Lene Lovich at the Stereo Society
Hot Press 1979
DO NOT ENTER WHEN RED LIGHT IS SHOWING
This is a studio, television’s throbbing heart, taking this person and that sound and translating them into little waves that fly away across the universes to your tube to appear right there in your front room at the flick of a switch in a neat easily assimilated package. This is the modern world.
A group sit quietly on-stage, more silhouetted than seen, instruments unamplified, fooling around with some cabaret chords and chintzy songs. Occasional laughter scatters through the darkness and the rising cigarette smoke. Men with English accents lean on flight cases and comment on the set. Not exactly sardonic, but not complimentary either.
‘The best engineers I’ve ever met were the blokes at WDR in Germany,’ says Mike Sinclair, tour manager, sound engineer and all round good guy. ‘They approach it as an art, which is the way it should be.’ And which is the way it would be at RTE if the producers and technicians only had a chance to catch up on their tails.
More laughter – ‘They wound just like a lounge group’ laughs Sunny Ray – ‘That’s where we got them,’ replies Mike.
And into the banter moved a shave head bearing circular blue sunglasses and XXX on a black clothed frame. Les Chappell, guitarist.
And quietly, just like that, while hands are shaken, cameras whirred into positions, instructions walkie-talkied to and from, Lene Lovich insinuates herself onto the scene. Absent one minute, there the next.
Dressed in black, from half-boots through overskirt to mantilla/veil. Purple arm-stockings and lipstick – bits of red here and there. Smallish, but not frail. Bearing a sore throat with dignity, and glad to be miming on its account.
In between camera practice runs she scre-e-e-t-t-ch-ch-es · Yeah! Squats on the stage, laughs with the band. The pantomime quality of her dress and performance emerge she chats to the cocky floor manager. In the dark of rehearsal her eyes peer through the studio lights into the black depths beyond – unseeing, she seems alone and unnerved. Not an accurate impression, as it turns out, but a strong one.
The RTE humpers who move microphones an inch or so, if required, who turn machines on to bring up the credits, who move props and walk with the measured pace of people who know they can’t be fired, essential coop in the mighty engine of modern communications, circle the studio in bored detachment. They wear a constant air of mild jaundice, bordering on professional cynicism.
Seen it all before Joe. Just a twist of the duty roster. Might have been on Bosco, or the news or Live Mike, and don’t much care either way. So here we are in TX, puffing smoke across the stage, or reading Heffo’s record sleeve backdrop as Lene sings away behind their backs. During lulls purple and white lights pulsate aimlessly. We move towards the deadline, a sure sign of progress.
We’ll have to go on the next one calls the floor manager, the fog won’t last much longer · ‘Is this the real one?’ asks Lene, taking out a small mirror and exactly correcting her make up. ‘Yes. Let’s have the fog in and Let’s Go! Lash it away. Roll ·’ the pout adjusts itself, the band poise · ‘Music · 3 · 2 · 1 ·’
And it’s happening – music from the speakers, Lene communicating beyond the confines of the studio, the unblinking eye of the camera, the unmoved technicians and the backing tape, being translated into little waves that fly across the universe, appearing right there in your front room at the flick of a switch in a neat, easily assimilated package. This is the modern world.
Well, not so easily assimilated, perhaps. The media are Lene’s message just as much as she is theirs. In any case television is a fact, entertainment a necessity, and it is a far far better thing to have Lene Lovich beaming down to planet RTE than most..
The purpose of her visit to Montrose was twofold – to record TX and to grace the Late Late Show. Drums and guitars are humped from Studio 2 to Studio 1 for a late rehearsal. So late, in fact that there will only be time to rehearse one song for the cameras and the ‘little chat’ with Gay will be chopped.
A great pity – with his everyman brown jumper and his taxidermic cravat, Gay would have provided a lot of laughs. ‘Well · (long pause) · Tell us now · is it your own hair?’ (Long pause, glancing knowingly at the audience with his calmly cunning and manipulative left eye) ‘And what are those · yokes · yer wearing???!!’ Too bad. Ah well. The most fun at the rehearsal comes from watching a group of opera singers rehearse. Les sits quietly in the fifth row, bald head glistening, inscrutable behind his shades, watching.
They are foreigners to studio technology. Whatever the man says is all right, so he adds a little echo to the voice mike. When one of the ladies clears her throat it resonates through the studio with a bizarre alien metallic ring. Are we not men? We are light opera.
An RTE floor transport executive (humper to you), carries on a basket of turf and puts it on the floor. His colleague is summoned to move a music stand. By about seven inches. Gay is given a long mike with a sheaf of mutters by a couple of aides who look like members of a socialist political party – ‘just for the crack’ they murmur conspiratorially. A few minutes later the plot is in the open as Byrne holds it with a lump of wood to smash a double glazed window. The mike makes it more dramatic.
Les watches on, the rest are mind-boggled. What is this? And what language are they singing in anyway? Coquettish glances, hands clapping, rings clutched, probably totally pornographic lyrics (to judge from the shapes they’re throwing), sung in German, or Italian or · yup, all the conventions of opera splashing into your front room at the flick of a…….
‘Great,’ says Les. And the Late Late fans who’ve been baying out in the foyer are let in by a very large man with a glowing neck, who takes their tickets. You’ve seen them on the show yourself, I’m sure – looking like your ill-fitting uncle, your struggling aunt. Twenty five years ago when rock ‘n’ roll was King they probably looked like you. Now they’re stuffing the Late Late studio like a sack of damp Evening Presses and stale Sunday Worlds. They giggle. They nudge each other. Omigod I’m on’ as they spot the real them on the monitor – adjusting themselves and thinking Christ what’s happening? The monitor moves in the opposite direction to a mirror – they feel awkward and alien.
This is the modern world, and Gay Byrne is an uncrowned king · but for all that, and the opera singers, Lene Lovich opens the show at a peak from which it can only go downhill.
‘It’s very disappointing,’ Lene complained – ‘they really shouldn’t isolate all the guests on the show. It is not often that you would get someone in my · like me · on the same show as the new Chief Rabbi, or the opera singers · and if we were all to be there together it could be very interesting. It is as though they are afraid of the small degree of improvisation that would be needed.’
Which is true. They say Gay likes to know in advance to the last millimeter, the last nanosecond. It works, of course, it’s successful and why change a winning formula? (Because it bores). Anyhow, another opportunity missed, so the plain people of Ireland sit back to watch Tom and Pascal and a handwriting expert, and · yawn· and · yawn ·
Lene is a star, there is no doubt about it, but it is largely the result of a happy set of coincidences – her colorful and invigorating history, her association with Les Chappell, the quirky intelligence of her music, the suitability of the times that are in it in the wake of the new wave, and the humor and appeal of her image.
The pain of genius is not written large on her personality, (though Lucky Number and Birdsong for example, are true masterpieces) and where others are protected by bodyguards, paranoia and art, she has the friendliness and approachability of the great entertainer.
So, the handful of admirers who are jostled aside by the mad lunge of middle Ireland on its way to the Late Late can quietly chat with her, take photographs and promise to come to the gig in the Olympic. At the same time she makes no compromises with anonymity – she goes everywhere dressed as she is. It’s neither to attract attention nor to avoid it, it is to be herself.
When Stiff boss Dave Robinson was interviewed on a documentary shot for BBC’s Arena program, he groped his way sleepily towards a description of it – ‘It’s very · what’s the word · very her ·’ And so it is.
Madigan’s in Donnybrook is an Irish lounge, close enough to RTE to double as an office and canteen for the hardworking liggers of the native TV and Radio service. At the hour we left Montrose it was also the place-most-likely for a drink.
Draft Guinness was the order of the day, black and creamy, second to none except photographer Colm Henry who went for a bottle.
‘Have you tried XXX Guinness?’ asked Les. ‘We got some when we did a tour of the Guinness place in Britain – we shot the cover of the album there in one of the vats. Great stuff!
‘The trouble with Guinness is that it doesn’t travel so well, they way. It’s great to get the real thing.’
Meanwhile Colm had fired off a salvo of questions at Lene about numbers and numerology and lucky ones · ‘I don’t know,’ she responded, ‘there are so many systems and theories that there is no way really of knowing.’
Great speaking voice too – English musicality on an American rhythm, with Balkan phrasing. Curiously awkward way around ideas sometimes, like you find particularly among Dutch speaking almost perfect English.
‘I was not very good at school; it was not that I was stupid or anything. But I hated to be told something without being told why. I would always spend a lot of time thinking around a problem until I was quite happy about it – this meant I was always behind.
‘But children should be given credit for having more intelligence than most schooling allows. And with things like languages too, a lot could be done subliminally, like the way you learn English ·
‘But I enjoyed biology – I loved doing the drawings, and · even in mathematics, which I found very difficult to get into, I did quite well · not because I actually understood it, but because I laid everything out very neatly · very clearly, like a biological illustration, so that the examiners were taken in!!’
This completeness and organization surfaced again several days later when we met in her hotel over tea and coffee, brown bread and a tape recorder, and discussed songwriting.
‘It starts with an initial inspiration – and that can be almost anything. It just happens. For example, with Birdsong I just woke up one morning. I couldn’t remember a dream exactly, but I sort of remembered the feeling. It was so strong that I wanted to get the feeling across.
‘So I turned on the tape recorder and started to make noises. Not really any words, not music as such. It was the feeling I had left over from the dream which was like · ‘aay-ooooh!’, Sort of like that. I was feeling very alone.
‘Yet I knew it was partly my fault in some way, but really the song didn’t evolve from anything that I can remember as factual, but from an emotion, from waking up.
‘I’m not really aware of what’s happening when I’m writing a song – it’s almost like a trance like thing that starts. You just get excited about something and start working.
‘Sometimes it’s just a sound I hear, or walking down the road I might start singing something, but these little inspirations are very fleeting so I have to put them down on tape as soon as possible, otherwise they’re lost.
‘You have to be excited about it. The idea seems to have an energy of its own. It doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with me – if it’s a strong enough idea it dominates my whole mind for that few seconds or minutes.
‘If they weren’t strong enough I wouldn’t bother. I hate the idea of laboring over something, although perhaps as I write more I may actually say ‘I want to get this idea across’ and write a song about it. Perhaps. But so far the ideas have come along whether I’ve liked them or not!!!
‘The first song Les and I did was Lucky Number, in a primitive sort of way – I had not written before because I was very unconfident, so when Stiff said they wanted to release my version of I Think We’re Alone Now we got very excited and said why can’t we put our own song on the other side?
‘But I didn’t have a backlog.’
Well anyone who can claim Lucky Number as a first, even in a primitive form, has a lot going for them, not only in the music but also in the words. Lyrically, the song integrates words and music in circles of humor and images of rare confidence.
‘Well, yes. Our music is well organized, although we don’t do it consciously. I’ve looked back on the words and the way they’re laid out · and you can see that. There’s a rhyme here and a rhyme there and actually they come out in a quite ordered way.’
The music too explores a vast range of possibilities, from Balkan choruses to synthesizer-disco rhythms to rock ‘n’ roll. Where, for example did the chorus of deep voices come from”
‘Well! It just seemed right! Just natural. I heard that sound there. Actually I’m really into frequencies. I feel that certain frequencies generate a certain emotion.’
The same thing lies behind her nonverbal singing. Her voice is a unique instrument that she celebrates with rare abandon in many songs – ‘I sometimes find that words would tie me down. It’s very thrilling to me to do it!!’
Very good, very good! Congratulations! From the other guests in the Late Late to the bounces at the Olympic, a very positive reaction. Friendly and impressed. ‘There’s a young fella here would like to take a picture, do you mind?’ · ‘Some of the staff would like to just say hello’ ·
Lene cruised through it all, chuckling at the funny bits, signing the photos and talking about the gigs – Belfast: not so happy, not sure about the publicity · Dublin: Great gig, great audience · And when two girls were being entertained by two members of the band Lene was really taken by a pair of shoes: ‘I love them, where did you get them?!’ Great. ‘Terrifically good’ as someone in Big D radio said afterwards, while his colleagues manipulated her into posing with some magazine or other they are connected with.
The deejay in Big D chattered away at various topics, sensibly letting Lene do most of the talking. Like Dave Fanning before, he hauled the word ‘theatrical’ onto the airwaves, though he fared better than poor oul Dave, who got a big snapped – ‘I allow myself a small amount of self expression and I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT.’
What I find difficult to understand is why people have this obsession about Lene – she is a lot less camp than Bowie, or Kiss, for example, especially on stage – and even Ian Dury, to pick a closer example, is more ‘theatrical’, or music hall.
‘Yes– this seems like a constant battle for me – they try to portray me as either some sort of arty person trying to create a spooky image, or some kind of joke. I can’t be serious. It hurts my feelings sometimes when people go on and on about the way I look’.
Could it be that videos have created the impression?
‘Not really, I think the Lucky Number video was just a series of fun images that we thought suited the song – we just took each line of the song and · there was no point in being serious about it · When I sing it’s one of my happiest songs, so why be depressive??!!’
At the same time videos get much closer to the performer, picking up on intimate details of makeup and dress at the expense of the cohesion and balance you find on stage. Video concentrates and accentuates peoples’ ideas of a performer’s appearance.
Les was more receptive to the idea than Lene, though she took the point – ‘Say When was more like a gig, though it was just set up like one, but yes, the cameras could get in closer.
‘The advantage to videos is that they are great for sending somewhere that we can’t get to – like Australia, for example’.
A convenient package, but an expensive one – ‘Well, Stiff are trying to cut down on the expense by getting their own film unit. They have Stiff Films within Stiff. There’s a guy called Philip, and Birdsong is the first video he has worked on. Since then he has done more, but we don’t go to an independent filmmaker’.
Les: ‘Stiff are very aware of the importance of things like videos, also having our own unit there leaves it all a lot more open for us to get our ideas in’. Lene: ‘We don’t have a big director coming in saying do this, this, this this!!’
Which was what I was getting around to. We’re all familiar with the degree to which duff production can affect records, but video is another area where the artist is at risk. You’re at the mercy of technicians to translate your ideas, obviously, of course, where Stiff are doing the films, Lene has a lot more control. However you still create a set of images for a song. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody video is probably the most high-powered example, but the Rats Don’t Like Mondays one, which Les admired greatly, is more recent. It is now impossible to hear the songs without seeing the video’s images.
‘Yeah! Well ideally I’d like to do maybe three videos per song. I don’t actually like giving a factual representation of what the songs are about – it kills off individual interpretation. Keeping things vague is the only way that people can participate’.
Video also leaves room for the use of other talents which are most especially musical – like acting and mime. That is, in fact, one of its most positive aspects.
Les mentioned last week’s Arena program, where director Alan Yentob set up some fantasy sequences which he thought would get people a bit closer to what Lene and Les were about. ‘Like trying to take a closer look at your imagination for a second – what you might be thinking of a location, rather than the location itself’.
Which links up with films. Lene has done one, Cha-Cha with Nina Hagen and her boyfriend Herman Brood, and she would like to do more – ‘it’s the way you can do anything – recreate anything you’ve ever thought of’. She has, in fact been offered more parts, but hasn’t accepted any so far.
There are two problems – she wanted to tour with the band, so she wasn’t as free as she was earlier. Then the parts weren’t that great. ‘They wanted me to play someone very close to myself. This, in fact, was also a problem with Cha-Cha’.
‘I was worried that people would get a distorted view of me because the character I was to play was so like me, yet wasn’t me. In my first scene I rob a bank with Herman and Nina and I thought if I rob a bank tomorrow, it’s kind of stupid going down like this, because everybody knows who I am!! If I were serious I’d wear a disguise, which I did – a blonde wig and sunglasses and an old coat. And nobody knew me!!
‘They were disappointed, but they let me go through with it, but after that they were at me to be myself. It wasn’t a very happy relationship – I could have had more fun, like Nina, who sent herself up all the time’.
It’s a big problem with filming people who have very powerfully defined images or personalities to another medium, and it largely arises from the inability of authors and producers, rather than actors and musicians. They can’t visualize how to use them without having them be themselves (cue Rodie, Hard Day’s Night, etc., as opposed to Oh What A Lovely War).
‘It just seemed to me they wanted me to attract my fans in Holland. Then they didn’t use a lot of scenes, and they’ve also cut the film so that I appear quite different to what I am’.
And since any film must be thought of a part of an artist’s career, even if peripheral to their main business (music, in this case) effectively Lene surrendered a lot of control to someone else, far more than she would in video or records, for example.
‘There have been other parts I’ve been offered. I’m always asked to be a singer. There was only one part I liked, which was set in the 20s, so it was far enough removed from today to make it OK. There’s another film called Breaking Glass which is still being made, and the directors were very keen to have me do it · in fact they changed the lead role from a man to a woman after coming to one of our concerts, and they tried very hard to make it attractive.
‘But I wanted to tour, and the parts weren’t right anyway – I just wish someone would come and ask me to play a character I could feel close to but who would not necessarily be a singer. Like, I’ve only been a musician for a very short part of my life’.
Right. But, since supposedly perceptive and creative people like cine-directors and producers find it hard to see beyond the image, isn’t it hard to expect fans, and deejays to?
‘Yes, to be fair, it is. But it is possible, for example, that I might change · Get bored with what I wear. It’s really not that precious to me’.
The point of which is that what actually matters is not the veils and pointing fingers, but the talent underneath. ‘The thing that annoys me about people’s idea of talent’, complained tour manager Mike Sinclair, ‘is that a lot of people would look at those opera people going on the Late Late with just the piano, doing it live, and would say they’re more talented or whatever, than we are, because they don’t need to mime, or need all the amps and gear, and so on ·’
‘Well that’s true in a way, isn’t it?’ asked Lene. But she herself provided the most convincing answers to the argument later that night in the dimness of Nico’s Restaurant in Dublin. In true Italian style the house pianist had accompanied some of the patrons as they did their party pieces. Finally he split, and Lene’s pianist Dean took over, leading the clients through a handful of classics like Till There Was You, O Sole Mio – The Irish Permanent – Just One Cornetto, and so on.It was like a scene from Fellini’s Roma or Amarcord, ribald and funny, banter and fettuccine, and the whisper that Lene would sing, (just now) ran like mercury around the table.From her seat, like a torch ballad singer or a chanteuse in any European Cabaret down to the second World War, she gave us Too Tender to Touch and then The Night. Husky and lonely, gentler and sadder than on the records, and shatteringly, hauntingly beautiful, she left those lucky enough to hear it with an indelible memory.
Magic, like the fella said. It would turn your head around.