We will not allow any dancing… running up and down the aisles… Is that clear to everybody?

One of the great things about a Bank Holiday Monday is that you can have a lot of fun on a Sunday and then piss away the Monday freestyle. And when it’s as rainy and hoary a Bank Holiday as this, what else can you do but gently recover from what passes for a Big Night these days…

And why not do this to a grey-skyed soundtrack of Post Punk industrial grimness?

Cabaret Voltaire

In a retrospectively heroic but actually quite ridiculous gesture of independence, as a green seventeen-year old I once spaffed away an astronomical £4.99 on Cabaret Voltaire’s harsh “first album proper”, Voice of America. Quite the gesture, as in those days (yes, kids…) this was a not inconsiderable amount of money, certainly for a youngster still at school, with only a Saturday job to provide for him. What’s more, I’ve a feeling I may have done this on the lightest of proofs – a review in Sounds, possibly catching “Nag, Nag, Nag” on Peel, or quite possibly nothing at all, other than the idea gleamed from a mate that this was something I should probably like.

I kind of did. But to be fair, it was (still is) an obdurate old bugger, unwilling to grant you any concessions, least of all their “hit single”, “Nag, Nag, Nag”:

Clearly “Nag, Nag, Nag” is a great record – ugly, distorted, irresponsible and strange – everything you wanted back then. It’s a fuzzed up, ambient tonic to the already-tired Punk and “New Wave” sounds that were increasingly pumped out on evening radio shows. I was then, and still am now, very keen on the dizzying blend of reckless pace and garish dissonance they managed to achieve (whilst at the same time propelled relentlessly by the prettiest of pop-pop drum machine sounds…)

I’ve only recently found out that the unlikely template for the record was The Seeds’ “No Escape”, which is something of a revelation to me. (Now I bother to look into it, there’s an actual cover of it on Mix Up). Of course, if someone had sat me down, put an arm around my shoulder and told me that at the time, I would’ve been none the wiser, but a similar disclosure a couple of years later, might well have led to me blowing the dust off my, by then, discarded copy of Voice of America.

There’s quite a good clip from the BBC’s Synth Britannia program, with Richard H Kirk talking about the start of the band and their influences, which I think captures a lot of the context of the Cabs:

The immediate impression on hearing the record, then and now, is a general cooling off from the white-hot pace of the single – the tempo is at times unapologetically leaden, only occasionally moving the dial up to a moderate, fidgety “funk” (more of which later). To be fair, if I’d only had ears to listen, a lot of the breathless traits of “Nag, Nag, Nag” are in evidence all over Voice of America – from the swirling sheets of white-noise slithering from one ear to the other, through the dubby reverb overlays to the persistent inclusion of “Grown-Up World” voices pasted incongruously on top of the music.

I remember the introduction to the record impressing me very much at the time – a wary, middle-aged voice exhorting unsuspecting American youth to avail themselves of the earplugs provided and alerting them to the vague threat of a detention room. I don’t remember hearing this sort of thing on a record before (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts wasn’t released until the following year) and the sense of menace and inarticulate tension was pervasive. I think this is pretty impressive still now and the vision it presents of an abrasive and foreboding future must have been more than a little disturbing for a more discerning listener than I. Words like “dystopian”, “industrial” and “post-apocalyptic” were bandied around pretty much routinely whenever Cabaret Voltaire were written about, and to be fair it’s all pretty much there.

I can only imagine what it must have been like to see them perform around Sheffield at the time, but there is a tantalising snippet of them playing out the Granada TV program “Celebration” with Kirk and Stephen Mallinder looking immature and world-weary at the same time, with (I think) Chris Watson drawing unnerving sounds from his Open University-style synth:

Last summer, I picked up the Electropunk to Technopop compilation when I was in Brighton, which is a strange mixture of pre- and post- Voice of America tracks, of which about half of the tracks are… well… unlistenable.

Regrettably, along with almost all of their Post Punk cohort, as the eighties progressed, the Cabs seemed to think that making strange records was no longer where it was at and started to think of themselves as a dance band, turning their backs on electronic music and preferring to make garish “dance floor fillers”. In my humble opinion, they really weren’t a dance band and records like “Just Fascination” and “Yashar” which had proper videos and led to TV appearances, were just horrible…

The stuff that’s aged best has been tracks like, “Nag, Nag, Nag”, the title track of Voice of America and the mighty “Obsession” – they strike a balance between jerky, catchy intrigue and stark dissonance.

It’s an ugly, sweet spot.

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