Cabaret Voltaire Biography

Formed in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, in 1972, and named after a 1930s Dadaist collective based in Zurich, this experimental, innovative electronic outfit proved to be a huge influence on later, more commercially successful bands such as the Human League, Depeche Mode and New Order. By the late 80s they were also recognised as a pioneering force on the UK’s dance music scene.

Cabaret Voltaire was formed by Stephen Mallinder (bass, vocals), Richard H. Kirk (guitar, wind instruments) and Chris Watson (electronics and tapes). Influenced by Can and Brian Eno, the trio strived to avoid the confines of traditional pop music and their early appearances veered towards performance art. Their brutal, rhythmic sound was christened ‘industrial’ by a bemused music press. The trio’s sound and attitude initially attracted the attention of Factory Records and they contributed two tracks to the Manchester label’s 1978 double EP, A Factory Sample. They eventually signed to Rough Trade Records that same year, producing the Extended Play EP, which confirmed their experimental stance, although ‘Nag, Nag, Nag’ (1979) was a head-on rush of distorted guitar with a driving beat. The trio continued to break new ground, using sampled ‘noise’, cut-up techniques (inspired by author William Burroughs) and tape loops. Often viewed as inaccessible, in the ensuing years Cabaret Voltaire released the UK Independent Top 10 singles ‘Silent Command’ (1979), ‘Three Mantras’ and ‘Seconds Too Late’ (both 1980). Their 1979 debut Mix-Up, was followed by the more conventional The Voice Of America. After Live At The YMCA 27.10.79, the trio widened their horizons with video and collaborative work, including outings on the Belgian label Les Disques du Crépescule and two Industrial label cassettes, 1974-1976 (their early recordings) and Kirk’s solo Disposable Half Truths.

In 1981, their prolific output was increased by the morbid but successful Red Mecca and by another cassette, Live At The Lyceum. They also set up their own Western Works studio in Sheffield. Watson left in October 1981 to work in television and later resurfaced in the Hafler Trio. In 1982, Eric Random was recruited on guitar for a Solidarity benefit concert, performing under the name Pressure Company. The resulting album, Live In Sheffield 19 January 1982, was released on Paradox Product. The year also marked the release of 2 x 45 (the last recording to feature Watson), ‘Temperature Drop’, plus the Japanese live album Hai! and a solo set from Mallinder, Pow Wow. Departing from Rough Trade in 1983, while also releasing ‘Fools Game’ on Les Disques du Crépuscule and ‘Yashar’ on Factory, they signed a joint contract with Some Bizzare / Virgin Records. The first fruits of this move, ‘Just Fascination’ and ‘Crackdown’, confirmed Cabaret Voltaire’s new approach and signalled a drastic shift towards rhythmic dancefloor sounds (assisted by keyboard player Dave Ball’s presence).

Yet another label entered the frame when Doublevision released the soundtrack Johnny YesNo. Kirk’s double set, Time High Fiction, came at the end of this productive year. Aside from a compilation video, TV Wipeout, 1984 was a quiet year, until ‘Sensoria’ (on Some Bizzare) ripped the dance charts apart, setting the tone for much of Cabaret Voltaire’s subsequent work, including ‘James Brown’, both featuring on Micro-Phonies, and ‘I Want You’ (1985). In-between, the pair concentrated on the video Gasoline In Your Eye, paralleled by the similarly titled, double 12-inch ‘Drinking Gasoline’. The critically acclaimed The Arm Of The Lord echoed their earlier phase.

Kirk’s solo work continued apace in 1986 with Black Jesus Voice, and a mini-album, Ugly Spirit, plus a project with the Box’s Peter Hope resulting in Hoodoo Talk on Native Records in 1987. By July of the same year, the duo had transferred to Parlophone Records, debuting with ‘Don’t Argue’. As with the follow-up releases, ‘Here To Go’ and Code, its sound introduced a more commercial club-orientated slant, lacking the pair’s earlier, experimental approach. In 1988, Mallinder collaborated with Dave Ball and Mark Brydon, collectively known as Love Street, releasing ‘Galaxy’. A new Cabaret Voltaire single, ‘Hypnotised’ (1989), reflected their visit to the house music capital, Chicago, while Kirk’s highly influential single ‘Testone’ (1990), issued under the guise of Sweet Exorcist (with DJ Parrot, later of the All Seeing I), was pure techno. Cabaret Voltaire continued in this style with ‘Keep On’ and Groovy, Laidback And Nasty, working with some of the leading lights of the US house and techno scene.

In the meantime, Mute Records methodically reissued their early back catalogue on CD. Leaving EMI Records, who were bemused by their new direction, Cabaret Voltaire signed to Les Disques Du Crepuscule for ‘What Is Real’ (1991). The well-received Body And Soul consolidated Cabaret Voltaire’s pivotal position on the UK’s dance scene, which they had, without fanfare, helped develop over a decade and a half. International Language and The Conversation were more minimalist pieces that appeared on their own Plastex label. Mallinder emigrated to Australia in late 1993, which effectively spelt the end for Cabaret Voltaire as a recording unit. Kirk has continued to release challenging dance-orientated material under a variety of guises, including Electronic Eye, Sandoz, Xon, Citrus, and Richard H. Kirk.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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