Tag Archive: Derrick May


This is a new quarterly column that will reassess the reputations of artists and address whether they are underrated or overrated. First under the microscope is Sheffield post-punk group Cabaret Voltaire.

The group were one of the original industrial bands that formed in the mid ‘70s and were a seminal post-punk band during the movement’s conception. However, when they attempted like many of their contemporaries to infiltrate the mainstream they struggled to gain a foot hold. In this article I will look at possible reasons why this happened, compare the band to their contemporaries and reassess their position in the late ‘70s and ‘80s musical landscape.

Taking their name from a Zurich nightclub that was central to the 1910s Dada art movement, Cabaret Voltaire had been an ever changing group of friends from 1973 who settled on a permanent line-up and become a serious operation in 1975. At this point the line-up featured Richard H. Kirk (clarinet and, later, guitar), Chris Watson (organ, homemade oscillator) and Stephen Mallinder (bass, vocals). The Dada movement was a big influence on the early material and attitude of Cabaret Voltaire (known affectionately as the Cabs). Their motto was ‘no sound shall go untreated’; everything was fed through a combination of oscillator, ring modulators, distortion, delays and anything else that could be acquired cheaply and this created a sound that was closer to the musique concrete experiments of Morton Subotnik than any of the rock and pop music being played by other bands at the time. Further to this the band adopted the mantra of ‘We are not musicians’, an idea that Watson and Kirk had heard in the records and lectures of their hero Brian Eno. A third important formative influence was that of William Burroughs and Bryan Gysin’s cut-up techniques which informed the group’s love of re-editing speeches by anyone from politicians to pornographers and the ever constant concepts of control (see song titles “Your Agent Man” and “Kneel to the Boss”) and paranoia that pervade their lyrics and sound.

In 1977 the band’s sound and confidence had developed enough for them to send a demo to Richard Boon at New Hormones. As he could not afford to release their material he gave them a support slot for the Buzzcocks at The Lyceum in London. By this point they also moved into a rehearsal and recording space called Western Works where the band installed a multi track tape machine and mixing desk which allowed Cabaret Voltaire to make and release high-quality music for the first time. The early Western Works recordings got them signed to Rough Trade and the band quickly released early singles ‘Nag Nag Nag’ and “Silent Command’ and established their combination of fuzz ridden itchy punk-funk guitar, organ stabs, sticky synth lines and tumbling electronic drums all fighting for attention with Mallinder’s processed vocals, which was described as: “like molten glass being blown into distended shapes.” They followed the success of the singles with debut album “The Mix-Up” which while not as vital as the band’s subsequent releases showed that they could last the distance on an album and demonstrated huge potential for the band to develop.

After their first trip to the US the trio returned to Western Works “fascinated by America but aware of its darker side”, as they sensed the tension just before Reagan’s  election and became entranced by televangelist Eugene Scott who the band sampled for the “Sluggin’ For Jesus” single. Their second album “The Voice of America” (1979) may have focused strongly on the US in its lyrics and sample choices but its sound combined Cabaret Voltaire’s trademark scathing sound with an explicit dub influence that had only previously been implied by the infrequent use of a dub delay. The dub music influence was now central to their drum machine rhythms and Mallinder’s impressive bass playing and deep tone. “The Voice of America” was the high point of this period of the Cabs, finding a balance between their diverse influences without compromise.

Their next album releases ‘Three Mantras’ (1980) and ‘Red Mecca’ (1981) looked at the parallels between fundamentalist Islam and born-again Christianity in America. The albums took very different approaches to these subjects. “Three Mantras” featured two side long tracks. The first song, “Western Mantra”, blends Neu!’s motorik rhythms, Mallinder’s subtle bass variations with Kirk’s Arabic sounding guitar squalls and piercing keyboards from Watson to mesmerizing, propulsive effect. “Eastern Mantra”, the second side, loops a vocal sample over a drone and Arabic and Israeli pop music flashes in and out of the mix, later Kirk joins in with some crisp rhythm guitar. Arabic wind instruments and found sound from a Jerusalem market complete the package and make for an incredibly evocative release that utilises its sources well without falling foul of cultural tourist clichés. “Red Mecca”, though a very good album feels like a step back to  the sound of “The Voice of America” yet it doesn’t quite have the same punch. It comes as no surprise that Cabaret Voltaire felt they had done all they could with their current sound by this point.

Another crucial element that the band used, was slide and cine projectors that were utilised to create sensory overload for the audience. Like their peers Throbbing Gristle the Cabs saw themselves as reporters operating in ‘the information war’. “The film projections were part of this counter-propaganda, working as a kind of anti-TV. Hence their non-judgemental stance, appropriate to the neutrality of the good reporter.” This stemmed from both the influence of Burroughs and his theories about control and “[t]he hard, unblinking, amoral stare of J.G. Ballard’s fiction as it surveyed the contemporary mediascape” was another huge influence. The band were keen observers of what was happening around them: urban riots in the UK in 1981, the situation in the Middle East and tension present in pre-Reagan America and were able to subtlety articulate this in the mood, tone, lyrics and samples present in their music and visuals.

Cabaret Voltaire’s next release “2 X 45” comprised of two 12” records which feature guest drummer Alan Fish of Sheffield experimentalists Hula and the last three songs recorded with Chris Watson who departed the band in October ‘81 for a career in television sound recording. The second record includes their first recordings as a two piece with guests Nort (drums) and Eric Random (percussion/guitar). Though it is correct to view “2 X 45” as an transitional release it seems there is a transition within the record itself. Watson’s input and influence is definitely reduced and keeps reducing across the three tracks as if he is moving towards the exit as they record. The second half of the record sees the band really start to push towards the dance music direction they would incorporate for the remainder of the ‘80s; the 12” format is also a clue to this new direction. “War of Nerves (T.E.S.)” would be a typical Cabs track but instead it is the rhythm that dominates, “Wait and Shuffle” is as close to upbeat reggae as they ever reached and “Get out of My Face” is driven by Kirk’s relentless yet fun rhythm guitar.

In 1981 Stephen Mallinder and Richard H. Kirk were invited to watch Soft Cell’s performance of “Tainted Love” on Top of the Pops by Stevo the head of Some Bizzare management/record company. Stevo was making a name for himself as an electronic and avant-garde music DJ and someone who could sell new acts to major labels and re-launch the careers of established acts like the Cabs who had reached an impasse. At the meeting Stevo discussed his idea of “conform-to-deform” which struck a chord with the group. He gave them £5000 to buy a video duplication machine for their video company Doublevision, allowing the band to be autonomous and able to produce small runs of video via mail order. Stevo also paid for the recording of the next album “The Crackdown” (1981) and in return the band stripped down their sound to make it more accessible and pushed Mallinder’s vocal central in the mix. This created a shift for his and Kirk’s roles as Mallinder was now becoming the front man and occasional bassist with Kirk taking on other musical roles.

The result of this was a sound that attempted to blend their post-punk paranoia with the electro sound that was emerging from New York simultaneously. As with their friends and peers New Order, who recorded part of their debut album “Movement” at Western Works, Cabaret Voltaire were trying to combine white angst and black groove, though New Order’s was an emotional angst and theirs was political. One of the fateful events that lead to the Cabs’ adoption of electro was Kirk who was blown away by Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ which he heard at The Hacienda (the Cabs had also played at the Manchester institution’s opening night) He later remarked, “it was like Kraftwerk only funkier”. This epiphany and (co-composer of “Planet Rock”) John Robie’s electro remix of ‘Yasher’ from “2 X 45” convinced the band on their change of direction and how to create a dance floor suited version of their sound. Cabaret Voltaire undertook this direction change with help from co-producer Flood, Soft Cell keyboardist Dave Ball and all the latest dance music technology of synthesisers, a sequencer, a Roland 808 drum machine, harmonisers and the electro staple, the Claptrap.

With Malinder now the front man the duo relied less on voice recordings from television programmes but were still intent on spreading a complex, ambiguous political message while attempting mass communication. This is a reason why the band are commercially disappointing when compared to New Order. The Cabs attempted to communicate both present and recent political past, their music rich with data and meaning, gleaming with the same number-crunching technology of the bankers and investors who inhabited Thatcher’s Britain. New Order conversely dealt in the universal emotions of yearning, love and death therefore their music was instantly relatable and thus climbed the charts. Cabaret Voltaire’s material was akin to “a night spent channel-hopping on TV, tuning through the shortwave radio dial or watching a sequence of advertising hoardings from the window of a speeding car could ever be”. There was no one subject. “It was more about creating atmosphere.” Kirk commented on the duo’s “cut-up method of setting voices snatched from the mediascape against Mallinder’s vocals”.

“The Crackdown” also signalled another important development. Cabaret Voltaire signed a record deal with Virgin on the proviso that they be allowed to put out 12” versions of album tracks. The duo left behind the scratchy, lo-fi sound of the 7” associated with punk and Rough Trade for the high end “seduction of the club sound system” and the lifestyle of excess that accompanied it. The 12” is synonymous with the 1980s and the circle that the Cabs moved in from the decade’s early electro scene through to the beginnings of rave music appeared in their sound. The album has a new “rhythmic certainty” and a feeling of “space, order and purpose” where previously there was chaos and claustrophobic. Dissonance, however, still remained but this could be blended seamlessly into the streamlined sequencer music.

They continued to pursue success and the harmonisation of man with cutting edge machinery with 1984’s “Micro-Phonies”. For this release Cabaret Voltaire employed an E-mu Emulator – a sampler keyboard that allowed Kirk to place samples where needed. The keyboard elevated the level of complexity that the Cabs were able to achieve, which was exemplified by the 12” mix ‘Sensoria’ from the album. The 12” “presented Redneck America’s party line on clean living, lifted from a television documentary on the Ku Klux Klan. Set against it, to deepen the conceptual irony further still were the chants of Zulu singers.”

Conversely their visual feature managed to directly mass communicate free of limiting censorship, certification and copyright law. Until the moral panic caused by video nasties which lead to the introduction of the UK’s Video Recordings Act 1984 Cabaret Voltaire were able to assemble cut-ups of hardcore porn, anatomical surgery and CCTV into their videos and could sell these to fans via mail order with no interference from Virgin. They were also able to experiment with all the possibilities of the format with typical video promos, their own Wipeout T.V. magazine show and Johnny Yesno, their film and soundtrack from 1983. In this respect the duo were forerunners to great Audio/Visual innovators like Coldcut and VJs (Visual Jockeys) who were inspired by rave era music are indebted to the Cabs’ pioneering music and visuals.

By the release of “The Covenant, The Sword and The Arm of the Lord” (1985) Kirk had bought a sampler (the E-mu Emulator had been hired due to its prohibitive price) and explored the techniques associated with it. Some of the sampler techniques on display in this release are the same that are used in hip-hop and their beloved electro. The band went a step further than on previous albums that had virtually avoided the traditional emotional palette of pop music. This typical subject matter is subverted on “I Want You” with “…words that once formed the basic unit meaning for just about every pop song in existence…skilfully exposed as the utterance of a TV preacher calling his faithful viewers to prayer.” The Cabs’ explicit, as opposed to earlier, implicit, subversion ended hopes of commercial success.

Another important factor in Cabaret Voltaire’s failure to achieve the commercial and dancefloor triumph akin to their contemporaries New Order, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode and Heaven 17 et al is that club music changed direction and attitude in the mid 1980s. In the early ‘80s post-punk innovators had lead the way and found an audience willing to follow their most daring experiments yet only five years later the times had changed. Conservatism took hold in music with most audiences disliking challenges and debates. Despite the similarity of the Cabs’ music and subject matter to the acts on the On-U Sound label (Tackhead, Mark Stewart, Gary Clail), they now overtook Cabaret Voltaire’s level of attention and popularity in clubs, though they too rarely entered the charts. House and techno DJs and producers grew increasingly popular and people did not want the Cabs’ technological chatter. Though they became unfashionable Cabaret Voltaire exerted a large influence on the development of techno and electronica. Derrick May has stated “Everybody from Frankie Knuckles to Ron Hardy, young black DJs in Detroit, and Richie Hawtin, loved Cabaret Voltaire.” The duo were also educated enough in dance music technology to meet with house and techno producers and share ideas. They also influenced the artists involved in Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series and important early ‘90s labels R&S and Plus 8 owe Cabaret Voltaire a great debt.

More recently their authority can be heard in new bands like White Car (the title of a Cabs track from “C.O.D.E.”), Factory Floor, Breton, Suuns and the reactivated Blancmange. It is odd that a band with this level of reach and whose fans regularly bemoan their underrated music are so consistently overlooked. Some of their Virgin albums are nearly impossible to purchase which should be addressed as it was with earlier albums. They should work with Richard H. Kirk to re-master, remix and re-release the later releases. If contemporaries like Nizter Ebb, Throbbing Gristle and Chris & Cosey can experience a resurgence of interest then why not Cabaret Voltaire? They are a band that consistently created fresh, different and worthy albums from 1978 to 1987 yet they have not received the same reappraisal as others, which needs to be rectified.

Spotify playlist:

Cabaret Voltaire

Advertisements

Three Decades of Techno

Part one: The Conception and Development of Techno

A “complete mistake…like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.”

This piece will explore the beginnings of techno and the effect European music and artists, in particular Kraftwerk, had on young Detroit inhabitants and the parallel that runs between the group and the city and how this cyclical influence evolved into the genre.

Kraftwerk’s music was informed by the clanging, rhythmic noise emanating from the factories of their native Dusseldorf and the funk of James Brown and Motown, in parallel to the mechanical repetition heard from Detroit’s car factories that inspired Motown’s unique backbeats. The four-piece replaced traditional drums and guitars with machine drums and synthesisers which were utilised to create metronomic and melancholic yet funky odes to Autobahns and cross-European train travel perfection. Their propulsive grooves drove them into dance music territory and a dedicated rhythm section in Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur brought them close to soul music and thus to Detroit. Bartos recalls, “we [Kraftwerk] were all fans of American music: soul, the whole Tamla Motown thing and of course James Brown. We always tried to make an American rhythm feel with a European approach to harmony and melody.”

This futuristic sound appealed to young Detroit inhabitants whose teenage rebellion forced them away from their parents’ R&B and jazz records towards Kraftwerk and other European artists like Giorgio Moroder. They believed they had found the polar opposite of R&B yet in truth they were still listening to soul music only through unfamiliar sources. Genre pioneer Derrick May recollects in 1992, “Kraftwerk was always…culty, but it was very Detroit too because of the industry in Detroit, and because of the mentality. That music automatically appeals to the people like a tribal calling … it sounded like somebody making music with hammers and nails.”

The sonic aesthetics of mechanics and industry are fetishes of the genre, which is reflected in the soundscapes created – robotic, precise and harsh. The exact drum beats and melodies written in step patterns with perfect quantisation, which would be unplayable by a human, feed into the obsession with impersonal industrial ‘hammers and nails’ clangour. Timbres are deliberately synthetic and multiple sounds are layered and affected to further convey the austere ‘machine music’ feel.  The atmosphere of techno is also indebted to its obsession with the future, whether this is one of streamlined technological perfection or an inhumane dystopia. A signifying code of techno and what defines it from disco and its cousin Chicago house is that its producers were, and still are, driven to find the limits of the technology. They experimented with hardware like Roland TR808 and TR909 drum machines, made deliberate errors and used them for roles they weren’t intended for. For example the Roland TB303 was a bass sequencer designed to accompany guitarists yet it was soon realised that it could be manipulated to create eerie, other-worldly sounds and effects, which have become a foundation of techno’s sound. The genre grew in popularity because of its ability to induce emotion. House was commonly viewed as emotionally vapid whereas techno producers prided themselves on communicating ‘intelligent’ thought.

The early flourishes of the genre thrived in Detroit’s environment because it lacked the fickleness of large cities like New York or Los Angeles and was analogous to Dusseldorf’s industry-based economy. The Northwest of the city was the wealthiest part of Detroit and in 1979 the average income was 34% higher than other areas. This was mainly due to assembly-line workers at car factories gaining promotion to office-based jobs. The children of these newly-wealthy employees felt a need “to distance themselves, says Juan Atkins, from the kids that were coming up in the projects, in the ghetto” and the negative stereotypes surrounding them. With few social outlets the NW youths filled the void by organising formal clubs, booking DJs, lights and equipment and hiring spaces. These had an elitist personality and were based on their beliefs of sophistication and exclusivity.

The city’s empty halls were tapped into with two or three club nights per school being established and multiple parties every weekend. At these teenagers were exposed to new wave and Italio-disco and as the attendees got older and bought cars they were able to visit night clubs further afield including ones that had been established by youths living in the East of the city, which tended to be more inclusive so more could attend. The music played was more funk-orientated and eclectic. Similar to the youth’s entrepreneurial approach to creating social opportunities they also realised the importance of radio programming and worked to conserve the variety of music played. New sounds were presented to the city’s residents and the young people fought to keep it available by petitioning radio DJs and stations, which opened the channels for discovery and acceptance of European dance music.

Three of the most noteworthy names in techno met at school in Belleville, an area outside Detroit. Inspired by the cold European music of Gary Numan and Georgio Moroder they had experienced listening to the local radio stations Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson (known as the Belleville Three) would theorise about how the artist made the songs and the steps the genre might take. Growing up financially comfortable they were able to buy turntables and a tape deck to learn to DJ and started remixing records and performed at friends’ parties, gaining experience and fine-tuning their knowledge of equipment. Atkins declares, “When I first heard synthesisers dropped on records it was great … so I got one.” From this Atkins, May and Saunderson began releasing music under various pseudonyms and each was playlisted on influential radio stations. They later founded the Music Institute, a club in Detroit’s centre that became a home for the second generation of techno DJs like Carl Craig, Stacey Pullen and Richie Hawtin.

In 1981 the triumvirate set up the record label Deep Space Soundworks to provide a platform for their music. Atkins’ project Cybotron sold 15,000 copies of the first single ‘Alleys Of Your Mind’ in Detroit alone and ‘Clear’ from the debut ‘Enter’ is particularly influential. A Kraftwerkian balance of techno-pop and club oomph the track set the template for Detroit techno: moody machine music to be appreciated nocturnally. After ending Cybotron Atkins progressed to releasing under the guise Model 500 and founded Metroplex Records in 1985 with releases ‘No UFO’s’, ‘Interference’ and ‘Nightdrive’ selling well.

After reconsidering a professional American football career, Kevin Saunderson turned to DJing and formed the record label KMS. Known for a denser, more mechanistic sound his releases as a member of Kreem and Reese & Santonio were well received in the UK underground and his house-inspired group Inner City gained eight appearances in the UK Top 40 and four number ones in the American dance charts. Derrick May gained the most commercial success of the cadre, producing tracks which are considered some of the most original and influential in techno. The classic sound incorporates streamlined percussion and string samples with a warmth that he had picked up on while spending time in Chicago. His Transmat record label was home to some of his best known hits like ‘Nude Photo’, ‘Strings of Life’ and ‘Kaos’, which were produced between ’87 and ’89 as Rhythim Is Rhythim. Though his releases nearly stopped during the ‘90s he maintained his profile as a DJ and positioned Transmat as arespected techno label worldwide.

May was the first of the Belleville three to tour the UK and was quickly followed by Atkins and Saunderson who were recruited for remixes and visited numerous times to perform at outdoor raves. By 1988 the UK had caught up with these futuristic sounds and artists such as the Black Dog, 808 State and LFO formed in large part to the Belleville Three’s influence while the second wave of Detroit techno grew momentum as the decade merged in to the ‘90s.

The second instalment of Three Decades of Techno will discuss the genre during the 1990s, focusing on minimal techno and its growth in Germany while neatly sidestepping rave.

Vier

Spotify playlist:

Three Decades of Techno: The early years

%d bloggers like this: