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Crushed-Velvet Conceptualists: The Legendary Pink Dots 

Longtime staples of after-midnight playlists, the Dots return to celebrate their uninterrupted quarter-century of sonic madness

Tuesday, Nov 4 2008
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There comes a time in the life of a nascent fan of the Legendary Pink Dots when a simple interest in the British-Dutch band morphs into an obsession. Maybe it’s the way that abstract electronics meld with psychedelic rock to suggest 1970s Germany while hinting at industrial influences. Perhaps it’s the voice of Edward Ka-Spel, often likened to that of the late Syd Barrett, as he weaves together space rock love songs, sci-fi horror tales and absurdist fantasies. Or maybe it’s the knowledge that there is so much more of this bizarre, intoxicating music out there, so many recordings in existence that even the most thorough of discographies might contain a hole or two. Even Ka-Spel, who co-founded the band with fellow keyboardist Phil “The Silverman” Knight in 1980, cannot stop to fathom how much material he and his cohorts have released.

“Not even to the nearest 20, I think,” Ka-Spel says over the phone from his home in the Netherlands. “I just had to stop counting a long time ago. I don’t even know if I did it with a great passion in the first place. It just keeps going, basically. They keep creeping out all over the place.”

To become a Dots completist is to embark upon a Grail quest through record stores, swap meets and eBay. It means accumulating a mass of side projects (the best known of which is Ka-Spel’s collaboration with cEvin Key of Skinny Puppy, the Tear Garden) and tracking down cassettes that every fan knows exist but few ever find, while still keeping up with the rapid succession of new studio albums. In October alone, Dots-related releases included reissues of two out-of-print albums, new and repressed solo work from Ka-Spel, The Silverman and guitarist Martijn de Kleer, a book of Ka-Spel’s lyrics and the band’s latest effort, Plutonium Blonde.

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Plutonium Blonde, which took more than a year to record (seemingly forever for a group that has put out multiple albums in 12-month spans), nearly became the Dots’ lost album when, well into production, both the stand-alone hard disc recorder and its backup drive crashed on the same day.

“I was so shocked, I didn’t even make a note of what the day was,” says Ka-Spel. “If I had, that would be marked as a date in the future where I would definitely lock myself in and not go out anywhere. It was a very ill-fated day.”

Eventually, they were able to retrieve all but two tracks, which were scratched from Plutonium Blonde with the intention of re-creating the lost work for a future album.

The album itself reflects a 10-year evolution that began when bassist/drummer Ryan Moore left the group to pursue his then–side project, Twilight Dub Circus Sound System, full-time. It is, overall, a trance-inducing yet largely groove-free mélange of guitar noise, analog synthesizer swirls and eerie samples marked by Ka-Spel’s twisted tales of misadventures involving health insurance (“An Arm and a Leg”) and cell phones (“My First Zonee”).

“I think it’s never that calculated, unless a major member leaves, then something radical is needed,” Ka-Spel says of the band’s growth. “Otherwise, you hear the development — more noise, the collage, it’s an organic change.”

The Legendary Pink Dots developed against the post–Throbbing Gristle British musical landscape, a scene marked by cassette releases filled with the experiments of novice electronic artists. Much of the group's early work reflects this, boasting a stark, synth-based template in line with contemporaries like Fad Gadget, Virgin Prunes and pre–Dare Human League, highlighted by the energetic violin work of Patrick Wright. During this time, the Dots laid down the conceptual groundwork that would continue to appear throughout the ensuing years: “Chemical Playschool” as a code name for its most experimental releases; metaphysical references; and the adventures of a recurring character named Lisa, who Ka-Spel acknowledges is his “mischievous” alter ego. At the start of the 1990s, though, the band went through the first of its two major sonic upheavals when Wright left the fold. In the aftermath of the departure, folk melodies and psychedelic elements began to surface, immediately resulting in two of the Dots’ fan-favorite albums, The Crushed Velvet Apocalypse and The Maria Dimension.

During their first decade, the band earned the support of the one network that would go on to play a major role in its stateside cult popularity, goth clubs. With songs like “Curious Guy” (1984), “Blacklist” (1989) and “Just a Lifetime” (1990), the Dots became staples of after-midnight playlists, not so much because the music was maudlin or overtly spooky but because, lyrically, it embraces the fantastical; and with its quirky time signatures and abrupt pauses, encourages dramatic motions and copious skirt-twirling on red-lit dance floors. At clubs like the now-defunct L.A. haunt Helter Skelter, velvet- and PVC-clad teenagers became hooked on the Dots, sticking with the band long after its sound had evolved into psychedelic jams more similar to Stereolab or Spiritualized. But, even today, one can still hear those 20-year-old club hits at local spots like Friday night party, Ruin.

“That’s the funny thing about America. Things don’t date so fast,” Ka-Spel says. For a band like the Dots, still relatively unknown in the country that hosts its largest fanbase, that can help. A healthy presence on iTunes allows fans to find albums that previously involved mail order and waiting lists, while the Dots’ reputation for mutating old material into new forms during live shows keeps audiences engaged. When it comes to The Legendary Pink Dots, it’s not simply a case of “What have you done lately?” It’s about following the course of 28 years of uninterrupted sonic madness.

The Legendary Pink Dots play the Knitting Factory on Thurs., November 13.

Reach the writer at lizohanesian@yahoo.com

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