Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Little Boots: Meddle

I know what you’re thinking. Has he completely lost his mind? Is this the same guy that rambles about the music of the faraway past now reviewing someone and something ultra current? Wait, maybe the moderator’s mind is now controlled by aliens and they’re dictating the content of this blog. Well, perhaps . . .

Yes, I confess, it is me, and yes, I picked Little Boots and her song “Meddle” as today’s feature – without duress and without the help of mind control . . . at least not at the present. While I can honestly say that you will not always find me dining at the smorgasbord of the icosarati, it was by waxing nostalgic that ultimately led me to the talents of one Victoria Hesketh, who is known to her adoring fans as Little Boots (but not to be confused with Little Feet).

The name Little Boots came via Victoria’s friend who had seen the movie “Caligula” and learned that the Roman emperor’s name literally meant “Little Boot.” Since Victoria sports very small feet, the friend began referring to her as “Little Boots.” The identity stuck and has become her permanent nom de plume.

As previously mentioned, I discovered her music of today by contemplating the music of yesterday. Although this is not an unusual activity for me, the issue that brought me to Little Boots in the first place, however, is a little different. That subject is an illustrious instrument from the late 60s and early 70s called (drum roll please) – the Stylophone. Stylophone, what the heck is a Stylophone? Well, before we continue, take a listen to and watch Little Boots live and you’ll see her play the Stylophone at the beginning (at :36) of her tune “Meddle.”

I was first consciously introduced to the Stylophone in 1973 when I played one owned by my brother Chuck to accompany him during the Moody Blues’ song “I Never Thought I’d Live to Be A Million.” Unlike Little Boots (and others) who mike the instrument, we ran it through an amp using a miniature plug to quarter inch jack converter – and it worked rather nicely. I think I used it for three gigs in 1973 and 1974, and I had a great deal of fun playing it.

In 1976 when Chuck was divesting himself of several of his instruments, I purchased an acoustic guitar, a five string banjo, and an Autoharp. In the process, he threw in a 1960s era fuzz tone and the Stylophone. I still have it all – with the exception maybe of the fuzz pedal as I have no idea where it has ended in the 30+ years since then.

Over the years, I have had an opportunity to experiment with the Stylophone by running it through my Sequential Circuits Pro One synthesizer and using the synth’s filters to modify the envelope of the attack, decay, sustain, and release of the notes that were being played. I’ve also played it through a variety of pedals such as a phase shifter, chorus, flanger, compression, and distortion to see how much could be done with the sound – quite a lot, I might add.

While we called it (as Little Boots does) a synthesizer, the Stylophone was marketed as an organ. While it has some similarities to earlier synthesizers, as it was monophonic (capable of only playing one not at a time), its tone generation was more like that of the electronic organs on the market in the late 1960s. It does have a faux portemento effect (which is really glissando) when you slide the stylus up or down the metal keyboard. David Bowie used this effect on “Space Oddity.” In fact, in the accompanying recording – you can hear the Stylophone with vibrato throughout the song.

David Bowie "Space Oddity"

I always liked the effect of the Stylophone in Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” but I didn’t know what it was until I got the “ChangesOneBowie” compilation in the early 80s and saw in the credits for “Space Oddity” – the humble Stylophone and it all began to make sense. In fact, I had originally considered doing the feature on Bowie’s tune until I discovered Little Boots while doing research on the instrument back in November 2009.

When Bowie played the Stylophone on British television in 1968, it boosted the sales of what was developed originally as an inexpensive toy. He wasn't the only one to use the instrument on a recording, but he was the first. Little Boots has become the latest and perhaps greatest champion, of this fun little instrument. Her usage has inspired a company that has been dormant for 30 years to resurface under a new name and has reintroduced an improved version of the Stylophone.

The Stylophone Story Parts 1 & 2

In the above video, Boots explained her love of the Stylophone, “I think it doesn’t sound like anything else . . . No other synthesizer or instrument really sounds like that. I think, in isolation, it can be quite piercing . . . It is, kind of like, the most annoying, but the best sound in the world.”

After a few listens, I was blown away by Little Boots' music, and while that may sound a little odd, it really isn’t. My philosophy is that excellent music can be found anywhere and in any genre – in any generation. Her technopop/electropop (you choose) genre is reminiscent of some of the music that I was listening to, performing in bands, and playing on the radio in the early 80s. Several of these same artists were her influences.

In 1981, a friend of mine named Geoff Gardner introduced me to several of the newer technopop bands, as well as to ska, punk, and new wave music that I would have never heard. Some of the technopop artists included the Human League, Soft Cell, the Eurythmics, and others who would shortly be climbing the US charts. Our band at the time incorporated as many of these songs as possible into our repertoire.

Back in my electronic keyboard days in 1982 (I was the same age as Little Boots is today)
Wurlitzer Electric Piano, Ace Tone Organ, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 & Pro One.
I would later add the following: Roland Controller, Korg Poly 800, &  Ensoniq Mirage &  ESQ-1.

The music of Little Boots strikes a nostalgic chord (how about G Demolished) in my memory. I find her sound refreshing, but also strikingly familiar. And what’s not to like about Little Boots? She is control of her destiny. Her big break was due to her hard work in becoming a YouTube success story. This occurred after she posted songs that she recorded in her own bedroom. Her use of old technology (the Stylophone) with newer technology (the Tenori-On) emphasizes her versatility. The following shows Little Boots using both, as well as a sampled piano on an early bedroom demo of “Meddle.”

”Meddle” Bedroom Demo

The Tenori-On, designed by Yamaha’s Music and Human Interface Group in Japan, combines sight and sound, rhythm, notes, arpeggios, and samples into one digital instrument. It is a very unique idea that fuses a color organ (I’ve got one of those) with a sequencer (that too) and drum machine (and one of those too). It’s a light show – no, it’s a metronome – it’s two toys in one.

Little Boots' Demonstrating a Tenori-On on “Ready for the Fun”

Besides all of the above, Little Boots is loaded with natural talent as she is an awesome keyboardist, an excellent vocalist, a competent arranger, and is techno savvy. Her technical abilities afforded her the ability to design an I-Phone app and she is currently building a laser harp. From the interviews I’ve watched, she also exhibits that she has personality that carries over to her natural stage presence.

Little Boots in her pre-blond days.

What more can you ask for? She has talent, personality, brains, and, oh yeah, she is very easy on the eyes (and I hope my wife isn’t reading this). While she has yet to make her mark in the US, perhaps Atlantic Records will get behind her and get her really noticed on this side of the pond.

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