“I’m just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country.”
The The, The Sinking Feeling, 1983.
“Catch a train into the dark depths of the North again. Flee the wonderland. A million miles away from London town, the conditioning centre where all is lost, into the hills and the drizzle and the places where ‘rock’n’roll’ doesn’t have quite such a death grip… As the train rolls into ghostly Sheffield, a profound greyness descends. Grey – the colour of The City, the colour of depression.”
Thus begins Paul Morley and Penni Smith’s November 1980 NME profile on Cabaret Voltaire, a band who derived sonic inspiration from the physical and political environments of a Sheffield which by the early eighties was being proclaimed ‘The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’ by supporters of the city council’s left wing policies.
Sadly, in a town which played a central role in the steel production that fuelled Europe’s post-war reconstruction, industry was decimated and an estimated 40,000 jobs were to be lost between 1979 and 1989.
“Imagine a musical soundtrack for a November Sheffield, for a decaying symbol of crumbling capitalism, for the lonely hearts and lost hopes of the city dwellers, for reason …imagine the turbulent, tense, obsessive Cabaret Voltaire sound,” the NME piece continues. “An integration and aggregation of stern rhythm, rigid sound, unexpected noises, ghostly bumps, news reels, snatches of conversation, screams, wails, unspecified signals … a sound of our times. The sound for our times.”
Three albums of ‘post-industrial dance-funk’ – The Crackdown (1983), Micro-Phonies (1984) and The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord (1985) – accounted for the Cabs’ most successful period, one in which they explored the music video art form to its fullest in collaboration with filmmaker Peter Care. His clip for the 1983 single Crackdown features footage depicting the martial law enforced by Poland’s authoritarian government from December 1981 to July 1983, but the sentiment could also be a critique of Thatcher’s Britain of strikes, riots, rising unemployment, social division etc. Vocalist Stephen Mallinder says the video, “interpreted and reflected a sense of authority and austerity and a sense of slight, impending doom”.
“In the 80s, we were still living in a kind of Cold War environment,” Mallinder recalls. “In that period, we had the Cold War mentality imbued through us – the Post-war [environment] and the Cold War. I think we were reflecting some of that.
“We’ve always been journalists – and have seen ourselves in that way. But we sort of recontextualized it through music. We’ve always been observant of things, and I think Crackdown was very much like that and the film interpretation was that journalistic view of that situation.”
Wire journalist Ken Hollings recognised that expressions of negative authority soon became a Cabaret Voltaire trademark, suggesting that 1986 single Sensoria “locked step with the state of the nation and reflected the group’s experiences while touring the UK during the 1984 miners’ strike”.
“Riot police and official checkpoints were the frontline of a regime that no longer believed in society and had no further use for surplus flesh or the dignity of labour.”
The sleeve for Cabaret Voltaire’s 1984 Micro-Phonies album was designed by Neville Brody and Phil Barnes. The latter’s Sheffield-based Naked Art created the cover image for a competition, run by a local workers’ education association, aimed at producing an image to sum up the Orwellian year.
The Cabs’ Richard H Kirk explained its resonance in a 2001 special edition of Q magazine: “Virgin did a massive poster campaign which meant that the image was all over England in 1984. There was a certain irony that such a degraded image fitted in with the time. The miners’ strike was brewing and all amount of chaos was going around.”
Mallinder and Tara Brabazon state here that “local factors of physical environment, economic practices and social interactions and infrastructures” served to frame the creative processes behind the Sheffield sound.
“As a city, it has defined itself aurally as much as visually, characterised both to itself and to the rest of the world via sonic parameters. The city has become a paradoxical fusion of the sounds of metal and soul, steel and electronica, industrial bleeps and lyrical mockery, it is popular culture wrapped in the tarnished glamour of self-deprecation.
“The dismantling of the steel industry and subsequent miners’ strike of 1984-85 provided daily reminders of the impact of government policy, punctuated by didactic speeches from politicians that warned of ‘the enemy within’.
“The Sheffield soundscape is as much defined through its work environment and historical narrative as its patterns of social interaction and consumption. The ‘sound’ of the city is framed by its industrial corporeality, by its rolling mills and blast furnaces which are Sheffield’s elemental essence forged in fire and steam.”
Pulp‘s Russell Senior takes up a similar theme in Eve Wood’s documentary film The Beat is The Law: “To come to Sheffield – as you arrive to it – this dark place with these sort of belching factory chimneys, it was a very vivid, exciting, powerful-feeling place and gave you a buzz just to walk around town, for me, to just discover this city. And all these, you know, dark, intense people in nightclubs who were making very interesting music. I mean, Cabaret Voltaire’s performances were magnetic, you’d be drawn into it.”
A 2009 Guardian review of David Peace’s work, which encompasses the novel GB84, highlights the way in which Sheffield and its surrounds had the unfortunate tendency to assume centre stage in the conflicts of Thatcher’s Britain:
“Yorkshire has failed to produce the same mythologising self-portraits as, say, Liverpool or Manchester. Which is strange considering that over the last 35 years Yorkshire has been a place where many of Britain’s wider public problems have been played out in extremis: labour disputes, the ravaging effects of unemployment and industrial collapse, police corruption, football stadium disasters, rioting, racial and religious conflicts and the growth of the BNP in local politics.”
A soon-to-be-flying-picket during the miner’s strike, Senior recalls sensing an edginess in Sheffield during the lead up to the industrial action which saw the authorities violently oppose workers from the local mining and steel industries.
“I came back to Sheffield in ’83 and found it to be a city in some turmoil and decay ’cause there were lots of steel factories being shut down, a lot steel workers being made redundant, including my father, and so there were strikes going on, and it was sort of building up to the miners’ strike. And you kind of knew it was building up to that because Thatcher had this kind of idea to sort of pick off the unions one by one.”
“As a kid who had been brought up in the sixties, I was far from feeling buoyant in this accelerating tide,” Sheffield music scene chronicler Mick Fish writes. “In fact, I was slowly watching all the foundations of my life crumbling about me. Thatcherism was rampaging seemingly unstoppably over what I saw as the mainstays of my outlook on life… The Tories’ general manifesto was ‘We don’t like it, so we’ll scrap it’.”
art of noise
As well as causing much trauma and hardship this difficult period perversely also gave rise to local post-punk, synthpop and dance music scenes, its protagonists aided by access to venues like The Limit and The Leadmill, and later through events such as Dolebusters music festivals put on by the council.
The Leadmill itself was a non-profit performing arts venue targeted towards those artists struggling for exposure elsewhere. Located in unoccupied, derelict industrial buildings, the venue hosted a range of activities including live music, performance art and film screenings. Notably, it held benefit gigs for those in mining and steel-related professions.
As such, as Pulp’s Nick Banks puts it in The Beat is The Law, “The dole culture of Thatcher’s Britain of the eighties was perhaps a great supporter of the arts”.
In his Depeche Mode biography Stephen Malins writes that, “In reality Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power had polarised political opinion in the 1980s, stigmatising pop groups who revelled in glamour, fame and money as ‘right-wing reactionaries’, and making pseudo-communists of anyone who expressed a ‘caring’ social perspective.”
As Cabaret Voltaire, Kirk, Mallinder and Chris Watson duly established their Western Works studio in the former headquarters of the Socialist Workers’ Party, having produced numerous homemade cassettes prior to their studio debut in 1978. The Cabs’ early work had a distinctly industrial bent, and growing up in a staunchly blue-collar town, Kirk was treated nightly to the sounds from the nearby forges where his father worked; yet in an interview with The Quietus he seeks to downplay the influence of the decaying steel city on the group’s sound:
“It wasn’t a case of ‘Oh yeah, I can hear all these weird noises in the night coming from the forges…’ I don’t think it was then a case of ‘Well, I’d better go off and do some music that sounds like that.’ I don’t think we thought about it. The whole thing with industrial was that wasn’t a term that Cabaret Voltaire invented, the first people I heard of using that term were Throbbing Gristle and they called their label Industrial and their slogan was ‘Industrial Music For Industrial People’. And I think that kind of got stuck onto Cabaret Voltaire as well because we all came out at the same time. And it did become a bit of a cliché, you know.
“But you can’t deny the fact that back then Sheffield was kind of like the big steel, industrial city. Sadly a lot of it went. It was something that was always there and I was in very close proximity to it. A few minutes from where I lived. We used to go down there to play when we were kids and fantasise about what all these different buildings were. It was the end result of watching too much sci-fi, your imagination running riot, you like to think about what things could be… not what they were.”
Having signed to Rough Trade, Cabaret Voltaire released three independent albums of tape loop, drum machine and guitar-driven paranoia – Mix Up (1979), Voice of America (1980) and Red Mecca (1981) – before decamping to Virgin Records in 1982.
Of course, the Cabs weren’t the only act in the late seventies forming electronic realisations of a city that on the brochure was forward-thinking and futuristic but in reality was regressive and depressing; during this period Sheffield also spawned post-punk acts like The Comsat Angels, Artery, Clock DVA, I’m So Hollow, They Must Be Russians, Hula and Graph, in addition to electronic groups like Vice Versa and The Future who would morph into ABC and The Human League respectively.
Vice Versa emerged briefly with material sounding not dissimilar to The Normal’s lone single before ultimately morphing into chart-topping purveyors of ‘New Pop’ ABC. “Here is my gas mask / and here is baton / I carry my shield / made out of Perspex,” stated a monotone frontman Mark White on Vice Versa’s prescient Riot Squad in 1980.
Meanwhile, during 1977 The Future’s Martyn Ware bought his first synth (a Korg 770S, for £800) and together with fellow computer programmer, Ian Craig Marsh, he even developed a machine to generate lyrics for some of their early tracks. After vocalist Adi Newton departed to form Clock DVA (name inspired by A Clockwork Orange) the duo concentrated on instrumentals until the arrival of Newton’s replacement, and synthpop-star-in-waiting, Phil Oakey. They called one of their instrumental tracks 4JG – that is, ‘for JG Ballard’.
The group soon changed its name to The Human League (taken from a sci fi-themed computer game), releasing two EPs, 1978’s Electronically Yours (featuring Being Boiled) and a year later The Dignity of Labour. The latter, a concept record of sorts inspired by the Soviet space program, was named after a mural in a high-rise block featured in A Clockwork Orange and featured on its cover an image of Yuri Gagarin striding across a Moscow square to be honoured for his efforts.
Unlike the industrial triumvirate of Cabaret Voltaire, Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle, The Human League espoused optimistic humanism in both their lyrics and visuals, however alike their source material. The Face‘s Heather Hart found the group’s approach distinctive at the time.
“The Human League play their synthesisers and don’t let their synthesisers play them,” she said. “And whereas most electronic music writers seem to have some kind of fixation for being European and/or a machine, or with oldfashioned science fiction “futuristic” films, the songs the League write are much closer to home, at once imaginative and powerful.”
The debut album Reproduction (1979) featured sonic identity crisis Empire State Human and the Philip K Dick-inspired Almost Medieval and Circus of Death. Follow-up album Travelogue (1980) continued in a similar sonic and thematic vein before an acrimonious split saw Ware and Marsh depart and form Heaven 17, leaving Oakey to drive the group in a more commercial direction. This was in part as a result of an appreciation for the work of Donna Summer I Feel Love-producer Giorgio Moroder with whom Oakey would later collaborate on the 1982 hit single Together in Electric Dreams.
By 1981 The Human League mark two were starting to distance themselves from the cold, dehumanised embrace of electronics which had its roots in Düsseldorf, moving beyond experimentalism towards releasing material with more of a pop music structure, more ‘human’ some might say.
“I Feel Love just didn’t sound like any record that had been before,” Oakey gushes in the BBC’s Synth Britannia. “It came on the radio and you couldn’t quite believe what you were hearing – it was hypnotic but it was driving. We were in fact much more influenced by Moroder than we were by Kraftwerk… We never really wanted to be Kraftwerk – we wanted to be a pop band.”
Having released an array of cover versions on their earlier work The Human League’s critical and commercial breakthrough came with Dare!, a Martin Rushent-produced album driven by hit singles like The Sound of the Crowd and, especially, the boy/girl call-and-response of Don’t You Want Me? which was the UK #1 for five weeks from December 1981.
Recorded and released simultaneously to Dare! was the debut album of Marsh and Ware’s new act Heaven 17. Shiny and energeticPenthouse and Pavement was nonetheless a left wing critique of the nation’s excesses under Thatcher; the cover art features striking sketches of the band as professional yuppies going about their upwardly-mobile business. (Heaven 17’s 1983 follow-up was titled The Luxury Gap.)
After the muted response to 1985’s The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, Cabaret Voltaire themselves moved in the direction of house music, experienced a turbulent period with Parlophone, then launched their own label – freed up creatively, they released three more records. Kirk views the Cabs legacy as entwined with other important late-seventies British bands:
“On one extreme you had Throbbing Gristle who were not musical and on the other side you had Joy Division… who were experimental but they were also rock and had recognisable song structures. And somewhere in the middle you had Cabaret Voltaire who were, in some ways, a bit of both.”
Sheffield was later blessed with a state-of-the-art recording facility. FON Studios, later made famous by the success of the Warp label, was built by local industrial funk band Chakk who used their advance from London-based record company MCA to build the facility in the Wicker, a semi-industrial area of Sheffield. Apparently drop forges and other light industry nearby caused the building to shake and this came through in studio recordings. (Chakk’s biggest hit was 1984’s Out of the Flesh which reached #3 on the UK independent charts and was actually recorded at Western Works, Cabaret Voltaire’s studio.)
Mick Fish sees the origins of industrial music as essentially a British phenomenon: “There wasn’t a hint of anything American about it. No recycling of blues of R&B riffs. It saw the world as a mess of sound; a harsh, bleak landscape. In effect the reality that many people had to live with every day, particularly through the eighties. It wasn’t escapist of full of the frills or trappings of rock ‘n’ roll. Bands like the Cabs, Clock DVA and TG held a mirror up to British life, and a lot of what was reflected wasn’t very pretty… With their noises, cut-ups, walls of sound, ethnic strains and synthesised bleeps, the early industrial groups were awash with the flotsam and jetsam of modern life.”
© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2013.