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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Downside Up

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Downside Up (1984)

For a long time I didn’t know which came first, Downside Up, a 16-minute short by experimental filmmaker Tony Hill, or Sensoria, the Cabaret Voltaire music video directed by Peter Care. Both were made in 1984 and both employ the same technique of a camera fixed to a special rig that allows shots to begin at ground level, rise parabolically into the air then descend to the ground again showing a reverse angle. Thanks to this Quietus interview with Peter Care last year we now know that Tony Hill’s film came first and that Care borrowed the rig for his video. Both are memorable pieces of work. Hill starts out with a series of slow shots accompanied by sounds that imply the camera is passing through the earth. This is contradicted later (and with gathering speed) when some of the shots are rotated through ninety degrees so they materialise out of building walls. Care stripped the technique down using faster shots that he cut with stop-motion footage of Richard Kirk and Stephen Mallinder. It’s the best of the promo videos made for the group.

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The Crackdown by Cabaret Voltaire

The Crackdown by Cabaret Voltaire

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I mentioned yesterday Richard H. Kirk’s announcement that Cabaret Voltaire’s albums on the Virgin label are to be reissued next year by Mute Records. The news gives me a topical excuse to write something about the first album in that series, The Crackdown, which happens to be my favourite of all their releases. Cabaret Voltaire, like 23 Skidoo, benefited a great deal from their association with designer Neville Brody in the early 1980s, and this post mostly concerns Brody’s design for The Crackdown and its accompanying singles. The Crackdown was released in 1983 with the advance from Virgin having allowed them to buy new equipment and add a degree of polish to their recordings which earlier albums had lacked. Brody had been designing their covers for the past two years, and continued to do so for the next few releases before leaving the music business to concentrate on magazine and other design work.

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What I liked about this sleeve was the way it gets the most out of the careful arrangement of a few simple elements. The front photo showing Stephen Mallinder and Richard Kirk posing with video equipment (monitoring the viewer) is enlarged and cropped to provide backgrounds elsewhere. The sleeve photos wrap around front and back while the shape made by the titles determines the layout of track titles and credits. (The various CV graphics are credited to Phil Barnes.) The type wasn’t set digitally but was applied by hand using Letraset rub-down lettering which makes me wonder how much planning was required to get the track titles to perfectly fit their intended shape.

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