Until last year, Sheffield was undoubtedly the most musically inactive city in Britain. For a city with over half a million people, the paucity of small venues was little short of criminal, and the prospects for bands working outside the Working Men's Club circuit absolutely non-existent. "Drift south, young man, and drown" was the order of the day.
But just under the surface, waiting for that kick we all felt in 1977, was a hive of latent musical expression, spearheaded by the now-legendary Extras (since departed from the city), and featuring waves old, new, odd and unwholesome.
Since then, it's been fairy-tale stuff. Venues have been found, records have been made, and trends have been set, broken and cross-bred. The single most important event since the rise of the Extras has probably been the emergence from lengthy isolation of the enigmatic Cabaret Voltaire. Since then a rash of experimental drummerless trios has sprung up, the strangest phenomenon in this strangest of times, and one which owes precious little to the dictates of fashion or commerce.
It would be all too easy to view Cabaret Voltaire as some kind of a response to the pressures of industrial society, and lard an account of them with grey images of urban decay and razor-wrist despair.
I mean, here's this city, Sheffield, famed only for cutlery and viewed by motorway flashers-by as the most probable place for God to fling a few fallen angels. And here's this "band", currently the most talked-about musical phenomenon emanating from the city, producing music which sparks to mind adjectives like "flat", "grey", "repetitive", "soulless", "montonous", etc. It all fits! No it doesn't.
Cabaret Voltaire could have been spawned in any city, and quite probably in a non-urban area, too. The geographical locus counts for little in the nexus of possibilities which brought about Cabaret Voltaire, and even then it's a less direct route than might be expected, traceable from Roxy Music (diproportionately big in Sheffield - the '70s equivalent of the Hollywood Dream Machine?) through spin-off interests in the arts in general - a snowballing infatuation with Kulchur which inevitably wound up the mainspring urge to create for themselves. And so ...
"It started off when I bought a tape recorder," notes keyboard/synthesiser/electronics/tape operator Chris Watson matter-of-factly, "and then I saw an advert for 'Taylor Electronic Music Devices' and bought an oscillator and recorded some tapes. Then the week after that, we recorded an acapella version of David Bowie's 'Five Years'. That was about four years ago."
At that time, Cabaret Voltaire as such didn't exist. These early projects were more the part-time plaything of a wider circle of acquaintances which was eventually whittled down to the present trio - Chris, Richard Kirk (guitar and synthesiser) and Mal (bass, most vocals and synthesiser). No drums.
"Initially, it was an interest in tape recorders and their musical, or creative, value..." "...just a mutual interest in sound..."
The name Cabaret Voltaire, of course, comes from the original Dadaist movement centred in Zurich during the First World War. So, do today's Cabaret Voltaire intend any specific Dada connotation, or do they just feel an affinity with the movement?
"Both," Chris reckons. "Four years ago, remember, Dada had nothing like the publicity it's received recently, and to us, it was Dada to call ourselves Cabaret Voltaire, 'cos we were ripping them off!"
"There was a need to go against the grain, to go against established musical norm," offers Richard.
Mal elaborates: "To us, what we were doing was a parallel to what Dada was doing. We know we weren't Dada; Dada died when it did and we've no ideas of setting ourselves up as another Dadaist movement. "But there were parallels, elements of things which we saw reflected in what we were trying to do, a reaction to the established musical mode and the way it worked, and we saw ourselves as a bit of a contradiction to that. Perhaps it was very naive; perhaps it still is naive to call ourselves that..."
"We just wanted a name for a group," summarises Chris. "Elkie Brooks used to be in a group called Dada, and she's got her own TV show now!"
To date, the Cabs have only made a handful of live appearances, and nearly all of them in Sheffield. So why the reticence, when dozens of meagrely talented bands flog their wares round the nation's clubs?
"At first, it was more experimentation. Going out on stage didn't seem the best way to work out what we wanted to do in the first place, so we worked in a 'studio' manner.
"Plus, we weren't interested in the standard 'going out on the road' syndrome. We wanted to present things in a different manner."
So what changed their minds?
"The fact that you can only reach a certain stage sat in a loft making tapes. Also, the atmosphere itself changed, which meant it was possible for us to play. We became more acceptable."
And from all accounts, any level of acceptance is better than that accorded them at their first gig, in May 1975.
Chris: "A guy I knew at the time was working for 'Science For People' and they were desperately looking for a group to liven up their Tuesday disco. So I told him we could play rock music..." (Muted laughter).
"...and he said, 'Oh great, how much do you cost?', and I said, We'll play for nothing'. 'Oh, even better!' says he. So we got these big posters: ROCK AND ELECTRONIC MUSIC. The reaction was amazing. It ended in a fight. Richard got some equipment smashed, and Mal ended up in hospital with a chipped backbone.
"Another gig was in the University Music Department. At one time there was an avant-garde reaction there - students searching for the most obscure composers, things like that - and one guy happened to pick up on us. He knew this composer, Jean-Yves Bosseur, who used to be student of Stockhausen and who lectures in Aesthetics at the Paris Conservatory, and we gradually got to know him, so he adapted three of his compositions for a performance we did at the university."
"Which was very funny," continues Mal, "because the established music department at the university completely abhorred it, and Bosseur thought it was the best interpretation he'd heard of that piece!"
Presumably, then, reactions have got better more recently?
"Well, a lot of people think that now it's supposed to be acceptable - supposed to clap instead of boo," muses Richard with mild cynicism.
"Better?" questions Chris. "To me, there was no greater buzz than being thrown off stage - inciting people to hate you that much, rather than just playing a set and everybody saying, 'Oh wow, really nice'. If you're standing back and documenting it, you can more or less calculate that our acceptance would happen."
The majority of Cabaret Voltaire's pieces, including those on the forthcoming Rough Trade EP ("Talkover", "Do The Mussolini", "Here She Comes Now" and "The Set Up") are formal structures based on a plodding rhythm figure of drum-machine and bass.
It could be said, however, that this gives a rather one-sided view of the group's music, as some pieces, such as "A Minute Is A Lifetime", are completely improvised. What are the conceptual premises which determine the use of "Free" or "ransom" (random?) elements within their music?
"That's going back to the early days," says Chris. "That point you made a long time ago, that groups like Can approached where they are now from a sort of classical aspect - Irmin Schmidt and people like that being involved with formal classical music - and we started from a total experimental side, and gradually got towards a point which combines the two.
"And so our 'training', if you like, is of a totally experimental basis. This is part of the structure of Cabaret Voltaire."
"It may seem pretentious," adds Mal, "but not to present it would be just as pretentious because it would be ignoring our roots. We don't go out with the idea, Oh, let's do this completely haphazard, let's 'shock'. It's just another side to us, and we don't want to completely ignore it."
Actually, I was thinking more in terms of free jazz improvisation, in which there are two generally discernable schools of thought: there's the Derek Bailey side, which holds that the most interesting and true improvisation is achieved with musicians you've never played with before, and the John Stevens side, which holds that the mutual knowledge gained from playing with the same group of musicians leads to more fulfilling improvisation. Which pole would Cabaret Voltaire incline towards?
"We'd side with the latter," sayas Mal, "although we don't say that is the definitive way free music should be played. It's just the way it refers to us. I suppose the other side is equally valid."
"We started off, I suppose," adds Chris, "at the other side. We weren't interested in playing things, so we experimented radically, but we slowly drifted across. People who can really play their instruments really know how to abuse them."
Richard interjects: " There's no way that can apply to us, because none of us can really play our instruments in a conventional sense..."
"No, but in the context of Cabaret Voltaire, I think we're pretty skilful."
Use of the name "Cabaret Voltaire" implies at least a general interest in things artistic. So do they apply any aesthetic criteria to their work, or are things less rigidly formulated than that?
Mal: "I suppose, basically, that we're minimalist in that sense, but we set certain barriers that we don't extend beyond."
"A piece would probably be worked out based round a set of lyrics, or perhaps a certain sound, and built up from that," adds Richard.
"Over a certain period of time, the situation we've found ourselves in has evolved according to a very strict recording technique."
Chris: " Possibly the only criterion we impose on the stuff that we do is that we've got this 'mental notebook' of recording techniques which we can draw from and apply to various circumstances.
"I don't think any of us has any worries, artistically, because we don't have any intentions artistically - we never set ourselves up to state ANYTHING."
This refusal to commit themselves extends to politics, too. Their set includes both "Do The Mussolini" (an account of the defilement of Mussolini's corpse at the hands of Italian partisans) and "Baader-Meinhof", neither of which is morally or politically explicit, and both of which could be misread - a possibility which doesn't bother them overly.
"All the better if people want to do that," says Richard. "Let them create a fuss about it. That's their business."
"We don't set ourselves up," adds Mal. "We put forward the proposition, the raw material..." "... and people can draw their own conclusions."
"Right. We're not saying we're non-political, rather that we're not making a political statement. We don't ignore politics, but we don't set out with political intentions. We're not The Tom Robinson Band. You can never tell people what to think anyway."
If not giving answers, then, do you want to generate at least an alternative structure?
"I think of us as being part of an alternative structure," ponders Chris. "I don't think we create one."
"We are limited, anyway, both musically and as artists in a broad sense - and we know our limitations. That's why we don't give any direct answers," ends Mal. "We might give a lot of inspiration, directions to other people who might carry on where we leave off, therefore what we've done is not completely at a loss. We're only part of a chain..."
And the signs are that, locally at least, the chain is lengthening. Sheffield now boasts about half-a-dozen experimental drummerless trios, all of whom would probably acknowledge Cabaret Voltaire as a direct influence. Catalyst Voltaire is beginning to seem a more apt name for the band.
And the Cabs themselves? Well, the last time I met them, they were contemplating a ten-second tape delay on their next concert, giving the audience a concurrent action replay of the whole performance.
Maybe they should charge double for the gig, too.
Digital assistance and credit: Simon Dell
© NME, 1978