Wait a sec, aren’t there two original sounds of Sheffield? On the one hand, you had Def Leppard, a buncha sloppy, hungry teenagers who were gigging around town in 1977 prior to recording a loud glam-metal EP entitled Getcha Rocks Off. On the other hand, you had Cabaret Voltaire, a trio of pious unsmiling music students who laid down all sorts of droning/squeaking/buzzing experimental tracks with found noises, tape loops, speeches in German. Def Leppard turned into multimillionaires and created a pop-heavy super-schlock form of glam-metal that still sounds groovy today. Cabaret Voltaire sputtered and shifted, creating all sorts of tangential art projects and industrial-techno tracks up to the present. Neither band ever appealed to music critics much, which is puzzling, but their influence is incalculable. Sheffield is Britain’s historical center for steelmaking, and it’s no accident that two red-hot, smoking tendrils of music came out of the city: glam-metal and techno. But if I might belabor the metaphor a bit: Def Leppard are the slag pot—dissed by critics and now ignored by fans—while Cabaret Voltaire were the blast furnace, taking ore from Dada to Stockhausen to the Velvets and forcing it through the fire of their serious minds. The results were usually loud, often curious, always noisy, and the new compilation The Original Sound of Sheffield ‘78/‘82 Best Of gives you a bracing dose of these early Cabaret Voltaire tracks. It’s also an excellent introduction to the murky factory origins of industrial and techno music.
Right off the bat, I should mention that if you’re a serious Cabaret Voltaire fan, there’s nothing on this disc that you don’t already own. Five of the fourteen tracks appear on the earlier Mute singles compilation The Living Legends, seven of them are album tracks from Mix-Up (1979), The Voice of America (1980), Red Mecca (1981), and 2 x 45 (1982), and the only two “rare” tracks (“Baader Meinhof” and “Loosen the Clamp”) are from the early-demo comp Listen Up With Cabaret Voltaire. However, if you’re out of the loop, like I am, then this album is a lot of fun. It ignores all the vaguely accessible tunes from their formative years (e.g. their cover of “Here She Comes Now”) and concentrates entirely on difficult, metronomic noise. I love it.
Funny thing about this noise though: for a band that was always mocking fascism and plunking down abrasive art statements, this music sounds a lot like goosestepping. Take, for example, the classic single “Do the Mussolini (Headkick)”, which has some nifty electronic soundscapes from Chris Watson, a nice sheet of guitar feedback from Richard Kirk, and some semi-distorted robotic vocals by that sonic sobersides Stephen Mallinder. When the sonar that keeps blurting “Head!” stops and Mallinder croaks “Do the Mussolini”, as if it were an enforced new dance craze (and believe me, you cannot dance to this song), you sorta get the joke: these are marching orders to be disobeyed.
Most of the other tracks take a similar tactic: create nightmare soundscape, then lay on the Big Brother vocals. From the early demo “Baader Meinhof” (insectoid keyboards skittering around an ominous German speech) to the slightly funky cacophony of “Wait & Shuffle” (free-sax, Bootsy bass, and a speedfreak echoplex RAF sergeant on the mike), this is some very weird and ominous stuff. As a sonic critique of the new authoritarian state that came in with Margaret Thatcher (and safe to say she was not a friend to Sheffield’s students or workers), Cabaret Voltaire do a brilliant job of making elitism look just as ugly as fascism.
My favorite tracks are the ones that combine punk momentum with inhuman ferromanganese sonics. “Nag Nag Nag” is the undeniable classic on this level. Mallinder’s vocals (and I’m just guessing that’s him on the mike) have that lip-curling sneer appeal that’s a bit of a shock compared to his earlier robot delivery, and the dentist-drill sounds that surround him are addictive. And that’s leaving aside the crazy headlong rush of the tune, completely in contrast to their usual staid art-poses. “Nag Nag Nag” sounds like getting a root canal in a wind tunnel, it does, and it’ll be your favorite track on the album. Next to that, there’s the jarring cover of the Seeds’ “No Escape”, which begins with crazed screams and cheapo keyboards, and continues on with the very same wind-tunnel sound effects backing up a new garage-rock momentum. In some curious way, it ends up sounding even more psychedelic than the original! Definitely not for stoners, though . . .
These guys were obviously eager to try almost anything, and from the oddball-reggae of “Silent Command” to the Arabia-noir of “Yahar”, this album picks up some great strands from their experimental mindfuck aesthetic. Still, the tracks I keep returning to (besides “Nag Nag Nag”) are “The Set-Up” (resonant guitar beauty crossed with Orwellian noise), “This is Entertainment” (sounds like Dr. Frankenstein’s rock tumbler, but I’m still entertained), “Split Second Feeling” (where androids get all mystical and sensual for a couple minutes), and “Spread the Virus” (a harbinger of dinky new-wave craziness). Wonderful stuff, and to my ears they’re pretty good tunes on their own, stripped of their historical weight.
In the album’s liner notes, Richard Kirk says that Cabaret Voltaire existed “out of boredom, as an escape from the slavery of dead-end jobs and also to cause trouble”. Now, where have we heard that before? Still, the overall impression you get from this album is that of some enthusiastic unembarrassed highbrow kids trying to make a new kind of noise. I wouldn’t call them geniuses, but they did stumble on some great ideas every now and then. And their influence seems pretty obvious now: I caught snatches of proto-everything from Sonic Youth to Jesus & Mary Chain to Aphex Twin to the Cars in these old tracks, and so will you. And best of all, between the makeshift electronic fidelity (not lo-fi, but definitely pretty low-budget) and the this-ain’t-been-done-before bravery, it all sounds pretty modern now. The sad part is that the ominous Orwellian tone is relevant once again . . .
Sheffield is now the home of the National Centre for Popular Music, which seems fair enough, considering the Cabaret Voltaire / Def Leppard connection. Let’s just hope there are special galleries for both bands there, and that “Nag Nag Nag” is on permanent repeat in the gift shop . . .