Helden, Laurie Anderson, Fad Gadget, The Enid
3rd March 1983
With the possible exception of Tangerine Dream's last tour, the Helden shows intended to preview their forthcoming 'Spies' album must be regarded as representing the state of the art in live synthesiser music. Percussionist Warren Cann of Ultravox and synthesist Hans Zimmer have been working for over two years in preparation for the shows, and had chosen the ideal venue in the London Planetarium, which for some time has played host to the American 'Laserium' show.
The equipment roster was quite spectacular. Three Fairlight CMI disk drives, two with terminals and keyboards and one operating solely on the automatic MCL (Music Composition Language) together with a Yamaha digital keyboard, Prophet 5, Minimoog, Roland 100M Modular System, 3 RSF Kobol Expanders, keyboardless Korg Polyphonic and a 16-track tape machine with mixer formed the backstage and left-hand set-ups. Warren Cann's equipment included 11 Simmons SDS3 and SDS5 pads, LM-1 drum computer, AKG BX5 doubler, 3 Simmons racks, LinnDrum, Cactus Custom Phase, Flange and Overdrive units, Boss delay and Soundcraft 16-channel mixer. Fairlight programming was by Steve Race, laser projection by Ed Burzycki assisted by Mark Sutton-Vane and Tony Decosta, and musical arrangements by Fiachra Trench, Richard Harvey (ex of Gryphon), Brian Gulland and Helden.
Most of the music was from the thirteen linked tracks of 'Spies', although not including the vocals which are contributed on the album by Zaine Griff and Linda Jardin. The 'Overture' was set against the Planetarium's starscape - not in motion, due to the smallness of the stage and the danger of having the projector moving - and gave an overwhelming start to the performance. A low string drone was submerged by thumping percussion, synchronised to flashes of dawn light around the rim of the dome, and the laser display began to create complex spiral patterns across the starscape.
'The Ball', 'Young and Scientific' and 'Pyramids of the Reich/Transmission' established a clear musical style; derived from Hans Zimmer's film work, it's heavily orchestral, underpinned by simple electronic rhythms punctuated by complex fills and rolls, and relies heavily on sampled and imitative versions of orchestral instruments. Oboes, flutes and strings are particularly dominant, and hints of classical pieces abound. Each piece ends with a short linking passage, often taken by Hans on the Yamaha which produced typically sparkling, resonant chords, reminiscent of a concert harpsichord crossed with a Fender piano.
'A Killing Hand'1', 'Eva' and 'Stranded' completed the 'Spies' set. The laser display was imaginative throughout, pulsing in time to the music and creating line drawings of fast cars, daggers and guns as well as abstract patterns in all the primary colours. There's nothing quite like a laser display to complement synthesiser music, and in this case the great degree of synchronisation between music and visuals, in addition to the imagination shown in the improvised laser parts, was a superb bonus.
Without a break the duo went into Ultravox's 'Vienna', a rather fast version which suffered from the lack of vocals, and then into '2529/Huo' from 'Spies'. Huge loops of laser light ringed the Planetarium's dome, and then split into a thousand moving fragments as the beams were bounced off a pair of glitter balls on either side of the Zeiss projector. In between these tracks, an interesting version of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western theme, 'Once Upon a Time in the West', allowed the tempo to slow considerably, and introduced imitative mouth organ and guitar sounds.
The closer was, predictably, a rousing classical piece, Prokofieff's 'Le Dieu Ennimi et la Danse des Esprits Noirs'. There's been an earlier rock arrangement of this one, by Carl Palmer, and it would be interesting to learn whether the duo had been inspired by this version or had gone back to the original. Either way, the piece exhibited great energy, showed the bass end of the Planetarium's sound system to its fullest, and contained some breath-taking rolls around the electronic kit. Ending on a spectacular orchestral climax and a final blast from the lasers and lighting system, it was an excellent choice to finish the concert.
As there was apparently no chance of an encore, the audience wandered about in a rather shellshocked state for a while after the closing number. The combination of two sets of Simmons drums and three CMIs through the highly bass-responsive PA, and the mind-expanding laser effects coupled with the need to lean backwards to watch them, would be enough to put almost anybody into a daze. A positive point is that the show was just the right length — at 50 minutes or so, it ended before either the musical or visual ideas showed any signs of drying up.
As a one-off experience, then, a total success, and congratulations to all who took part. The music certainly had a lot of power, but undoubtedly much of the success of the occasion was due to the synchronisation of music and spectacular visual effects. In album form, the purely musical side will have to work hard to achieve the same results. What effect will 'Spies' have once the vocals are added on and the lasers are taken away? We can only wait for the album and see.
London Dominion Theatre
17th February 1983
The vast structure of 'United States 1-4' dwarfs Laurie Anderson's successful single 'O Superman', while at the same time putting its importance into perspective. It's a central point of Part 2, which, while the individual parts are not titled in the programme, is usually known as 'Politics'. The other parts are 'Transport', 'Money' and 'Love', combining to form not just a portrait of a country but "a description of any technological society and of people's attempts to live in an electronic world".
A world of electronic music, then, of electric light, of electronic moving pictures, of computer and electro-mechanically generated sound. It's important to realise that all these are equally significant in this type of work; it's not just a concert, it's a performance, a piece of 'performance art'. The inter-relationships of music, lighting, visuals and vocals in 'United States' are complex, funny, often significant and often arbitrary, a little like modern life itself perhaps.
The technology involved in putting on such a show obviously costs money, and while Anderson seems a little guilty about the 'rampant capitalism' displayed by her need for a Synclavier, Prophet 5, OBXa, Vocoder Plus and stack of harmonisers, she's prepared to turn the whole thing into a joke in a section about the label which released her 'Big Science' album, WEA. "I see myself as part of the great American tradition of humour", she croons, "you know, Yosemite Sam, Bugs Bunny — that sort of thing". The voice of WEA replies that they were "looking for something a little more... adult". Anderson's reply is a characteristically self-parodying "I can adapt!".
If 'United States' is about adapting to technology, it's attempting to do so by using technology rather than being used by it. Admittedly much of this technology isn't visible: the Synclavier sounds come from a 2-track Revox B77 by the 24-channel mixing desk, and the stage set-up appeared quite sparse. A Roland Vocoder Plus keyboard stage right, a Prophet 5 and drum kit stage left, a microphone and rack of effects including a telephone centre stage.
Pieces such as 'Example 22' used an expanded line-up with Chuck Fisher and Bill Obrecht on saxophones, David Van Tieghem on drums and occasionally Jean Carter on soprano voice. Two other vocalists, Chahine Yavroyan and Jane Pearce, appear in Part 1, and together with projectionist Perry Hoberham, lighting designer Jan Kroeze, sound engineer Bob Davies and no doubt a good-sized road crew, must have helped comprise a pretty large party for transportation. From the complexity of the visual display it was clear that about four slide and two film projectors were in use, and it's a credit to their operator that there didn't seem to be any problems in synchronising music and visuals.
Many of Anderson's musical ideas also have an immediate visual appeal. Her violin glows translucently in the dark, illuminating part of her face as if it were a death-mask. With a tape recorder head mounted on the bridge and a strip of tape replacing the horsehair of the bow, it can be made to produce vocal messages backwards, forwards, at any speed and starting at any point in the message. During 'New York Social Life' she squats with a tamboura (small sitar) and a telephone tucked under her chin, chatting into it and replying to herself through her stack of echoes and harmonisers. During 'We've Got Four Big Clocks' we see projected the four US time zones, with music carefully synchronised to their movement.
During the closing piece, 'Lighting Out for the Territories', the audience realises at some point that Anderson has already left the stage. The films are still running, cars are still hurtling along highways, music is still playing, but the artist has gone. There seems to be no closing message, no attempt to sum up the mass of statements and implications contained within the musical and visual structure of 'United States'. Perhaps the final answer is that there is no final answer.
Laurie Anderson's show doesn't include any technical, musical or theatrical material that is radically innovative, yet the sheer scale of it — six hours usually spread over two evenings — indicates the tradition in which it works, that of the epic book or film or play. Put into this context, 'United States' can be seen as the massive achievement in the audiovisual arts that it really is.
The Venue, London
16th February 1983
It's generally believed that Fad Gadget is Frank Tovey, an arts graduate in his late twenties from East London. It's not true: Fad Gadget is a monster, a wild animal, a black comic who emerges half-way through an evening's musical entertainment to delight and apall an audience. Fad Gadget is a throw-away name that won't be thrown away, and a band who should be ignored at your peril.
From Frank's pioneering electropop singles 'Back To Nature' and 'Ricky's Hand', through the LPs 'Incontinent' and 'Fireside Favourites' to the recent 'Under The Flag', the style has changed quite considerably as the emphasis has switched from solo to group performance. He doesn't play any instruments live, sticking to vocals as the instrumental side is handled by backing tapes, a keyboard player and percussionist and three backing singers.
The opener 'Under The Flag' uses metallic percussion and synthesised squeaks over the backing tapes, together with billowing smoke and lights. 'Love Parasite' follows it, opening with a taped MC4 pattern and very heavy electronic percussion, overlaid by roto-toms, cymbal splashes and lightly echoed backing vocals. It's typical of Fad's rhythmic, catchy but rather morbid style of songwriting, and is filled out by raucous sync sweep sounds on a Pro One and thick Juno strings.
Added to the keyboard line-up is a Clavinet, used quite frequently now to give a staccato funky feeling, and an SH-101 for effects. The keyboards were used quite imaginatively from one song to another, although much of the work was being done by the backing tapes, and there was a certain lack of spontaneity which seemed to put a damper on the proceedings.
About half-way through, however, a run of catchy songs including 'Swallow It' from 'Incontinent' put some life back into the proceedings, and Frank began to turn slowly but inexorably into Fad. Flinging himself across the stage, swallowing the microphone and striking himself in the stomach to produce primeval grunts, he began to give a new meaning to suffering for one's music. The backing vocals became screams and cat-calls, the keyboard sounds became more and more anguished, and over everything the electronic percussion hammered home a dance beat which was difficult to resist.
'Life On The Line' proved another masterpiece of irony, an anti-war theme which ties together the whole meaning of the 'Under The Flag' album. During the encores Frank managed to get through 'The Pedestrian' before Fad took over and total madness descended; 'Ladyshave' saw him covered in shaving foam, tearing hair from his body, beating himself with the microphone and strangling himself with its cable. The audience loved it, even the one who was struck on the head by the mike as it swung on twenty feet of cable, and carried Fad shoulder-high across the stage as he grunted and screamed his way through 'Back To Nature'.
The simple but forceful 16-note sequence, combined with Fad's wide range of vocal (and non-vocal) techniques, showed clearly that electropop can have power and significance rather than just light-weight catchiness. If you can stand the morbid preoccupations of many of the songs, Fad Gadget makes addictive dance music, too.
24th February 1983
The Enid are now down to a three-piece, but still manage to turn out their distinctive brand of complex, layered classical rock music. Keyboardist Robert John Godfrey and guitarist Stephen Stewart are joined at the moment by drummer Christopher North and by a pair of Sony PCM F-1 digital recorders, which fill in assorted parts including abstract synthesiser sounds and orchestral percussion.
The cramped confines of The Marquee didn't give the band much room to move, but a tightly-packed audience were quite happy to see them express themselves musically rather than physically. The set was made up from pieces from all parts of the Enid's ten-year career, with the notable exception of the popular fairy-tale 'Fand' which was too long to be included with all the other material.
'Rain Down', from the latest album 'Something Wicked This Way Comes', introduced the use of heavily harmoniser-treated vocals, to give a powerful detuned chorus effect over the strings, taped bass, percussion and guitar. The nuclear war theme was heightened by imaginative use of the percussion and in particular by the orchestral gong behind North's drum kit.
Godfrey explained that the album had been rejected by Pye due to its anti-nuclear theme, and had been financed by advance orders for copies and by use of The Enid's Studio as a commercial establishment. The band now hope they've completely escaped from commercial considerations, and sell their albums only by mail order from their home base at Claret Hall Farm, near Clare, Sudbury, Suffolk. They have been known to dabble in singles in the past, however, 'And Then There Were None' being released by Mickie Most a few years back. It's an up-tempo, reggae-like piece full of slow vocal build-ups on tape, string chords, slow-attack guitar and a distinctive brass sound on Minimoog.
It was followed by 'Evensong' which betrays influences from Haydn and Elgar in its stately pomp and orchestral climaxes. The Enid's style encloses all classical and military music, and throughout the evening there was a tendency to pick up snatches of 'God Save The Queen' or even 'The Thunderbirds March'. Luckily the band are quite aware of this tendency, as they showed in the encores.
'Bright Star' referred back to several previous Enid pieces, and was followed by 'Song For Europe'. Full of rattling snare drums and Moog trumpets, Godfrey described it as a militaristic 'what a carve-up' song, a sort of anti-political rather than political protest. The reasoning behind this became clear in 'Something Wicked', which depicts with flashing strobe, heavy percussion and snatches of Christmas songs, the end of the world as seen through the eyes of a small child. The piece is characterised by great variations of pace and dynamics, together with taped grand piano and filter swept string chords.
Self-parody time in the encores, with bombastic versions of 'The Dambusters March' and 'Land of Hope and Glory', both very much tongue in cheek as the band admit. And finally, to close, Ian Mitchell (ex-Bay City Rollers) on guitar and stage manager Jeffrey Holden on bass joined in on a powerful version of The Troggs' 'Wild Thing', which has been the band's closer for longer than anybody can remember. It's so far removed from The Enid's normal material, while at the same time so close to their exuberant approach to music, that it made an ideal end to an evening full of pomp and circumstance.