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By Tom Murphy
As a kid, Edward Ka-Spel endured his share of creepy bedtime stories -- along with horrible nightmares that hounded him until the age of ten.
"They were there, yeah," the fey frontman for the Legendary Pink Dots recalls with a laugh. "But I'm also English, so just a simple nursery rhyme usually relates to the plague, which sort of wiped out half of London, you know. With children skipping down the streets, smiling. I grew up in East London, very close to the Dickensian sort of districts where Jack the Ripper prowled around. The poorhouses were very much part of my makeup."
Overstimulated, underfed, but armed with an IQ of 160, Ka-Spel dreamt of becoming a musician ever since he was "shaking hands with crickets." Now pushing fifty, the reclusive, psychedelic tunesmith (who prefers to keep the actual name on his birth certificate confidential) has amassed an enormous back catalogue of over sixty albums, some of which unveiled other curious alter egos like Che Banana, D'Archangel and the Prophet Qa-Spel. En route to underground sainthood, Ka-Spel also garnered a sizable, cult-like international following. Die-hard fanatics, it seems, are eager to perpetuate the ongoing extensive mythology of all things Pink and Legendary -- including the sacred number 834, a figure that Ka-Spel ironically regards as the new mark of the beast.
Far from sounding demonic, however, the mysterious showman maintains a distinctive, childlike air. Ka-Spel actually sounds like Elmer Fudd when pronouncing words like "pwecious," "pwide" and "dwugs," though he claims no familiarity with Looney Tunes' reknowned bunny hunter. Calling from a pay phone in "Nowhere, Texas," he comments on the cruel fate of being a vegetarian in the heart of cattle country, "down to the last celery stick." On the final leg of the Dots' ninth American tour (the band was denied visas in 1990 for what the U.S. government deemed lack of artistic merit), Ka-Spel seems surprisingly upbeat -- a quality he finds absent in his fellow countrymen.
"The English don't express their emotions so much," Ka-Spel notes. "It's not done. People hold it in. They use code for one another. With another Englishman, I understand what's going on without anything even being said.
"In Britain, there's this total state of repressed violence," he continues. "Here it's up front, and when it happens, it's big. The rules are easier to follow here. But in England, where things aren't bursting out, a safety valve has to be found somewhere. And when that safety valve opens, it's like you get some of the dirtiest, darkest, meanest stuff flooding out. It's not necessarily a bad thing, 'cause it finds its way into art."
Ka-Spel's own creative floodgate opened in 1980 under the starry skies of Stonehenge, where he attended a free music festival with keyboardist and childhood pal Phil "The Silverman" Knight. Convinced they could do no worse musically, the pair acquired a vintage Korg synthesizer and a cheap piano with mysterious drops of pink nail polish on the keys that indicated chord progressions. (The splotches also inspired a better band name than their original, short-lived moniker: One Day.) After guitarist April White came aboard, the modest trio released several cassettes on its own Mirrordot imprint. Inspired by Syd Barrett, the Robyn Hitchcock-led Soft Machine and kraut-rock expansionists Faust and Can, early Pink efforts blended everything from children's voices, speeches by Margaret Thatcher and 'Sieg heil' chants into a grotesque sonic stew of airy, pastoral melancholy and noise mutation. The Dots began their own recurring trend of honoring tarot cards with 1984's conceptual long-player, The Tower.Replete with ominous synth groans, martial drumming and jet-black lyrical content, the work depicts revolution in a futuristic, totalitarian society.
"It's basically an album about the state of England," Ka-Spel explains. "It's like, 'Take this further, and where do you end up?' You end up reopening your oldest political prison in the world, the Tower of London, as sort of a concentration camp. People took it like I was advocating fascism. I've never flirted with fascism -- of course not! It's everything I stand against. I wanted to put people into these places, to almost feel the pain in the walls rather than standing there and shouting, 'This is wrong!' Everyone knows it's wrong, but you don't need someone shouting at you in this respect. That will drive people away."
Britain's music press recoiled from the album, a reaction that left Ka-Spel feeling more than a tad marginalized in his merry olde back yard.
"It helped me in my decision to move to the Nederlands, actually, right at the end of 1984," he recalls. "I was so sad. It was almost passed over in England."
After squatting in Amsterdam for a year, Ka-Spel and company moved to rural Nijmegen, where their base of operation remains in effect to this day. The band flourished in its self-imposed exile, enlisting some three dozen rotating members over two and a half decades while creating a body of work that includes such career highlights as 1987's Any Day Now, 1990's The Crushed Velvet Apocalypse and 1991's breakout album, The Maria Dimension. But it's 2001's three-disc, thirteen-volume boxed set, Chemical Playschool, that Ka-Spel regards as the Dots' crowning achievement.