Sunday, August 18, 2013

Cabaret Voltaire: a road not travelled.

2013 is a brilliant year for fans of Cabaret Voltaire (Wikipedia disambiguation: the 80s electronic band not the Scottish night club or birthplace of Dada from which both took their name), with a reissue (and overdue reappraisal) of the masterpiece "Red Mecca" and coming soon an extensive boxset of that brief moment in the mid-eighties where they trod that a tightrope of mainstream success and critical acclaim, "conform to deform", as one of their compilations has it. Wire magazine has a useful primer on their work - most of which is still available, either directly from the band, or from their various record labels: a sign of their ongoing relevance.

Cabaret Voltaire began pre-punk as a confrontational art project based in Sheffield. Kirk, Mallinder and Watson - their first classic line-up - created a strangely hybrid music that was always rhythmic, political, mesmeric and murky. They moved seamlessly between key independent record labels, releasing records for Rough Trade, Factory, Les Disques des Crepuscule, Industrial and their own Doublevision. Regulars in the indie charts probably the first track I heard by them was their prototype electronic punk single "Nag Nag Nag", still in many ways their biggest "hit" (and a contemporary of Human League's "Being Boiled" or the Normal's "Warm Leatherette.") Their early records were not often this insistently tuneful and an unfashionable psychedelia informed their work as much as a briefly fashionable electronica. Yet this archetypal electronic band pioneered the mix of electronics with other instruments - seeing bass guitar or horns as valid sound sources as vocal snippets for the treatments and distortions of much of their early production work. In this they always seemed to me to take on the "road not taken" from Eno and Fripp's electronic experiments of the seventies. Whilst the former went primarily ambient and the latter created a sort of late 20th century chamber music, it left younger artists like Cabaret Voltaire with a whole world of abrasive electronics to explore.

Sound collages on early albums like "Voice of America" pre-figured Eno/Byrne's experiments on "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" and you could see the classic early Cabaret Voltaire sound been pitched somewhere between that and the functional electronica of Material or Tom Tom Club, but with far more of a DIY aspect. "Red Mecca" aside, I don't think any of the early albums entirely convince, and much of their best work came out on extended 12" singles, as the mesmeric rather than song-orientated nature of their material required that type of texturing and extended work out. You  find it on "Taxi Music" from the "Johnny Yes/No" soundtrack or on the brilliant Japanese live album "Hai!"

I came across much of this music later on, for it was when the Cabs signed to Some Bizarre/Virgin (and after Watson had left) that the second, and to my mind, critical phase of their career began. From "The Crackdown" to "Code" Cabaret Voltaire didn't so much as crossover into the mainstream as create a new hybrid. Never conventional songwriters, these albums did included catchy grooves such as "Just Fascination", "Sensoria" and "Don't Argue" which were bonafide hits - or at least, as close to being hits as the rigid radio formats of the day would allow. Industrial electronica had never been Peel's particular favourite music, and Cabaret Voltaire, like Sisters of Mercy, always seemed a little distant from even the "indie" mainstream of the day: whether it was Peel or the NME.

I think what they did from "The Crackdown" onwards was create a genuine alternative for electronic music that showed it didn't have to choose either the pristine pop of fellow Sheffield iconoclasts Human League and Heaven 17, or dissolve into a progressive ambience. Cabaret Voltaire's music was rhythmic if not always aimed at the dancefloor. As a fifteen or sixteen year old it grabbed me more than almost all their contemporaries - the darkness at the heart of their vision tempered by the warm use of synthesizers. "The Crackdown" is the link album between this new partly programmed sound and the occasionally DIY treatments of "2 x 45" or "Red Mecca." It has a real edginess but also a modernity that Heaven 17 for instance, were more blatantly chasing. These were not primarily "songs" but neither were they "collages." They had developed a genuinely new strain of avant-pop that they would follow over the next three albums and associated singles.

In "Wire" magazines reappraisal, they are somewhat sniffy about this period of the Cabs career, seeing them as ever more desperate for a hit. This isn't my recollection. Rather, alongside New Order and Brix-era the Fall, they were one of the few bands who were able to make a genuinely new and exciting music that didn't pander overtly to the charts but could well be imagined to belong there. There was enough of an audience to propel these albums into the top 40. Best of the lot to my mind is the follow up "Micro Phonies" with "Sensoria" a genuine indie dance highlight, and the overtly funky "James Brown" another key favourite. Here they are using better equipment, programmed rhythms, but still creating these hybrid songs that work both as a groove and as stand alone tracks. It remains one of my favourite albums of the period. The 3rd album of this period - "The Covenant, the sword and the arm of the lord" - showed some diminishing returns, and in many ways, they were suffering a little from the way the winds were blowing. The other post-industrial bands who had come along in their wake had never done much at all commercially (Hula, 400 Blows, Test Department, Hard Corps, Chakk, Portion Control) whilst blowing record company advances: whilst a mainstreaming of the Cabs sound could surely be found in the studio concoctions of ZTT, especially the Art of Noise, Propaganda and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. But these were more overtly aimed at the charts - and with Morley and Horn at the helms, of all the pretensions they had, none were to obscurity.

By 1986 house music had bubbled up from the clubs of Chicago, a simplified machine music that was streamlined for dancing, and had none of the "edge" of Cabaret Voltaire's electronic art pop. If Mallinder had always been an unlikely singer, his gruff voice used almost as another treated instrument, house music disposed with vocals all together, at least until it rediscovered the disco diva via the sampling of Loleatta Holloway on "Ride on Time." "Beat Dis" and finally "Pump up the Volume" created dancefloor filling sample collages that dispensed with the lead vocalist entirely. Electronic music had become, and would remain, ubiquitous, but in a particular format, that was often fun, but rarely exciting.

For me then, the Cabaret Voltaire of the mid-eighties remains the high point, with due reverance for what came before, but it became one of the unfollowed routes for pop music. Certainly they were the most influential act on my own songwriting, as I was always looking for a purely electronic group that was also not afraid to write songs. Much as I like "Dare" and "Non Stop Erotic Cabaret" the songs are often conventional in form and structure, just with electronics, and even as house morphed into techno and a myriad other formats it generally ditched the vocal except as a disco shriek. A more conventional Cabaret Voltaire would emerge with the late 80s "Groovy Laidback and Nasty" where Mallinder's voice is conventional, and the music sounds generic (albeit including a couple of strong tracks in the singles "Keep On" and especially "Easy Life.") Released from major labels after this, they never quite got the success that their pioneering spirit deserved, and that brief period when they'd mapped out a possible future for a psychedelic political electronic music that couldn't be easily pigeonholded, was all but forgotten.

With much of their best music spread across E.P.s, live albums, and Peel sessions, the new boxset will surely offer a real opportunity to look again at the period '83-'85 when the possibility of a music that could be commercially successful without being overly compromised seemed real indeed. Electronic music lacks the grand narrative of rock and roll. It has no "Beatles" no "Elvis", just a mix of cult figures and bewildering scenes and subgenres; and those bands who were often its most successful (such as New Order) sometimes seem to want to become "just another rock band" when the opportunity arises. We need Cabaret Voltaire as a kind of Velvet Underground of electronica, not just renowned for a few songs like Suicide or their innovation like Silver Apples, but for offering a raft of possibilities for the format.

No comments: