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A band with a button-pushing name champions a plucky keyboard

Matthew Guerrieri

On Monday, June 16, Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power — a.k.a. [Expletive] Buttons — play the Brighton Music Hall. Since 2004, the British electronic-music duo has drawn luminous squalls of noise from a deliberately modest miscellany of synthesizers and toys. But one constant in their arsenal tells a survival story: Casiotone keyboards.

Casio’s first keyboard, the Casiotone 201, appeared in 1980, an electronic organ made compact by replacing most of the usual analog circuitry with microchips. The VL-1, released the following year, was a signal success: tiny, battery-powered, but equipped with a basic waveform-plus-envelope sound synthesizer and distinctive auto-rhythm patterns. (A VL-1 is one of [Expletive] Buttons’ staples.) It was also an order of magnitude cheaper than any other keyboard around.

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Casiotones flooded the market from the ’80s into the ’90s: low-cost, portable, and with chirpy, bouncing auto-accompaniments. (The MT-40’s “rock” pattern, used in Wayne Smith’s 1984 “Under Mi Sleng Teng,” became one of the most-used backing rhythms in reggae.) Casio keyboards often made innovations affordably available, most notably the sampling technology of the SK-1 (1985). Still, even as it released higher-end synthesizers (the estimable CZ line), Casios were perceived as toys compared with their competitors.

But, as the millennium turned, their pinpoint-retro sounds became a virtue. Adherents prized their quirkier features: the MT-400v’s slider-controlled resonance filter, the MT-68’s possibilities for wild, chromatic arpeggiation. Their simple architecture proved ideal for circuit-bending, rewiring the electronics to unlock hidden features and sounds; the SK and SA series became favorites for unorthodox modifications. And they remain bargains—almost any Casiotone can be had for less than $100, sometimes much, much less. Their cheapness and ubiquity have, paradoxically, made them special.

Casiotones are favorites at music’s outer limits. Neil Young Cloaca, performing under his Bromp Treb moniker last Tuesday at Café Fixe, included an SK-1 among his hair-trigger network of electronics; The Space Lady (Susan Dietrich), who graced the Boston subway system with her outsider pop in the 1970s and ’80s (and who has recently resumed performing), has never abandoned her favored MT-40. But, even closer to the mainstream, Casiotones can provide a creative spark, a dash of welcome lo-fi unpredictability; while professional instruments, Hung has pointed out, carry “an element of competition with the history of how that instrument should be played,” Casiotones are blank slates, inherently populist, amateur in the best sense.

[Expletive] Buttons perform June 16 at 7 p.m. at the Brighton Music Hall (ages 18 and over; tickets $18.50; 617-779-0140; crossroadspresents.com/brighton-music-hall).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
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