Cabaret Voltaire
Something Strange is Going On in Sheffield Tonight
Sounds - April 15, 1978

by John Savage

Inside the house, an hour to kill before going into town. Hungover. Sit on the sofa and watch TV with the sound off. A tape plays. Flick the channels irritably - the synchonicity doesn't work - until the TV comes to rest at a Disney dog show. Cut in, cut out. Fluctuating reception causes fading patterns in the electronic images. Time passes. No feelings. Blue religion, grey outside. The terrace opposite stops short in the grey air, thick with moisture, revealing vistas of factories, tower blocks, endless tightly patterned semis... Hills in the distance. Sometimes the factories work at night - the noise can be heard in the house, filtering through dreams: dull, percussive, hypnotic.

Cabaret Voltaire - Richard, Mal and Chris - have been working together since 1974. They've played about a dozen gigs in two years, mostly in home town Sheffield. Their first gig ended up with Mal going to hospital; their first London date recently (at the Lyceum, supporting Buzzcocks) ended in a hail of feedback and flying glasses from the new conservatives after four numbers...

"We got together as a mutual interest in sound: it was only later that the idea of gigging came up...'"

Their equipment runs to two synthesisers: one EMS, which is used for treating Chris' voice and organ, the other treats Mal's voice and bass. Richard plays guitar, and occasionally, clarinet. Percussion is provided by a rhythm generator: sometimes live, sometimes prerecorded. Tapes are prerecorded, from any source, and run through various treatments...

"I think we try and do things as immediately as we can. It's a fault in a lot of ways but it's the way we work - we try to be as spontaneous as possible and get down as quick as possible what we're feeling..."

A demo of eight songs recorded last October gives a fair idea of what the results are. Recorded on two track in Chris' attic, it's satisfactory to them as a document of the time, but they could produce better now. Immediate impressions are of haziness and blandness: the songs are short, remote and synthetic. A cool yet harsh throb, slivers of sound slowly edging their way under your skin. Itchy. Few melodies, more a concern with sound as texture, with the possibilities of sound within the instruments themselves.

The synthesisers are used as instruments with tonal qualities of their own rather than to reproduce the sound of another. Nothing remains the same, nothing is as it seems: vocals, more recitations (think of 'The Gift') swim in and out of the mix: instruments appear, collide and fade... They're fascinated, among other things, by Kraftwerk and dub - yet the mix isn't as blatant as that: reference points. The constantly shifting sound, with instruments, random sounds dropping in and out of focus, is reminiscent of dub, the cool repetitious rhythm of German motorik...

'I'll be your mirror/reflect what you are...'

"Repetition's what we work on: that Warhol/Velvets thing - repetition becoming hypnotic..."

Lyric subjects are comments rather than statements. Preoccupations with the random violence and psychosis lying under the bland homogenised facade of our present mesmerisation. The gaps between electronic reproduction - TV/stereos et al - and the reality outside. The things that people do to each other, tortured by the psychic demands made on them.

You can read it in the papers every day. Beneath the superficially bland facade of the music, the cool texture, these are presented obliquely: sometimes you have to strain to hear the deadpan voices say, sometimes it's lost in the shifting mix. 'Capsules', 'Control Addict', 'Loves In Vein', and a version of the Velvets' 'Here She Comes Now' where the original is shattered into fragments, while the fragile beauty is retained...

Frozen, fragmentary, but always the throbbing, synthetic beat... This last makes it difficult to categorise them simply as experimental.

Stripped of such a daunting tag: the insistent pulse beat makes them accessible to anyone who wants to listen: Tesco disco... Avant garde smokescreens can put people off needlessly. The box is in your head... CV don't see themselves as being anything, particularly (except maybe outsiders); they just keep on doing what has been coming naturally, as an extension and reaction to their environment and resources...

"In some ways staying up in Sheffield has helped us, because we've developed at our own pace and how we've wanted to, but in other ways we've not got recognition for what we've ben doing as nobody's known about us, really."

"It's an urban environment. Full stop. I don't think any other city would have produced anything different."

The interview takes place in Chris' attic, the four of us are barely able to fit in between equipment, tapes and stored data. The group are unused to interviews, and are understandably wary of the turning tape and dangling microphone. It's here that they've got the art of recording to a fine art: one corner is filled with taped records of what they've been playing over the last two years...

"We used to come up here, three times a week, say for two hours, and just keep churning ideas and numbers out - all those tapes there. Hundreds of them. About 70% are still valid."

"It's our form of notation. We're that tape-oriented that everything goes on tape for our own use like people write diaries or whatever - tapes are the medium that we work in. I wouldn't say that everything we've got down is great: I think at a certain stage I'd like to go back, not to repeat what we've been doing, but to use some of the ideas that we used perhaps once or twice...

"That's why we recorded them all..."

"If you limit yourself, you can experiment within that scope - to set limitations is always an advantage."

Live, they also use films as a back projection: the success of this depends on sympathetic venues but it indicates their desire to present a total environment...

"We hate the idea of one-dimensional stuff, purely aural..."

"We've got two main performance movies that we use. They're just like barrages of images coming at you: images - some abstract, some figurative, some taken from TV..."

"There's no theme to them, they're just a source of... the latest one has got a 60's French porno movie added into it, which worked out well in Sheffield last time. We'd just begun 'Here She Comes Now' when the porno flick started up..."

The consistency of their bleak vision and their uncompromising execution of it on stage only adds to hostile reactions from those conditioned to expect any performing group to behave in a certain way. Unlike the German groups, they don't celebrate the machines, but rather make clear their dreadful and ambiguous possibilities.

Maybe, in reflecting too closely and too accurately the grey featureless of our electronic privatisation they do too good a job, in an industry working for escapism, to the extent that many people can't take it, like they can't take their own boredom...

'Control Addicts', from the tape, was composed after reading and digesting Burroughs' 'Dead Fingers Talk', futuristic nightmares of total control which may yet be avoidable but the unlikelihood increases every day... another song is 'Do The Mussolini (Headkick)'...

"That was from a piece of newsreel where Mussolini had just been killed off, right, and there's all the peasants standing around, and the corpses on the ground, and some geezer kicking the corpse about..."

Maybe such fascinations, and the intention and meaning of the song could be ambiguous to a wide audience and be misinterpreted with unpleasant results? the group are taken aback, and spend some time in mulling it over...

"We don't try to make clear statements and set ourselves up... People can intrepret it how they want. I suppose though it might my playing with things beyond our control eventually..."

"I don't know what our reaction would be if that were misinterpreted: I suppose if that happened we'd make some statement..."

Right now CV are treading water. Sheffield and their isolation there, once productive, is by now frustrating. Even though they've been coopted into the small yet flourishing (and under-exposed) local scene and the demand is there, places to play are hard to find. They see little point in continuing to develop as fast as they have been as there's no one to hear them.

People's attitudes don't make it easier - the climate is retrogressive. Concurrent revivals. 'In ever decreasing circles'.

Later we all go to see Siouxsie and the Banshees play some 1978 music - their sutided yet liberating movie of provocation and isolation. And good songs, fuck it! A brilliant show to a smattering of applause, while the disco changes gently yet firmly from 'acceptable' punk to computa-disco, as the disco kids got more money...get drunk and sod it...

[All grammatical errors etc are as originally printed]

Digital assistance and credit: Simon Dell

© Sounds, 1978