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Article: Cabaret voltaire in Wire Magazine - #215 | Le Tigre | January 2002

The Wire

Cabaret Voltaire

  • Issue #215 (January '02) | Essays
  • By: Ken Hollings | About: Cabaret Voltaire
Decoding Society

Events move faster as they recede from the present. Time collapses. Moments elide. Midway through 2001, in a scarily accurate reconstruction of Manchester's Hacienda club, created for Michael Winterbottom's film on the life and death of Factory Record s' legendary social space, 24 Hour Party People, Richard H Kirk stands gazing at the stage, where two young actors are busy being Cabaret Voltaire for the cameras. Judging by the sparse crowd of kids watching, the scene reflects a moment from Fac 51's earlier existence (the nightclub was assigned its own number in the Factory catalogue), when it was still less of a building than a barely inhabited floor plan, a design waiting to be executed. Back then, Cabaret Voltaire were completely at home in its hedonistic severity. They were actually the first group ever to perform live there, playing the club's opening night on 21 May 1982. Associations and connections have shifted in this historical recreation of the Hac's early days, however. The song that the movie version of Cabaret Voltaire are shown performing is "Sex Money Freaks", a track taken from their 1987 album Code. By the time of its release, the nature of electronic dance music and the people responding to it, especially in the Hacienda, had altered radically. Cabaret Voltaire suddenly found themselves strangers in a strange land they had originally helped uncover, and their reputation suffered accordingly. The innovative and genuinely subversive dance beats Cabaret Voltaire laid down during those missing years between 1982 and 87 have been dropped out of the picture.
Now, with the appearance of Conform To Deform, a four CD box set containing rare and unreleased material predominantly culled from this period, plus The Original Sound Of Sheffield 83-87, a compilation of original Cabs 12" mixes available for the first time, that critical deficit can finally be addressed. A whole squad of studio innovators, including Derrick May, Orbital's Paul and Phil Hartnoll, Tom Rowlands of The Chemical Brothers, and Warp Records founder Steve Beckett, have already come forward to acknowledge Cabaret Voltaire as an influence. "I think we conceptualise after the record has come out," Stephen Mallinder observed to journalist Paul Morley back in November 1980, when the group was still a trio comprising himself, Chris Watson and Richard Kirk, and the Hacienda had yet to be built. "A lot of the things that we've done make a lot more sense after we've done them." Film sets, however authentic, are just the stiff ghosts left by lived experience. As the camera travels across the Hac's fabled dancefloor to where the real Richard H Kirk stands among The Cabs' recreated audience, this is perhaps a good moment to remember that history is only ever rewritten. Nothing is as you left it.
Time was when Cabaret Voltaire's very name stood for the artless chaos that conceals art. As an independent group operating through Rough Trade from 1978-82, 'The Cabs', as they came to be known, conformed pretty well to the stolid pluralities that punk had coalesced into. The NME could even praise them as "an original punk band made good", but the sense of relief that accompanied such an assertion could come a little too close to the surface on occasion. It seemed impossible to write a profile of Kirk, Mallinder and Watson without mentioning how approachable they were, so completely unlike their image as aloof grey manufacturers of musical elitism. If the group came across as friendly and unassuming, their music during this period did not: a bleak expression of overload, distortion and decay, such releases as Voice Of America (1980), the three-part "Sluggin' Fer Jesus" (released on Crepescule 12"s between 1981-83) and Red Mecca (1981) gave noisy celebration to the corruption of meaning: the sound of signals feeding back on themselves.
Cabaret Voltaire had successfully exploited the faultlines opening up in musical form due to the increasing availability of cheap electronic keyboards, rhythm machines and processors, but it was difficult to grasp what that achievement entailed. The subject kept slipping away, partially because the equipment The Cabs were using could not answer for itself. The raw exposed aesthetic of punk, its wilful drive towards demystification, could never fully accommodate the boxes, leads and connections behind modern electronic music. Besides, as Kirk and Mallinder had both come to realise by the time Chris Watson decided to quit the group in 1982, cutting edge sound technology meant dancefloor technology. "The technological breakthroughs and the most radical music," Richard Kirk recalls, "were both coming out of the dance scene." Fancy gizmos like the sequencer, the harmoniser, the Claptrap and the digital delay were all about making funky things to play with, offering the perfect expression of how art and dance were perceived as being mutually exclusive opposites. "Fuck art, let's dance", the T-shirts on sale in Soho's Old Compton Street used to read, but first, they implied, let's make a deal.
When Cabaret Voltaire's The Crackdown came out on Virgin in 1983, it was clear that things had moved on. Kirk had already observed that, with Watson's departure for a full time job as a TV sound recordist, Cabaret Voltaire was "less a group and more like a business partnership" - and they now had the corporate logo to prove it. Designed by 1980s typographic visionary Neville Brody, Cabaret Voltaire's elegant 'CV' chevron meant business. Simple, direct and easily identifiable, it was a sure sign that something had changed. Encouraged by stylish entrepreneurial berserker Stevo, whose company Some Bizzare had mastered the art of the early 1980s music deal, Kirk and Mallinder had refined their strengths, redefined their roles and started to strip back their sound. It was Stevo who offered to broker a contract with Virgin Records that would allow the Cabs access to 24 track recording facilities in London, the services of a good producer and possible crossover into the rapidly growing dance market. He would also come up with the funding CV required to set up their independent video label, Doublevision. All he asked in return was that the vocals, formerly strained and filtered into harsh declamations when run through the desk back at Western Works, The Cabs' home studio in Sheffield, become a little more prominent and a little less processed.
Through such simplicity, however, comes a new diversity. Just as Andy Warhol constantly juggled the geometric relationship of the hammer and sickle in his 1976 series of paintings inspired by the Soviet Union's original brand identity, so Brody reworked the CV insignia into different configurations on The Crackdown's sleeve design. Beneath the bland, impassive authority of the corporate logo, Cabaret Voltaire's spirit of creative disarray was still at work. It was there in the hand-retouched photographic image painter Phil Barnes had supplied for the album's cover. Showing Kirk and Mallinder jointly operating a video camera system, its lines and colour fields have been rendered in a high contrast style, strongly reminiscent of the solarized pictures often used in the late 60s and early 70s to sell all-purpose strangeness to the mainstream. Solarizing a photograph rendered its reality harshly altered, recognisable yet unknowable, preparing the public for everything from The Beatles' psychedelic period to the Switched On Rock collection and Martin Denny's Exotic Moog. It helped reverse perceptions, unseat opinions.
Starting with the skeletal funk of its opening cut "24-24", The Crackdown presents the 1980s as the screwed down oppressive nightmare it actually was, rather than the glossy playground of surplus values fondly remembered by today's media. This is, after all, the decade that brought you AIDS, crack cocaine and the free market economy, although not necessarily in that order. It was also the era in which, as writer Mick Farren later commented, "drugs brought money back and Reagan was elected president and shit went on. In fact, that's the sad part: hippies survived Nixon, but punk caved in to Ronald Reagan, know what I'm saying? Punk couldn't actually take a good challenge."
Perhaps it couldn't deal with the challenge head-on, but it knew how to take that sense of stiff opposition to a different arena. Assisted by drummer Alan Fisch and Soft Cell's Dave Ball, with producer Flood at the desk, The Crackdown's streamlined rhythmic assault lent itself to an emergent culture in which the 12", the mixing desk and the dancefloor had become new platforms of expression. In this respect, Cabaret Voltaire were one of the few groups who understood that going into a club and starting to dance could both be political acts. With its use of edited tapes featuring the voices of black American convicts describing prison experience, its fractured sequencers, harsh electronic handclaps and Mal's seething vocal delivery, "24-24" is a dark reflection of the enclosed technological environment fostered by the Western political economy, where the money markets, data flows and media entertainment were beginning to feed into each other. This was the lightless electronic cage in which humanity, increasingly becoming convinced that it had ceased to exist ideologically, would be forced to occupy (today, we barely even notice the bars).
Free to concentrate upon his vocals in what had evolved into a more formally structured working relationship, Mallinder delivered texts that haunted, nagged and probed at the listener. His urgent whispering became an ambiguous carrier signal, offering a point of contact with an actual flesh and blood performer while simultaneously hinting that all was not well on the streets of Technopolis. "It's just a trick to hold you down", Mal states repeatedly on "Talking Time", while a vocoder chorus swirls around the back of the mix and a synthetic voice remorselessly counts off the track's five minute duration. Through the interplay of those three voices, bringing the artificial, the processed and the real into tense proximity with each other, "Talking Time" was a pioneering slice of electronica, suggesting ways in which studio technology could communicate directly with the dancefloor in a voice that was both alien and familiar. When New York rap act Whodini released "Five Minutes Of Funk" in 1984, blending oppressive electro beats and an arid computer-generated countdown with a searching freestyle lyrical flow, it was clear that someone had been listening.
Chris Watson's departure from the group, together with Stevo's intervention in their business affairs, may have acted as catalysts for CV's redefinition and crossover, but an interest in the possibilities of that change was already establishing itself. Back in 1982, word came from New York that John Robie, who had worked with Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker on the electro funk classic "Planet Rock", was interested in remixing "Yashar", from The Cabs' 2x45 EP on Rough Trade, for possible release on the Tommy Boy label. "I love this track, but you guys don't know what you're doing here," Robie told Kirk and Mallinder. "Let me remix it." Reluctant to have him remodel something from their back catalogue, CV offered Robie two specially recorded tracks to work with, "Diskono" and "Gut Level", which he rejected outright, describing them as "New wave disco" rather than the pared-down dance number he had in mind.
What lay behind Robie's discernment was an awareness of how the 12" format could extend the structures and broaden the dynamics of dance music. After the great vinyl shortages of the mid-70s, resulting in the kind of rigid industry standards that punk had rebelled against, the market was awash with a flood of the stuff. By 1980, records were available in just about every shape, size and colour, but it was the newly popularised 12" single, with its running time of eight to ten minutes, that was the most exciting. As its title suggests, 2x45 was an early experiment in putting this template to use. Through his two remixes of "Yashar", eventually released on Factory, Robie took that experimentation to the next stage. "What Robie did with that track," Kirk explained, "showed us what the possibilities of 12" mixes were. You could strip back the music to its basic elements and it would work better in a club. Maybe some of the early Cabs stuff was just too full, too cluttered, to work properly in clubs, but when you start to strip the clutter away it becomes much more user friendly. It was a big underground dance hit."
The 12" dance mix hinted at luxury and excess, the hi-tech seduction of the club sound system and a lifestyle tailored for people who could either afford to stay up all night or simply didn't have a job worth getting up for next morning. The trouble was finding this kind of material in your local Megastore. Grace Jones came close with her cover of Joy Division's "She's Lost Control"; New Order's "Blue Monday" achieved iconic status; while George Clinton upped the ante with stomping 12" versions of "Atomic Dog" and "Loopzilla" from his Computer Games project, as well as his Sly Stone collaboration on "Hydraulic Pump Squad, Pts 1-3", whose pre-eminence on the dance scene was only curtailed by severe distribution problems. When CV moved to Virgin it was with the firm understanding that they would be allowed to put out 12" remixes of individual album tracks.
The Crackdown was preceded onto the floor by sophisticated dance-oriented mixes of "Fascination" and "Crackdown", two of its standout cuts, released back to back on the same disc. Produced by John Luongo, who had previously worked with The Jacksons, Gladys Night and Blancmange, both of these bass-heavy workouts built confidently upon the smooth, freeflowing structures Flood's careful engineering had revealed in CV's new sound. From the brooding and staccato holding pattern maintained by the bass synth on "Fascination" through to the mournful keyboard call signs at the closing of "Crackdown", Kirk and Mallinder had fashioned a skilful restatement of space, order and purpose. Compared with other compositions on The Crackdown, such as "In The Shadows", which almost seemed to be defining itself as it went along, as if the future were only a few hesitant seconds ahead, it was the 12" releases from this period that capitalised most upon CV's growing sense of rhythmic certainty.
In music, 'crossover' is ultimately a technological issue: finding the right tools for the right job. Certain pieces of studio equipment offer direct access from one set of attitudes to another. The Claptrap, a compressed synthetic version of the handclapping found on every rock or pop record in the mood to party, was also an electro staple. The harmoniser, a means of digitally tweaking an off-key passage, could be used to bend and blend just about anything, allowing New Wave guitar dissonance to exist over the edgy measured flow of the sequencer. Industrial funk, from Throbbing Gristle's last London and San Francisco performances, to A Certain Ratio and 23 Skidoo, was a snap-on reality. Most of these applications stretched sound, allowing them to occupy greater structural space, thereby opening up new musical forms. Precise electronic repetition encouraged a lack of focus, especially in funk and disco tracks, where sounds became increasingly layered, texts more allusive and hypnotic. Similarly Cabaret Voltaire constructed songs that were no more about any one subject than a night spent channel-hopping on TV, tuning through the shortwave radio dial or watching a sequence of advertising hoardings from the window of a speeding car could ever be. "It was more about creating atmosphere," Kirk comments, about their cut-up method of setting voices snatched from the mediascape against Mal's vocals.
With the introduction of the Fairlight Emulator, first used by CV on their 1984 Micro-phonies LP, this complex interplay of words and meanings could be achieved with higher levels of precision. Whereas found material previously had to be edited together on magnetic tape, then dropped into the track with no guarantee of accuracy, its digital rendering could go exactly where it was sent. Context and content were thrown into sharp conflict with each other. A good example of this process was the 12" mix of "Sensoria": originally recorded as part of the Micro-phonies session, it took on a life of its own when refashioned for the dancefloor. Over twitchy nerveless beats, an unidentified speaker offers a series of mushy-mouthed commands: "Always work. Go to church. Respect those in authority over you. Do right. Do right." In a grim reversal of funk's standard commands to get down and party, "Sensoria" presented Redneck America's party line on clean living, lifted from a television documentary on the Ku Klux Klan. Set against it, to deepen the conceptual irony further still, were the chants of Zulu singers. From "Do The Mussolini (Head Kick!)" back in 1978 right through to 1987's "Don't Argue", expressions of negative authority were a Cabaret Voltaire trademark. Offering instructions to some impossibly dangerous dance, they locked step with the state of the nation. "Sensoria" reflected the group's experiences while touring the UK during the 1984 miners' strike. Riot police and official checkpoints were the frontline of a regime that no longer believed in society and had no further use for surplus flesh or the dignity of labour. Dance had become a form of hard work.
It was, however, the video camera, first glimpsed on the cover of The Crackdown, which became CV's key piece of crossover technology. As a cipher for the electronica's unapproachable strangeness, here was a black box adept at explaining itself, whose guerrilla skirmishes with mass telecommunications revolved entirely around questions of demystification. Cabaret Voltaire's Doublevision label - run from a Nottingham address by Paul Smith, who later founded Blast First - offered freedoms hard to appreciate by today's standards. Until the moral panic over video nasties whipped through the industry, releases on tape were free from scrutiny, making free market issues of censorship, classification and copyright largely irrelevant. Cut-ups, hardcore sex and anatomical surgery, audiovisual montage, overlays and pointed juxtaposition were all up for grabs, allowing CV to experiment with various formats including the straight video promo and their own TV Wipeout magazine. The videocassette's longer playing time also offered more scope (CDs still being far from standard issue) for extended musical structures. The frozen ambience of CV's video soundtracks, such as "Automotivation" and "Slow Boat To Thassos" from 1985's Gasoline In Your Eye release, foreshadow Techno's exploration of cinematic dimensions, as does "Lost Possibilities Of Modern Dreams", specifically created to accompany a 1983 sequence of Phil Barnes's paintings captured on videotape.
Even with such compositions as "Doublevision" and "Theme From Earthshaker", a brief musical trailer for an unrealised sci-fi film project, available on vinyl, misunderstandings still occurred. There is a story, for example, that when the first Cabaret Voltaire video, a densely overlaid optical assault, was sent to the relevant executive at Virgin Records, it was immediately returned with an apologetic note saying that the finished product had obviously been damaged during processing, so could they possibly film another one? A cheque was enclosed to cover production costs.
Drinking Gasoline, a 12" EP issued simultaneously with Gasoline In Your Eye, marked Cabaret Voltaire's return to the harsher, more jagged sound of their Western Works studio in Sheffield. With Flood as engineer and producers like Luongo and John 'Tokes' Potoker handling remixes, CV's overall approach to melody and rhythm had been greatly enhanced, but the full extent of this change only became apparent when Kirk and Mallinder took total control of the desk again for their 1985 LP, The Covenant, The Sword And The Arm Of The Lord. Recorded relatively quickly at Western Works, following a protracted stay in the United States, The Covenant... was an impassioned burst of static white noise and a near perfect expression of CV's interventionist aesthetics. Packaged in a Brody-designed sleeve incorporating frames taken from some 8mm footage Kirk and his wife had filmed at a San Francisco shooting range, it was a savage revelation of how the communications media had evolved into a weapons delivery system. Just as Brody's graphics aligned the split semicircles of the Pentax camera lens with the assassin's telescopic crosshairs, so the stabbing aggressive electronics on "L21ST", with its layered bass patterns and nagging synthetic percussion, meshed with a heightened sense of cultural paranoia. Named after a 100-strong Christian survivalist group, whose stockpile of guns and explosives, together with anti-tank missiles and quantities of cyanide intended for the water supply of an unnamed city, had been raided by the FBI in April of that year, The Covenant, The Sword And The Arm Of The Lord was a summation of 1980s dark exotica. A core belief of the CSA was that Western society was facing a 'coming war' brought about by economic collapse, famine and rioting. It was time to take up arms against the Godless pornographers, the anarchist street gangs and the racially inferior that threatened to tear civilization apart. Such views were encouraged by a political system that fostered crisis as means of social control.
Drawing upon the words of American televangelists using the networks as their ministry, Charles Manson being interviewed about his music, an instructor offering targeting advice on the shooting range and a porn star going for the money on "Warm", The Covenant... mapped out the psychic dimensions and increasingly embattled media terrain. In a culture no longer interested in following lines of argument, it obsessively explored the singularities, paradoxes and contradictions of mass communication, forcing information into inadvertently exposing its own inner workings. Adding extra punch to the bruising cyberfunk of "Kickback" and "Whip Blow" was Cabaret Voltaire's recently acquired sampler. Instead of hiring a Fairlight in by the hour, along with its programmer, as on the Micro-phonies sessions, they could now integrate soundbytes and random streams of interference more intimately into each new track. As a consequence the raw intricacies to be discovered on "Golden Haloes" and "The Web" still repay close attention, while in the jarring attack of "I Want You", the words that once formed the basic unit meaning for just about every pop song in existence are skilfully exposed as the utterance of a TV preacher calling his faithful viewers to prayer. At the same time the open dissimulation of digital technology represented a complex moment of transition in which Cabaret Voltaire ran the risk of no longer appearing so strange a proposition. With the recorded sound hoards of the entire world ready to be aped, adapted and plundered, the electronic need not necessarily seem exotic any more. The data storm raging through The Covenant, The Sword And The Arm Of The Lord was clearing the way for a more radically altered order of experience than any survivalist could ever have dreamed of.
The sampler layered and crowded audio data into new densities - it had no choice. In this respect, albums like Public Enemy's 1988 It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Keith LeBlanc's 1986 Major Malfunction were patched into the same circuit board as The Covenant, The Sword And The Arm Of The Lord. One major difference, however, was Kirk and Mallinder's initial hesitancy over sampling other people's grooves for funkier effects. At a fundamental level, Cabaret Voltaire was still a group and maintained a group's interest in producing its own music. But finally, an awareness of how dated their drum machines were going to sound finally caused them to plunder loops and breakbeats as the 1980s started winding to a close. (Reaction times were becoming crucial: even the role of the safety pin as fashion accessory had shifted. Pinned to a black MA1 jacket in a club, it signified that the wearer practised safe sex, as opposed to propagating punk's diseased state.)
By this time, Chicago House, a music created using nothing but electronic media, had already been spreading its message to a growing and enthusiastic congregation since 1985. An exuberant, hi-tempo energy flow, House was a collective embrace that did not rely upon the visibility of its creators to provide a focus. The relative anonymity of Chicago House and Detroit Techno allowed the producer and DJ to refashion themselves as futuristic engineers, the designers and architects of the new metropolis. By contrast, The Covenant... presented Kirk and Mallinder as anchormen for Apocalypse TV, talking straight to camera and speaking in tongues. Even remixed, a track like "The Web", for all its technical daring, was never going to be House. Much of its drive came directly from the clenched frenetic spasm of rock, concerned primarily with the essential business of concentrating effort into motion. House was post-industrial - it replaced work. It didn't crowd in on all sides with activities, in the way that rock and funk would actually instruct you in what dance steps to follow.
At the same time, CV's influence on the growing House scene cannot be overestimated. For many, they still represented what Derrick May has described as "the mystique of what electronic music was supposed to be and how it was supposed to be presented. Everybody from Frankie Knuckles to Ron Hardy, young black DJs in Detroit, and Richie Hawtin, loved Cabaret Voltaire." Cabaret Voltaire knew enough about the technology of dance to meet up with the producers of House and Techno and share ideas.
The crossover was having a different effect on the dancefloor, however. The mutated funk and dance beat dub of the Tackhead/St Che/Gary Clail collective, with Keith LeBlanc and Adrian Sherwood at the controls, was awakening clubbers' interest in what lay beyond electro and HipHop. DJs at the Hacienda were throwing more House into the mix. Ecstasy was in; the awareness boosted by fracture and paranoia was out. "All of a sudden these people were nice and passive," Kirk recalls. "They weren't going out smashing windows and protesting about things any more. They just wanted to party, and things have been going downhill ever since." The haunted urban soul of Cabaret Voltaire's "Don't Argue", the opening track on the 1987 Code album (EMI), suddenly seemed out of place. Using stentorian words of advice lifted from a 1945 US army training film, Your Job In Germany, designed to teach GIs how to behave in occupied territory, "Don't Argue" ran counter to the prevailing mood of loved-up euphoria. "You will not be friendly," commanded this new voice of negative authority. "You will be aloof... watchful... suspicious." Blissed out and ready to hug anything in sight, the Stepford Ravers would have a hard time getting their heads around a message like that. Produced with Adrian Sherwood, Code was a digital deconstruction of modern society that revealed the armed state of siege at its heart. Gun references predominated; viral infections and data panics vibrated through each track. If anyone threw their hands in the air on one of these cuts, it was probably because they had a weapon pointed at them. When muggings started to take place on the Hac's dancefloor, while drug dealers and promoters waved shotguns at each other in muddy fields, it looked like CV had got it about right.
With its tensile funk rhythms clocking in at a crucial few BPMs slower than those favoured by House, Code failed to capture the attention of its home market, despite selling well abroad. Since the album is currently deleted from the EMI/Virgin catalogue, there's nothing left of it now but the remixes, courtesy of Sherwood, Robie and Francois Kervorkian. It's ironic that an album named after the systematic scrambling of meanings, locked up information and locked out access should lose so much when reworked for 12". Kervorkian's previously unreleased mixes of "Sex Money Freaks" demonstrate the same inability to settle into CV's lean and funky groove as his 12" take on "Thank You America", while the sassy female chorus that John Robie slathers across "Don't Argue" in an attempt to make it sound sexy just plain misses the point. The rest, as they say, is history. Or it should be. With their 1992 collection, Technology: Western Re-works, Cabaret Voltaire stripped back their key Virgin recordings further still to reveal their steely ambience to an audience attuned to the artificial intelligence of such labels as Plus 8, R&S and Warp. The electronic sound that Kirk and Mallinder had helped pioneer in the 1980s had made it through to the other side of its own future.

© The Wire 2009

All credits: Wire Magazine

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