Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Cabaret Voltaire - Live at the Y.M.C.A. 27.10.79

Cabaret Voltaire
Live at the Y.M.C.A. 27.10.79

Released 1980 on Rough Trade
Reviewed by Rust Phimister, 15/02/2009ce

This is quite possibly the least-known of the live albums I own. It doesn't even have the benefit of being notorious and hated like King Crimson's Earthbound. After all, Cabaret Voltaire fans were used to the low-fi, harsh sound their idols dispensed, so anything as "controversial" as industrial noise, electronic beats and snarling, inaudible voices was just par-for-the-course.

But the punk and post-punk ages were not great for fans of live albums. Most groups were simply too short-lived to ever get to the live album stage. A whole lot more simply weren't that great live, due to being too messy, disorganised and drunk. Most gigs were short, and the sound quality wasn't great, as tight, packed clubs didn't always allow for the kind of instrument separation that massive venues like the Fillmores and Lyceums of this world did. And indeed, the main criticism that Live at the YMCA receives is that it sounds like shit.

It's not actually that bad, but it does have a very bootleggish sort of vibe going on. Whoever recorded this was obviously towards the back of the crowd with some pretty rudimentary equipment indeed. But to bitch about that is to completely miss the point. Cabaret Voltaire were a cash-strapped, underground, industrial, electro-punk outfit from harsh post-industrial Sheffield. How anyone can then expect one of their live albums to sound like a Queen or Pink Floyd live album is beyond. For me, taking an audience-tape recording and releasing it officially is the ultimate pied-de-nez to the world, a true punk gesture. In fact, the feeling you ultimately get is one of actually being there, more than on any other live album I've heard, except perhaps Townes Vand Zandt's Live at the Old Quarter. You are rapidly swallowed up by the stomping percussion and twisted synth noise as it rumbles away from the stage, drowning out the crowd buzz around you and submerging all before it. It may be low-fi, but Live at the YMCA does not lack power at all.

By 1979, The Cabs were smack-dab in the middle of their creative peak. Personally, I'm not such a fan of their post-Chris Watson phase, much as I respect and admire their contribution to acid-house and techno music. For me, though, the music produced from their seminal debut Mix-Up all the way to 1982's 2x45 remains some of the best electronica ever made, right up there with more celebrated acts such as The Human League, OMD and The Normal. The Cabs, though, remain more obscure sadly, mostly a name people have heard without hearing the music. Yet, for me, they today sound less dated, and more futuristic than 90% of their contemporaries, distilling a timeless electronica-meets-rock-meets-funk groove that I can quite easily picture future generations of humans, androids and robots swaying their hips to.

This is beyond doubt due to The Cabs relentless non-conformism and dedication to their sound. Never having had to conform to studio demands for hits and massive tours, they were able to continually push their boundaries, with saturated noise, waves of distortion, sound samples and processed rhythm patterns all being meshed together, then added to oblique lyrics that referenced Burroughs, Burgess, Dick and Ballard that all pointed to a stark dystopian future that, for all our progress as a race, has never seemed to recede or get less likely. As we face economic meltdown and the threat of ecological apocalypse, the harsh, robotic and cold sound of Cabaret Voltaire becomes more and more relevant, and oddly more and more danceable.

And what I wouldn't do to get a chance to seem them perform these songs live. Personally, I'm not that bothered that there are no unique tracks on here. No-one complains when Bob Dylan or Led Zeppelin do that. And this collection of tracks gives a near-perfect cliche of what The Cabs were doing at this time. Their motto may have been "no dancing" at one point, but here the mixture of repetitive electronic beats and sweeping analogue synth noise creates a bizarre mixture of funk and noise that can't fail to have you swaying even as your senses are assaulted. Whether this is on the insistent pounding opener "Untitled" or the industrial dance of signature tune "Nag Nag Nag", the effect is disconcerting, like hearing robots trying to tackle disco or something. Stephen Mallinder's nasty, seething vocals only add to the disquiet, as, submerged in the wall of sound, they come out more like an extra mechanical instrument than an actual voice.

But this not all about proto-dance music played by obnoxious futurists with no sense of humour. The Cabs, for all, their musical devolution and messy sense of harmonics, were not just rabble-rousers or sloppy belligerents. These fuckers could play, and they demonstrate it hear on the slower, less instantly rhythmical tracks such as "The Set up" (the jewel in this live set), "On Every Other Street" and their distorted, barely-recognizable cover of The Velvet Underground's classic "Here She Comes Now". Here, the synths and slashes of saturated guitar and bass noise compete, dipping and diving in around each other as Mallinder sneers incoherently into his mic, the whole pieces dripping with pathos, anger and barely contained violence. Live at the YMCA is intense, in a way only really rivaled by Bob Dylan's live '66 bootleg and the 30 Minutes Over Brussels EP by Suicide. Although the audience is more appreciative here than on either of those, there is a sense of menace and bile that few artists have ever looked to release as a live album. And to end the album on the experimental noisefest that is "Baader Meinhof", a tribute to or comment on the German terrorists from the 70s, took some guts, in my book.

So, whilst not confrontational -the at first quite quiet (disconcerted, maybe?) audience seems to quickly succumb to the dark charms of Cabaret Voltaire- Live at the YMCA is dark and aggressive, uncompromising and sullen like the artists themselves were. It wasn't put out to please or get you head-banging (hence the sound quality), but rather hit its audience in the gut and demonstrate the full, snarling fury of an average Cabs gig. These aren't showmen, they're fiercely anti-rock, anti-frills. But it is powerful, pulsating with suppressed energy and hidden menace. And, it is also one of the very few live albums to document the post punk period and the omnipresent anti-rock, anti-showbiz, pro-experimentation mentality that was streaking across Britain at the time. Seeing as PiL, Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle all missed the boat when it came to live albums (PiL's post-everyone except Lydon one was a disaster), thank God Cabaret Voltaire were out there letting us know the abuse they were heaping on their audiences. Who seemed to enjoy it and I bet were actually dancing.

From my blog: jphimister.blogspot.com

Reviews Index