'Dated' is often an unhelpfully broad term, but there is really no other way of describing the time in 1980 when The Shadows discofied 'Riders in the Sky:
I actually love this version. I'm a sucker for Hank Marvin's twanging guitars and the funky backing track is addictively bouncy. Still, viewed from the lofty perspective of 2023, this performance of the song seems positively antediluvian. But even in 1980 it was fairly incongruous: The perma-grins, so common in early rock and roll, were starting to look jarring; and the disco beat (complete with Linn drums) was a few years behind the cutting edge.
What's really fascinating about this video, though, is that it seems to contain the seeds of its own critique: Look again and you will see a keyboard player in the background. He is never the focus of the shot but his threads and hair remind me of the mythical hipster. He looks uncomfortable, barely bothering to pretend to mime. In fact, I'm not entirely sure there is a keyboard part on the song, or if there is, it's pretty subtle.
So who is this man?
According to Wikipedia, Cliff Hall played keyboards for the shadows from 1977-1990. I couldn't find a photo of him from 1980, but this is what he looks like now:
It's very hard to connect this man to the hipster in the 1980 video and we can't assume that it actually is him (since Cliff Hall was a session musician who was much in demand, it's possible that the hipster may just have joined the Shadows temporarily).
Really though, it doesn't matter too much who the hipster keyboard player actually was. In fact, the mystery of his identity and the difficulty in even finding a clear shot of him is precisely the point: For many guitar bands, the keyboard player is a highly ambivalent figure, not fully accepted as an integral part of the group. Often, it is not entirely clear what they are doing in the band at all.
I remember watching a live performance from Thin Lizzy as a kid. I spent most of it wondering what the keyboard player - situated right at the back of the stage and never the focus of close-ups - was actually adding to the sound. He seemed inaudible. I rewatched the video recently (it’s from 1983) and I agree with my younger self that, a lot of the time he seems redundant. He is spotlighted for the following solo on 'Thunder and Lightning' but the keyboard sound is so similar to a guitar sound that you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a guitar solo:
The name of the keyboard player is Darren Wharton, and his apparently marginality in the video is even odder when you consider he co-wrote much of the Thunder and Lightning album.
A more recent example of the marginal keyboard player is the band Muse. They are a three-piece band whose lavish sound cannot be reproduced live without extra musicians. For most of their history, the band has included Morgan Nicholls in their touring lineup. A brilliant musician himself, I remember him from his virtuoso bass playing that elevated early 90s indie band The Senseless Things way above the mundane. Once a theatrical focus of attention, today you can find him near the back of the stage. When Muse shows are filmed, you encounter him in brief tracking shots of the stage; blink and you miss him. So I was grateful that one fan compiled those transitory moments of Morgan in a compilation video:
I have always been fascinated by the on-stage politics of rock bands. A few years back, I suggested that the phenomenon of the 'superfluous percussionist' would be well worth writing a book about. Superficially, it seems that the marginal keyboard player is cut from the same cloth as the superfluous percussionist. But I think that, at least some of the time, there is a major difference: Superfluous percussionists, as I define them, are decadent accoutrements to bloated touring lineups. No disrespect to Julia Thornton, live percussionist for Roxy Music in recent years and an amazing multi-instrumentalist, but the band doesn't really need her and she appears to spend much of her time theatrically waving a tambourine:
Whereas the superfluous percussionist is unnecessary but highly visible, the marginal keyboard player is needed but invisible. It may be ambivalence about this need that leads to the core members of the band hiding the keyboard player away and (as in Thin Lizzy) smothering their sound. The felt need for something more is somehow shameful. Rock mythology, in its purer forms, requires that the band is a gang, closed off to outsiders; it also disdains 'inauthentic' sounds other than guitar, bass, drums and vocals. And while rock has incorporated keyboard sounds for decades, the ambivalence about doing so may endure.
[As an aside, one of the many revelations of the Get Back documentary was that when The Beatles welcomed the keyboard player Billy Preston into the band, it helped them get over a musical and personal block. Yet Preston is almost completely invisible in the rooftop concert, even though he is crucial to the sound on 'Don't let me down'. If The Beatles had not split up and if they had toured again, would Preston have been excised from the band?]
Despite rockist resistance to the keyboard, it is interesting to note that metal - supposedly one of the main bastions of rockist ideology - has, in recent years, proved much more welcoming. There was a time when keyboards were anathema in most metal sub-genres; those days are, if not gone completely, then certainly receding in the rear-view mirror. An exhaustive history of metal keyboards awaits writing and I'm not going to even attempt it here. What's interesting is not just that you can find keyboards in a wide variety of metal bands and sub-genres, as well as keyboard players as full members of metal bands, but that more recently they are starting to claim their place at the front of the stage.
In metal, the keytar is a machine that liberates keyboard players. Although keytars have been around for decades, it's only much more recently that their potential has been recognised. Christopher Bowes, vocalist of Alestorm, wields a keytar at live shows (not linking - if you know why, you know why). Dragonforce may be a band built around endless guitar solos but their live shows often feature touring keyboardists stepping out front to join in the party:
Janne Björkroth, keytarist for Battle Beast, is not only a full member of the band, in performance he almost comes across like another guitarist:
My interest in marginal keyboard players doesn't stem from love of keyboard sounds (sometimes I enjoy them, sometimes I don't, it really depends on the song and the artist). Rather, I am interested in bands as social worlds, where complex political negotiations take place over who can be part of them, who can be audible and who can be visible. There is much more to say here but I will leave it for another time....
Thanks for reading A Curious Miscellany! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Really enjoyed this piece!
My old punk band back in the day had a keyboard player, and he always had to set up at the back or the side at gigs. We also used the venue's piano if available (with a telephone mic inside to distort it horribly) which further restricted his positioning!
There weren't many keyboard players in punk - Dave Greenfield of course, Una Baines and Yvonne Paulette in The Fall, but our favourite was Barry Andrews in the early XTC who was right upfront, whose keyboard had all the circuit boards exposed and looked positively dangerous!
Pink Floyd's Rick Wright was never featured up front stage. Chuck Leavell was always off to the side with the Allman Brothers and Rolling Stones. Strange. Anyway, great piece.