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

Weekend links 585

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Fox Woman (c. 1916) by Bertha Lum.

• “Apparently he had been walking though customs/arrivals with a large cube of weed stuck on the end of his silver Dr Martens and a foot long silver flashlight full of seed, but when they realised who he was, and that today was his 60th birthday, he was released with just a warning.” Radio Lancashire DJ Steve Barker remembers the late Lee “Scratch” Perry, and links to one of his shows with Perry (and Roger Eagle) here.

• “…it’s the chase itself that shapes the film’s distinctive aesthetic—the under-lit interiors and the sunless and frigid exteriors of the many locations across the city, sites that take the cops well beyond their usual beat, to places both above and below ground.” Chris McGinley explains how William Friedkin’s The French Connection reinvented (and exploded) the police procedural.

• “Toibin, who is himself gay, has always extended historical sympathy to sexual outsiders. As he’s written elsewhere, ‘There are no 19th-century ballads about being gay.'” Dwight Garner reviews Colm Toibin’s The Magician, a novel about Thomas Mann.

Here is the key point: to experience such marvels you have to risk an unsophisticated, even credulous love for corn, and part of that love involves a willingness to submit to what [Phil] Ford calls a “magical hermeneutics” capable of transforming marginal chunks of pop culture. As he writes in the wonderful 2008 essay that inspired the episode, exotica is “less a genre of music than a class of cultural objects that share a characteristic projection of the self across boundaries of space and time.” This makes it essentially psychedelic—“film music for daydreams”—and Ford draws out that historical connection in his essay, which argues that while the hippie movement that Nature Boys like Ahbez prophesied looks like a radical rejection of the space-age bachelor pad of ’50s consumerism, tendrils of transcendent yearning link the exotica imaginary to the earnest if stoned mysterioso to come.

Erik Davis on Eden Ahbez and Californian exotica

Edgar Froese interviewed on WSHU radio in 1974 where he talks about Tangerine Dream, live performance and the future of electronic music.

• At Dangerous Minds: A momentary lapse of reason…when Dario Argento interviewed Pink Floyd in 1987.

• It’s that man again: John Doran interviews Kevin Martin, aka The Bug.

David McKenna on The Strange World of France, La Nòvia & friends.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Tape deck.

Exotica (1958) by Martin Denny | Exotica Lullaby (1976) by Harry “The Crown” Hosono | Exotica (1979) by Throbbing Gristle

Man is the Animal: A Coil Zine

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Death is centrifugal / Solar and logical / Decadent and symmetrical / Angels are mathematical / Angels are bestial / Man is the animal —Fire Of The Mind by Coil

In the post this week from Temporal Boundary Press, issue 1 of Man is the Animal: A Coil Zine. A timely publication, given the persistent and increasing interest in Coil, and one whose essays are all of a quality belied by the “zine” label which usually suggests something more fannish and trivial. This is a pleasing object even before you look inside, a perfect-bound A5 booklet with full-colour printing throughout, and a cover painting by Val Denham, an artist with Coil associations that reach back through the Some Bizzare period to art for Marc Almond and Throbbing Gristle. Denham also contributes one of the written pieces, Jhonn is Unbalanced, a touching memoir of Geoff Rushton/John (Jhonn) Balance. Among the other entries is a piece by Benjamin Noys, a writer whose previous studies have included an examination of the connections between my own art for the Reverbstorm comic series and the weird fiction of HP Lovecraft. Noys takes a similar approach here, finding reflections of Coil obsessions in the symbolism of alchemical magic and the weird fiction of Arthur Machen.

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Epigraph from Outside the Circles of Time by Kenneth Grant.

The weird fiction of HP Lovecraft was a Coil obsession, and Lovecraft receives the most attention in a great piece by Andy Sharp which takes its cue from the appearance in Titan Arch of lines from the epigraph for Outside the Circles of Time, an occult study by magus and scholar Kenneth Grant. The latter was another Lovecraft obsessive—no doubt one of the first, given his age—whose books are littered with references to both Lovecraft and Machen. I spotted the Coil/Grant connection many years ago (although quite some time after Love’s Secret Domain was released), and acknowledged the link in two pages in The Haunter of the Dark, one of which reprints Grant’s epigraph, while the other is a picture with the title In Spaces Between, a line from Titan Arch which is also a reference to the Necronomicon extract in The Dunwich Horror: “The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, they walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen.” Sharp does more than merely acknowledge this web of connections, he delves into Grant’s dense treatise in search of further correspondences. I’ve not read Grant’s book for many years but this essay makes me think I ought to look at it again. By coincidence (or is it? etc), both Love’s Secret Domain and Outside the Circles of Time have been reissued this year, the Grant book by Starfire Publishing.

Contents:
The Vision and the Voice: Esoteric Dimensions of Coil’s Vocals by Hayes Hampton
A Hauntology of Coil by Sean Oscar
Are You Loathsome Tonight?: Coil’s Transformations by Benjamin Noys
The Horseman Betrays His Steed by Cormac Pentecost
The Spaces Between: Outside the Circles of Time and Love’s Secret Domain by Andy Sharp
Jhonn is Unbalanced by Val Denham

Previously on { feuilleton }
Dreaming Out of Space: Kenneth Grant on HP Lovecraft
Peter Christopherson Photography & The Art of John Balance Collected
The White People by Arthur Machen
Val Denham album covers
Kenneth Grant, 1924–2011
Peter Christopherson, 1955–2010
The Angelic Conversation

Weekend links 388

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Still of an Alive Painting by Akiko Nakayama.

• “In what is a cross between performance art and installation, Nakayama uses a multitude of kitchen basters loaded with paint and water to add, mix, tilt, blow and add all sorts of extraneous effects to her paints, recording and projecting it all onto a large screen.” Continuously Changing “Alive Paintings” by Akiko Nakayama. There’s more performance video at the artist’s website.

• In January 2018 Song Cycle Records (UK) release Solaris, a “Collector’s Edition” of the Tarkovsky film and its soundtrack comprising vinyl/CD, blu-ray (no region details) and a book of photos, artwork and essays.

• Steve Davis may no longer be a snooker player but he’s still a Magma obsessive. This week he reviewed the new Retrospektiw collection for The Quietus.

What I was most thankful to TG for was leading me to Christopherson’s later band Coil with his partner, antagonist and lover John Balance (after they’d met in Genesis’ Psychic TV) whose music I fell for even harder. The arcane and homoerotic tragicomedy that underpinned their discography (and relationship) propelled me into new states, years before any first hand knowledge of the drug experiences they managed to intertwine so artfully with their music. Records like Scatology and Horse Rotorvator sexualised the male body for me for the first time—an awakening that’s hard not to find some amusement in when soundtracked by a romp called The Anal Staircase. From afar it seemed like their intense, exploration of electronic music as ritual was only possible as a result of the depth of the duo’s personal relationship and how it manifested spiritually, chemically and physically. The posture and machismo of the modern guitar music I listened to (and performed) with my friends could be tiring. The sound of Coil became a safe space in which to fantasise about manhood and Englishness and what it really meant, helping dismantle clichés I’d come to accept as reality. From medieval hymns to acid-house their music was unafraid and total. Though hard to define with any particular release I often play people their funereal takes on Tainted Love (of which all profits went to the Terrence Higgins Trust—a musical first in 1985 while AIDS was still very much taboo) and the Are You Being Served? theme tune, the basis of their transformative final track Going Up, completed by Christopherson after Balance’s death.

Fred Macpherson writing about Throbbing Gristle and Coil at new site The Queer Bible. This is the first appraisal of Coil I’ve seen on any site devoted to gay/queer issues, over ten years after the band expired following the death of John Balance. Better late than never, I suppose.

• Tom Phillips is helping support the National Campaign for the Arts by reworking a page of A Humument as a series of designs at CafePress.

• At Strange Flowers: The Secret Satan book list, a welcome alternative to the lists that fill the broadsheets at this time of year.

• Mixes of the week: Stephen O’Malley presents Acid Quarry Paris—A Hypnosis, and XLR8R podcast 517 by Davy.

• At the Internet Archive: 183 copies of Video Watchdog magazine (1990–2017).

• The TLS interview: Twenty Questions with M. John Harrison.

• At Unquiet Things: The solving of a family art mystery.

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The Hills Are Alive (1995) by Coil | Everyone Alive Wants Answers (2003) by Colleen | Only Lovers Left Alive (2014) by Jozef Van Wissem

Two albums

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A pair of albums by friends of mine are released this month: the first, Journey to the West (1979–2017) by Watch Repair presents The Mystic Umbrellas, has been gestating for several years; the second, Dreaming Dangerous Rainbows by Albatross Project, came together very quickly earlier this year after song sketches led to an album that none of the participants had originally planned. I designed both releases so I have more than a passing interest.

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The Mystic Umbrellas project will probably be of most interest to regular readers since it evolved from a couple of very minimal organ recordings made in 1979 by Mark Valentine. Mark is well-known today as a writer of weird fiction, and also an editor and publisher of the same, but in the early 1980s he was involved briefly with the British wing of the independent cassette scene, a micro-budget offshoot of the post-punk DIY ethos which spurred many amateur (or non-) musicians to create and release their own musical works on limited-edition cassettes. The UK manifestation of this scene tended either to imitate higher profile post-punk artists (some of the better examples may be heard on the recent Cherry Red compilation, Close To The Noise Floor) or indulge in a very British form of what might be called Low Surrealism, although “absurdity” is probably a more accurate definition. (A UK label of the time was even named Absurd Records.)

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Photocard by Deborah Judd.

Mark’s Mystic Umbrellas pieces—Journey To The West, Radio Dromedary (a short-wave radio capture) and Rainsborough’s Grave 1 & 2—were released on separate cassette compilations, Deleted Funtime (1980) and National Grid (1981). My friend in Watch Repair (who is happy to remain otherwise anonymous) bought both cassettes, and marked out the Mystic Umbrellas pieces as favourites for their qualities of melancholy and restraint; the organ recordings were very different from the post-punk fumblings or the absurdity in evidence elsewhere. The cassettes sat in a box for years until the same friend decided to try using them as source material for some of his sound processing experiments; these experiments eventually yielded a suite of marvellously atmospheric extensions/transmutations which mutate the recordings beyond recognition but which remain faithful to the haunting qualities of the originals. The precedence for this kind of repurposing would include Jon Hassell’s Magic Realism (1983) and some of the recent works of Thomas Köner, but Mystic Umbrellas and Watch Repair are in a territory of their own.

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Photocard by Deborah Judd.

While working on the design for this release I kept ruminating on the curious net of connection and coincidence around these recordings. After buying the Deleted Funtime cassette my Watch Repair friend contacted one of the other artists, “Stabmental”, to ask about similar recordings. Stabmental was a name used by Geoff Rushton for his post-Throbbing Gristle musical experiments and an Industrial music fanzine; a couple of years later he joined Psychic TV and changed his name to John Balance. Geoff/John was later in Coil, of course, and a decade after this was in correspondence with me having been greatly impressed with my Lovecraft art in The Starry Wisdom anthology. My earlier Lovecraft story, The Haunter of the Dark, had been published in a large-format edition in 1988 by Caermaen Books, an imprint run by a pair of Arthur Machen enthusiasts, Roger Dobson and Mark Valentine. It was shortly after my first meeting with Mark and Roger that my Watch Repair friend realised that Mark must be the Mystic Umbrellas person so the Lovecraft artwork helped remind us of the Deleted Funtime cassette. The same cassette surfaced again a few years ago when it was sold to an obsessive Coil collector who wanted it for the Stabmental piece. That sale led to the cassette being digitised before it was let go, and the digitisation process led to these recordings.

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Photocard by Deborah Judd.

Things got even more tangled earlier this year when I was working on the final layout while also reading the expanded edition of England’s Hidden Reverse, David Keenan’s fascinating history of Coil, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound. Keenan discusses the independent cassette scene (and mentions Stabmental) so all the above was circling in my head once more; but I really wasn’t expecting the instance when Keenan goes into David Tibet’s enthusiasm for Arthur Machen by including a page of explanation from a Machen expert…Mark Valentine. In Mark’s notes for the Watch Repair release he describes the origin of the Mystic Umbrellas name which came about during a rainy day-trip to Glastonbury. Somerset’s most mystical town includes Chalice Well among its complement of New Age tourist traps; shortly after finishing England’s Hidden Reverse I was re-reading a typically wild interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky in which he proposes that the humble umbrella is in fact a black chalice, and that the knights of the Round Table are searching for a Holy Grail that’s actually an umbrella. A mystic umbrella, in other words. Elsewhere in the same interview he expounds on the symbolism of the Black Sun, a favourite symbol of Coil’s. (And Coil for a short while had a Chalice record label…) By this point I’d ceased to be surprised, the endless chain of connections seemed inevitable.

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After all the above the album by Albatross Project risks seeming a little mundane, although grounded (one meaning of “mundane”) would be better. The origin this time was a series of poems written by Roger (that’s him on the cover) from 1972 to 1986. These were set to music by Dan of Warper’s Moss and Watch Repair. (Nobody in this group is offering their surnames so you’ll have to accept the circumspection.) Everyone involved was surprised by the quality of the resulting songs, not least Roger who wrote the words sporadically while travelling the world in his youth. Dan and friends have been writing songs and playing in bands since the 1980s which is why they were able to produce such an accomplished album in a matter of months. Musically, this is quite straightforward: well-crafted songs in a rock idiom which had me thinking at times of Pink Floyd circa 1972 (fitting since several of the musicians are from the Floyd-worshipping environs of Merseyside). But it also owes something to the Elektra years of the early 70s (as does my design), and the period flavour harks back to the time and experiences that Roger was writing about.

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Both albums are available via Bandcamp. The hard format of Dreaming Dangerous Rainbows is a CD-R in a jewel case while the Mystic Umbrellas hard format is a lavish hand-crafted package that includes copious notes and four art cards, three of which feature Deborah Judd’s evocative photo montages. The latter package will be strictly limited. Original copies of the Deleted Funtime cassette command high prices among Coil collectors but the curious (or foolhardy) may download a copy at Die or DIY?

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Polarities by Watch Repair
Seven Harps by Warper’s Moss
The Tidal Path by Watch Repair
Watch Repair