That Nag, Nag, Nag-ing Feeling
Cabaret Voltaire have got two retrospectives out at the moment, or sort of retrospectives. If the reviews are to be believed [I haven't got either the box set, Conform to Deform, or The Original Sound of Sheffield, the single CD of remixes] they concentrate on Cabaret Voltaire's dance tendencies, tendencies which I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling, are what brought about a lot of fans' disinterest in the group. Because, for me, the Cabs [as we liked to call them] were first and foremost avant-garde rock; a band who adopted William Burroughs' cut-up techniques for rock music; DIY purveyors of doom and gloom and unease - a less polished, more difficult Joy Division if you like; or perhaps a more accessible Throbbing Gristle.
I'd like to claim I rushed out and bought my copy of the Extended Play EP when it was released by Rough Trade in 1978. But I can't. Even though I visited the Rough Trade shop, and nearby Portobello Road, most Saturdays at the end of the 70s, if my memory serves me right I bought this particular 7-inch for 10p in a charity shop at a later date. Likewise my copy of The Voice of America LP, which I see is the next CV [we also like to call them this] product I currently posses. But I do remember taping my friend Andy's copy of Red Mecca just after release, and buying the LP soon after.
Andy was also a porter at a London hospital where I worked for a while. He was way ahead of me in the music stakes, and can almost singlehandedly be blamed or thanked for my musical education at the end of the decade... In his tiny flat, with the gas cooker rings alight for warmth and our coats still on, he played me post-punk albums by the Slits, The Pop Group, Spherical Objects & The Raincoats; introduced me to Sun Ra, Evan Parker, Anthony Braxton & Henry Cow; and blasted out endless unmarked tapes recorded at jazz concerts across the city on his portable tape recorder. I also accompanied him to various LMC and other improvised music events - most of which I hated, a few of which I loved [Lol Coxhill, Stinky Winkles, David Toop]; and we also managed to see the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Magazine, the Human League, Talking Heads and Television. Those were the days! Anyway, Andy - along with the man who ran a secondhand record shop in the back room of the greengrocers in Harrow [no, it's true, honestly... but maybe that's another article] - was responsible for [partially] weaning me off progrock and getting me into all sorts of new music. And Cabaret Voltaire was part of that music.
Red Mecca is still my favourite Cabs album. Its ghostly voices, murky rhythms and seemingly complex layers still intrigue and delight me. I've got a CD copy now, the vinyl is long gone to the charity shop, almost worn out with playing. It builds on the simplicity and repetition of both Extended Play and The Voice of America, which are raw and [dare I say] 'amateur' in sound and execution. But part of their charm was the fact that we could probably have made that music too, if we wanted to. [In fact I seem to remember Nick, another porter, and I spending a few weeks with secondhand reel-to-reel tape recorders trying to do just that - and disproving my point above completely.] Anyway, this was cerebral music, borne of ideas and angst - at the time it seemed both experimental and socio-political: after all, this music, wrapped in grey and black photos was making important statements, and would surely help bring down Western Civilization, or at least the record industry that Rough Trade and other independents were challenging in the wake of punk.
They didn't of course, and soon Cabaret Voltaire abandoned the black & grey and got interested in other things. My second favourite Cabs album [or is it a 12" EP? I've never known, even though it plays at 33] is Three Mantras from 1980. 22 years on and I still don't know where the third mantra is, but 'Eastern Mantra' is superb, with tapes from Jerusalem market and extra percussion, along with better production, producing a new, brighter CV with mystical interests. 'Western Mantra' is more what one expected, but is also a great piece of music, which builds and investigates its stated musical theme. And then, in 1981, there was 2 x 45, which should now of course be called 1 x CD, but isn't. In its original vinyl incarnation it had a massive fold-out flap with Neville Brody graphics in orange, silver, black and grey - I wonder where my vinyl copy went to? I don't remember turning that one out... Anyway at the point in time this came out it seemed part of the tribal/post-punk/world-music thing that was happening, all skittering basslines, percussion and horns. 23 Skidoo, Pigbag, Rip, Rig & Panic, Hula, Bourbonese Qualk, SPK and others all seemed to latch onto something at around the same time. It was great: intelligent funk with enough jazz, rock and 'intellectual' bullshit mixed in for white boys like me who simply didn't 'get' real funk, and hated disco and dancing [actually, I still do]. 2 x 45 is full of layers, collage and cut-up, dark lyrics and chants buried in the mix [deliberately - obviously - for this is still crystal clear production], was still po-faced music made by men in grey longcoats obsessed by media and conspiracy theories.
Or was it? And does it matter? Probably not, and only to the likes of me anyway. Soon Cabaret Voltaire were signed to Virgin records, via Stevo of Bizarre records, and at the time this was seen as a storming of the majors rather than the compromise and slow decline it turned out to be. The Crackdown and Micro-Phonies albums were squeaky clean throbbing electronic dance music, complete with what now seemed like token samples [including William Burroughs, of course] over the top. Drinking Gasoline a double 12-inch of similarly inclined electro-funk [one track was even called 'Big Funk'], was better - mainly because it was shorter, although the fourth side/piece 'Ghost Talk' retained something of early Cabs strangeness. The singles from the two albums - particularly 'Just fascination' and 'Sensoria' - worked well as isolated tracks, too. 1987's Code, however - only recently purchased from the 99p box in town - is truly appalling. Although now being heralded - not least by reviewers discussing the new compilations - as makers of early trance or techno music, to these ears it's thin-sounding muzak, with everything that was ever edgy or interesting smoothed out, glossed over or removed. [The Cabs played a similar trick on themselves and listeners some while back when they released Technology: Western Re-Works, a stripped-back remix album of Virgin period tracks.]
From what I've heard from afar, this problem has stayed for the rest of CV's musical life, although I sometimes put my review copy of 1994's The Conversation on in the background, where it burbles along happily, offering some low-level collage-with-beats background music. I'd always thought it was one long piece over two CDs, but reading the small print today it seems not. Never mind, it functions as such. I notice, too, that it's basically a solo album by Stephen Mallinder rather than a group project. Anyway, it's not exactly the mind-bending new music that they used to make.
Anyway, forget about these compilations of mid-period or remixed Cabaret Voltaire, go out and buy the Mute label's reissues of their classic early stuff. These boys were more than white funkateers or proto-ravers; they made complex, haunting, beautiful serious music; made industrial noise and political statements; made me happy with their misery, and sometimes still do.
© Rupert Loydell 2002
A PARTIAL CABARET VOLTAIRE DISCOGRAPHY