Cabaret Voltaire - Biography

Cabaret Voltaire, especially when viewed in retrospect, were a band that were frequently ahead of their time. What started out as a musical project that used found sound and aural collages to produce dense, disorienting fields of sound eventually morphed into a band that used dance music as a vehicle to expose society’s dark truths.

Cabaret Voltaire, (or “the Cabs” as they’re often called), were formed in 1973 in the industrial city of Sheffield, England. Taking their name from the famous 1910's Swiss nightclub frequented by the Dadaists, the founding trio of Stephen Mallinder, Richard Kirk and Chris Watson used the absurdist theories espoused by the Dadaists and mixed them with their interest in sound collage and the pure power of sound.  This, combined with the band's limited traditional musical skills and interest in primitive rock, defined their early work. As Mallinder later told a journalist in an interview, the band began with a desire “to annoy as many people as possible.” Their early pieces utilized tapes, keyboards, primitive synthesizers, drum machines, guitar, bass and plenty of sound manipulation achieved by running the different instruments and sound sources through various delays, harmonizers and distortion boxes. The trio produced a number of tapes, (later collected in the 3 CD set Methodology, released on the Mute label in 2002). These tapes were distributed among friends and followers but weren't made commercially available.

The band also occasionally played live, though presenting a drummer-less trio that played a loud combination of tape collages and primitive rock didn't usually go over very well with the  mostly working class audiences. Mallinder, in fact, was hospitalized with a back injury after a Cabaret Voltaire show ended with the audience throwing objects at them in disgust. The group continued making their tapes and usually played at universities and art events; eventually finding a certain amount of appreciation among a younger crowd that had embraced the confrontational sound and image of the emerging punk scene. Cabaret Voltaire applied that same aesthetic of anger and aggression to their electronic sound, so the fact that the Cabs eventually signed a recording contract in 1978 with the then-punk dominated independent record label Rough Trade came as no great surprise.

With five years of preparation, their own studio (Western Works), and a backlog of ideas, Cabaret Voltaire prepared to unleash their sounds on the public. The band debuted with the EP Extended Play (1978 Rough Trade), which included a barely recognizable cover of the Velvet Underground song “Here She Comes Now” along with the early favorite “Do the Mussolini (Headkick).” During this time the band also established musical alliances with a few labels and bands that were on a similar wavelength. This included Manchester's Factory Records, London's Throbbing Gristle and many of acts on their Industrial Records label. Cabaret Voltaire contributed two tracks, “Baader-Meinhof” and “Sex in Secret” to an early overview of bands on or associated with Factory Records called A Factory Sample in early 1979. They followed with the single “Nag Nag Nag.” The Cabs then released their debut album Mix-Up (Rough Trade) in late 1979. The album's weird black and white photo-copied cover (depicting something obscured on a television screen) visually represented the dense stew of tape loops, Farfisa organ, garbled vocals, fuzz and primitive drum machine rhythms contained within. The record even included a deranged cover of the old Seeds garage rock standard “No Escape,” showing that this decidedly un-rock band could still rock, though in their own deeply strange way.

Live At The YMCA, 27-10-79 (Rough Trade), released in 1980, documented a live performance by Cabaret Voltaire in London. The album showcased the band's harsh minimalism as they ran through tracks from their first couple of releases, including their single “Nag Nag Nag,” which sounded like a 60's garage band and a cheap home organ fed through a fuzz box with Mallinder's malevolent echoed-out vocals riding over top. That release was quickly followed by the band's second album, The Voice of America (1980 Rough Trade). Voice of America continued following the blueprint used on The Mix-Up, though more emphasis was placed on the rhythm tracks, creating a more physical and heavy sound. Cabaret Voltaire also released the EP Three Mantras (Rough Trade) in 1980. Three Mantras included only two pieces, each running over 20 minutes, that showcased the band's considerable skill at layering sound loops, found voices, samples of Arabic and Israeli pop music, minimal beats and bass lines combined with Mallinder's moody vocals. With this EP, the band gained more critical respect which contributed to the Cabs becoming ever more popular, a strange paradox considering they were performing music almost designed unpopular. Also in 1980, the group released an overview of some of their early experiments and material called 1974-1976 on Industrial Records.

Cabaret Voltaire continued their busy pace, and in 1981 released another live album, Live At The Lyceum (Rough Trade), as well as the EP 3 Crepescule Tracks (Rough Trade) and the full-length album, Red Mecca (Rough Trade). Red Mecca found the band further honing their menacing sound, placing even more emphasis on a thick rhythmic drive underpinning all manners of weird, disembodied voices and tapes floating over stabs of organ, mangled guitars and garbled vocals. The stew, while not pretty, was engrossing all the same. A music reviewer for the New Statesman remarked,

“Cabaret Voltaire's Red Mecca is the first masterpiece of British electronic pop....It's the pulse of Red Mecca that can't be taken for granted: the beat shifts from sound to sound and so changes the implication-now crisp, now lethargic. The band's tricks are in the background-snatches of conversation, radio talk, meanings to be reached through the agitation.”

At the end of 1981, Chris Watson left the band, later founding The Hafler Trio and going on to become a renowned sound engineer for the BBC. That left Mallinder and Kirk to carry on as a duo. A final release featuring material recorded with Watson was released in 1982, the double 12” 2X45 (Rough Trade). The release was made up of one session recorded with Watson, the other without him but including guest drummer Alan Fish from fellow Sheffield experimental band Hula. They were now embarking down the road of what would become their trademark sound in the coming years; a mix of samples and cut-ups combined with skeletal, electronic funk, and all with Mallinder's malevolent vocals hanging over the top. A live album Hai! Live In Japan (Rough Trade) was released later in 1982, and featured the duo version of Cabaret Voltaire in performance with Fish on drums and percussion. Another live album was recorded at a benefit performance for the Polish Solidarity Union in the band's hometown of Sheffield, but because of contractual obligations it was released under the name Pressure Company Live in Sheffield (Rough Trade). This was their last release for Rough Trade, and later moved to UK independent label, Some Bizarre.

The first fruit of the Cabs’ affiliation with their new label, was the 1983 release The Crackdown. The album was sparser, more electronic and funk-oriented than their earlier material. It was a definite attempt to appeal to a wider audience. As if to confirm this, the group adopted the motto “Conform to Deform.” The band had great success with the album, and it eventually reached #31 in the British charts and sold respectively in the United States and the rest of the world. The success allowed them to produce ground-breaking videos to accompany some of their songs and to set up their own label, Doublevision, to release side projects and video releases. The first release on the label was a soundtrack that the Cabs had recorded prior to Watson's exit for Peter Care's film, Johnny Yes/No. The other was a solo album by Kirk called Time High Fiction. The Cabs continued with their streamlined electro-funk sound on their next release Microphonies (1984 Some Bizarre/Virgin), and continued finding success. Their video for the single “Sensoria” ended up on MTV’s regular rotation. After touring the United States for the first time in 1985, the band released The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord on Virgin subsidiary Caroline Records. The album was named after a right-wing neo-nazi American organization and was re-titled The Arm of the Lord when released in the US The album continued with the band's newer sound. It seemed the inspiration for the album was a little lacking and the band were beginning to repeat themselves. The group had some success with the single “I Want You”, but the album didn't sell as well as its predecessor. The band released the EP Drinking Gasoline (Virgin) later in the year, and then the band members concentrated on solo releases.

Another album wasn't seen by Cabaret Voltaire until 1987, when the band released Code on the major US label EMI Manhattan. The album included the contributions of former Be Bop Deluxe guitarist Bill Nelson and On-U Sound main man Adrian Sherwood producing. The result was an album that sounded very much like mainstream dance music of the time, though Sherwood's production touches made sure the sound had a heavy presence. The deal with EMI lasted only one album, as the duo felt that the label was strangling them creatively. The Cabs took another extended hiatus, though during their time away several re-issues and compilations were put out, including an overview of their early material, The Golden Moments Of Cabaret Voltaire (1987 Rough Trade) and another compilation of earlier material (supplemented with newer singles) featuring an unreleased cover of “The Theme From Shaft.” This compilation was titled Eight Crepescule Tracks (1988 Giant). In 1990, Mute Records gained the right to re-release all of Cabaret Voltaire's early material all the way back to their Rough Trade days. In conjunction with those releases they also issued a double album of unreleased material and rarities called Listen up with Cabaret Voltaire as well as The Living Legends —a collection of early singles by the three piece version of the band.

Cabaret Voltaire didn't return until 1990 when they released the heavily house-influenced album Groovy, Laidback and Nasty (Parlophone). During the band's time away, Britain’s music had been revolutionized by the stripped down sound out of Chicago. The duo traveled there to record the album with house producer Marshall Jefferson, who added a pop sheen to the music by adding female backing singers. The Cabs found many of their old fans didn't go along with their new sound, and the album failed to find much of an audience. Cabaret Voltaire took another break and returned again in 1993 with Plasticity on the electronica label, Instinct. By this time, the duo had removed some of the more obvious pop elements of their house-influenced style and boiled their sound down to a type of abstract ambient-techno with electro influences. The style was much more original, and the band were starting to receive credit as an inspiration for many of the emerging electronica artists. Plasticity was the first of a trio of ambient-techno albums the group would release through Instinct, being followed later in the year by International Language and the double album The Conversation in 1994. While both albums were an extension of the sound first evinced on Plasticity, the Conversation in particular seemed to be a slight return to the Cabs' earlier, darker sound. After the release of The Conversation, Mallinder and Kirk moved on to work on other projects, effectively ending Cabaret Voltaire. Kirk continued his involvement with different strains of electronica and dance music, adopting various pseudonyms and collaborating on numerous recording projects. He has even hinted that he might resurrect the Cabaret Voltaire name, though it seems any further projects would be without Mallinder. Mallinder moved to Perth, Australia and founded the Off Worlds Sounds label and became a journalist and presenter for local radio. Later, he moved back to England where he’s completing a PhD program.

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