Read this interview from issue five of Electronic Sound, where we spoke to Richard H Kirk about Cabaret Voltaire’s explorations of the dancefloor in the early 80s.
Let us take you back a little. It’s May 1982. A new club has just opened its doors in Manchester. It’s not like any club the UK has ever seen before. A vast sprawling space, it looks like some sort of industrial warehouse, like a factory. Which is appropriate seeing as how the ambitious record label behind it is called Factory.
“Yeah, that’s right, we played The Hacienda’s first night,” confirms Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard Harold Kirk down the line from Sheffield. “New Order performed at a private party on the Friday night and then, on the Saturday night, when it was open to the public for the first time, Cabaret Voltaire played.”
Riding high on the success of a holy trinity of industrial marvellousness (1980’s ‘Voice Of America’, 1981’s ‘Red Mecca’ and the ‘Sluggin’ Fer Jesus’ 12-inch, also from 1981), what was a band from Sheffield doing cutting a rug across the Pennines on Manchester dance floors? More at home in Manchester, perhaps? Bands there more akin to what Kirk and his Cabaret Voltaire partner Stephen Mallinder were up to? How much of an influence was Manchester on the Cabs, we wonder.
“I actually think Cabaret Voltaire were quite influential on Manchester,” says Kirk. “We knew all those people because we’d played the Russell Club, the original Factory night. We got to know Joy Division, Tony Wilson, Rob Gretton and Alan Erasmus, they were like mates. We donated a couple of tracks to ‘A Factory Sampler’, their first release, and I think we’d have ended up working with them, but Rough Trade came up with some money for us to buy a four-track tape machine, so we ended up going with them.”
It might be easy to forget that Cabaret Voltaire were the trailblazers, the mavericks, the I pioneers who have influenced generations of electronic musicians, Factory bands no exception. Some 30 years on, the evidence has been lovingly compiled for all to hear on a recently released six-CD and double DVD box set, ‘#8385 (Collected Works 1983-85)’. The deluxe edition also includes four remastered vinyl discs.
Several years in the making, it covers Cabaret Voltaire’s mid-period, a time when Richard Kirk and Stephen Mallinder yanked hard on the handbrake, performed a screeching u-turn from their trademark experimental industrial sound, and pointed themselves in the direction of the dancefloor.
“The box set was prompted by the fact that the material was signed via Some Bizarre to Virgin Records, and after 28 years the rights finally came back to me,” says Kirk, who is now the sole custodian of the Cabs back catalogue. “Virgin did talk about doing reissues, but I think they’d have just wanted to put out some CDs with bonus tracks and that would’ve been it. I wanted to make sure it was done properly.”
Bringing together 1983’s ‘The Crackdown’, 1984’s ‘Micro-Phonies’ and, from 1985, ‘The Covenant, The Sword And The Arm Of The Lord’ and the ‘Drinking Gasoline’ double pack, alongside a CD of 12-inch remixes and another CD of unreleased tracks, two live DVDs and a 40-page booklet to boot, that looks like “properly” to us. It’s quite an undertaking.
“You could say that,” laughs Kirk. “Believe you me, it wasn’t easy. It has been kind of endless. I basically had loads and loads of boxes full of documents and tapes and they’re not particularly that well archived, so it involved a lot of rooting around and trying to figure out what was where, but I got there in the end.”
Although the set kicks off in 1983, the story of this mid-period starts back when they were playing The Hacienda for the first time. That’s May 1982, remember? Cabaret Voltaire were undergoing something of an upheaval at that point. Slimming down from a three-piece to a duo with the departure of co-founder Chris Watson, Kirk and Mallinder had just released their first material since the seminal ‘Red Mecca’.
The ‘2×45’ six-track album marked something of a departure for the band, a halfway house if you like between experimental Mark I and the emerging dancefloor Mark II. Just soak up the stonking 13-minute locked-down groove of ‘Get Out Of My Face’ and you’ll get the idea.
“After Chris left, we were kind of thinking, ‘Where do we go from here?’,” explains Kirk. “We were getting a bit bored with Rough Trade because we were selling a certain amount of records, but we were never getting beyond that. It just felt like, ‘What do we do? We can’t go and repeat the experimental, far-out stuff, we’ve already done that’. We were getting more and more into dance music and listening to New York electro, and then Stevo came along…”
The Soft Cell manager and Some Bizarre label supremo offered a helping hand by coughing up for a 24-track studio session on one condition: cleaner vocals. In fact, less effects all round.
“And we just thought, ‘Yeah, why not?’. So we went to Trident Studios in London and took a load of the equipment from our own Western Works studio, which was only an eight- track at the time, and set about doing ‘The Crackdown’ album… which we recorded in about four days.”
“I think we had one-and-a-half ideas for tracks,” laughs Kirk. “We had some bits and pieces on tape, and we were put in the studio with this guy Flood. We’d never really worked that much in commercial studios and he was great. He took on board what we wanted to do and taught us a lot, and maybe we taught him a few things too.”
He obviously learnt well, did Flood. He went on to become Flood the über producer, with credits such as New Order, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, U2 and The Killers to his name.
So was this Cabaret Voltaire’s first time recording outside of Western Works?
“Not the first. We recorded part of ‘2×45’ in a 24-track called Pluto Studios in Manchester, but it was the first time we’d done an entire album in one. Obviously we indulged ourselves because we were used to bouncing things around on four and eight tracks, but we’d got a lot more room to manoeuvre with 24 tracks.”
That manoeuvring is plain to hear on ‘The Crackdown’. Widely considered to be one of the Cabs’ nest albums, it’s a four-to-the-floor driven beastie soaked through with melody. But the trick was always going to be to repeat it, a trick that popular critical opinion of the day decided they hadn’t pulled off when they released ‘Micro Phonies’ in 1984.
However, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Listening to ‘Micro-Phonies’ these days, it’s apparent that it’s a cracker of a record. Moving on again from ‘The Crackdown’, it’s fuelled by New York electro, rich kick drums, swirling vocal melodies and infectious sequencer spirals. It is, in short, a belter.
“It is,” agrees Kirk. “Unfortunately, when it was released no one liked it.”
It’s hard to fathom why. It isn’t so far removed from the chart success pouring out of Sheffield at the time from the hands of The Human League and Heaven 17. It’s a bright pop record. This being the Cabs, it’s pop in inverted commas, but it’s as pop as Cabaret Voltaire would ever get. You kind of catch yourself wondering where it would have led had Kirk and Mallinder continued down this path.
“We were never bothered about commercial success,” offers Kirk. “From day one, The Human League always wanted to make pop records, they never made any secret of that and they did very well. And likewise for Heaven 17. But we always wanted to be a bit more subversive and not really be an out-and-out pop band. Although there were elements that could be construed as pop, we were more concerned with art.”
Stateside remixers such as three Johns – Robie, Luongo and Potoker – knew what they were hearing and were queuing up to work with the Cabs. Robie had got in early doors, reworking ‘Yashir’ from ‘2×45’, while Potoker’s remix of ‘Sensoria’ from ‘The Crackdown’ rocked the dancefloors on both sides of the pond. It did seem that Cabaret Voltaire were one of very few bands who didn’t really need remixes, though. Their albums lived as complete entities, no remixers required. But that wasn’t quite the point.
“I liked the remixes, but they were done to try and move us more into the club area,” says Kirk. “It was always written in stone that the albums would be how we wanted them to be, it was always the case that they were the main thing for us, but working with people like John Luongo on ‘The Crackdown’ and ‘Just Fascination’ was what got us signed. That’s what really swung it for Virgin.”
The 1985 ‘Drinking Gasoline’ double 12-inch proved to be another shift in the sand. Surrounded by the trappings of a major label, the band decided that, on the coat tails of the muted response to ‘Micro-Phonies’, they needed to take a different approach.
“It was back to basics in so much as we decided not to work with any outside people,” explains Kirk.
Did they feel like they were losing their grip on what Cabaret Voltaire was? Big studios, name producers, top remixers…
“Partly,” he says, “When ‘Micro- Phonies’ wasn’t well received we thought, ‘Right, let’s fucking show ’em’. Doing ‘Drinking Gasoline’ was great. It was all recorded back in Western Works on 16-track, so it was a lot cruder and more reminiscent of the earlier records. It was cut at 45rpm and there were two pieces of vinyl, so it was loud, in your face. I remember someone telling me they saw all these black kids breakdancing to tracks off it at Rock City in Nottingham and I thought, ‘Yeah, we’ve hit the spot’.”
And that kind of thinking, that way of working, just carried straight on through with ‘The Covenant, The Sword And The Arm Of The Lord’?
“Exactly. That was all done in-house at Western Works too, on the 16-track. I think it sounds great. A lot of people don’t like it, but I think it’s one of the best. It’s one of my favourites from that period.”
It is also one of the best album titles. Ever.
“We were on tour in America in 1985 and we heard about this survivalist group called The Covenant, The Sword and The Arm of The Lord who were holed up in some enclave with loads of weapons and marijuana and Christ knows what else. It was just one of those things we heard on the news and thought, ‘Yeah’. The album was very much inspired and red by the month we spent touring America that year.”
The ‘#8385’ boxset also includes two intriguing live DVDs, one from Bedford Boys Club in August 1984, the other from the Hammersmith Palais in London in December of the same year. They seem like strange choices. You couldn’t have picked two more diverse shows if you’d tried.
“To be honest with you, it wasn’t a case of strange choices,” says Kirk. “There weren’t many video recordings of us from that time. In fact, that was all there was. What I really like about the Hammersmith show is you can see the projections, the visuals. The quality isn’t fantastic, it was shot on VHS, but it’s a great document. If anyone wants to see what Cabaret Voltaire were like in that period, check it out.”
And you really should. For all the might of the albums, it was when they played live that the Cabs were arguably at their very best. It was live that the entire machine came to life. It wasn’t just a show, it was a performance, a never-to- be-repeated one-off experience. And for a band whose motivation was art rather than commercial acceptability, that must’ve been an irresistible prospect.
“I really did enjoy playing live,” says Kirk. “It was a fantastic experience. The shows were much more in-your- face, more aggressive and fiery than the recordings. I remember just getting totally immersed. Occasionally I’d turn round and start watching the visuals and get tranced out by the strobes and the lighting. I would have loved to have been in the audience. You don’t see anything like that now. It was art as much as anything.”
With hindsight, does Richard H Kirk feel like a pioneer?
“I mean, it’s nice when people say that,” he says. “And when it’s 30 years on and there’s still interest and excitement about these reissues, that’s a nice feeling. Did we feel like we were pioneers at the time? We never really thought much beyond the next week, let alone 30 years into the future. We were just totally into what we were doing and gave everything to it.”
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