Cabaret Voltaire
NME, 19th July, 1986

CABARET VOLTAIRE's mix of funk and flicker, of vim and vision, has shot them from grimy old Sheffield to New York's metropolitan Museum Of Modern Art, from homely England to the artistic cathedrals of stainless steel Austria, a country "like the synth break of Gary Numan's 'Cars'!" More victims than victors, reckons DESSA FOX, as she accompanies them on a collision course with the storm-troopers of Art. Linz lens: PETER CARE.

Here in a speckless corner of sunny Austria one bald man looks worried. He's dressed in a dirty vest and trousers, and stands squinting in a mound of cigarette ash by the baggage carousel. He thrusts an enormous poster marked "CABARET VOLTAIRE (SHEFFIELD) SAMSTAG 21 JUNI" at the young people, hoping that one of them will relieve his dilemma and direct him to the English musicians. Perhaps Cabaret Voltaire will look like Van Halen, or Falco.

Richard H. Kirk and Stephen Mallinder walk straight into the 80 degree techno-splendour of Vienna's new Arrival Hall - 3,000 square metres, 500 spotlights, 800 flourescent tubes, 200 fire alarm boxes, 10 loudspeakers and one relieved bald driver - and instinctively realise what is right for the situation, which is to have another drink. Richard takes a deep nip from something in his duty free bag. Mal talks to the driver, who trudges off with the bags to a small van marked WILLYBUS. A sign in the parking lot reads FAHRT, right under the airport shop WANKE.

Meanwhile I'm wondering why there seems to be so many old people here - huge pastel herds of them are wafting around the terminal, like flamingoes in orthopaedic shoes. They move past a man reading a paperback book about Nazis. All those Teutonic faces invite a quick snort of mental hysteria - what were they all doing during the war? That elderly man over there kissing his wife - did he? Was he? What was his rank? I fan myself with the new Face - fashion feature: combat accessories - and vow not to think swinish thoughts. Mal comes up and says, "I wonder what they were all doing during the war then?"

The parts of the party trail to the van - the supernaturally natty Mal, who stays creaseless and alert despite the heat; the motorcycle-booted Richard; tour manager and Doublevision coordinator Paul Smith; drummer Dee Boyle (on loan from Chakk); and the Cabs' longtime accomplice Peter Care, the film director who is more vital to the Cab conception of things than most people realise. I ask Pete how things are going in the world of pop videos. "Well, some of it is really shitty and some of it is really good." I write this down and, since the department of stupid questions is off to such a roaring start, I ask Mal if they've worked out anything special for tomorrow night's performance. "Not really, no."

On the bus I shuffle my factoids: Cabaret Voltaire's most recent releases are Doublevision's twin 12" set 'The Drain Train', comprising 'Menace', 'Electro-Motive', and 'Shakedown (The Whole Thing)'; Cabaret Voltaire have left Virgin; Cabaret Voltaire, as creators of the most beautifully tubercular videos ever made by a pop band, are now welcome to view their work in the Museum Of Modern Art in New York where Sensoria resides among the Warhols. Richard and Mal never, ever, begin sentences with 'As artists we feel that...' or 'Say! Has anybody seen my lifetime pass to the Museum Of Modern Art in New York?', for which you have to love them.

The WILLYBUS has one of those Disneyish fur fetishes hanging from its rear view mirror; as the miles tick over, its twee little corpse sways and drifts past factories, farms, pin-neat villages, and huge tracts of forest, each tree of which looks stuffed and artificially sweetened. From the highway, at least, there is not one deviant leaf or mutant colour to be seen in the entire country. Instead we're treated to a sort of symphony of efficient technologies and disciplined clouds, conducted with all the wit and fire of, say, Gary Numan. If Austria was a sound, it would resemble the synth break in 'Cars'.

Pete is convinced he's being punished for something. Richard is sorry he ever criticised Belgium. Mal doesn't trust any country that sells condoms in restaurants.

The department of stupid questions longs for something provocative to write about. Perhaps Dee will wake up. Perhaps the New Order gossip will start soon. Perhaps Dr. Josef Mengele is alive and well and hitch-hiking around the corner in a dusty suit. He'll ride with us and gravely listen to Yello tapes ('I love you'. 'I know').

It gets dark outside.

According to the book that brought us here, Linz, Austria, is a 'vital town' in the centre of 'a dynamic economic area'. This introduction can be found in the massive, deeply expensive Ars Electronica catalogue, a prototype of which was sent to the Cabs in January. The revised edition lists Cabaret Voltaire as the special guests of the fifth annual Ars Electronica festival of Art, Technology, and Society in Linz, with the Sheffield experimentalists performing the hour long 'A Contemplation Of Dangerous Games' in the great hall of the Brucknerhaus tomorrow evening. The festival is eight days long and looks impressively heady: 34 artists/groups have been invited from nine countries, each of whom are famous for bringing a certain tang to technology.

The catalogue is tough going; I can only understand every 16th word. Most of the artists' statements and almost all of the descriptions are incomprehensible. Tom Wolfe (in The Painted Word) was right: when art becomes more and more ambiguous, its criticism becomes more and more crapulous. In the art world the wordsmiths have taken over the asylum, creating the kind of situation where pages and pages of syphilitic prose are devoted to a single dot on a video screen.

Pete arrives and gives me a detective novel. I stick with the catalogue, which is much more criminal. I discover 'cultural confrontation' and 'transformative reception', two buzzphrases hugely popular in the technology essays. As far as I can make out, this means that the festival organisers, like advertisers, want you to go for the experience; ideally, Joe and Jane Public should be able to stand in front of a computer terminal and overdose on ga-ga modernism (technology! the bomb! numb sex!).

Tomorrow, a man from a TV station will say to Richard, "Do you think the computer will start a new form of civilisation?" Patiently, Richard will reply, "It already has..."

Mal's story about technology goes like this: "When we were recording in Japan we used this great studio in the Sony building. One day my Walkman stopped working, and a little later Mr Sony himself dropped in. Someone pointed out my broken Walkman to him and he insisted on repairing it. So the next day he comes by, gives me the Walkman - which is all polished up - and says, 'Mr Mallinder, we have examined this machine very carefully for several hours. I apologise profusely, but your batteries are flat'."

At noon the next day Dee Boyle is sitting at a gingham-covered table overlooking the Danube. Richard, Mal, Pete, and Paul have gone off for a soundcheck, which leaves two journalists and Dee. The man from the local radio station adjusts his microphone.

"Are Chakk the great hope of English music?"
"Well, um, people are always looking for something..."
"What do you think of New Order?"
"99 per cent of the people in England don't know what they look like, which I think is a good thing".
"Is five or six minutes the ideal length for a track?"
"That depends I guess"
"What is the name of the new LP?"
"It's called 'Ten Days In An Elevator'".
"Why is this? Explain please."
"It's a bit hard to describe, but it's about feeling confined".

Down on the grass a little kid is trying to club a daschund with a cornetto. Neither of these look like Cabaret Voltaire fans; in fact there seem to be few Cabaret Voltaire fans in this neighborhood altogether. It's eight hours 'til concert time and the only remotely Voltish object we've seen is a spiney umbrella under a bush, which bleats "Morrissey, Morrissey, do you know Morrissey?" every time we go near it.

Back at our tables a group of American performance artists wearing stetsons and cowboy boots get up and announce that there's no drugs in this goddamn town, so whaddya say we go over and check out the Art? The Art, as it turns out, is thataway, bleeping and feedbacking not 50 yards from the hotel in the Brucknerhaus, an enormous glass building.

Every western nation that possesses disposable wealth and a cultural conscience builds one Brucknerhaus per city. England, being poor, has perhaps two in total, from which the glass panes keep falling off; the United States, not having a cultural conscience, keeps all its glitter galleries in Manhatten, where they throw lots of parties. Canada, on the other hand - also Netherlands, France, Italy, and Germany, especially Germany - is positively studded with the things. They all look the same: mid '70s construction, plenty of steel and glass, plus the architects dream date, 'multi-media' interiors. There's always a bookstore, a little caff with art magazines positioned beside the cutlery, an invisible warren of middle-aged bureaucrats, and several overweeningly hip and blase art school trendies sitting at little kiosks. These people let drip one pitying glance as you enter; your shoes are uncool.

There is also lots of empty space, acres of it. For paintings. For sculpture. For video installations. For music. The heroes of this world are as follows: Brian Eno, Brian Eno, Joseph Beuys, Joseph Beuys, and, on a rainy day, William Burroughs. These three are invincibly photogenic. I look at Burroughs' picture in the Brucknerhaus bookstore and wonder what would have happened to him if he'd been born looking like Jasper Carrot.

On the way upstairs Pete and I pass some komputercultur displays, which consist of one communications link-up that doesn't seem to be working (catalogue blurb: 'participation in the world is no longer passive but interactive'), four empty booths containing video monitors stuttering madly to themselves, one long strip of metal that makes funny noises when you wave your hands in front of it ("A bit like one of our concerts", offers Mal), and a single very good installation that's tricked up like an undersea cave, with sand and rocks framing electronic pictures of skin divers. It becomes increasingly apparent that we're not in England; no one has put their cigarettes out in the sand.

I count 19 people in the building, most of whom are in the bookstore buying paperbacks that predict the death of reading. A thunderstorm starts outside. Pete shows me a sketch of the stage: "Behind the band is a 25 foot screen, and the idea is to have six series of images playing on it at once. There'll be two 16-millimetre reels of cut-ups projected at the top, two videotapes at the bottom, and two smaller super-8 sequences going on at the side."

At the words 'cut-ups' I get nervous; over the last couple of years the band has been criticised for failing to go beyond their own brand of diced distress. Certainly the early videos were a world first; the crosshairs of anxiety were never so perfectly deadly. But it's been several years now, and we all get careless - does anyone want to see marching armies anymore or views of brain surgery?

"You have to ask Richard and Mal about that."

I do: Richard says, "Our videos are the way we see things", which is difficult to argue with. Pete continues: "With cut-ups I think it's gone beyond the question of old hat or not. It's part of the vocabulary of things now."

Thirty minutes left 'til 'A Contemplation Of Dangerous Games' and Mal and I are looking out the window backstage. One week ago I would have said that there is nothing more boring than a bunch of samey fans dressed in black leather; this evening I would sell my grandmother for one buckle, zip, or depraved sleeve. One SPK press release, even.

Who are all these people? A smiling stream of suburbanites are trickling through the rosebushes: well dressed, holding hands, anxious to experience electronic music. It's a nightmare of niceness; bands are always saying they want to reach people who don't listen to the indie charts, and here they are. They're here in Stepford, Austria, and slowly filling up the Brucknerhaus. Our hearts leap as a promising haircut comes into view; but no, it's only a Cult fan who's lost his way. We watch as he staggers uncertainly into the traffic.

The show goes on, and it is somehow irretrievably bland. Everyone does their best, but the band is simply engulfed in a 2000-seat infirmary of pale, polished wood, pale, polished fixtures, and a doughy civilty that persists even after the lights go down.

When I last saw the Cabs perform - in Sheffield - all the little monstrosities of English life helped to make them necessary, from the cheap plush in the bar to the ragged dancing to the mystery holes in the carpet. Tonight they're under glass, being examined for signs of picturesque English decadence. The audience have that unmistakable filling-in-the-catagories look about the forehead: Cabaret Voltaire As Evidence Of Post-Industrial Decline, Cabaret Voltaire As Exponents Of British Humour, Cabaret Voltaire As The Electro-Children Of Dada. It's embarrassing; not being English myself, I used to try this stuff on all the time.

On the last day we find ourselves with a 360 degree view of the city, which looks exactly like the slide in my pink keychain TV. We're on the roof of the Brucknerhaus and Pete is taking pictures of Richard and Mal. From up here, Linz seems to be made of only three materials, all of them immaculate: trees, concrete, and old stone. With the exception of the cathedrals, the city looks like it was born yesterday. Which probably makes sound political sense; if you erase the sites of war, you erase the memories of war. Kurt Waldheim was elected President of Austria on June 8. As today's International Herald Tribune notes, the chances of uncovering wartime evidence demonstrating his complicity in the mass deportations of Greek Jews are now roughly nil; the issue is 'buried'.

But that was then; this is Art. A camera crew from the Austrian cultural channel joins us on the roof. The interviewer keeps trying to steer Richard and Mal into the regions of art theory; very probably this man has few friends in Sheffield.

The cameras roll. "What is the main idea behind Cabaret Voltaire?" the interviewer begins. (Mal, later: "God! What a question!")

Mal, now: "The easiest way to describe what we do is to say we use what's available. When we first started we used tape recorders. Now we have Emulators. But we still can't play."

The interviewer is uncomfortable with the idea of famous musicians unable to play. He smiles. Of course - they must be minamilists. Mal is swift: "You mean Lamonte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, people like that? No, sorry."

The session stalls slightly when Richard says film is better than video: it has more potential for abuse. Abuse?

Finally, the motherlode: "Cabaret Voltaire is a name of course derived from the Zuric group of Dadaists. Could you state your specific influences?"

Richard takes a drink. Mal is firm: "We saw an affinity in that movement, but we're not fixed about it".

"What about Kurt Schwitters?" the interviewer parries, recrossing his legs. "I was interested in graphics myself, in art school..."

Finally they go away. "It's like Mastermind around here,"mutters Richard.

Mal looks over the edge of the roof. "You know what the difference between East Berlin and Linz is? The Austrians have a little more neon".

Digital assistance and credit: Bev Painter

© NME, 1986