It’s been a good week for attention-seeking musical experiments. First up: there’s Calvin Harris with his ‘humanthesizer’, a contraption that turns a roomful of underwear models into an instrument, and is powered entirely by the electro artist’s sense of self-regard:
The humanthesizer – surely ‘skinthesizer’ would have been snappier? – works thanks to a special ink that conducts electricity, making for an undeniably striking visual hook for Harris’ new video ‘Ready For The Weekend’.
Sadly, it can’t prevent the song itself from being a gristly and unappealing slab of Poundstretcher house, vaguely reminiscent of watching The Bucketheads on ‘CD:UK’ while queuing in a provincial branch of Rumbelows, circa 1995.
Meanwhile, every night this week, David Byrne is “playing” Camden’s Roundhouse as an instrument, via a pump organ hooked up to various nooks and pipes within the former Victorian steam-engine depot.
It’s an unwieldy and unpredictable beast: you can’t bash out, say, ‘The Muppet Show’ theme on it. Instead, it emits an unearthly, seemingly random sequence of elegiac creaks and moans. A bit like Anthony Hegarty.
One critic, having witnessed Byrne’s installation in action in New York, claimed it dredged up “a strange pathos, as if this neglected old building was finally telling its own story.” Although in truth you can probably divine a “strange pathos” in a car alarm if you have 600 words to file by the following morning.
Nevertheless, Byrne’s high-minded experiment continues a noble tradition of musicians signalling their boundless creativity by using bizarre instruments – and sometimes looking a bit daft in the process.
At early Stooges gigs, Iggy Pop used to ‘play’ (ie whack at random intervals) vacuum cleaners, as well as a makeshift instrument called a Jim-O-Phone, which he’d fashioned himself from a bit of old tubing. Oh, for a time when Ig was a wildly unpredictable punk shaman, rather than a leathery berk flogging car insurance.
Ever since Joy Division drummer Stephen Morris used an aerosol as percussion on ‘She’s Lost Control’, bands in the studio have been drawn to the fader marked ‘quirky’.
Listen carefully to Nirvana’s ‘Drain You’ (at around 1.55) and you’ll hear the sound of a rubber duck. That Kurt Cobain: what a jester (although to these ears he didn’t go far enough with the comedy sound effects: ‘Something In The Way’ would have been enlivened no end by a glissando of slide-trombone, or the ‘wank-wank-oops’ noise from Dave Lee Travis’ ‘Double Top’).
Some way down the classic albums scale, Guillemots are fond of playing typewriter solos, while Franz Ferdinand supposedly used human bones as percussion on ‘Kiss Me’, the demo track which ultimately became ‘No You Girls’:
“Paul, the drummer, was working with the pelvis bone and a femur,” explained frontman Alex Kapranos at the time. “We put the teeth in a glass jar and rattled that about and we smacked the ribs together,” added the singer, with the ghoulish relish of someone who’s clearly making the whole thing up in pursuit of a pull-quote.
Yet indie’s wannabe-oddballs are woefully straight-laced in comparison with their non-guitar-toting counterparts. Scott Walker famously walloped a side of meat on ‘The Drift’, while cosmic jazz loon Sun Ra played a squeaky door on his epic 1966 track, er, ‘Door Squeak’.
Amazingly, jazz fans are in awe of this track. According to one user review on Amazon: “While it may not be his most compelling composition, it must be said that he puts his complete focus into getting everything he can out of that squeak”. Another described the track as “unique and miraculous… a masterpiece”.
Me, I’m not convinced: no matter how you spin it, it’s still 10-and-a-half minutes of a poorly lubricated door hinge (which incidentally makes it significantly more fun than the new Arctic Monkeys album). Perhaps if he’d got a few underwear models involved…?