Richard H. Kirk, 1956–2021

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Q: Was the initial idea to be a music group?

Richard H. Kirk: I suppose that depends on how you define “music”. No, the initial idea was to be more of a sound group, just putting sounds together like jigsaw pieces. If the result did sound like music then it was purely coincidental.

From Cabaret Voltaire: The Art of the Sixth Sense (1984) by M Fish & D Hallberry

This was a shock, in part because I tend to think of certain artists as perpetually young even when I’ve been following them for decades. In the case of the not-so-young Cabaret Voltaire it was an easy frame of mind to slip into when Kirk and Mallinder were only photographically visible up to about 1990. After this the group resumed their former obscurity, cloaked by abstract images and Designers Republic graphics.

Oddly enough I’d been running through the early Cabs albums only a couple of weeks ago, and wondering how long Kirk was going to keep the revived group going on his own. I suppose this means that Cabaret Voltaire is now definitely finished, in which case it’s a double RIP. And just a few days ago I was reading a Mark Fisher essay on Joy Division, feeling as frustrated as I always do when Curtis and co. are praised for “channelling” (or whatever) the spirit of William Burroughs when nobody would think to connect Burroughs and Joy Division if you changed the title of the song Interzone to something else. Throbbing Gristle were closer to Burroughs personally than were Cabaret Voltaire but the influence on TG only became really overt when Industrial Records released Nothing Here Now But The Recordings, an album of Burroughs’ tape experiments. The Cabs were more important to me as a youthful reader of Burroughs’ novels for seeming to be broadcasting from inside his texts. Their early albums were disturbed and disturbing (a friend once asked me to switch off their music for this very reason), an unwholesome amalgam of dialogue taped from TV and radio, crude electronics, threatening voices, and songs that were warped into strange new shapes. This is entertainment…this is fun… I’m still amazed that their first album included a cover of No Escape, a song by psychedelic group The Seeds, which didn’t sound out of place despite the weirdness surrounding it.

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William smiles. Left to right: John Giorno, William Burroughs, Stephen Mallinder, Richard H. Kirk. Photo by Sylvia Plachy from the gatefold interior of A Diamond In The Mouth Of A Corpse (1985), a compilation album released by Giorno Poetry Systems.

Cut-up theory was a constant in the Cabaret Voltaire discography, and in many of Richard Kirk’s solo recordings, with the group starting out as Dada-inspired tape collagists* before they found a way to present their experiments in a musical form. The concept is to the fore in the title of Cabaret Voltaire’s debut album, Mix-Up, and exemplified in the track that opens side two, Photophobia, a reworked version of a Surrealist monologue that dates from the group’s days making recordings in Chris Watson’s attic. Photophobia pulls you into the same queasy dreamspace in which you find yourself when reading Burroughs’ early cut-ups, a catalogue of oneiric splicings—”they’re injecting the rivers with stainless-steel fish…a coelacanth/a body with a shrunken head…”—the phrases being increasingly overwhelmed by rising synthesizer drones and Kirk’s squeaking clarinet. Kirk’s solo debut, Disposable Half-Truths, was a cassette-only release on Industrial Records infused with the Burroughs spirit in both technique and content, offering track titles such as Information Therapy and Insect Friends Of Allah. Cabaret Voltaire continually referred to Burroughs’ speculative essay collection The Electronic Revolution in interviews but it was Kirk who extended the group’s cut-up experiments to film and video. By 1982 they’d accumulated enough of their own video material to release a VHS collection on their own music and video label, Doublevision.

If I’ve concentrated on the early recordings it’s because the post-punk period continues to seem like a miraculous moment, a space of four years when anything was possible musically, a time when Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis could record an album as uncompromisingly strange as 3R4 then have it released on 4AD and sold in racks next to albums by label-mates Bauhaus and The Birthday Party. Cabaret Voltaire took advantage of this unique period to warp expectations in their own way, and to extend the boundaries of the possible. Richard H. Kirk’s subsequent career was prolific, releasing a blizzard of albums and singles under a variety of pseudonyms (Discogs lists 42 different Kirk aliases). One of my favourite pieces from his solo recordings is White Darkness from 1993, the last track on a 12-inch single, Digital Lifeforms, credited to Sandoz. There’s a mysterious quality here that I wish he’d explored more often on his later albums instead of letting the rhythms run their course for another seven or eight minutes. The sampled voice maintains a thread of continuity with Kirk’s music before and after, as does the reference to LSD in the Sandoz name, taking us back to Mix-Up and the mescaline experiments described on Heaven And Hell. Psychedelia by other means.

* For a taste of unadorned Cabs-related tape manipulation, see The Men With The Deadly Dreams, a cassette release compiled by Geoff Rushton/John Balance which features contributions from Chris Watson and Richard H. Kirk. Note that the blog post doesn’t give an accurate description of the tape contents.

• At Vinyl Factory: An introduction to Richard H. Kirk in 10 records.
• At The Wire: two interviews with Kirk from the magazine’s archives.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Recoil and Cabaret Voltaire
Pow-Wow by Stephen Mallinder
TV Wipeout revisited
Doublevision Presents Cabaret Voltaire
Just the ticket: Cabaret Voltaire
European Rendezvous by CTI
TV Wipeout
Seven Songs by 23 Skidoo
Elemental 7 by CTI
The Crackdown by Cabaret Voltaire
Neville Brody and Fetish Records

Recoil and Cabaret Voltaire

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Since it was announced this week that Cabaret Voltaire will release a new album in November, here’s a short Cabs-related film that used to be impossible to see. A Sheffield art student, Nick Allday, made Recoil in 1981 as part of his course work, and managed to persuade Cabaret Voltaire to create a soundtrack:

The concept originated with raw material of video feedback and some sparse nuclear bomb footage available at the time. The idea was to represent in abstract form the cruel chaotic dysfunctional nature of the human condition with all its potential for self destruction. It was conceived as a manifestation of wretched anger, fury, and regret. (more)

Very typical of the early 1980s, in other words. The film was mentioned in a few of the group’s interviews around this time, and was also screened before some of their performances, but it otherwise remained a mystery until the footage was rediscovered and restored a few years ago. The copy of Recoil at Vimeo was uploaded by the organiser of the Gofundme launched to pay for the restoration, revealing music that sounds like an outtake from Red Mecca. (According to the post linked above this was mostly the work of Stephen Mallinder rather than the group as a whole.) And having written about Last and First Men a couple of days ago, it’s worth mentioning that Chris Watson, who was still a member of Cabaret Voltaire in 1981, recorded the natural sounds for Jóhann Jóhannsson’s film.

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As to the forthcoming album, Shadow Of Fear, I’m not the only person who finds everything credited to the group since Plasticity (1992) to be barely distinguishable from many of Richard Kirk’s solo works. Stephen Mallinder seems to be present in name only on these albums which makes you wonder what there is about a CV release that differs from a Kirk release, especially when the preview track, Vasto, sounds like more of the same. The real shadow of fear is the worry that a worthwhile project is being perpetuated for no good reason.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Pow-Wow by Stephen Mallinder
TV Wipeout revisited
Doublevision Presents Cabaret Voltaire
Just the ticket: Cabaret Voltaire
European Rendezvous by CTI
TV Wipeout
Seven Songs by 23 Skidoo
Elemental 7 by CTI
The Crackdown by Cabaret Voltaire
Neville Brody and Fetish Records

Weekend links 298

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The Gathering (2015) by Kristen Liu-Wong.

• Tom of Finland’s house in Echo Park, Los Angeles, “is a trove of homoerotic masterpieces“. The house and its former owner are celebrated in Tom House, a book by Michael Reynolds with photos by Martyn Thompson. Related: Tom House exposed by Rizzoli.

• “Underlying the heightened nature of the films was a deep, questioning soulfulness related to literary antecedents coupled with a vision of cinema open to shifting levels of perception and fantasy.” David Thompson on Andrzej Zulawski.

• Memories of the Space Age: Photos by Roland Miller of the ruins of NASA’s old launch pads, bunkhouses and research facilities. A British equivalent (and a much more modest affair) is the Highdown Rocket Site on the Isle of Wight.

• Statues allegedly made for the John Huston film of The Maltese Falcon are among the most expensive props in cinema history even though there’s still dispute about their authenticity. Bryan Burrough investigates.

• Mixes of the week: The Solar Gate: Female Private Press New-Age Music – Vol.1 by Michael Tanner, and an “alchemical” Bowie selection by The Ephemeral Man.

• “What Does It Take To Be A ‘Bestselling Author’? $3 and 5 Minutes.” Brent Underwood on why Amazon ratings can’t be trusted.

Edward Gorey/Derek Lamb title sequences from the PBS/WGBH show Mystery! (1981).

• A Painter Possessed: Kate Kellaway on the occult abstractions of Hilma af Klint.

Invertebrate Harmonics: a new composition by Chris Watson.

• Frozen in time: Inside Bangkok’s first ever department store.

Roly Porter’s Favourite Space Records

• Space-Age Couple (1970) by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band | Space Age Batchelor Pad Music (Mellow) (1993) by Stereolab | Space Age Ballad (2001) by Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O.

Just the ticket: Cabaret Voltaire

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The current issue of The Wire has a great appraisal by Keith Moliné of the musical history of Cabaret Voltaire, a well-timed piece given the recent announcement of forthcoming reissues from Mute Records. Having been a Cabophile from the start I’m rather biased, but the Wire piece has had me listening to the early albums and singles this week (between bouts of Zdenek Liska), and finding the passage of time has made those early recordings seem increasingly strange. Cabaret Voltaire were one of the few groups I liked obsessively enough to collect ephemera from newspapers and magazines. Knowing this, a friend gave me this curious fanzine/ticket from a gig the group played in Liverpool in February, 1981. The venue was Plato’s Ballroom at Pickwicks, and judging by the wording inside—”A Plato’s Publication”—it seems it was the venue’s idea to make the ticket a small (10.5 x 15 cm) booklet.

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What’s surprising about this is that the fanzine the ticket is bundled with has nothing at all to do with music (or that other perennial of 80s post-punk culture, left-wing politics) but is a glimpse of life as a gay man in Liverpool. I’ve always found this fascinating for the daring it took to foist the thing on a bunch of unwitting Cabs fans, most of whom would have been straight men and not especially sympathetic to the subject matter. In the context of 1981 forcing people to look at grainy shots of naked men with accompanying text (by another man) declaring them to be a turn-on was a transgressive act. The only representations of anything gay in the popular media were a few camp (and therefore safe) comedians; Derek Jarman was still an underground figure, and as late as 1984 a BBC play about gay men was prefaced with a warning about its “contentious” subject.

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I’ve no idea who was responsible for the fanzine, there are no credits, and it’s possible that the people involved didn’t want to be too easily identified. If the tone of the writing seems rather dramatic then, again, it’s important to see it in context of a country which wasn’t much more amenable to gay people than Russia is today. Saying things in public that most people didn’t want to hear was a challenging act; emotions often ran high.

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Looking for information about the gig turned up this newspaper ad. (Who were Jell and Aardvarks, I wonder?) By an odd coincidence only the day before I’d found this upload from the same person of a very scarce compilation tape that happens to be from the same year, and which features contributions from Cabaret Voltaire’s Chris Watson and Richard Kirk. The Men With The Deadly Dreams was compiled by Geoff Rushton, aka John Balance of Coil, and was apparently limited to 200 copies. Among the other highlights there’s a track from Eyeless in Gaza, whose early work I like a great deal, and an electronic piece by Throbbing Gristle’s Chris Carter which I think is exclusive to this collection. Two artefacts—fanzine and tape—with brown paper covers that give a snapshot of Britain’s underground culture in 1981.

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Continue reading “Just the ticket: Cabaret Voltaire”

Weekend links 25

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A commemorative Borges coin.

He says, “Two aesthetics exist: the passive aesthetic of mirrors and the active aesthetic of prisms. Guided by the former, art turns into a copy of the environment’s objectivity or the individual’s psychic history.” There, of course, he sums up all of realism, no? “Guided by the latter, art is redeemed, makes the world into its instrument and forges, beyond spatial and temporal prisons, a personal vision.” That’s Borges.

The Borges Behind the Fiction: Colin Marshall talks to translator Suzanne Jill Levine. Related: The Garden of Forking Paths.

• From The Quietus: Blondie in Conversation with William S. Burroughs by Victor Bockris, 1979; An Interview with Laurie Anderson by Robert Barry, 2010.

In 962 Abd-er Rahman III was succeeded by his son Al-Hakim. Owing to the peace which the Christians of Cordova then enjoyed […] the citizens of Cordova, Arabs, Christians, and Jews, enjoyed so high a degree of literary culture that the city was known as the New Athens. From all quarters came students eager to drink at its founts of knowledge. Among the men afterwards famous who studied at Cordova were the scholarly monk Gerbert, destined to sit on the Chair of Peter as Sylvester II (999–1003), the Jewish rabbis Moses and Maimonides, and the famous Spanish-Arabian commentator on Aristotle, Averroes.

Entry for The Diocese of Cordova from The Catholic Encyclopedia (1917).

Professor Newt’s Distorted History Lesson. A riposte to the ignorance of the wretched Gingrich. Related: the Mezquita de Córdoba.

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Jorge Luis Borges and a cat. Via.

Joseph and His Friend—A Story of Pennsylvania (1870) by Bayard Taylor, America’s first (?) gay novel. Related: 20 classic works of gay literature.

Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens at the Shaw Theatre, London, from 10–28 August 2010.

• Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony is released later this month. Café Kaput’s first release, Electronic Music in the Classroom by DD Denham, appears in September.

• “Just relax and enjoy it.” k-punk on the ambition and vision of David Rudkin’s Artemis 81.

• Chris Watson explores Alan Lamb’s The Wires: three audio recordings to download.

• Jonathan Barnbrook: Tuxedomoon fan, 1988, and Tuxedomoon designer, 2007.

• Rob Young’s Electric Eden reviewed by Michel Faber.

Brian Eno gets the Warp factor.

No Tears (1978) by Tuxedomoon; Atomic (1979) by Blondie; Everything You Want (1980) by Tuxedomoon; Next One Is Real (1984) by Minimal Compact; Hologram (2010) by These New Puritans.