Gig 65. Cabaret Voltaire, The Octagon Centre, Sheffield University, 19th November 1983

“I know when to go out

Know when to stay in

Get things done.”

David Bowie - “Modern Love” (1983)

Well, if it’s alright for David Bowie to stay at home on a summer Saturday night, then I reckon it’s also absolutely fine for me. Mum and Dad are out doing the paso doble and foxtrot with friends at Southey Green community centre. Meanwhile fiancée Ava is engaged in her weekly battle with the publicans of West Street, as she attempts once again to drink them dry. I’m at home, making tapes, watching telly, having a bath and, let’s be honest, not really getting things done. More like generally arsing around. But these are the prototype evenings of doing nothing; the only thing “chilling" at home in Sheffield in the early eighties is the milk in the fridge. 

I’ve got the radio on. Richard Tandy is presenting the alternative music show on local station Radio Hallam. Most large regional stations in the UK have their own version of John Peel: Roger Hill over in Liverpool, Terry Christian on BBC Radio Derby, while Richard performs a similar role for South Yorkshire. My ears prick up when in amidst the usual mix of Funboy Three and Big Country, he plays the title track from the new album by Cabaret Voltaire:

“That’s ‘The Crackdown’ by Cabaret Voltaire, the title track from their great new album, just released on Virgin, and it’s my record of the week here on Radio Hallam.”

I’ve met Richard Tandy a few times; he is a good guy. I’ve forgiven him for playing a track by our band, The Box, at the wrong speed on the radio. In fairness, he apologised the following week, then played it at the correct rpm. I think his personal taste gravitates more to the  mainstream end of the alternative spectrum. So while you would expect to hear the likes of The Human League, Heaven 17 and the Comsat Angels on his shows, it’s something of a surprise to hear him play and enthuse about the Cabs.

The Cabs on the cover of the NME, July 1983

But things have changed in the world of Cabaret Voltaire. After five years with the none-more-independent Rough Trade label, Richard and Mal have decided to make common cause with the Dagenham Diaghilev Mr. Stevo Pearce and his high-flying Some Bizarre set-up, home to the all-conquering Soft Cell and a growing assortment of moody misfits. As a result, Stevo has found Virgin Records to be a willing and excited partner to sell, market and distribute the Cabs’ new material. 

Cover of the Virgin Records German press kit

To some purists, a change like this - from the righteous, communal Rough Trade on Blenheim Crescent, W11 to their more commercially minded cousins just a 12” picture disc remix away in Vernon Yard - seemed like a perfidious move. Why would you want to be on the same label as Phil Collins and bloody Blue Rondo à la Turk? I actually think Virgin are pretty cool, the home to everyone from Tangerine Dream to Simple Minds via the Sex Pistols and Captain Beefheart. 

Richard and Mal want their music to reach more people, to get their albums stocked in a broader range of shops, both at home and overseas. Virgin has a history of success with an eclectic mix of left-field electronic music and already has two Sheffield bands - The Human League and Heaven 17 - on the roster. They are keen to collect the set.

Cabs on the cover of Dutch magazine "OOR" August 1983

The terms of this agreement between Stevo, the Cabs and Virgin are subject to much speculation in the pubs and rehearsal rooms of Sheffield, with hazardous guesses ranging from the cost of a nice house in London to the transfer value of a decent first division striker. True to their word, Virgin get the album into Our Price, which doesn’t mean anything in Sheffield but is apparently a big music chain down South. The band are on the cover of magazines in the UK and Europe and they are finally getting airplay from the likes of Richard Tandy at Radio Hallam. In August ‘The Crackdown’ charts at number 31 on the official UK album charts - the big, grown-up countdown, not the independent lists. There it is in print, snuggled between Kool and The Gang and Tears For Fears. Cabaret Voltaire’s last studio album release for Rough Trade, ‘2X45’, managed to creep in at 98. 

This is progress. 

This is entertainment. 

This is fun. 

I’m thrilled for them. 

I’d like to say my wallet played a part in helping to get the Cabs’ album into the charts. The truth is I didn’t have to buy it because Richard Kirk gave me a free copy in The Washington pub one Sunday night, before it was officially released. He’s a friend and a kind and generous one. And it’s the same goodwill that prevails when I ask if I can be on the guest list for their Sheffield gig at the university in November. 

No-one is ever going to mistake Cabaret Voltaire for Marshall stack hauling, diesel-sucking road monsters. Their contemporaries Depeche Mode released their third studio album the week after ‘The Crackdown’ and have just wrapped a twenty-two date jaunt around the UK. They’re now just pausing for breath before they push on into Europe well into 1984. Meanwhile the Cabs did a more modest six-show run the week their album was released. This new Sheffield show, their first in their home town since they played the opening of The Lyceum in August last year, nestles between a prestigious appearance on a Spanish TV recording in Madrid (Virgin proving their international value) and the start of a nine-date run around the continent which will take them up to Christmas. Apparently the band are quickly cooking up something very special for the Sheffield gig.

Since opening in October, the new Octagon Centre at the university has quickly established itself as the go-to venue for visiting bands looking to step up from The Leadmill, but perhaps aren’t quite ready for the City Hall. The Smiths and The Fall have already played here, while Death Cult will be along soon. I was here last month for an incredible gig by Sun Ra and his fantastic Arkestra. 

I don’t think I’ve quite yet recovered from that encounter, wandering around the office at work telling bemused colleagues I’d shaken hands with a black man from Saturn. People are starting to look at me funny.

Photo: Rich Percy

On arrival, it’s immediately apparent why the band couldn’t do this gig as part of the album release tour. Behind the backline of amplification and drum kit is a huge bank of at least twenty-five television sets, supported by some appropriately heavyweight scaffolding. Additionally, there are four further large video screens. Technically, it’s a major feat of cabling, knowing which SCART goes to which DIN connector. Pete Hartley, the local Saruman of the speaker-stack, has been brought in to help join it all up. While this kind of audio-visual presentation isn’t new to Sheffield - club promoter and DJ Disco John did something on a more modest scale at his Atmosphere nights at Romeos & Juliet’s a couple of years ago - it nonetheless presents an impressive, arresting step-up from a band who have always taken an innovative approach to their onstage visuals. 

I think the inspiration might be the bank of identical tellies that David Bowie’s character absorbs simultaneously in ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’. Virgin deal or no Virgin deal, the Cabs don’t have quite the same budget as Nicolas Roeg, and looking at the cathode jumble of second-hand Grundig, Bush and Philips boxes, the overall look is less futuristic Thomas Jerome Newton and more Radio Rentals fire sale. And, given Cabaret Voltaire’s innate, inventive, do-it-yourself common sense, which has stood them in good stead since the mid-seventies, it's appropriately lo-fi and engaging. 

Captured on the cover of ‘The Crackdown’ album with a tripod-mounted video camera and portable recorder, Richard and Mal are excited by the possibilities of video as a new art form, as explored by visual artists like Laurie Anderson and Bill Viola. As a result, Kirk and Mallinder have started a video production company called DoubleVision (because there are two of them), which will release new visual work by artists they admire as well as their own experimental forays into the new medium. 

There is no support band tonight. Instead, the multiple screens flicker with film footage from the Cabs’ video archive: a moving melange that includes robotics, William Burroughs, firearms, tear gas, Joseph Beuys and Playboy girls, fiercely edited in a style that owes more than a little to the cut-up technique, pioneered in print by the Dadaist art movement in the 1920s. It’s an impressive installation, with even the TV sets that go on the blink or just offer a screen of snowy static seeming to add to the calculated randomness. 

The Octagon centre is filling up nicely. This being Cabaret Voltaire in Sheffield, there is a confabulation of pretentious people in the bar, loudly holding forth on everything from Paul Young’s abominable cover of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ to the American cruise missiles now based at Greenham Common. A brassy storm of big band jazz over the PA system signals that the Cabs are about to start, which you’d think might make folks leave the bar and watch the band. But I’ve seen them enough times now to understand that, much like racing fans who go to the Cheltenham festival for the betting and the craic, but never actually see a horse, a CV Sheffield gig is, for some, more soirée than spectacle.

"Hell for Leather" Mal & Richard (photo by Rich Percy)

“We’ve travelled yards to see you tonight” joshes Mal as the synths zip into life. While he and some of the other lads from Upperthorpe have relocated to a house in Hillsborough, it would be easy for Richard to pop back home around the corner after soundcheck, watch Russ Abbot’s Madhouse, have a curry and be back in time for the gig. Joining them onstage tonight is drummer Al Fish. The genial Mackem has been playing for both Hula and Cabaret Voltaire for over a year now, both in the studio and live, including their Japanese tour. Am I jealous? Maybe, just a little bit. But he is very good company, with a wonderful North-East accent, and his style suits the discipline needed to gel seamlessly with the backing tracks they use live. Al is double-jobbing this week, Hula are in residence at the Crucible Theatre Studio space. 

Al Fish (photo: Rich Percy)

They are all wearing black leather. Leather trousers, leather bomber jacket, leather coat, leather boots. You could drive a small herd of Aberdeen Angus down West Street with the amount of hide on show in here tonight. And it’s not just the Cabs who favour this look. There’s a motorbike accessories shop at the bottom of The Moor called Lewis Leathers, and I suspect they’ve got used to a steady flow of pasty-faced, weedy-looking lads from bands who wouldn’t know a Harley from a Honda but are nonetheless ready to splash the cash to try and look like Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild One’. 

"Anything good on the telly tonight?" (photo: Rich Percy)

The music starts. The new album was partially recorded at the famous Trident Studios in London, where Bowie, Lou Reed and Queen shaped some of their best-known songs. The precocious young engineer on the Cabs’ sessions, a 22-year-old lad known as Flood, will go on to produce U2, Smashing Pumpkins and Sigur Rós.

In a live setting, the 24-track polish of the studio recordings is supplanted by a more rough-hewn, tumultuous feel. The drums in particular - a powerful blend of live playing and pre-prepared backing tracks - hit like a battering ram. 

Mal & Al (photo by me)

The opening track sounds a bit like ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, with Mal, well, not quite rapping, but certainly growling rhythmically. Indeed, his former hoarse whisperer delivery has been replaced by something closer to conventional singing. And while he’s unlikely to trouble Joe Cocker as Sheffield’s greatest living vocalist anytime soon, his new undulating intonation, now more audible, is another sign that the band are changing. Another new track starts, grooving like a Sidewinder across the desert, with Richard playing some splintering electric guitar lines, and this gets the audience moving. Meanwhile, the bank of tellies share a mixture of disorientating video footage with a live onstage camera feed. It's an ambitious blend, putting the disco in discombobulation in a patently Cabs’ way. 

RHK (photo by me)

Always about the present day, but with one uneasy eye on the future, they don’t play anything older than a track called ‘Gut Level’, which came out at the beginning of the year. There’s more chance of hearing them play ‘The Theme From Shaft’ than ‘Nag, Nag, Nag’. To them ‘catalogue’ is something your Mum orders her Christmas presents from. Tonight, these all-new tracks, with expertly rendered sound-collages covering the transitions from song-to-song, gather momentum from simply uptempo to positively frantic. Richard moves from guitar to sax to keyboards, with a relentless Mal as a bulging-eyed babbler. 

RHK on sax (photo by me)

If the old band hypnotised the audience into coalescence - a living, breathing manifestation of the swirling portal in the Sixties ‘Time Tunnel’ TV show - then the late ‘83 CV are here to pulverise us with the brutal rhythmic repetition of their carbuncular funk.  

Not only do Cabaret Voltaire not do oldies, they don’t do encores either. Which is a shame, as the crowd, having gathered that this spectacle is something unlikely to be repeated and are now mostly out of the bar, have been cutting a hectic rug. Only to have it pulled out from under them. Instead, a beguiling Middle-Eastern prayer magic carpets around the Octagon, eventually subduing the calls and applause for the band to reappear.

Running around backstage, snapping pics with my new camera, I’ve had a great time. I know I’m lucky to have such a good relationship with the band. The Cabs are off to Scotland and then the continent next week, and our band The Box will be criss-crossing Europe at the same time. A proper tour, including a sneaky peep behind the Iron Curtain, with plenty of preparation needed. I think I’d better stay in, get things done. 

With thanks to Mal, Al Fish, Simon Dell, Nick Cope, Richard Percy, Paul Widger, Mark Finnigan and Jon Quinn. Special thanks to my editor Nigel Floyd.

Fabio Mendez' book: 'Cabaret Voltaire - A Collection Of Interviews 1977 - 1994' was really useful for research, as was Wesley Doyle's 'Conform To Deform' and my friends Mick Fish and Dave Hallbery with their "Cabaret Voltaire - The Art Of The Sixth Sense'.

Here is a Spotify playlist I made featuring Cabaret Voltaire and some of the fellow explorers circa 1982 to 1983.


Share this post: