The new Cabaret Voltaire compilation, #7885 Electropunk to Technopop, marks the first time that the band’s early Rough Trade and later Some Bizarre/Virgin recordings have appeared on the same collection. This may not sound like a big deal to the uninitiated, but the chasm between fans of the two periods was once enormous. “Sell out!” was the rallying cry of those who favored the Rough Trade music. “Pretentious white noise” was the predictable response. The great debate was reactionary on both sides. As this retrospective shows, CV had left behind the idea of being “musical terrorists” long before they left Rough Trade.
Richard H. Kirk, Stephen Mallinder, and Chris Watson first got together in Sheffield, England in 1973 as Cabaret Voltaire. Their name is a reference to the Dada art movement, which was launched from a Zurich, Switzerland club called Cabaret Voltaire. The trio also claimed to be inspired by the “cut-up” ideas of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Using tapes, vocals, keyboards and other instruments, the group fashioned an aggressive and eclectic sound.
The nascent Rough Trade label took a chance on them in 1978, and released the four-track Extended Play EP. Two songs from the EP appear here, “Do the Mussolini (Headkick),” and “The Set Up.” These are the most avant-garde tracks on the set. “Mussolini” is like an alien transmission with a beat. “Set Up” borrows from Pink Floyd’s early “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” for its trance-inducing groove, accompanied by disembodied vocals.
With the 1979 single “Nag Nag Nag,” and their full-length debut Mix-Up, CV were clearly moving forward. Their music was structured and full, and already featured a drum machine. Both Mix-Up and the single-only release “Silent Command“ put the band on the UK Indie chart for the first time. The prolific band would record four studio LPs, assorted singles, EPs, and live sets in the four years they were with Rough Trade.
When Watson departed in ‘82, Kirk and Mallinder decided to take a shot at the mainstream. They signed with Some Bizarre, who had the major label distribution (and clout) of Virgin. The Crackdown came out in 1983, and hit number 31 on the UK Pop chart, bolstered by the single “Just Fascination.” The song is a brilliant combination of CV’s experimental flourishes with the trendy new wave and dance floor style of the time. The title track from that album, “The Crackdown” is even better, and anticipates such deviant fare as Clock DVA’s “The Hacker.”
CV continued to refine this formula with “Sensoria” and “James Brown” from their 1984 album Micro-Phonies. “James Brown” is (fittingly) the funkiest song on the set, and the “horns” on it are hilarious. The tune is even funkier than the later “Big Funk,” thanks to its rubberband bass line. The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord is the final album that this collection draws from. “I Want You” and “Warm” are the songs, and they close out the chronologically-ordered #7885.
There are liner notes from both Daniel Miller (founder of Mute Records) and Kirk. In typical Voltaire style though, the essays are almost impossible to read, thanks to the vividly colorful background they are printed on. It took a lighted magnifying glass for me, but the effort was rewarded with some fascinating insights.
The 19-song #7885 Electropunk to Technopop is a well-chosen introduction to what was probably the most dynamic period in Cabaret Voltaire’s 41-year career.