Words by Jess Ralph
They are the band that showed a newly formed New Order that it was possible to make music without guitars. Depeche Mode cites them as an influence, as does Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. David J, bassist of Bauhaus, says the band “ one of the few post punk bands on the scene at the time who we related to.” Add to that, pretty much every musical outfit that has emerged since the early 80’s with a dark, abrasive, and danceable electronic sound.
Cabaret Voltaire- the Zurich Café and epicentre of Dadaism that inspired the name.
Cabaret Voltaire were pioneers of industrial music, blending surrealist experimentation with the DIY ethos of punk and a reverence for the sonic tech geekery of Brian Eno to create – along with Throbbing Gristle- a new genre of music. They formed in the early Seventies in the fittingly brutalist landscape of Sheffield in England’s industrial north, original members Chris Watson and Richard H. Kirk. The band’s name is taken from the cafe in Zurich that was the epicentre of the Dadaist art movement at the turn of the century; the movements aesthetic philosophies of absurdism and structural nihilism greatly influenced the bands approach to creating music, particularly their employment of the William Burroughs’ approved ‘cut-up’ technique, which they used to splice, loop and piece together tape recordings to make “sound collages” and unusual song structures. Stephen Mallinder joined the band in ‘73 to provide bass guitar and vocals, helping Cabaret Voltaire’s sound avoid the pretentious pitfalls of “being too arty and obscure”. Instead, much like other electronic pioneers Kraftwerk, they explored the futurist sensibilities of the cold toned, melodic man machine, tapping into the period’s strange mix of techno-optimism and techno-fatalism, exasperated by the backdrop of cold war paranoia.
The band’s early days consisted of – not the usual grubby climb of the gig circuit- but staging provocative, situationist style exposure to their experimentations with the tape machine, leaving recordings of their music in public toilets and driving round the town centre blasting their new material from a stereo on top of a friends van “just to see the reaction they would get”. Cabaret Voltaire did eventually start doing live performances, often sharing the bill with Joy Division. Oh, and if you were wondering what reaction from the public the group’s situationist exploits got, the answer is a strong one- one incident in ‘75 saw Mallinder hospitalised with a chipped backbone after the audience started hurling objects at a band.
From Zurich to Sheffield
As punk ruptured towards the end of the decade, broadening pop’s musical language and the public appetite for weirder, more caustic sounds, Cabaret Voltaire began to find an audience, and further, recognition. They signed to Rough Trade in ‘78 – turning down Factory Records and Throbbing Gristle’s offer to join their label, Industrial Records, on account of Rough Trade swinging the deal by giving the band a Revox tape machine in advance- releasing their breakthrough single, the bratty and reverb heavy ‘Nag, Nag, Nag’ (which subsequently sold 10,000 copies) and critically acclaimed albums ‘The Voice Of America’ and ‘Red Mecca’ in 1980. The group’s recordings at the time were made at ‘Western Works,’ a ramshackle studio (and site of the former meeting place of the Sheffield Federation of Young Socialists) Watson had financed. Dubbed “ Warhol’s factory on a fifty pence budget” by Kirk, the studio also produced some of the earliest recordings from The Human League, New Order and EBM pioneers Clock DVA.
Image courtesy of Pete Hill
In the wake of Watson leaving the band in ‘81, Cabaret Voltaire left Rough Trade for the Virgin affiliated Some Bizarre Records (also home to Soft Cell, The The and Depeche Mode), and subsequently began pursuing a more commercial and dance orientated sound. Their 1982 12” single “Yashar” , mixed by New York electro producer John Robbie (who was introduced to the group by New Order’s Bernard Summer) became an underground club hit, as did the menacing funk track “Just Fascination”; taken from their 1983 album “The Crackdown”, which was rated as one of NME’s best albums of the year and marked the group’s first (and only) entering of the UK charts. 1984’s “Micro-Phonies” saw Cabaret Voltaire further embrace new wave’s synth-pop sound, spawning the singles “James Brown” and “Sensoria”- the latter’s music video, an unsettlingly brutalist glitch full of surreal and satirised catholic symbolism, directed by fellow Sheffield-er Peter Care, received extensive MTV airplay and was one of the first music videos to be procured into the archives of The Museum of Modern Art. A “Micro-Phonies” album poster even made an appearance in a John Hughes teen flick, gracing the bedroom walls of Ferris Bueller in the 1986 film “ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”.
Methodology ‘74/’78 Attic Tapes
Cabaret Voltaire eventually suffered the fate of many a cult band straddling mainstream success- identity and existential crisis. A move to big label EMI in ‘87, band members separated increasingly focused on solo and side projects ( or in the case of some, too wrapped up in the hedonistic trappings of the alt-pop star lifestyle) all foreshadowed the bands demise; the relocation to Chicago to explore the cities house music scene (ironically a genre Cabaret Voltaire had greatly influenced) financially crippled the group, and by the early nineties they had completely disbanded.
The Living Legends.1990.Recorded at Western Works (Sheffield), except track 14, which was recorded live in 1975.
Cabaret Voltaire’s musical impact, on both their contemporaries exploring the possibilities of electronically made post-punk, and the later genres of EBM and industrial techno is unprecedented. Applying modernist art and structuralist theory to music making, they transgressed and innovated the way music could be made and structured; pioneering tape looping and the use of ‘found sounds’ to reject melodic harmony in favour of artfully made noise montages, that in turn infiltrated the usually fluffy and predictable conventions of dance music.
“Through their montaging of attractions and hard facts, they discovered different approaches to and for rhythm. On first exposure their bombardments were relentless and unending. But anyone left standing came to realise their dissonances were more than just dirt in the ear. Aside from the immense, invigorating pleasures of their transgressive noises, Cabaret Voltaire bravely forced new ways of listening. First, they unbalanced the equation of dance beats and body music. Through an excess of volume, they could render the most intractable musical elements physical.”
(Extract taken from Mute Records catalogue, 1990)