How to work the electronics shift at Sheffield's reality mill and still turn out joyful and danceable, Paul Morley explains, Pennie Smith reflects.
Catch a train into the dark depths of the North again. Flee the wonderland. A million miles away from London town, the conditioning centre where all is lost, into the hills and the drizzle and the places where 'rock'n'roll' doesn't have quite such a death grip.
I am on a journey to demystify and mythologise: to dispel the tedious untruths that clog up Cabaret Voltaire, that turn them into ugly monsters, and replace them with the plain truths, and turn them into sleek heroes.
As the train rolls into ghostly Sheffield, a profound greyness descends. Grey - the colour of The City, the colour of depression.
Imagine a musical soundtrack for a November Sheffield, for a decaying symbol of crumbling capitalism, for the lonely hearts and lost hopes of the city dwellers, for reason ...imagine the turbulent, tense, obsessive Cabaret Voltaire sound. An integration and aggregation of stern rhythm, rigid sound, unexpected noises, ghostly bumps, news reels, snatches of conversation, screams, wails, unspecified signals ... a sound of our times. The sound for our times.
The room is cluttered up with audio and video tape equipment, papers, chairs, electric fires, the three Cabaret Voltaire men and the interviewer. Posters and bits of paper cover up the bare walls. Everyone's smiling! We're talking about the stereotype that dictates a group such as Cabaret Voltaire are all groan, grim and despair ... "Maybe it's just the way we are. Maybe we're really grim people."
They're not. They can be serious now and then ... "Maybe we have that image because we're not an over-escapist band." They laugh at the thought of people imagining them to be dour and difficult. "I feel so grim" one of them bursts out in mock horror. "Well just look out there."
He points out of the solitary window at a small square of Sheffield. Doomy, heavy clouds ganging up, a fine sheet of drizzle, jagged corners of derelict buildings. "If you lived here you'd be grim." As grim as Amos Brearley.
Sheffield is grey: a grey place full of greyness, frayed but friendly. Cabaret Voltaire make a grey music. But it's not just grey. It's also red - the colour of anger. It's black and blue and purple. It's elating and disturbing. It's one hell of a response. It's not rock'n'roll the way the London leeches still want rock'n'roll to be: light, frothy, frisky, bland, controllable. It reinterprets past pop to fit the times and contemporary predicament. It doesn't wish to cover up flaws, it rips away the covers. It's close to being the most natural culmination in rock, a progression from Chuck Berry accounting for the rock musics that have emerged since James Brown, Velvet Underground, Sex Pistols, Faust, Can, Joy Division. It's an active pop music that hugs experience and isn't stuck in fantasy or the past or an idealised present or a make-believe future or the middle of nowhere.
The definition of rock'n'roll has not changed with the times. Rock'n'roll shouldn't describe a sound, but an attitude, a feeling. "Rock'n'roll is not about regurgitating Chuck Berry riffs, rock'n'roll is breaking traditions, attacking the establishment, and we're more in that vein than most groups who consider themselves to be rock."
Cabaret Voltaire make a desperate music. It's a music of gestures, shock, a constant enquiry into the nature of things. Cabaret Voltaire is '80s pop music like the Velvets were late '60s pop music. They churn up the emotions like the Stones must have in those '60 years, they blast aside surrounding mediocrity and banality like the Sex Pistols did. They don't reject the attraction and attractiveness of rock and pop, don't want to drown into the coarse new underground. They have to avoid manipulating and being manipulated.
Cabaret Voltaire are probably Malcolm McLaren's depressing, soppy frowns in heavy great coats, yet in a perverse way they're both on the same side. Both want to cut up the establishment, mock and disrupt. Cabaret Voltaire want to bring a freshness, excitement and spontaneity back to live shows, and they refuse to exploit fashionable grimness. "We don't play that up at all, like some bands ... We're just here. What did McLaren say? The war poet look! That was quite funny. In a way we are going about the same sort of thing, but in different ways. With us it boils down to being more realistic."
They also painstakingly stay clear of any hype. They don't boast about being modern thinkers, playing the most outrageously modern music. They just get on with it. It's not that teenagers couldn't relate to Cabaret Voltaire; simply that Cabaret Voltaire aren't allowed through the dense blanket of propaganda. These days, music like theirs is denied its natural audience. Too many idiots with old fashioned, stubborn, over-smiley ideas stand in the way, running music papers, the record companies, the TV and radio stations. In a way, Cabaret Voltaire scare the controllers by refusing to negotiate the expected curves and corridors of the pop fantasy, by advancing, alarming, even by working so independently.
Cabaret Voltaire are entertainers and wouldn't mock the word. But they also confront, decipher, dissect the problems of their times. They want their music to be something special, but not unapproachable or inaccessible. They think it more indulgent to borrow blandly from the past and sing about your girlfriend than to violently cut up the past and sing of boredom, chance, despair, violence, isolation. Their music captures the confusion of a generation. It stimulates and generates like all great music and is concerned with more things than just being a one dimensional means to a career success end.
Cabaret Voltaire's music is grey. But it's not just grey. It's as important to it's time as Joy Division's. No words, no radio DJs, no hyped up pseudo-moderns, should be allowed to get in its way.
The room is one part of Cabaret Voltaire's Western Works recording studio. The interview has just begun, and we're talking about the working situation and environment of the group.
Watson: "We had a strange conversation with our accountant yesterday. He was talking to us about the possibility of the group forming a limited company, and saying you need to be earning about £50,000 a year gross to actually justify it for tax reasons, but he was sure that in the next 12 months something big was going to happen. It was quite difficult to explain to him that we weren't anticipating that, that that wasn't what we were trying to do. Because he thought, as we were a rock group ... well obviously one record was going to do it, and then we were going to be in business moneywise. We had to explain that it was more a steady progression than an explosion and TV adverts and world tours..."
Kirk: "You get your 15 minutes and then everybody forgets."
Mallinder: "That's intrinsic in what we've done, that the idea of being an overnight success is totally opposite to what we want. We've never had a masterplan, never really known what we would be doing in the next 12 months. The whole thing is that we've been able to bring records out and communicate something, that is quite an end in itself. It's not part of a plan. I don't know that we've got any idea what we're going to do in the next six months. I don't want to know really."
Cabaret Voltaire are at the station to meet the writer and photographer. It's the first NME piece on the group for two and a half years, but it's not that they won't talk. "A lot of the things we do tend to get glossed over. We'll talk to anyone. We do loads of interviews with fanzines."
Christopher R. Watson (electronics, tapes) Richard H. Kirk (guitar, wind instruments), Stephen 'Mal' Mallinder (bass, electronic percussion, lead vocals) are receptive, informative, even talkative, and have no pretence that to speak freely will destroy some vague mystery about their music. "We never go overboard to sell ourselves, though." They are impressively down to earth about what they do: see it as part of something, not 'the' something. I ask them if they think their music is important.
"First and foremost it's important to me," answers Watson. "It's important to my life and, if you like, that's enough. It is important to me, so I'm the person who's got to answer for it. It's something that I truly believe in, if that's not such a gross statement to make."
"I think it's important to me," decides Kirk, "to be creative in one way or another. If I couldn't release my emotions in a creative way I'd probably go and kill someone or something. Everybody's got something to let out."
Watson: "In some ways it's like animal urges. You've got to get it out. It's fortunate for me that I've found two people to work with who have similar feelings. That's it. I don't think it needs any more justification than that ... if you can go and make records and sell them and earn money then that's even better."
"But it's not simply a case of making records and making money," adds Mallinder, "there's also the thing that people do relate to us, because I think that the feelings in Cabaret Voltaire are within a lot of people."
The group are not scruffy. They dress well, care about their appearance. Watson and Kirk have disconcertingly pronounced Yorkshire accents. The three are close friends. Because of media ignorance, it often appears that the group are inactive. Out of choice, they don't often tour. They like every show they perform to be different, and see no point in disappearing into a touring routine. But they're just back from a short visit to America, and not long ago toured Europe, reaping the benefits of an audience uncontaminated by media propaganda.
"It may appear that we do little, but we probably work as hard or harder than any other band. We work six days a week, it's just that we put our energies into things that people don't regard as being normal for a group. Whereas most groups fit into a pattern the way they work, we don't strictly fit into that pattern. But we work hard."
Through Rough Trade's new American operations, Cabaret Voltaire played five shows in San Fransisco and Los Angeles. "It was definitely worthwhile," they say. "We played to nearly a thousand in San Fransisco, on the same night as Talking Heads, which is pretty good, 'cos we were headlining...not so sure about the people who came, it was a case of playing to a thousand bombed out of their head lunatics. But we even made a bit of money."
For all their independence - because of their independence - the group live well, almost to the point of leisure. Whilst contemporaries are trapped by record company deadlines, managerial limitations and almost have to beg for pocket money, Kirk, Watson and Mallinder have carefully reached a state where they're totally in control and make enough money to more than exist. They limit themselves to £45 a week each, and turn all their royalties back into buying equipment. Their eight track studio is primitive but eminently functional. They received a £3,000 advance for their last LP 'The Voice Of America', and talk of being due £10,000 royalties. This doesn't make them rich, but they owe nothing to anybody. Most groups signed to labels are forever in debt - groups more commercially successful than Cabaret Voltaire.
Voltaire are supreme examples of post-punk enterprise. An original punk group made good. Lack of greed and patience have set them in an enviable position. There is no pandering to an imaginery audience, no hurrying and harrying for success. They have no manager, although Buzzcocks/New Hormones' Richard Boon and Joy Division/Factory's Rob Gretton occasionally help, and Rough Trade co-ordinate from London. It is a classically un-rock'n'roll way of working. In many ways they exist on the periphery of New Hormones and Factory (Mal has recently produced the excellent Eric Random New Hormones 12", and recently they all did some exploratory work with New Order at Western Works) but are embedded in the grubby Rough Trade manor: which has neither the style of Factory nor the (he)art of New Hormones.
Mallinder: "I think one thing we've got in relation to a lot of groups is that we still work on the principle
of repetition. It's intrinsic to our music, and a lot of people connect with that. Repetition has got an annoyance
factor, but it's also got an hypnotic factor that appeals to people on a gut level. It may not be a traditional
form of repetition,
but it is repetition..."
Kirk: "I think repetition is used in all music anyway, western or eastern, it's a key factor, no matter what."
Do you theorise about your music?
Kirk: "In odd ways."
Not like Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
Mallinder: "No, we try to be very spontaneous, because that's the way people listen to music. We try to be as immediate as possible, and not just try out some all engrossing philosophy and concept. I think music always falls flat if you conceptualise about it too much."
Watson: "I think there's a lot of music where the ideas are more interesting than the end product."
Mallinder: "I think we conceptualise after the record has come out. A lot of the things that we've done make a lot more sense after we've done them. Once they're recorded I can maybe look at them in a theoretical light..."
Making music that deals with oppression and repression, it's easy for that music to be oppressive and therefore useless.
Mallinder: "I think we avoid that. We like music that doesn't just shock but also appeals, and I think our music can appeal. I think it's quite easy to get into. There is humour in our music, it's not a joke, but that's part of it. I can't see how something like 'Obsession' is grim or a song of impending doom..."
Kirk: " I think we proved that when we played in Europe. A lot of people didn't understand the lyrics but there was a lot of people out there dancing and enjoying it. They're not conditioned to act in a particular way to Cabaret Voltaire."
Cabaret Voltaire live at the moment is very much 'an experience'.
Mallinder: "Hopefully it is. We're working towards that. But we've got to be aware of taking it too far and taking away the simplicity. We like to keep it crude and basic, and if it begins to get slick, that's the time to move on. The light show we use, and the slides, I don't think they're particularly grim! I think they're quite funny really..."
I had great difficulty explaining to non-believers how much your last London show was dance music, and about the kids dancing on the stage at the end...
Kirk: "Actually I was surprised by that!"
Mallinder: "The fact people won't believe what we're like live sums it up...people won't find out for themselves."
Are people scared of Cabaret Voltaire?
Kirk: "I hope so! I hope they respect us, not so much scared..."
Not intimidated, but frightened of the themes and intensity of Voltaire attack.
Mallinder: "I think yes, because that's something they've got to get to terms with. Not so much with us, but with things that they shy away from in everyday life. And if they shy away from us, they're shying away from those things. Our music particularly antagonises them in that way, because they're totally conditioned into believing music is just entertainment, music is just fun... That's it, you use the term 'grim', but the thing is, grim is an emotion, and I think if you take it to that very basic level, our music is emotional."
You've never felt a need to move towards an audience?
Mallinder: "I think it's a two way thing. I don't think we would ever go to an audience to the extent of pandering to them, to give an audience what it expects of us. But I think it's a natural progression: you move in a way that communicates a lot more and, through time, the audience you're trying to reach has gradually become more open. The audience gradually move towards you and you move towards an audience."
Watson: " It would be very nice for us to have a record in the top ten, but we can't actually play! We're not very competent musicians."
Mallinder: "Maybe that's what Cabaret Voltaire is all about...three people who've spent seven years trying to play and still can't do it. Maybe that's where our appeal lies. But I'd love a top ten hit!"
Kirk: "As long as it was on our own terms. As long as we didn't put out this really slick single, really well packaged, just for the sake of it - we just couldn't go through with that."
Watson: "We've always been interested in the facetious side of contradictions, and it would be quite funny if we had a hit single. It would be bloody funny! Cabaret Voltaire in the charts, taking it back to what Cabaret Voltaire were originally, that would be hilarious."
Cabaret Voltaire have worked together since 1973. "We had no intentions of playing live when we got together. We simply got together in an intense but elusive way and made tapes in a little loft, listened to them ourselves, and literally just experimented with ideas."
Their first live performance was on May 13th, 1975.
Watson: "We conned our way on to the bill. It was an organisation called Science For The People who had a disco every week at Sheffield University, and they were looking for something to liven it up, and I happened to be working with one of the organisers, and he said 'hey you're in a group, can you play rock music?' So I said 'yeah, sure, anything you like, and he said 'great, we'll get you on half way through the disco.' We were advertised as rock and electronic music. It's hard to give you an idea of what was going on. We had like a tape loop of a recording of a steamhammer as percussion, and Richard was playing clarinet with a rubberised jacket on it covered with flashing fairylights, and it just ended with the audience invading the stage and beating us up."
Kirk: "A lot of people who came were our friends, but a lot of people got really pissed off and it got really violent. We were lucky lots of people we knew were there, otherwise we would have been dead."
Watson: "Mal fell off the stage and broke a bone in his back, the equipment was smashed...Richard was using his clarinet as a club."
Mallinder: "That was the only thing that stopped it, Richard flinging his guitar into the audience."
Watson: "I think to be fair that did actually incite a lot of people, Richard throwing his guitar into the audience. I don't think that helped calm people down. The organisers came on stage, nearly in tears, shouting 'for fucks sake get off the stage, you've ruined our reputation, we're totally discredited.' They weren't allowed to use the University for any purpose again."
Punk's arrival briefly opened things up for the group. General expectations of what a group should be were momentarily broken up. Punk actually left certain areas where a self-consciously experimental group like Cabaret Voltaire could work. It became easier for Cabaret Voltaire to play live. More people became involved in putting on shows that audaciously opposed the old traditions of rock.
"Which is why we conned our way into things. When we played at that time people expected us to be the Sheffield Sex Pistols. The thing is that basically we tried to do the same thing as punk originally in that we did specifically go out to upset people, and to provoke reactions, although our intentions were different from punk. But that climate enabled us to work live more, and eventually to make a record."
Before their first record, they recorded an extremely limited edition of cassettes - 20 to 30 - sending them to
every record label in the country. "We got rejection slips from every one." Cassettes sent to more aware
and interested individuals did stir the first, perhaps most positive, Voltaire publicity. Jon Savage, then at Sounds,
loudly in the paper to the group's aggressive, ambitious collage technique. At the time it proved the power of the cassette communication. "Although that's been bastardised, just like the synthesiser has."
Do they consider themselves an important symbol of the possibilities of using electronic equipment distinctively and productively, and of being non-musicians making coherent statements through sound?
"I hope so. We seem to inspire people to go out and do things for themselves. We get a lot of tapes from people, some are appaling, some are good. Geoff Travis at Rough Trade says that each week they get tapes of 10 or 12 Falls, and 10 or 12 Cabaret Voltaires. That'll never work though, because whatever it is we do, good or bad, it is Cabaret Voltaire, and that can never be equalled."
After a first single on Rough Trade, they played one of the four opening shows at Manchester's The Factory. The Peter Saville designed black and white poster for their October 28th 1978 performance with Joy Division and The Tiller Boys (Eric Random and, on that day, Peter Shelley) is Fac 1. From this they appeared on Fac 2 - The Factory Sampler - with two flawed, fluid pieces, 'Baader-Meinhof' and 'Sex In Secret'.
"It would have been nice in some ways to have stayed with Factory. We didn't know what we were going to do at that time. We wanted to do an album though and Rough Trade asked us. It's quite popular to knock Rough Trade at the moment, but basically I don't think we'd be better off with anybody else. The people within the organisation are certainly okay, and we're able to do things with other people - we're doing a single for Benelux in Belgium, and a tape for Industrial."
Cabaret Voltaire make their music unlike anyone else. They don't fuss over it. They layer and construct, striving
to re-capture a primitive language that cuts through to the heart of matters. They tell stories that have no middle,
no end and odd beginnings. The moving and discomforting 'The Voice Of America' proved that Cabaret Voltaire are
much more than elitist doodlers. They are saying something to us. Something that is different and deranged.
It doesn't fit in for most people. It's the way they're brought up. It's who brings them up. Cabaret Voltaire are out to clarify, not confuse. The Voltaire process is like keeping a diary. Their records are thoughts, essays, jottings, expressions of feeling, transmissions of understanding. It's product and it's not product.
'The Voice Of America' is a challenging, struggling, fascinating development upon the musics of The Velvet Underground and Faust, a radical hybrid of pop economy and avant-garde freedom. Cabaret Voltaire have matured their sound so that it is one of the most unsettling and effective distortions of pop music: that is parody and paean, violent and vivid.
Kirk: "I should hope we reflect what's going on around us. In a way we're like journalists, we're taking things in and reporting in different ways...this is going on, what are you going to do about it?"
Mallinder: "I don't think we shun away from anything. We don't shun away from politics, from sex, from anything, but we don't try and put our views forward in an overbearing way. We comment, let people make their own minds up, and I think that is more realistic than most things."
What themes are there running through 'The Voice Of America'?
Kirk: "Oppression, control, the general state of what's happening in a lot of western countries. It's always been happening, it's happening in Britain right now, especially under this government."
Watson: "I think the main theme running through 'America' is control used as a weapon, and, if you like, it's a question of bringing thoughts like that into people's minds. The idea that you are under so much control, that is ignored to a large extent."
You think it's important that you make these comments, drop these hints?
Watson: "I think it's part of our job actually, going back to that rock'n'roll thing. We've got the facilities through this recording studio, and we've got the access to distribution..."
Mallinder: "People seem to think that music that contains the themes we're dealing with is self-indulgent, but I think it's far more indulgent to sing about your girl friends..."
You readily associate yourselves with 'rock' - some would imagine that you would want to associate with the 'avant-garde'.
Kirk: "When we started we had a load of tape recorders and we could have gone two ways. We would have gone the Philip Glass way, like you say, the intellectual theorising way, but we chose to buy electric guitars as well."
Mallinder: "If we had tried to go the Glass/Stockhausen way, that would have been really pretentious. The thing is, we've grown up on Tamla, ska, James Brown, pop music, you name it, and really all that is the basis of what we do even though we try and break it up a lot. It's just that we don't want to listen to that music and regurgitate it straightforwardly."
Watson: "That's not to say that people like John Cage and Maurice Kagel haven't had interesting ideas, but it's the ideas that are interesting, not the music."
But you wouldn't admit to any intellectualisation?
Kirk: "Well, yes and no. There are certain levels...I wouldn't like people to think all we do is sit around and theorise, because that's not true".
Mallinder: "You learn all the time and you educate yourself. Any avant-garde music we've picked up on is a secondary thing, and we realised the parallels between them and us, but it hasn't been a conscious decision where our music is supposed to parallel that. We've only realised it in retrospect, and in retrospect we've come to appreciate people like Cage."
And that appreciation has enabled you to break up pop noise in interesting ways?
Mallinder: "You realise that music isn't simply making noises on guitars and drums and whatever. It's a reflection of a hell of a lot of your environment, social conditions, economic structures, and although I don't think we put too much of an emphasis on that in our music, you realise how much music is a reflection of the times you live in. You can't take the music away as a little entity, a little satellite, it relates very much to politics, to social strata, and everything. You can say music's wonderful, but it's not 'just' wonderful. It relates to everything that's happening. I think our music appeals on different levels and in different circumstances. I don't think music should solely satisfy one feeling, one emotion, I don't think you can listen to it and react in a certain, set way. There should be a whole cross section of people who can listen to it."
Catch a train back to the wonderland. Cabaret Voltaire's industry seems a million miles away. They get on with their job. "When you consider how much money is ploughed into the industry, and how much is spent conditioning people if you like, then there's no way that we're going to alter that ourselves. I think you've got to accept that. Maybe we've lost. There's no way we're going to break all that, but at least we feel we've knocked a dent into it. I think we've helped. It's not just our responsibility though. It's up to everybody who's interested."
A room with a disturbing view. This is entertainment, this is fun. It's a show business. It's a little bit more. A sound for our times. The sound of our times. I want to hear it more than just anything else. Where does it fit in? Anywhere...Celebration and damnation, determination and reconciliation. Dance in the new fashioned way.
This is my Cabaret Voltaire. It should be yours. Their music is great. But it's not just great.
Digital assistance and credit: Simon Dell
© NME, 1980