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  • Jack Starr

CABARET VOLTAIRE RETROSPECTIVE – A Look Back at Sheffield’s Most Important Band

Over the years, Sheffield has produced its fair share of chart-topping superstars, from Def Leppard to the Arctic Monkeys. One band, however, managed to elude this mainstream success – while making massive waves in the underground scene.



Cabaret Voltaire was formed in Sheffield in 1973 by tech-geeks Chris Watson and Richard H. Kirk, along with vocalist Stephen Mallinder. Named after the famous Zurich nightclub, their early works were characterised by experimentation with DIY electronics. Breaking conventions for live performance, their early shows would take place in odd locations such as public toilets and blared from loudspeakers on vans. Ahead of their time, this provocative style would eventually find an audience with the explosion of punk rock.


They were instrumental in the formation of the ‘industrial’ music genre – the harsh, transgressive form of electronic music that proved massively influential on the underground dance scene of the 1980s, and later the alternative rock scene of the 1990s. Industrial fans consider the band as one of the original ‘big three’, along with Hull-based provocateurs Throbbing Gristle and Berlin noise-rockers Einstürzende Neubauten.


Unusually for a band, they had their own recording studio. In 1977, Watson rented out the second floor of the Western Works, a derelict building on Portobello Street near the university. This studio would be the Cabs’ main recording space, as well as a hub for alternative culture throughout the ‘80s. New Order (formerly Joy Division) recorded their first demos here.


After spending years as an eccentric live act, the Cabs finally signed with Rough Trade Records in 1978. Their debut release, Extended Play, featured an iconic minimal-wave track titled ‘Do the Mussolini – Headkick’. This track was inspired by the death of the titular Italian dictator, whose body was kicked by civilians after his execution. The band planned to turn this anti-fascist defiance into a macabre dance – but this turned out to be horribly misinterpreted. In an interview for the documentary Made in Sheffield, Watson remembers a gig in Leeds where a large group of National Front skinheads turned up, believing the band to be a right-wing group. “It all went a bit wrong,” he laughs.


With audiences growing for both harsh punk-rock and the new wave of electronic music, Cabaret Voltaire began recording albums and touring the world. Their early LPs, Mix-Up, Voice of America, and 2x45 made waves in the indie charts, but it was their 1981 album Red Mecca that solidified them as one of the most important bands of the era. An eerie concept album, Red Mecca was inspired by the band’s American tour, where they came into contact with Televangelism and the rise of Christian-Right – a new unstoppable force in American politics. The album mirrors this western phenomenon with its eastern counterpart – the rise of Islamism, particularly amidst the Iranian revolution. Considered a masterpiece and the band’s magnum opus, Red Mecca topped the indie charts and remains lauded by critics – in 2019, Pitchfork named it the fourth best industrial album of all time.


Shortly afterwards, Watson left the band to work in television sound engineering. With Mallinder and Kirk as the sole remaining members, they began to move towards a more commercial sound, embracing the synthpop and new-wave style that had broken into the mainstream. However, they never left behind their harsh, nasty industrial origins, introducing their tape loops and avant-garde samples to danceable electro-funk in a style one journalist called a kind of ‘sinister hip-hop’.


The Crackdown from 1983 was their only release to break the UK Top 40, peaking at 31. Produced by legendary engineer Flood, it bought the band to a new audience, while attracting some ire from Cab Vol devotees. When faced with the accusation that the band had ‘sold out to disco’, Mallinder retorted, in a 1985 interview, that the opposite was true: “I think disco sold out to us”, he said in 1985. “I think disco started using things that we do – found sound, long tracks, repetition… Elements we’ve been using for a long time. I don’t think we moved to disco – disco moved to us.”

Around this time, they formed a partnership with Peter Care, founder of the Sheffield Independent Film Company. Previously, they had recorded a soundtrack for his short film, Johnny Yesno (1982). Now, Care directed music videos for them, including the award-winning video for ‘Sensoria’, which received massive airplay on MTV. The poster for the album, Micro-Phonies, even appears on Ferris’s bedroom wall in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The Cabs were now underground legends, having inspired a new generation of industrial-dance music across the world in their wake. In North America, groups like Ministry and Skinny Puppy were rocking the Goth scene, while in Europe Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb were spearheading the Electronic Body Music movement – all naming the Cabs as a direct influence. As Bernard Sumner of New Order put it – they taught us that ‘one could make music without guitars’.



Their next albums, 1985’s The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, and 1987’s CODE, retained the robotic industrial dance-funk flavour, never missing a beat with their transgressive rhythms. However, towards the end of the ‘80s, the band started facing issues. The Western Works studio was proving unsustainable, with frequent break-ins and financial issues cropping up. The band were spending a lot of time apart, with Mallinder living a high-life in London while introverted Kirk stayed local in Sheffield. The Western Works was abandoned in 1987 and demolished shortly after. After spending some time on different projects, Kirk and Mallinder reunited in 1989 to take Cabaret Voltaire in a whole new direction – once again.


Moving over to Chicago USA, they teamed up with American producer Marshall Jefferson for a new album, Groovy, Laidback and Nasty. This LP captured the duo’s interest in house music, the new-fangled form of electronic dance music that had spawned rave culture. While stationed in Chicago, they met with their industrial contemporary Al Jourgensen of Ministry to record a single together under the moniker ‘Acid Horse’ – their one-time release, No Name No Slogan, was a spaghetti-western influenced industrial-dance-rock anthem of madness, shipped with a fake sheet of LSD in the record jacket. Jourgensen, who at the time was leading industrial music into a heavy-metal direction, expressed confusion at their shift towards house music. In a 1996 interview with Sandy Masuo, Jourgensen stated, “They wanted to do a house record, and they didn't understand that they informed house music through people copying them. And now they're back here to copy themselves off other people?” The result was a unique spin on rave music, and the fact that the band were never afraid of ‘selling out’ means they displayed their unique talents in a wide variety of genres.


In the early 1990s, the band returned to indie production, shifting from house to its edgier cousin – techno music. 1991’s Body and Soul was the last record to feature Mallinder on vocals – their remaining albums would be instrumentals. The group finally broke up in 1994, when Mallinder moved to Australia, and Kirk began to record solo projects under various names.


Cabaret Voltaire remained dormant until 2009, when Kirk revived the name for new performances featuring all-new music. Performances would consist of only Kirk and his sound machines, and he was adamant about only pushing forward, not playing any older material for nostalgia purposes. When asked about it in an interview with Daniel Dylan Wray in 2017, Kirk revealed, “The Coachella Festival asked me to reform Cabaret Voltaire and there was a very [expletive] large amount of money on the table, and I said, ‘No, this is Cabaret Voltaire, we don’t go back’.”


In 2020, we received the first Cabaret Voltaire album in 26 years. Shadow of Fear marked a return to the abrasive, pulse-pounding electro-industrial that had made them so legendary to begin with, while still sounding fresh, modern and inventive, with its danceable techno rhythms. In addition, Kirk released two drone albums and a funk spin-off EP in the same vein.



Sadly, this would turn out to be the final gasp of the Cabs that we would get. Richard H. Kirk, who lived in Sheffield his whole life, passed away on the 21st of September, 2021, aged 65. His former bandmate Stephen Mallinder paid tribute via Twitter with the following words: ‘[he was] difficult to live with but impossible not to love. Stubborn, no sufferer of fools, but insightful, spontaneous, and with vision and, underneath the spiky shell, a warm heart.’


With their history and influence spanning five decades, Cabaret Voltaire are certainly one of Sheffield’s most important cultural exports. Music superstars like Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore count the group among their biggest inspirations. The Sensoria Music & Film Festival, named after one of their most famous singles, has been held annually in Sheffield since 2008.


While Cabaret Voltaire are no more, Stephen Mallinder still tours as a solo artist – he will play the Leadmill along with Blancmange this November, on the same stage the Cabs once frequented more than forty years ago.


The Crackdown, Micro-Phonies, Drinking Gasoline and The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord have been reissued for 2022 by Mute Records on coloured vinyl LPs. They are available online and in record stores now.



TOP TRACKS TO LISTEN TO:

‘Do the Mussolini (Headkick)’, from Extended Play (1978) – a minimalist, industrial-dub anti-fascist track that highlights the early years of the group.

‘Landslide’, from Red Mecca (1981) – with a dark and foreboding guitar riff, this post-punk track sets a haunting tone.

‘Sensoria’, from Micro-Phonies (1984) – perhaps their most well-known song, this sinister electro-funk classic propelled Cabaret Voltaire into underground clubs worldwide.

‘I Want You’, from The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord (1985) – this incredibly catchy track combines industrial sampling and experimentation with new wave synths and a funky bassline.

‘Hypnotised’, from Groovy, Laidback and Nasty (1990) – the band’s unique, squelchy take on Chicago House.

‘Vasto’, from Shadow of Fear (2020) – Cabaret Voltaire’s dramatic return after two and half decades is a pulse-pounding return to form.

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