August 2nd, 2009


Obvious buttons: the Ladytron lighting list

By chance, I discovered a snap of Ladytron's lighting cues list on Flickr. It got me thinking about button-pushing. This is literally a series of instructions to the guy in charge of the lighting board about which buttons to push, and when. But it's also a band attempting to push an audience's buttons.

Why do I find this lighting cue list so depressing? I suppose it's because I know it probably "works", on a Pavlovian level. Ladytron come onstage and perform a song called Black Cat, accompanied by "very fast flashing lights, high impact, high energy, red and white". Our nervous systems respond; it's physiological. We get stoked; we're wired that way. The set segues into Ghosts, which is "flashy, red and white", and then into "Runaway", which is "very flashy, red and blue". There's a standing instruction in capitals at the bottom of the sheet: "NO STATIC WHITE LIGHT AT ALL PLEASE".

Now, my aesthetics, when it comes to stage lighting, are completely the opposite to the ones spelled out here. I really dislike the coloured gel lighting that's become standard at modern rock shows -- a simplified, banalised, flight-cased version of 1960s psychedelic electric ecstasy. Like so much else in pop and rock music, something radical and experimental became, over a forty year span, gradually safe, stale and conservative. It couldn't easily be thrown away, though, because it works. It still pushes buttons out there. It's efficient and effective. That's why I hate it.

Personally, I like the static white lighting Ladytron shun. The Talking Heads Stop Making Sense tour, filmed by Jonathan Demme, had a stern rule: no coloured lights on the performers. It looks great. There's plenty of colour on the screen behind the band, resourceful props like an oversized suit and a domestic lamp being swung about, and a sense of sweaty, funky transcendence that's achieved despite the "making love with the lights on" ambience. I suppose it isn't so much that Talking Heads aren't "pushing buttons" here -- they are. It's just that they've put some thought into making new buttons that do new things.

In purely behavioural terms, though, making new buttons that do new things is a road to nowhere. Confronted with unfamiliar and ambiguous cues, audiences become confused. What does it all mean? How are we supposed to react? Wire's Document and Eyewitness is a great example of originality leaving a rock audience frustrated and perplexed. Punters keen to hear Wire's early punk rock thrash "12XU" got Dada performance art involving dismantled cooking stoves and weird unrecorded material instead. The relationship between stage and stalls deteriorated rapidly, and -- the time-honoured gesture of clichéd rock intolerance -- bottles were thrown.

Ladytron's lighting list made me remember the tensions that often develop on rock tours. You're out on the road with another band, labelmates perhaps, and relations begin to deteriorate when, night after night, you witness something enviable yet depressing: the band pushes really obvious buttons in an entirely calculated way -- repeating Pete Townshend's Gustav Metzger-influenced guitar-smashing routine, for instance. You see it the first time and it looks spontaneous, even if you know it was originally done in, you know, September 1964. By the tenth or twentieth time it looks cynically calculating and formulaic. By now you hate the band. You hate the way they push the same buttons every night, and you hate the way the audience responds. It's all so "successful", and yet it's -- by your lights -- a dismal artistic failure. The audience changes every night, it seems, so that the band doesn't have to. Eventually, to no-one's great surprise, the medium slips from relevance, undermined by its own conservatism.

I was chatting about this last night to Berlin musician friends -- Joe Howe and Jason Forest, Emma and Jen (Carsten Nicolai hovered nearby). We were sitting in the Lustgarten between the Berliner Dom and the Altes Museum, picnicking on the grass in front of a stage where Kyoka was performing a set of her material. Kyoka admirably avoided recognisable beats or melodies, creating unpredictable clusters of abstract sound closer to Stockhausen than trad pop or rock music. Sure, you could say that being non-conventional is, within the microbubble of arty subsidised Berlin music events, the "conventional" thing to do. But it's not a very interesting paradox. "Original" may be relative and contextual, but it still means something.

The little stage on which Kyoka performed was comically incongruous, a rent-a-rock stage dwarfed by the vast facade of the Altes Museum, surmounted by a huge white-bulb ticker display spelling out quirky, arty phrases: "UGLY THING", "POINT TO THE SKY" and "YOU LOOK GORGEOUS". The little stage had the usual sad cluster of gel spots on a rail, lights which flashed incongruously along to Kyoka's daring music in the usual feeble "rock" way, like an elderly clerical worker gamely shaking his arse at the office Christmas party. If the museum facade was unmistakably coming to us from 1822, and the ticker and Kyoka's music felt freshly 2009, the little rock stage and its coloured lights were a portable parody of 1972, singing the body electric with feet of corporate clay.

Afterwards, when the lawn grew dark and the audience had gone, a small cluster of us stood there in the dusk, lit only by the ticker up on the museum facade. Jan Lindenberg noticed a strange glow coming from the empty stage, a sort of optic hum. The coloured lights, extinguished, were still faintly lit. "It looks like a shrine," Jan said.

It was the moment introverts love, the moment when the rock noise and the flashing lights die away, and nobody's pushing our buttons any more. The moment when something can happen. We unhitched our bikes from a railing where a poster marked DIONYSUS hung -- an advert for a forthcoming museum show, Dionysus: Metamorphosis and Ecstasy -- but the moment belonged to Apollo, the wine god's mysterious nemesis.