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Cabaret Voltaire

Along with Manchester’s THROBBING GRISTLE, Sheffield’s industrial post-punk pioneers CABARET VOLTAIRE were the protagonists of the English flank of the genre, not a million miles away from New York’s SUICIDE, taking in slices of the kraut-rock movement; a whole new techno/acid-house followed in Mallinder and Kirk’s musical wake. Experimental innovators from their kaleidoscopic Rough Trade releases (early singles and EPs a must-have in any collection), the Cabs peaked in the mid-80s when their menacing and tribal rhythms underpinned the head-swirling strips that made up ground-breaking albums, The Crackdown and Micro-Phonies.
Formed in the steel-town of Sheffield, in 1974, the trio of Stephen Mallinder (vocals, electronics, bass, guitar, etc.), Richard H. Kirk (guitar, wind instruments) and Chris Watson (electronics, tapes) named themselves after the avant-garde Parisian Dadaist performances of pre-1920s France. A farcical 1975 debut gig saw them using a backing tape of a steamhammer as Kirk played clarinet; his jacket was also covered in fairy lights(!), while the whole set up did not go down well with a rioting pre-punk audience who proceeded to beat him up!
Inspired initially by the likes of CAN and BRIAN ENO, the Cabs contributed two songs (one of them, `Baader Meinhof’, was nearly chosen as their debut 45!) to a 1978 various artists double EP, “A Factory Sampler”, before they signed to Geoff Travis’ fledgling independent operation, Rough Trade Records. Later that year, the trio unleashed their debut release, `Extended Play’, a 4-track EP that included their industrial mangling of The VELVET UNDERGROUND’s `Here She Comes Now’, alongside the blip-tastic `Do The Mussolini (Head Kick)’, `Talk Over’ and `The Set Up’ – subliminal classics all.
A worthy follow-up, `Nag Nag Nag’, fused electronic sonics with the yobbish rush of adrenaline-fuelled post-punk to devastating effect. 1979 also saw the release of their debut long-player, “MIX-UP” {*6}, a pivotal experimental affair which, although marking out new territory, was a challenging listen beginning to end. Developed no doubt by listening to SUICIDE and outside the gates of nearby steel factories, `Kirlian Photograph’ opened their “CAN” of worms, while follow-on cosmic cut, `No Escape’, was unearthed from SKY SAXON and The SEEDS. Flights of fanciful Farfisa organ, dints of detached duels, CABARET VOLTAIRE were only clear with `On Every Other Street’, `Expect Nothing’ and the cell-crunching `Fourth Shot’.
On the back of another seminal single, `Silent Command’, an untimely concert LP LIVE AT THE Y.M.C.A. 27.10.79 (1980) {*6} and a krautrock-addled `Three Mantras’ EP (which comprised two 20-minute `Western’ and `Eastern’ mantras!), the decade kicked-off as CABARET VOLTAIRE ploughed their own idiosyncratic furrow on sophomore studio set, THE VOICE OF AMERICA (1980) {*4}. Twiddling knobs to a pitch that could deafen dogs and the hard of hearing, the Cabs were criticised for their bleak-house de-construction of anything resembling commercialisation. From start to finish there was no let-up or compromise, only in snippets was their bedsitter audience allowed to sign in to their polyrhythms and barren beats; examples `Kneel To The Boss’ and `Obsession’.
Utilising guest drummer Haydn Boyes-Weston (ex-2.3) until Nick Allday came on board for RED MECCA (1981) {*7}, the Cabs had been astute at concentrating on exclusive singles fodder; 1980’s `Seconds Too Late’ and `Sluggin’ Fer Jesus’ (from a Belgian “Crepuscule” EP release), were favourites among fans as much as the aforementioned set. In reference to the looming Afghanistan crisis and the taking of American hostages in Iran, ages before the eventual outcome(s), the No.1 indie album sliced away the bruising edges of its predecessors by way of `Spread The Virus’, `Sly Doubt’ and the 10-minute `A Thousand Ways’.
A limited-edition C-60 cassette, LIVE AT THE LYCEUM (1981) {*6}, maintained their appeal beyond the pale, while singles `Jazz The Glass’ 7-inch (b/w `Burnt To The Ground’) and `Eddie’s Out’ 12-inch (b/w `Walls Of Jericho’), lived up to the Cabs’ reputation for the obscure and the oblique. Disguised as The Pressure Company for the “Live In Sheffield 19 Jan 82” EP for Solidarity Records, three cuts (`War Of Nerves (T.E.S.)’, `Wait And Shuffle’ and `Get Out Of My Face’) featured in outstanding form on CABARET VOLTAIRE’s enterprising modest Top 100 chart breakthrough, 2X45 (1982) {*7}. Exactly as it suggested on the tin, two times 45 vinyl represented the trio’s most Middle Eastern mantra-addled track yet, the glorious `Yashar’. Featuring Alan Fish (of HULA) on drums and percussion, plus guest guitarist Eric Random, the voice-over samples and gritty vox for once, complemented the cogs-on-the-wheel instrumentation on the triumvirate of dirges from that brief Solidarity period. The German and US-only HAI! (1982) {*6} wrapped up their time at Rough Trade and closed a chapter for CABARET VOLTAIRE, as Watson moved on to form The HAFLER TRIO.
Retaining Fish and roping in guest keyboardist Dave Ball (from SOFT CELL), the Some Bizzare connection – intertwined with Virgin Records – was underway for Mallinder and Kirk’s body-poppin’ approach to their fifth album. The duo’s avant-garde inaccessibility now taking on a more commercial hue courtesy of THE CRACKDOWN (1983) {*9} – a record that just about took them into the Top 30 – they incorporating elements of Eastern exotica et al. Dance-floor friendly with less instrumentation than anything they’d recorded to date (bar the bass), tracks such as opener `24-24’, a one-that-got-away single `Just Fascination’, the mind-bending `Animation’ (their greatest 5 minutes ever!), the pulsating `Over And Over’ and `Why Kill Time (When You Can Kill Yourself)’, were high on the rhythmic expertise of kraut-rock CAN and crafty cousins CLOCKDVA. Ironically, the more overtly pop approach of SOFT CELL and their ilk (DEPECHE MODE, HUMAN LEAGUE and OMD), led to the more adventurous Cabs being squeezed out of the market. The punishingly poor soundtrack to the Peter Care-directed short, JOHNNY YES NO (1983) {*4}, probably didn’t help their cause much.
CABARET VOLTAIRE did, however, maintain a loyal if not massive following, who stuck by them through a series of lesser mid-80s albums, kicking off with 1984’s MICRO-PHONIES {*8}. Almost “The Crackdown” part 2, separated at birth by some sympathetic production values from Flood (alias Mark Ellis), the crunching combination of feisty funk and explosive electro, propelled the beats of `Do Right’, `James Brown’, `Spies In The Wires’ and the superb `Sensoria’.
A formula resting on the shoulders of 2×12”-inch mini-set, DRINKING GASOLINE (1985) {*6} – four 8-minute tracks spearheaded by `Kino’ – walked into the shadows of the dance scene and a million miles from the burgeoning indie world that the Cabs had once inspired.
Appearing after only a matter of months, THE COVENANT, THE SWORD AND THE ARM OF THE LORD (1985) {*6}, was in need of a hit single, and `I Want You’ was not its saviour, despite its close call to other recent Cabs tracks. Entitled “The Arm Of The Lord” in America, as not to be seen to condone a radical right-wing organisation, somehow their attractively preachy combinations got lost in the vinyl’s grooves.
Yet another guest drummer, Dee Boyle (of CHAAK) was invited into the fore on `The Drain Train’ – issued for DoubleVision – and it marked a bit of time before Parlophone/EMI came in from the cold to hire Adrian Sherwood to co-produce C.O.D.E. (1987) {*7}. Not a major seller by any stretch of the imagination, the album did host their first single hit, `Don’t Argue’; a minor one nevertheless and an American dance-floor fave around the clubs. `Here To Go’, `Sex, Money, Freaks’ and `Trouble (Won’t Stop)’, all committed to the enterprising techno-dance scene and, in `Thank You America’, the Cabs were dipping into the market feet first.
Since 1983, both STEPHEN MALLINDER and RICHARD H. KIRK had moonlighted with various side projects, the former releasing a solo album, `Pow-Wow’, the latter far more prolific in his output with `Black Jesus Voice’ (1986), but not necessarily the pick of the bunch.
The late 80s house scene, meanwhile, saw CABARET VOLTAIRE cited as a prominent influence on many of the genre’s prime movers; the result was a creative renaissance of sorts which led to a remix by Pete Waterman for the `Keep On’ minor hit, while Chicago house producer Marshall Jefferson took over the controls on the comeback set, GROOVY, LAIDBACK AND NASTY (1990) {*6}. Despite this uncharacteristic dalliance with the mainstream, the Cabs slipped back into semi-obscurity with their former Belgian label, Les Disques Du Crepuscule releasing a couple of low-profile sets: BODY AND SOUL (1991) {*5}, PERCUSSION FORCE (1991) {*5}. In an attempt to resurrect some beats from the previous decade (`Soul Vine (70 Billion People)’ a prime example), CABARET VOLTAIRE were now full-on house for 1992’s PLASTICITY {*5}. Alienating fans from the crucial halcyon days, their insistence to keep this acid-electro motor running by way of INTERNATIONAL LANGUAGE (1993) {*6} and THE CONVERSATION (1994) {*5}, put paid to further fascination from their now fickle fanbase. When MALLINDER de-camped to Australia and KIRK continuing in his plight to rifle through CV re-masters and tracks from the vaults, it looked more than likely than the duo would remain solo artists. But as they say, never say never.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2015

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