impeding talented people’s careers, with some appointments blocked on spurious grounds; for example, Michael Rosen was regarded and subversive and BBC employment was denied him in the 1970s. The song is perhaps aptly deadened and inert in its atmosphere – the lyrics capturing the dread at bureaucratic, state-run censorship of people’s lives. “Five on the blacklist” seems a deliberate under-estimate. Quite good, but unspectacular. 6/10.
‘Methods’ sounds a bit livelier; with a gadding bass accompanied by what even sounds like proto-Pet Shop Boys gauzy synth – this was released amid those northern operatives’ Actually-Introspective ‘imperial phase’. It is a foreboding take on the ways of escapism offered by pills and the like, with the mingled imperatives ‘Take a pill’ and ‘Take a life’. This continues the album’s loose R.D. Laing theme of opposing medication and conventional psychiatry. Very fitting within context of the album. 7/10.
‘Our Lady in Cervetori’ leads us out, in domineering, surrealistic Catholic style: ‘Sweeping the floor with her hair. / She sprinkles hot ashes and salt and on the stairs. We all walk behind her.” There’s a cynical aspect to “wherever Our Lady will lead us”, highlighting the cocooning effect of religion. It has a typical Patrick Q. Wright violin line, and is another LPD essay in stately weirdness. 7/10.
The Golden Age is a strong album from my childhood years that I obviously never heard in my childhood years… It has some wonderful passages and at least three LPD tunes I’d shout about from the rooftops of the weird parallel universe where everybody is more engaged in the unusual potential of such music!