‘I always make it really clear that if you think you’re going to come and hear the greatest hits then don’t come because you’re not.’ Richard H Kirk in Fact Magazine, 2016
Last week saw the passing of Richard H Kirk, founder member of Cabaret Voltaire, at the age of 65. It’s hard to sum up Kirk’s contribution to music in a few words without sounding insanely hyperbolic, but for nearly 50 years, anywhere there was a cutting edge in music, you would find Richard H Kirk, pouring petrol into the bloody laceration.
The son of a prominent communist steelworker, Kirk and his friend Stephen Mallinder had been sneaking into Sheffield’s soul clubs together from the age of about 13. Radical socialist politics and Black music were to provide two of the constant parameters to Kirk’s creative output. Later, at art college, he encountered European avant-garde art, and specifically Dada and Surrealism, and the concepts and methodology that were to leave a third, indelible mark on everything he made.
The surrealists of the twenties and thirties could trace their roots back to a writer called Isidore Ducasse, who in the 1860s had written a violently unintelligible and forgotten novel called Les Chants du Maldoror under the alias of the Comte de Lautreamont. Its anti-hero, Maldoror, a pun which translates into English as something like ‘Evil of the Dawn’, was the shape-shifting embodiment of casual, pointless wickedness. He murders, blasphemes and at one point has sexual intercourse with a giant shark as it feasts on drowning sailors. One memorable chapter begins with God dead drunk in a forest. After making some insulting comments regarding the quality of the creator’s work, Maldoror shits on God and is then joined by the rest of the woodland creatures – all the bears, rabbits and songbirds – and they too, all shit on God.
It was a book that Kirk would refer to warmly as a key influence, particularly its most famous line. Towards the climax of his adventures, Maldoror is pursuing a luminously good-looking teenage boy, who the text describes being, ’As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’. Rediscovered by Andre Breton half a century later, appropriately enough via a chance encounter in a second-hand book dealer’s, it was to become the mantra and how-to guide for a long line of artists and writers, from Max Ernst and Salvador Dali in the thirties to William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin in the sixties.
The principal of the cut-up had been well established even before Breton stumbled upon Ducasse. In Zurich, at the height of World War One, the poet Tristran Tzara had taken the stage in a Zurich cafe to declaim verses he composed from random bits of newspaper and commercial catalogue. He was one of the leaders of the Dada movement that had arisen out of a generalised sense of revulsion, not only towards the slaughter of the trenches but also towards the very notion of civilized, rational behaviour itself.
Both Tzara and Ducasse were drawing from the same wellspring of disgust towards order and progress, concepts that they regarded as little more than a figleaf for cruelty, violence and misery. And if order and reason justified the unspoken, but all too evident desires of empires and their rulers, then chance and irrationality offered a way to expose the sham.
Kirk took all of this very much to heart, and when he and Mallinder formed a band with their friend Chris Watson – they would tend to say that it was more of an art project than a band – they named it after the cafe in which Tzara and the Dadaists had presented their first performances: Cabaret Voltaire.
Watson had been messing about with tapes in an attic and Kirk and Mallinder joined in. The tape machines they were using were former military surplus – big, heavy metal boxes, twenty-year-old leftovers from the war. Among their influences in the early years were The Velvet Underground and Brian Eno’s work with Roxy Music. There was also, inevitably, David Bowie and the anti-rock, avowedly European motorik sounds of Kraftwerk and Neu. Listening to the Attic Tapes now, the most decisive early influence seems to have been the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, particularly its science fiction soundtracks. It echoes with Delia Derbyshire’s work on Doctor Who and Tristram Cary’s electronic music from Quatermass.
Within a few years, they were functioning almost like a proper band. Early Cabaret Voltaire gigs would often end with the band getting beaten up by an affronted audience. They would appear with Watson on keyboards, Kirk on guitars and Mallinder snarling down a vocoder. Almost everything else would be on tape. Nowadays this would be perfectly unremarkable, but in 1976 it was considered an abomination. A performance organised for Friends of the Earth ended with the band getting seriously assaulted by angry conservationists. Chris Watson, who would go on to work with David Attenborough and become one of the world’s most celebrated nature documentary sound recordists had told them that he had a band and they could play disco music. Cabaret Voltaire were not, at this stage, interested in making people dance. This would change.
When punk came along, Cabaret Voltaire were perfectly in tune with the mood, if not exactly punks themselves. Kirk and Mallinder had already been pulling all kinds of situationist stunts, mostly motivated by boredom – turning up at bus stops to play loud electronic noises to bemused commuters – and thanks to their regular trips to Manchester they had got to know Joy Division. Tours with Buzzcocks and Siouxie and the Banshees hadn’t ended well, the Cab’s sound being too much for increasingly conservative punk audiences. But they had a natural affinity with Joy Division. Kirk found a kindred spirit in Ian Curtis and they remained close to the rest of the band – Indeed New Order were among those paying tribute to Kirk, and described the support they received from Cabaret Voltaire after Curtis’s death.
Cabaret Voltaire’s first EP was released on Factory Records, but it was to the newly formed Rough Trade that they finally signed, apparently due in large part to the efforts of Jon Savage, who badgered Geoff Travis into working with them. Among Rough Trade’s first releases was the Extended Play EP, which contained ‘Do the Mussolini (Head Kick)’ a scabrous dub groove, the lyrics of which concern the ignominious demise of the Italian dictator at the hands of communist partisans. This was followed by the howling frenzy of ‘Nag Nag Nag’, which was their misanthropic attempt to both emulate and lovingly satirize the conventions of garage rock that had come to delineate punk. Neither song is exactly pleasant to listen to. ‘Nag Nag Nag’ in particular makes a special effort to avoid aestheticizing its rage. Kirk’s guitar sounds like grainy footage of a far off disaster, but one that is fast approaching and easily capable of obliterating all life in its path. Mallinder’s vocals drip with theatrical disdain for the material – they would rarely ever again resort to the cosy lie of a verse/chorus/verse structure.
In 1978 the band took over the second floor of Sheffield’s Western Works building to use as a rehearsal and recording space. It was very unusual for a band to have their own studio facility in those days, but rents were cheap and it enabled Cabaret Voltaire to work and experiment at their own speed, without too much pressure from their label. Again, they were looking beyond the music business for inspiration – Kirk often described Western Works as being ‘Andy Warhol’s Factory on a small budget’. Bands and their associates would come and go, to record or just hang out. Mallinder and Kirk’s extensive collection of weird, counter-cultural films played a big part in creating the atmosphere and Western Works was a much a place to congregate after a night out as anything else. The rooms had formerly been the headquarters of the young socialists who had left much of their paraphernalia there – revolutionary posters added to the ambience.
Here they began to make the move into a new kind of electronica. They were among a handful of bands, including New Order and A Certain Ratio, who were being lured away from the faux authenticity of punk and towards the sounds of club music, particularly in the forms of funk and dub. Their album, The Voice of America, incorporated Krautrock influences with distorted loops and drones. It begins with a sample of an American police officer lecturing his men before a Beatles concert: ‘We will not allow any dancing or running up and down the aisles. Is that clear with everybody?’
Sheffield in the 80s was a depressing wasteland, and the arrival of the Thatcher government only made the situation worse. Looking back, Kirk would explain that faced with such hopelessness you could either get off your face or run to the barricades. Cabaret Voltaire seemed to have found themselves with a foot in either camp. Drawn to the hedonistic end of the club scene, they were all too aware of how culture was mediated and controlled.
Kirk was the kind of character who was inclined to feed off a paranoid contradiction – the paradoxes of his position energised him, and following the departure of Watson, who left the band to work in television, he and Mallinder embarked on a trilogy of albums that fused hi-energy electro-pop with a sustained, scathing critique of mass media and state violence. Shot through with anxiety, but propelled through that darkness by stratospherically inventive forays into funk and electronica, it is work that simply eclipses almost everything else being made at the time.
Cabaret Voltaire had never seen any particular reason why they shouldn’t be as big as, say, Duran Duran, and with the support of some of the more excitable voices of the music press, it seemed like there was no obvious reason why that shouldn’t happen. It was with this intention that they signed to Some Bizarre/Virgin in 1983.
The resulting albums are probably the best entry point for the Cabs-curious. Indeed, it was this era of their output that first grabbed my attention about a decade ago and the trio of The Crackdown, Micro-Phonies and The Covenant, The Sword and the Arm of the Lord, remain an inexhaustible source of wonder, and even entertainment.
A chaotic mixture of skronking electro and sleazy vocals and gothic funk, tracks like ‘Sensoria’ and ‘Just Fascination’ saw them climb the indie dance charts, while their confrontational attitude to sampling was unabated – Charles Manson pipes up regularly on Covenant, denying that he was ever a hippy and warning us not to snitch.
Virgin’s money had allowed them to upgrade their equipment, and there’s an eighties gloss to this era that only makes it all sound wilder and nastier. One misconception around Kirk’s music regards his attitude to sampling – he would rarely if ever sample old soul records or anything like that. Partly this was to avoid any legal hassles, but it was also the case that it kind of didn’t occur to them. Cabaret Voltaire were into samples of news reports, old films, field recordings, tele-evangelists and pornography – these were the building blocks of much of their work.
All the instruments were played by Kirk and Mallinder and their associates. As well as guitar and keyboards, Kirk could play sax and clarinet – by his own admission, not very well – but he recognised that the technological leap of sampling meant that you could now compose music through a process of montage. It was a technology that encouraged the chance encounter of Maldoror. Cabaret Voltaire of this era sometimes conveys an impression of every eighties band at once, playing at the same time in a gladiatorial terrordome. Not one of them is going to make it out alive. They were so in tune they were with the secret desires of their age that Ferris Beuller had a poster of the cover of Micro-Phonies on his bedroom wall.
This might be a good point to emphasise that thematically this work sounds like it could be made yesterday. The songs describe a paranoid, technocratic society, controlled by the far right, on the verge of collapse. Just some of the titles tell the story: ‘Spies in the Wires’, ‘The Operative’, ‘The Web’, ‘Crackdown’ and ‘Why Kill Time (When You Can Kill Yourself)’. Add in the anxious, circling ruminations of ‘Digital Rasta’ (‘This could be the end of it all’), and the voyeuristic nihilism of ‘Just Fascination’ and ‘I Want You’. It speaks of a world where everything – sex, politics, religion – all of it is distorted by the mediations of technology.
Frustration at a lack of big hits led to a move to EMI/Parlaphone and yet more frustration at a lack of big hits. Kirk and Mallinder were spending a lot of time in the states, and while Kirk spoke of enjoying his time there, particularly the chance to work with the house music producer Marshall Jefferson, he felt that the results represented a watering down of Cabaret Voltaire and he began to lose interest in the band.
This was ironic since Cabaret Voltaire been a quiet, but persistent influence on the dance music of the day. Along with Kraftwerk and a select few other white alternative bands, they had been a touchstone for Black artists working in hip hop and electro. In particular, the hard electro-funk and general skronking glitchiness of the Cabs, not to mention their political subversion and critique of police and state brutality, had made them a key influence on the techno that was about to emerge from Detroit and which would come to dominate club music in one form or another for a long time to come.
Sheffield had its own techno sound that has come to be known as bleep and bass, the history of which can be found in Matt Anniss’s persuasive book Join the Future. Finding Cabaret Voltaire increasingly insipid, and growing distant from Mallinder, who was always more extroverted and keen on being a pop star than his bandmate, Kirk threw himself into Sheffield’s dance underground and embarked on what must be one of the great second acts of contemporary music.
Here the tale begins to lose some coherence. Both Kirk and Mallinder had released solo material, but Kirk embraced the anonymity of the burgeoning dance scene, where audiences really couldn’t care less who you were or what you had spent the last twenty years doing. It was a liberation for him. At last, he was getting the dance hits he’d always wanted and he could do so largely without having to leave Sheffield.
You can hear this sense of paradise regained in the music he released as Sweet Exorcist, formed with Richard Barratt, who would go on to be part of All Seeing I and who had been working under the name DJ Parrot. Taking their name from much misunderstood Curtis Mayfield album, their track ‘Testone’ was one the earliest releases on Warp Records, and in comparison with Kirk’s previous output, it just drips with joy.
From 1990 onwards Kirk released music under a variety of pseudonyms, often completely anonymously. Characteristically, he took a perverse conceptual thrill in this. Asked about his reasons for operating under a variety of aliases, Kirk would explain that it was like writing a novel, that each of the names had a particular remit, for example, Sandoz had been intended as a fusion of European electronic music with African and Latin sounds. Other projects could be more niche: Blacworld’s Subduing Demons (In South Yorkshire) was a grimly hilarious crossover of mutated ambient dub with field recordings of local CB Radio enthusiasts. To him it was like a huge, baggy modernist epic, never titled or finished, never gathered in one place, impossible to grasp or evade.
He kept his political edge – BioChemical Dread channelled Kirk’s rage at the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while the more personal Vasco De Mento came out of the darkness of his mother’s dementia and the degradations of trying to find support for her in Britain’s callously underfunded social care system.
In the mid-nineties, Stephen Mallinder had left Cabaret Voltaire and moved to Australia to release music independently and concentrate on a career in academia. Though there is some disagreement about exactly who left first, Kirk was eventually free to use the name himself. Fitful rumours of a reunion persisted, but it wasn’t until 2014 that Cabaret Voltaire gigged again, at the Atonal Festival in Berlin, and this time it was very much a Richard H Kirk solo project. He stubbornly refused lucrative offers to turn Cabaret Voltaire into a nostalgia act. There was absolutely no way Kirk had it in him to do the classic-album-tour-thing for any amount of money. Cabaret Voltaire was about the new, and as far as Kirk was concerned, that was that.
A deal with Mute Records saw the Cabs’ back catalogue remastered and reissued, including a sprawling box set of the Attic Tapes, and new compilations of remixes and singles. In 2020, however, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kirk released a final Cabaret Voltaire album, Shadow of Fear. Although it had been recorded throughout 2018-9, it was uncanny how closely it fitted the mood of those days. Yet for all that it exposes the mood of a country gaslit by politicians, noses pressed up against their tiny screens, and dependent on a fragile network of bullshit to maintain any semblance of sanity, it’s a record that is also shot through with hope. Accompanied by a slew of remixes and drones (and Shadow of Funk utterly bangs), Shadow of Fear stands as the final truculent, but irrepressibly utopian word in a long argument.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Shadow caught the mood of 2020 so well. As David Stubbs has pointed out again and again in his commentaries on Cabaret Voltaire, most notably in his outstanding book Mars by 1980, Richard H Kirk entirely predicted our current moment. Perhaps, his grounding in the cut-ups of the Dada movement made that inevitable – there are great poetic and psychological truths to be revealed on our ephemeral leftovers.
Richard H Kirk was one of our greatest and most uncompromising musicians, a figure whose influence was everywhere, even if he and his best work remained on the margins. A figure intimately connected with Sheffield, but whose perspective took in the European Avant-garde and African-American funk. At the age of 65, he was showing no signs of slowing down and we can only speculate about the directions his music would have taken had he been able to continue. Vital to the end, he leaves a musical legacy filled with bile and paranoia, but also desire, humour, energy and humanity.