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Give the People a Hand

A new generation is rediscovering one of Denver's strangest bands.

Most once-forgotten bands wind up being forgotten forever by pretty much everyone except the people who were in them -- and depending upon past drug use, even that's no guarantee. But on occasion, a group that fell short commercially and earned relatively few critical plaudits during its heyday will linger on the fringes of memory far longer than acts that seemingly passed it by ages earlier.

If any combo exemplifies this phenomenon, it's Lothar and the Hand People. Formed in Denver back in 1965, the outfit lasted for just short of five years, and during that span, its modest recorded output -- the players released just two albums and a handful of singles -- made ripples, not splashes. Perhaps its biggest moment came when Dick Clark played the Lothar song "Machines" during the rate-a-record segment of an American Bandstand episode; according to keyboardist Paul Conly, the collective's unofficial historian and, like lead singer John Emelin, a current Denver resident, the two teens who critiqued the tune hated it, with one asking Clark what was the lowest score she could give.

But if such reactions eventually doomed Lothar's career, they couldn't undermine its pop-historic significance. The Hand People, you see, were the first rockers to tour and record using synthesizers, thereby inspiring the generation of electronic music-makers who immediately followed them -- and they remain a touchstone for many contemporary electro-warriors. On "It Doesn't Matter," a cut from their platinum-plus 1997 album Dig Your Own Hole, the Chemical Brothers sampled the Lothar track "It Comes on Anyhow," arguably generating more income for Conly and company than all of their previous recordings combined. And late last year, Razor & Tie, among the country's most prominent re-issue labels, put out Presenting...Lothar and the Hand People, a disc that compiles "Machines," "It Comes on Anyhow," and seventeen other vintage Lothar efforts. "It's been great in so many ways," Conly says of this unexpected attention. "We don't know if it's really building a new audience -- but we'd like it to."

John Emelin and Paul Conly today, and mugging with their Hand People brethren for photog Richard Avedon in 1967.
John Emelin and Paul Conly today, and mugging with their Hand People brethren for photog Richard Avedon in 1967.
John Emelin and Paul Conly today, and mugging with their Hand People brethren for photog Richard Avedon in 1967.
John Emelin and Paul Conly today, and mugging with their Hand People brethren for photog Richard Avedon in 1967.

As Conly tells it, Lothar fell short of stardom firsthand thanks to a string of near-misses and raw luck. By contrast, Emelin has a more straightforward explanation for the Hand People's failure to captivate the masses: "We were a little too far ahead of our time."

Emelin, who was born in Mamaroneck, New York, got involved in the folk-music scene while he was in high school, and one of the first things he did upon arriving in Colorado to attend the University of Denver was form a jug band. But a trip with Richard Willis, his roommate and fraternity brother, to see the Rolling Stones in Chicago turned him on to the joys of electricity. Back at DU, the pair decided to pull together a rock band of their own, recruiting a couple of fellow students, bassist Rusty Ford and drummer Tom Flye, during the rush process, and later adding guitarist Kim King, then a fixture at the Denver Folklore Center, the hangout for up-and-coming musicians of the day. Willis, in classic hippie fashion, came up with the band's appellation while he was sleeping; he had a dream in which an enslaved race called the Hand People was saved by a hero named Lothar, and when he related the scenario to his fellows, who'd been stumped in their search for a trippy handle, the moniker stuck. Only later did they decide that a theremin owned by Emelin was actually the group's namesake. "People would always ask, 'Who's Lothar?', and we wouldn't know what to tell them," Conly says. "But finally we realized that Lothar had been there all along."

The Hand People rapidly put their fingerprints on the Denver music community. "Our timing was good," Emelin says. "We were long-haired at a time when there were only one or two other long-haired bands in town; the rest were old-fashioned greaser bands. So we hit the scene with a more modern look, and that propelled us to local fame right away." Yet despite the swarms of DU students and assorted tastemakers who'd line up outside the Exodus (a 3.2 bar with an interior Conly describes as "a sparkly bat cave") whenever the Hand People were scheduled to play, Emelin didn't take the group all that seriously. But that changed after a New Year's Eve date in Aspen that marked King's concert debut. "It was one of those shows where people were throwing quart bottles of beer on the floor for fun," he recalls. "We were so thrilled with the response that three of us called our parents on New Year's Day to tell them we were going to drop out of college."

Willis wasn't one of these rock rebels: While the rest of the Hand People decided to commit themselves to the band full-time, he chose to do the responsible thing and stay in school. (He apparently went through a lifestyle change later; Emelin says that when last he heard about Willis, around fifteen years ago, he was "some kind of a healer.") After a series of auditions, they hired Conly, a Denver-area native who fancied himself a jazzbo at the time, and returned to area stages. Soon thereafter, Conly convinced Emelin to play his theremin live for the first time, and the eerie, quavering tone of the device became the Hand People's aural signature -- although not always to the benefit of everyone in the audience. "We were at the Exodus one night, and whenever I'd play a theremin solo, this one guy would start thrashing around," Emelin says. "He seemed to be going into ecstatic paroxysms. But as it turned out, he had a metal plate in his head, and the theremin was causing some kind of horrible short in his nervous system. When we found out, we felt terrible."

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