Sheffield. While it is a great city – and a place I am happy to call home – it has a tendency towards self-congratulatory behaviour that can often border on the bewildering. Drawings and paintings of ‘local heroes’ fill pubs, shops and art galleries, as the album artworks of resident bands often adorns the walls too – no strain of consistency to be found via genre, timeframe or seemingly even quality, the only link being their home of Sheffield. Jon ‘Reverend’ McClure (of the god-awful Reverend and the Makers) even has a beer made and named after him by a local, and very successful, brewery.
Within part of the city’s culture a sort of hopeless veneration exists. An underlying mantra can be found ruminating through everything from on-the-street attitudes to gushing local magazine content – ‘if it’s from Sheffield, it’s great’, which, aside from being grossly false, is also misshapen and unrepresentative. And while there appears to be no limit to the appreciation a bottle of Henderson’s Relish can inspire amongst the city’s inhabitants and artists, the celebration of true innovation and culture shaping art, as crafted by the likes of Cabaret Voltaire, bafflingly pales in appreciative comparison. Like (nearly) all truly great acts and cultural movements to emerge from the city, Cabaret Voltaire succeeded – and as a result cemented their history as a celebrated ‘Sheffield institution’ – by looking beyond their immediate environment and by creating something that would expand and soar, forcing people from outside the city to look in and take note, not by endlessly applauding what already exists in front of their eyes in some kind of bizarre ‘we’re geographically proximate’ celebration circle jerk.
Cabaret Voltaire, or ‘The Cabs’ as they have affectionately became known, were not only innovators in the city of Sheffield, however. Looking back almost forty years since they formed, it’s apparent how frighteningly ahead of their time they truly were – something Richard H. Kirk will soon tell me was almost to their detriment. The group worked in a startling array of genres, but even more startling was their consistent success in being pioneers within each genre, fusing them to create sounds that varied from charged terror to wonky grooves, taking in everything from post-punk, EBM, dub, funk, punk, house, techno, pop, industrial, synth-pop and acid house.
When Djing fairly recently, I played ‘Nag Nag Nag’ by Cabaret Voltaire, a song I had not heard in some time. I had only just started DJing that night; it was early in the evening and the place was quiet, nobody on the dance-floor. I pushed play and the record was so brutal it fizzed and sparked with menace. It had taken on a crude, sharp, malevolent life in the years since I had played it. A man, around 50 or so, appeared from nowhere and stood on the dance floor, positioning himself perfectly in between the speakers. I turned it up. He stood there silently, almost still. His eyes locked, almost glazed over with an eerie, icy glare. He rocked gently back and forth, nodding his head in a trance. He did this for the entire duration of the song until it sputtered out it in prolonged, drill-like intensity. The song stopped, he quietly turned to me, smiled softly and walked away, never to be seen again all night.
While I had been reenergised and transformed by the static, hissing, monstrous power of a song I hadn’t heard in a couple of years, it was very possible that this man was hearing it for the first time in 30 years and it looked like it sent him to another planet. To many, and perhaps more so to the unfamiliar, ‘Nag Nag Nag’ will remain the song that the Cabs are best known for, released on Rough Trade (RT018) in 1979. The song is a bag-over-your-head-and-thrown-in-the-back-of-a-van journey, it seethes with tension and anger, a back and forth punching match with ensconced-rhythm and pop undertones in one corner and flat-out experimentation set out to destroy song structure and conventional texture in the other. ‘No sound shall go untreated’ was an early day motto of the group. But ‘Nag Nag Nag’ really was just the beginning of their journey, their head-butt opening to the world.
This early day period of Cabaret Voltaire consisted of Richard H. Kirk, Chris Watson and Stephen Mallinder. Kirk tells me of the group’s early years, which often involved them walking into pubs with a tape machine blaring strange noises to bemused drinkers. “There was about five or six people involved before it became Cabaret Voltaire,” he says. “I knocked about with some older lads and that’s how I got to know Chris. We were all just fans of Roxy Music and Bowie and Brian Eno, we’d been into all the glam-rock stuff. We did do stupid, mad things. The first concert we ever played, in 1975, just kicked off; people were so disturbed by what we were doing, they attacked us and there was a big fight. We were just into provocation.
“We were almost like punks before punks were doing it. It was partly as a result of a lot of things we were interested in such as the Dada movement, which was an artistic movement that was anti-war and its whole purpose was to destroy the art that had gone before it. Basically, to wind people up and I think we took that on board. And being 17, we were like ‘yeaaah’, wanting to make these really mad noises that had nothing to do with music really – I’d rather people do that than stand there gawping and be bored. That was part of it, it was part of the art as far as I’m concerned; confrontation. We always used to get really, really drunk before we played, so it didn’t matter if there was a free for all. That night it kicked off because – I don’t know why I did it, I was drunk – I threw my guitar at the audience and I think that’s when it went off. Someone said I was hitting people with my clarinet, I don’t remember that but it might well be true.”
That night Mallinder ended up hospitalised and, depending on which source you read, this was either as a result of falling off the stage or by having something thrown at him so violently it chipped a bone in his back.
Many, and some might say slightly clichéd, comparisons have been drawn to early Cabaret Voltaire and the rich period of industry their home of Sheffield underwent during this time. The mechanical rhythms of factories, the earth-shattering clanks of the steel forges and the rattles and crunches of the coal mines finding their way onto, and into, the grooves of the bands’ records. “You could hear things in the night,” Kirk tells me. “If you couldn’t sleep, you could hear things coming up from the valley where all the industry was, but I don’t think for a minute anyone said ‘let’s try and make some music that sounds like a factory’. I mean Chris lived out in Totley, there’s no industry out there, you’re practically in the countryside, out in Derbyshire. Maybe subconsciously there’s something going on there – you do something and there might be the realisation afterwards that it sounds like industrial noise – but it was more after the fact. People took the industrial thing from Throbbing Gristle – their slogan was ‘Industrial music for industrial people’ – and I think people put two and two together and made five with us because Sheffield was known for industry at that time. We never said that about ourselves; we actually described what we did in those days as ‘experimental pop music’.”
Aside from the aforementioned Dadaism and a love for the surgical experimentations of William Burroughs’ and Brion Gysin’s ‘cut up’ style, Kirk offers some more influences that cut a more accurate kerf. “A lot of people forget that Cabaret Voltaire was influenced by what a lot of people used to call ‘black music’,” he says, “dance music in those days – people like James Brown, Miles Davis and Fela Kuti. At the same time we were very influenced by the German’s, Kraftwerk, Neu! and Can, but a lot of the influences were Afro-American. People forget, we used to go clubbing in the ’70s in Sheffield and you’d just be dancing to all this funk and stuff; to me that was as important as listening to Stockhausen or Brian Eno or European Avant-Garde music. Rhythms were always as important as repetition.”
The Cabs stayed with Rough Trade until 1982 releasing four excellent, subversive and challenging LPs – ‘Mix Up’ (1979), ‘The Voice of America’ (1980), ‘Red Mecca’ (1981) and ‘2×45’ (1982). Chris Watson also departed that year, marking a new period of re-evaluation and experimentation for the band. “I think [Chris] just got a bit fed up playing keyboards,” says Kirk. “He was mainly interested in recording and sound and I think maybe we were getting a bit too musical anyway. With our last record with him, ‘2×45’, that was almost dance music in some form. He just turned up one day and said he’d been offered a job with Tyne Tees as a sound recordist and he was going to do that. Obviously we were fed up and pissed off because he was great. It was really sad to lose him.”
The Cabs, wanting greater exposure and feeling they had hit a ceiling with Rough Trade, they sought greater distribution and commercial success by signing to Virgin. Kirk says: “We got really restless. We’d been with Rough Trade a few years and it was all starting to get a bit safe. We sold a reasonable amount of records, but it seemed that we could never get beyond that. We would never get any radio play apart from John Peel and a few other people – we just wanted to get through to some more people. We didn’t move to a big label because we wanted loads of cash – which we didn’t get anyway because most of it went on recording and equipment – that wasn’t the motivation.
“A cynical person would say that we’d sold out but we’d done quite a lot of difficult music and we were just getting more and more into dance music. We thought we can move forward and maybe make it more accessible to people and maybe make it work in clubs – that’s what we thought would be the way forward and to a certain extent it worked.”
This next chapter in Cabaret Voltaire’s career is being lovingly documented by Mute on an upcoming, rather stunning looking box-set, ‘#8385 (Collected Works 1983-1985)’, a six CD/four vinyl and two DVD set, out on 4 November. It takes in studio albums ‘The Crackdown’ (1983), ‘Micro-Phonies’ (1984), ‘Drinking Gasoline’ (1985) and ‘The Covenant, The Sword and the Arm of the Lord’ (1985) in what was to become a rich period for the band, flirting with mainstream success but moving forward with a surge of momentum and experimentation that in many senses eclipsed that of early Cabs.
“We didn’t really know what the bloody hell we were going to do. We had one and a half ideas for tracks,” says Kirk, but that soon changed. “We booked into Trident Studios and loaded up a hire car of stuff from our studio and I think within four days we’d written the entire ‘Crackdown’ album.” During this period they worked with Flood, a then little known engineer who had worked on a handful of records (including New Order’s ‘Movement’). “We were lucky that we got to work with Flood, he was a great engineer. He almost became a third member during that period,” Kirk recalls.
While Cabaret Voltaire’s attempt to reach a wider audience worked – ‘The Crackdown’ charted at a career high of 31 – it did so with no compromise. For an album that represents their commercial peak, it’s still one coated in icy, bleak tonality and fractured by discordant cadences. Cabaret Voltaire always feel so coiled, like they are sitting on a volcanic pile of something. Even on the pop delights of ‘Animation’ or ‘Just Fascination’ from ‘The Crackdown’, something unnerving is always brooding underneath. But it’s also fucking irresistible; it has a glorious, seditious sleaze to it and it’s a credit to the ears stuck on the heads of the people of 1983 that such a genuinely experimental pop record broke through. But most of all, thirty years along the line – and the same goes for all of these reissues – it still feels so taut, punchy and tense, refreshingly free from a date-stamp, production fads or time-specific technological affiliations.
“I don’t think we even thought about what was going to be happening next week, let alone 30 years into the future,” says Kirk. “Perhaps it’s because we didn’t know anything about conventional recording; we had our own way of working so it’s bound to come out a bit wonky compared to what someone like Howard Jones might have been doing, and because we co-produced everything with Flood we didn’t have a producer – if we’d have had some high-profile producer we may have been even more commercially successful, but we’d have had someone else’s vision stamped upon what we were trying to do.”
While in 1983 Cabaret Voltaire may have been enjoying their relative success, the tone of optimism had shifted drastically in their hometown of Sheffield. “Sheffield was a vibrant place,” Kirk remembers. “I mean, it was always pretty grim because it got hammered in the war and in the ’70s when I was growing up there were still bomb damaged buildings that had just been left from the Second World War, but it was kind of prosperous and there wasn’t that much unemployment but that changed.
“I remember the miners’ strikes in 1983 and I remember mass unemployment. There was something like 19% unemployment in Sheffield at that time, so we were getting a kicking from Thatcher. We’d be playing shows around this period in Sheffield and be getting stopped by the police because there were all these roadblocks and checkpoints. It was really almost like a civil war.”
In six months Cabaret Voltaire went from ‘Micro-Phonies’ to ‘Drinking Gasoline’, the former containing an almost hit single in ‘Sensoria’, a delectable creation of synth-pop splendour as alluring as it was inventive, while the latter experimented with the 12” single format and the album (or EP), containing four slabs of industrial techno funk that was as unrelentingly charged and focused as its predecessor is mind-blowingly crafted.
By the time they reach ‘The Covenant, The Sword and the Arm of the Lord’ only another six months after ‘Drinking Gasoline’ Cabaret Voltaire had put out all three records in 13 months, a remarkable feat considering the achievements they laid down. “We spent a month in America in ’85,” Kirk tells me. “We did a tour but it was only something like 8 days. Because we would go for it when we played live – I’m not going to start naming the illegal substances that we took but you can use your imagination, it was the ’80s – we used to have to have a few days off to recover from partying and stuff and we got a week off at the end in New York and I think that tour shaped ‘The Covenant…’.
While it’s undeniably a record that might twitch with the 4am paranoia and raging, restless adrenaline of someone pumping themselves full of marching powder in a hotel room flicking endlessly through U.S. cable stations, ‘The Covenant…’ is far from being a coke-washout record, rather it’s a glistening coke-high. It’s all fireworks, spasmodic ignitions of beats and pulses. But it’s not afraid to succumb to ambience field recordings and the austere, much of which is drenched in the gun-crazy, god-fearing U.S.A of the 1980s. It was in many senses the living embodiment of the decade while also acting as its living converse.
“I think musically we got overtaken at that period,” says Kirk of the band’s next move, 1987’s ‘Code’, recorded for the enormous EMI. “I think we were playing stuff that was quite kind of funk tempo, but everything from that period-on became 120bpm and that’s what they wanted in clubs. I think at that time when we signed with EMI I suggested going to Chicago and working with people there that were doing house music but I got vetoed. We did actually do that for the next album we made, ‘The Groovy, Laid Back and Nasty’ , which I think by that time was too dated, things had moved on.
“It was a great experience but I don’t think we made a great record. If we’d have made that record in ’87 it might have been quite a different matter, but I think people had just got fed up with us by that point, maybe thinking we’d sold out by going with EMI, but musically we hadn’t, it was still quite tough and challenging. The musical climate had changed a lot, people were loved up and didn’t want to hear about someone being shot with a gun or something.”
While Cabaret Voltaire didn’t end there (they carried on until 1994) it seems fitting to end it here, and not just because it’s in line with November’s reissues. It’s the natural conclusion that Richard Kirk and I arrive at in our conversation and it brings closure to a decade that Cabaret Voltaire always seemed to be too far ahead of to be an inclusive part of. As Kirk concludes and reflects,“ I think we were more than one step ahead, without wanting to blow my own trumpet. We were ahead of our game and it always happens – people who are innovators or get there first never make the financial success out of it; it’s people who come along and take your ideas and adapt them and commercialise them.
“We did okay with record sales, we had one top 40 album, but that was our first, we didn’t have one before that or one after it. The radio never played us and that was the key back then. If Radio 1 didn’t play your single, chances were you weren’t going to amount to much. Daytime radio was so important. The other thing that used to get on my nerves was when we were making videos and they always used to say ‘you can’t put that in there because it won’t get shown on Saturday mornings kid’s TV’ and I was like ‘that’s not the fucking market we’re aiming at’. But a lot of them were just blinkered, thinking they could fit a square peg into a round hole and it was never going to happen with Cabaret Voltaire.”