Better Than Coffee: Cabaret Voltaire

The “Sensoria/Do Right” video: a danceypants gateway drug into the complex world of Cabaret Voltaire.

Cabaret Voltaire: underrated, years ahead of their time, and punk as fuck. Not punk in a preening Vivienne Westwood way (although they were quite stylin’). Punk as fuck, like the famed Dadaist nightclub they named themselves after, like the tape-splicing experimental musicians involved in Musica Elettronica Viva in the 60s, like Brion Gysin and Stockhausen, like My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Filth.

The Sheffield, UK-based band began as a trio (Richard H. Kirk, Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson), mucking about with recorded sounds manipulated by reel-to-reel recorders in 1973. It started out as a very gritty, buzzy, bewildering wall-of-noise project. Later songs, while more conventional, were no less confrontational, helping to define both the sound and the anti-authoritarian attitude of the industrial music genre.

From an early Grey Area of Mute catalogue:

Difficult to imagine, perhaps, but the scratch and break elements of hip hop and rap are partly rooted in the noise terrorism of Cabaret Voltaire… Even as they’ve moved far away from their original all out assaults, their tempestuous beginnings still inform everything they do. The importance of those early years should not be denied, for their great blasts of noise were instrumental in freeing popular music from its narrow, restrictive definitions.

Control, and how to confound or defeat it, was a recurring theme in their work…. They were among the first popular musicians to seriously use “found” soundbytes, lacerating recorded speeches of politicians, pornographers and slot TV preachers, juxtaposing them in odd configurations, not only for comic effect but also to reveal their true nature.

Cabaret Voltaire, 1982.

Watson left in 1983*, right before CV’s decidedly more danceable album The Crackdown came out. The above video –innovative in its own right– was created in support of one of the most addictive songs in their catalog: “Sensoria” from the album Micro-Phonies.

They really were something special. As excited as I am to see Throbbing Gristle reforming, I’d be even more psyched to see these three reunite. Laptop music it ain’t, never was, and hopefully never will be.

More classic CV clips after the jump.

*Chris Watson has since made some of the most exquisite field recordings imaginable.

16 Responses to “Better Than Coffee: Cabaret Voltaire”

  1. Jack Says:

    “Laptop music it ain’t, never was, and hopefully never will be.”

    …raises an interesting point that I’ve been thinking about for a while: was there a defining moment when “industrial music” (for want of a better term) made a large-scale switch from the experimentalism of Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Neubauten, Coil, etc. to the more processed (and homogenized) laptop music that falls under that tag today?

  2. k paul blume Says:

    thank-you, Meredith Y — again with the impeccable taste
    (in that it mirrors my own)
    though my personal favourite was/is/shall remain
    (video-wise, as there exists no clip — that I know of)
    of ‘Don’t Argue’; a particularly prescient little opus that could have served as the soundtrack to the entirety of the Bush II presidency

  3. Paul Says:

    “Cabaret Voltaire: underrated, years ahead of their time”

    Thank you for the links, I hadn’t heard these in years. I’m going to have to pull out my old records now.

  4. jwz Says:

    One of my favorite bands of all time! I idolized these guys. I spent so many hours of my teenage years slaving over a pair of VHS decks with footage of televangelists and air-show crashes trying to reproduce their video trickery.

    Technically that Sensoria video is “Sensoria/Do Right”. Micro-Phonies is probably their most accessible album, though it does sound a little dated now. Though “dated” in the sense that it sounds like a lot of stuff that was coming out in 1988 or 1989, despite it having been released in 1984.

    “The Covenant, The Sword and The Arm of the Lord” was the very first CD I ever bought. I think it was 1985. I didn’t own a CD player at the time, and wouldn’t for another couple of years, but I bought that CD because I thought I was a complete fluke that it had gotten released on CD at all and that I was never going to see it again. I was right!

    “Gasoline In Your Eye”, the video compilation that included Sensoria/Do Right, has never been released on DVD, and this is a great tragedy. Oddly, the far-less-accessible “Double Vision Present Cabaret Voltaire” was released on DVD a few years ago, and it is fantastic. That’s the one with Nag Nag Nag. Amazon has it.

    There is also a DVD “Live at the Hacienda 83/86”, which is… historically interesting, but not particularly watchable. It’s mostly extremely dark Super-8 footage from a handheld camera in the audience. There are some interesting shots where you can watch them operating the reel-to-reel decks and ham radios, though, which makes me feel all fuzzy inside.

    Fun fact! I named the company which holds the assets of DNA Lounge “Sensoria LLC”.

  5. Cliff Says:

    CV were also ahead in multimedia production which included cut-up music videos, projection and other effects during live shows, and even short film. One I remember is Johnny Yesno. I had a VHS copy some years ago and, while it’s less than memorable at this point, it was remarkable in that a band could make dramatic, experimental narrative film, bending conventions of what can be done by “musicians”.

  6. Paul Komoda Says:

    Love the Cabs!
    I was introduced to this band way back in the mid 80’s when their videos were shown on the Some Bizzare Show when it ran on USA’s Night Flight.
    Thanks for the post, as it provoked me to download “The Covenant, The Sword and the Long Arm of the Lord” from the iTunes. I couldn’t live another moment without hearing “Big Funk”.

  7. Vivacious G Says:

    I’d never seen this video, thank you. There’s a special love I feel for how it was shot and the look of the location.

  8. Skerror Says:

    Love CV!

    Mer, please give us a post if’n you’ll be attending the TG reunion show…I’m only going to get vicarious enjoyment from it durn it!!!

  9. Mer Says:

    Skerror, will do! I’m rrrreally curious to see how the post MISSION TERMINATED collective is going to play out. It’ll be exciting to see them in SF, performing where they initially broke up back in ’81. But I have no idea what to expect. Could it be a laptop setup, or could it be a full-on, old school TG free-for-all? Vee shall seeeee.

    JWZ: Hrrm. “Sensoria” and “Do Right” are listed separate tracks on the full-length album… and “Sensoria” was specifically released as a single, which I have, which DOES sound different… I know there are a lot of similarities between the two songs. Was there a separate combo-mix made for the video? If so, I’ll add an addendum. :)

  10. Skerror Says:

    “It’ll be exciting to see them in SF, performing where they initially broke up back in ‘81.”

    I know right?! You guys far and away get the best show. Everyone in that space is going to have the good chills down their spine…I hope TG ends up going full-on apeshit!

  11. jwz Says:

    Mer: Yeah, that single is the Sensoria / Do Right medley (I dare not call it a mash-up!) That’s the version that’s in the video. I’ve seen it in liner notes as both “Sensoria/Do Right” and “Sensoria 12””.

    Someone told me that Stephen Mallinder had moved to New Zealand to raise sheep, but Wikipedia says he’s a teacher in the UK. Which is less funny.

    There was this comic book in the late 80s called “Whisper” about a female ninja, that I remember being pretty good as such things go. The main bad guy was named “Kirk Mallinder”, and it was just full of CV references. A long story arc was called “The Crackdown”, and a character wrote “Why kill time when you can kill yourself?” on a mirror in blood, stuff like that.

  12. Mer Says:

    JWZ– Seriously? A CV-referencing comic?! *scurries off to find it*

    A ha! Steven Grant’s Whisper, which had some new issues out fairly recently. I’m going to have to pester my comics-hoarding friends for some back issues. Thanks, man!

  13. Bunny Says:

    Ahhh I remember running to Tower Records after reading the Industrial Culture Handbook and buying the first Cabaret Voltaire tape I could find, as well as DOA by TG. I got the most dancypants of all the CV tapes but luckily I gave them a second chance :)

    Such lovely memories, I miss how new and fresh and strange it all felt. Keep in mind, I was 16 and reading about Cabaret Voltaire the band one day then Tristan Tzara the next. Its always exciting when things unfold for you like that in a bloom of synchronicities.

    Around the same time, I remember seeking out all the reference materials mentioned in the Re/Search book and devouring them over about a month. I still have vivid memories of reading “Brainwashing and the Cults” while sitting in the disciplinary office of my high school with about 200 tiny photocopied etchings of deformed fetuses and barbarous medical procedures hidden on my person which I had been leaving in random places for weeks (each one had a catchy aphorism written on the back for the lucky future owner).

    There was nothing quite like the excitement and confusion of a 16 year old would be agent provocateur trying to figure out just what the hell Gysin, Andre Gide, Burroughs, guns, Jonestown, Crowley, disco, and Manson all had in common…. If only I had my 20th century art professor there to explain post-modernity…

    Anyway… how did I turn a reply on CH into a rant about me and my little memory lane… Great one Mer, I love this band.

  14. OGD Says:

    Those of us awake in the steel city salute you Mer :).

  15. k Says:

    “Cabaret Voltaire: underrated, years ahead of their time, and punk as fuck.”

    “They really were something special. As excited as I am to see Throbbing Gristle reforming, I’d be even more psyched to see these three reunite. Laptop music it ain’t, never was, and hopefully never will be.”

    i echo these sentiments, and love that you wrote about CV. just wanted to say so.

  16. Mer Says:

    Thanks for reading, guys. :)