Tuesday, September 09, 2008

On Keyboards

Some things just don’t look cool. And they never will.

As a case in point, I flipped by Metal Mania on VH-1 last weekend, catching something I had not seen in many moons: Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”

Something struck me about the video for this 1988 tune, with its central, defining synthesizer sound. You rarely see the keyboards or their accompanying musician. Even during the parts of the song dominated by the whining keys, the images highlight the band’s perfectly coiffed Nordic guitarists—the guys you can barely even hear in the background, even if you try.

Metal-heads say that not showing the guilty player is irrelevant, that “The Final Countdown” still sucks simply because it has a synthesizer in it.

I see the point, but there is more than a little hypocrisy here. Black Sabbath—arguably the foundation of heavy metal—used keyboards often. To a lesser or greater extent, so did Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osborne, Rush, Van Halen, Mötley Crüe, and dozens of other solid hard rock acts.

Even though some of these performances were amazing—think of Geddy Lee’s synthesized atmospherics in the late 1970s Rush albums, or Eddie Van Halen’s remarkable keyboard solo on “Jump”—most fans hated them. Why?

Quite simply, nobody can look cool playing a keyboard.

Thank about it. Unless you’re really, really into Liberace or Harry Connick, you can’t watch a dude at a piano (electronic or otherwise) and say “Wow, that ROCKS!” Even if you are inclined toward enjoying the ivories, no less a source than Elton John has said that playing a piano can never be attractive.

Don’t get me wrong. Some keyboardists have created works of art, even in the rock world. Tony Banks of Genesis, Rick Wakeman of Yes, Keith Emerson of ELP, and Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater have mastered the instrument, giving us musical magic.

But not one of them looks cool while playing. Or ever did.

That’s why I don’t mind when a keyboardist like Tony Banks, for example, becomes a virtual mannequin when Genesis performs live. He plays his half-dozen keyed instruments without any unnecessary motion--or any emotion, for that matter. There’s no swagger, rarely a look at the crowd, almost never even a smile.

It makes for one of the lamest concert performances I’ve ever seen.

And it’s orders of magnitude better than a keyboardist trying to look cool.


At September 09, 2008 11:19 PM, Blogger Barbara(aka Layla) replied to my musings ...

You are right! I never realized it till today. Thanks for enlightening me as always!

At September 10, 2008 7:39 AM, Anonymous LisaBinDaCity replied to my musings ...

I never thought about this but you are right!

Trying to look cool is the lamest thing of all.

At September 10, 2008 9:13 AM, Blogger Perplexio replied to my musings ...

You're right about not looking cool playing keyboards... but you know what's even worse?

The "keytar"-- that just SCREAMS of trying way too hard to look cool.

At September 10, 2008 1:52 PM, Blogger Jessica replied to my musings ...

Great true. :)

At September 10, 2008 2:43 PM, Blogger David Amulet replied to my musings ...

Wow. I thought somebody would play devil's advocate here. Or I guess I should say keyboard's advocate. As long as we agree that the keytar deserves permanent retirement...

At September 10, 2008 7:46 PM, Blogger Zen Wizard replied to my musings ...

The closest anyone ever came to looking cool playing a keyboard was probably Jerry Lee Lewis.

(...and he is the only example I can think of.)

You would think that having Lauren Bacall in her prime sitting on your piano while you are playing it would make you look cool. Guess again.

At September 11, 2008 5:38 AM, Blogger DaBich replied to my musings ...

Cool playing a keyboard? Hell to the naw!
Now, all that hair flying while you're jammin', now THAT'S COOL!
Just gotta love long hair on a guy...

At September 11, 2008 2:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous replied to my musings ...

You so can look cool playing a keyboard. A long time ago there was a band featuring a keyboardist named Keith Emerson. I think the band was called The Nice. During the keyboard solo, Mr. Emerson would attack his keyboard with stilletto daggers. He then jump over the device and start ripping wires out of the back. Sure the sound created was an awful hiss, but watching a guy run around on stage with knives is still pretty freakin' cool.

But most keyboards look really uncool. Track down the video for Journey's (does it really matter which song?) Seperate Ways. In one part, the entire band is seen air-playing their imaginary instruments. If you think air guitar is lame, you haven't seen air-keyboarding.

At September 11, 2008 4:39 PM, Blogger BeckEye replied to my musings ...

Nick Rhodes looked pretty cool. Especially in "The Reflex" video, because he looked like an animatronic, transsexual version of Andy Warhol. That's cool, right?

And I think people hate the Eddie Van Halen solo in "Jump" just for the "not looking cool" reason. Not only does he not look cool, but he looks like a demented anime character. That stupid smile. Ugh.

At September 11, 2008 6:15 PM, Blogger David Amulet replied to my musings ...

ZW: Almost. Not quite, but almost.

Dabich: Hair flying or not, some instruments are cooler than others.

WIGSF: Your Emerson story proves the point. It was the knives and wire-ripping that made that seem cool, not the keyboard receiving said punishment.

Just like guitars weren't cool just because Pete smashed his and Jimi lit his. Destruction and fire (and knives) are cool--regardless of the instrument they are applied to--but whatever you do to the keyboard can't make it cool!

Beckeye: Nope, wrong answer. Try again. Rhodes was not cool when within six feet of the keyboard. Never.

And Dementedanime Van Halen--I like that name.

At September 11, 2008 8:37 PM, Blogger Mike replied to my musings ...

Well, there's two versions of keyboard cool. But both, sadly, aren't in the rock universe. There are the classical guys who can play intricate stuff and wow you, but it doesn't knock you over. The whole "they're so good it makes it look effortless" thing. Then there's the animated, out of control jazz and classical guys. Cool, but in the eccentric type of way.

So in rock we had keyboard maestros trying to make up for a lack of instrument coolness. Howard Jones had some bright hair, most others tried insane clothes, or lights, but none did anything but cal attention to how uncool they were. Steve Winwood was a smart one. Just play and sing, the understated dignity of letting the music itself make the instrument producing it is as cool as it gets. Think Glenn Miller and the trombone. (I happen to play both the trombone and piano/keyboard. Guess how uncool I am...)

At September 11, 2008 11:56 PM, Blogger Phats replied to my musings ...

never got into the metal phase, but the Final Countdown is a Pep band Staple for sure.

I always wanted to be able to play the piano, but I never could oh well.

At September 12, 2008 6:13 AM, Blogger David Amulet replied to my musings ...

Miike: Winwood is another good example to add to Banks. They just play the damn thing and don't try to look cool.

As far as I know, not one of the guys I mentioned also plays the trombone--that's all you!

Phats: That may be a good thing. You'd be one crazy player.

At September 12, 2008 8:09 AM, Blogger Stacy The Peanut Queen replied to my musings ...

Eh, it's all about the BIG hair anyway, right? ;)

At September 12, 2008 1:19 PM, Blogger David Amulet replied to my musings ...

PQ: I can't overlook the horror of "The Final Countdown" because of some big hair.

At September 26, 2008 7:52 PM, Blogger Dr. John replied to my musings ...

You want an animated keyboard player? Did you forget about The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis?

At November 05, 2008 9:50 PM, Blogger Ray Van Horn, Jr. replied to my musings ...

My poor high school girlfriend who was decidedly NOT metal (and still put up with my ass) thought she'd broken the music barriers between us when she called me up and said she loved "The Final Countdown" and that would score favor with me. Poor lass, I spun some Anvil into the phone...

At November 08, 2008 4:27 PM, Blogger pure evyl replied to my musings ...

Jerry Lee Lewis looked cool playing keyboards. There is always an exception that proves the rule.


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