Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Cabaret Voltaire

Released 1979 on Rough Trade
Reviewed by mare-C, 22/04/2002ce

"I felt as though I owned Helsinki... If the Rolling Stones could not play their Queen's music, they would be removed from the country... I'm an artist, I could build you a three-tier wedding cake in forty seconds... We were on a spaceship... I was on the poopdeck... He must've had the strength of 10,000 ballet dancers, to drive 200 miles across the Ardennes without a good fuck..."

Ah... the Cabs. If remembered at all these days, then cariacatured as a long-mac-clad, tight-arsed, doom-mongering shadowy bunch, big on gloaming but short on personality, yer ultimate post-JD early-80s NME darlings. & for sure, they were sometimes their own worst enemies, hardly an album avoiding a tumble into over-statement (viz Premonition on 1980's Voice of America, a stoic synth-klaxon culminating after 5 or 6 mins with a panto-villain-voiced Stephen Mallinder intoning "Are you ready....... TO DIE!!!!" Well, no actually, & I've kind of gone off the idea of side 2 as well, now you mention it...). As the 80s wore on, they ploughed an impressively though perhaps futilely singleminded furrow, but perhaps never quite escaped that sort of whiteboy modern dance that only Douglas Bader could groove to; but for all that, I & others can still find a surprising amount of room in our hearts for them, our goodwill due to such playful & snotty garage-electronica as this, their debut LP from 1979, all Letraset artwork & shortwave interference.

There were three of them at this point - Stephen Mallinder on bass & vocals (they always called it "vox" in these times, didn't they?), Richard H Kirk on guitar & treatments, & Chris Watson on keyboards & further treatments. Not to decry the efforts of Mal-Kirk once Watson jumped ship in 1982, but the stuff they did as a threepiece is still my favourite; in a pompous way, I could make a case for them being a great, albeit sidereal & anti-trad, power-trio alongside the Experience & Husker Du. They'd done a couple of 45s before this, the 4-trk Extended Play, with its autistic re-daubing of the Velvets' Here She Comes Now, & the justly-famous Nag, Nag, Nag, an action-painting of sheer spite.

This begins with Kirlian Photograph, a hunchbacked affair with a bassline that manages the neat trick of at once loping & yet standing on the spot. The mix is all wrong, too quiet at first, jumping into life with the hissing D Lynch - A Splet / Eraserhead piston-emissions that seem to be hitting the off-beat all the way through the track, giving it a carelessly violent demeanour. Listen to Mal's vocal, at first a 50s sci-fi baddie announcing his intention to destroy the earth, becoming by degrees a Mike Yarwood pisstake of early B Ferry ("I'm in-to some-thing RE-ally goode!"). Then a vrsn of Sky Saxon's No Escape, with the exact same guitar-feedback track as Nag, Nag, Nag (just so's you get where the inspiration lay), icerink drum machine fills & the guitar heroics replaced by bubbly, ludicrous tone-generated ripples. It'll make you laugh out loud. When I first bought this LP, I'd never heard of the Seeds, & thought the writing credit meant Saxon as in, y'know, Wheels of Steel / 747 / Denim & Leather Saxon. I was kind of disappointed when I found out. Next, Fourth Shot, a surprisingly melancholy piece, just synth gurgling like it's going down the plughole & Richard Kirk's febrile antenna guitar. Quite lovely, in a curious way. Heaven & Hell is the closest the Cabs come to lapsing into bathos on this LP, but somehow it skirts round it just by sheer dum-dum persistence. Perhaps the lyric's deliberately over-dogmatic; in any case, it's saved by some great stoogey screams at the end. & Eyeless Sight is a wonderful waste of time, the Cabs tooling around & bewildering their audience at some live gig earlier in '79 (actually, what it sounds like is them trying to pin down the noises & tapes for their third 45, Silent Command). Occasionally it stops dead for a second or two, only to burst into some sped-up clips of French radio-dialogue. Nobody laughs or catcalls. Maybe they'd all fkd off back to the bar.

Photophobia, which starts side 2, is perhaps the pivot of the whole LP, a thumbnosed situationist ramblarama of a lyric delivered with just the right sort of poonky-sneer that makes you unsure whether to laugh or not. It's not dada, it's just a series of cartoon knobs scrawled on a jotter. Meanwhile, the backing track drags itself boneheaded & sluggish up from a modest opening towards a slackjawed testcard drone. &, if y're the type for subliminal messages, there's the line about "Bicycle paintings in Dulux"; as with their 1983 track Why Kill Time When You Can Kill Yourself? a reference to the 1960 Tony Hancock film The Rebel. They'd read Burroughs, they'd seen Bunuel, but they weren't that bothered about "cool". & yet, they manage to have it both ways. The track's a sort-of-pisstake, but next time you find yourself wandering home drunk & early-hours-confused, you'll notice that yr mind's running commentary is something remarkably similar to this urinal phantasmagoria.

On Any Other Street begins with a battered-out drum tattoo notably similar to the opening of T-Heads' Warning Sign, but, after some tape-manip, settles into a great/grate, stoopid lurch of a track (the distorted "Da-na-na-na"s at first obtrusive, eventually a sly wink to the listener), the most notable aspect being the increasing influence of Watson's thousand-yard-stare mixing & stirring, as if you're on a traffic island in eight lanes, feeling tracers rush by. Expect Nothing, despite having a title that could be satire-Cabs, is a gloriously predatory thing, the backing a soundtrack to thos yes/no moments in yr life, the sound of silence in yr room when sleep remains tauntingly beyond grasp. Anticipating the heat-haze menace of their 1981 LP Red Mecca, it's probably the most "Cabs" track on the album, but has a powerful, relentless motion that makes it a fitting climax. Capsules, the envoi track, is brittle & spare, as if the album is breaking into pieces in front of you as it departs, the vocals by this point simply swirls & hints, bluebottle snippets, the music likewise hobbled & wrongfooted. & so it fades out.

This is a great snapshot of a brief period in post-punk UK when there was a sudden urge to grapple with a bizarre, homemade, hamfisted white dub landscape. Yes, the Cabs could be a tad humourless, a bit too schematic, but they could be gloriously & knowingly slapdash, they could be as giddy as any scuzzball garageband, & (for the record) they could be funny, too. & it's that admirable sort of funny where you laugh hard for a few secs, & then stop short, suddenly seeing the other side of the joke. When this came out, I remember it got 7/10 in Smash Hits. How times change.

* * *

Advised further listening -
the Living Legends......Cabaret Voltaire (a compilation of all the 7" As & Bs 1978-1981, containing such great moments as Eddie's Out & Seconds Too Late along with the incomparible & essential tracks Do the Mussolini, Nag, Nag, Nag & Silent Command)
Red Mecca (the curious but powerful 1981 album, perhaps their finest moment)
(All on Mute Records)

also... if you ever come a-x it in a 2hand emporium, there was a great 1978-1982 R-Trade CD digest called (wonderfully) the Golden Moments of Cabaret Voltaire that's long-deleted but worth a place on anyone's shelves.

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