According to our resident archivist, the best album to come out of Sheffield is Cabaret Voltaire’s ‘The Voice Of America’, the 1980 classic of collage, noise, tape loops, samples and mess
Released in 1980, ‘The Voice Of America’ is one the most influential records in my life. It’s full of tapes of voices, shortwave radio, snippets recorded from the TV, noise and distortion, I love all those elements. It starts with an American voice, issuing instructions like “We will not allow any dancing, or running up and down the aisles…” and talking about issuing earplugs “so as to keep you from having a headache…”. That whole section of speech was taken from an ITN documentary about The Beatles which The Cabs recorded on cassette straight from the TV speaker.
It was a cop giving a pre-show pep talk to the police who would be providing security at the show in Tennessee in 1966, their last-ever tour. It was around the time of Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark, so there were people burning Beatles records, and everyone was pretty nervous about what could happen at one of the shows in the deep south. This was the show where the Ku Klux Klan turned up, and where a firework went off in the audience and all four Beatles thought one of them had been shot. I remember seeing the documentary on TV in the late 1970s, and Cabaret Voltaire must have been recording it off the TV at the same time I was watching it. At least that’s what I like to think, anyway.
As an album, I think this is the best of the period, the best of all the music that came out of Sheffield. It was subversive, there was a real punk element to it, although they actually had nothing to do with punk. They were doing this kind of thing before punk, during punk and after it. It had more in common with Eno and Byrne’s ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’, and it sounds like they were working with the same ideas, of using found sounds to create the vocal parts, collaging all these disparate elements to make a new sound.
I remember Cabaret Voltaire talking about this at the time, describing the phenomenon as part of their “safety pin theory”, where two sets of unrelated people are working on the same thing at the same time, mostly unaware of what the other is up to. The following year they released ‘Sluggin’ Fer Jesus’, which was a 12-inch, but it sounds like it could have come off ‘The Voice Of America’, as it used the same studio processes.
Chris Watson left the band in 1981, and you can hear the change in their output after that. He was the one who was really obsessed with tape recorders and making field recordings and taping dialogue from the TV. They were also digging out old experimental music albums from the 1950s and 60s and using them as sound sources. On the track ‘The Voice Of America/Damage Is Done’ you can hear these atonal bangs and crashes, which have always reminded me of the sound of chairs being stacked in a big school hall. They are actually taped snippets from Henk Badings’ ‘Cain And Abel’, which was an experimental electronic score written for a ballet and released in 1958 as a seven-inch EP.
Another track I really like is ‘Kneel To The Boss’. It has a tape loop of a drum machine, which sounds like it’s being processed through an EMS Synthi AKS. They brought out a compilation of really early experiments in 2003 called ‘Methodology 74-78: Attic Tapes’, and there were several tracks with titles like ‘Synthi AKS Piece One’ on it, so you know they were using the AKS a great deal. If you put a hot signal into an AKS, or any EMS gear, you get this really distinctive distortion, and it’s a signature sound on the Cab’s early material.
I did meet Stephen Mallinder and Richard H Kirk once. Meat Beat Manifesto were playing a show in Scotland with them, Orbital, Finitribe and The Shamen. I remember my Jupiter 8 decided to fall off the keyboard stand at the end of the set and pulled out all the MIDI cables from the MPC60 which was running everything. It did a 360 degree somersault and landed on its feet with a huge crash, but it didn’t break. No, I didn’t tell Mal and Kirk how much ‘The Voice Of America’ means to me. It would have been too fanboy!