Imagine if Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett, the founder of Pink Floyd, hadn’t freaked out early in the band’s history, possibly from too much LSD, and hadn’t dropped out of the band after only a few years and a couple of albums. Perhaps he wouldn’t be the recluse he is today, having decades ago turned his back on his own history, altogether unimpressed with his own cult fame, holding a special aversion to the psychedelic rock genre he helped create. Had Barrett not gone mad, he might still be turning out experimental albums, creating lush atmospheric soundscapes with quirky instrumentation, enigmatic lyrics, and the occasional pop melody. He might still be drawing fans into his obscure personal terrain, marked by brooding, calloused takes on the state of the world and his own state of mind. Had his fragile mind not shattered under the pressure of success, he might have become something like Edward Ka-Spel has become today as lead vocalist/songwriter for the Legendary Pink Dots.
The London-born, Amsterdam-based experimental/psychedelic rock band known affectionately as the Dots (or LPD) has embarked on its 25th Anniversary tour in North America. The band is due to arrive at Slim’s in San Francisco on Saturday, July 8. The tour marks the release of LPD’s new album, Your Children Placate You from Premature Graves, now available via ROIR (www.roir-usa.com). It takes its place among more than 50 albums released by the band or its individual members, making LPD one of the most prolific rock bands on the world scene. If LPD hasn’t achieved the renown of Pink Floyd, it’s only because it formed more than a decade later, when the clamor for psychedelia had died down. Being well aware of Barrett’s crash and burn, Ka-Spel has managed to keep his head on straight even as he tweaks his music in very queer ways.
A couple of years ago, when the Dots played Café Du Nord in support of their 2004 release The Whispering Wall, I experienced the delirious combination of Ka-Spel’s curiously understated, British-accented vocals and his band’s trippy sonic journey through strange, atmospheric landscapes rich in aural surprises. Ka-Spel sang lyrics of the sort a young artist scribbles on a napkin, of his angst, longings, and heartaches, with an air of street philosophizing and dark doomsaying. With his frizzy mop of hair, his handsome, square face a bit puffy with middle age, his ever-present shades, he looked sober enough, maybe like a recovered Beat poet, not like some stoner acid-head. His body language suggested he could be playing cool jazz in Vegas rather than in a room full of old freaks and young geeks. Next to him, bandmate The Silverman (Phil Knight) played keyboards with fierce inventiveness. He, too, looked past the age of experimentation, yet there he was, manufacturing sounds as off-the-wall and innovative as can be. LPD’s creations are awash in the kind of electronic contortions and wild musical journeying that come only with a certain derangement of the senses, a la Rimbaud. Something tells me the LPD guys are no strangers to whatever muse drove Syd Barrett mad. Somehow, though, even while peering into the abyss, they’ve held their heads above the level of despair, thriving under the stress.
Joining Ka-Spel and The Silverman for the Slim’s show will be bandmates Niels Van Hoorn on saxophones, Erik Drost on guitars, and Raymond Steeg doing sound wizardry and production. Violinist/guitarist Martijn de Kleer will join the Dots for this leg of the tour, a big plus for fans of his rich sound.
“In a world that seems to become darker by the second,” writes Ka-Spel to his fans, “be glad the dream is not dying. Be part of it — make this planet a better place!”
“The Dots are riding the waves of chaos with the rest of us,” says the band’s promotion. “Staring our impending cataclysm straight in the eye, they’re ready to bravely confront the decidedly bleak future, ready to conquer all the malignant spirits our sick, wheezing planet has to offer up.”
That’s a tall order for any band, and not since Pink Floyd has any band seemed as likely as LPD to succeed.
The Legendary Pink Dots perform at Slim’s (www.slims-sf.com), 333 11th St., on Sat., July 8, at 9 p.m. with Big City Orchestra opening. Tickets ($18): (415) 255-0333.
[This article appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 6, 2006. Ironically and sadly, the very next day Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barret died of diabetes complications at age 60.]