Cyclopean’s Jono Podmore on…
Cabaret Voltaire’s The Voice Of America (Rough Trade Records, 1980)
This is not a pretty record. Released in 1980 it generally gets regarded as ‘post-punk industrial’ – for good reason too. Recorded at the band’s own studio, Western Works, housed in a disused Victorian industrial building in a forgotten corner of the dark and rapidly becoming post-industrial Sheffield of the Thatcher years, industrial fits the bill. Post-punk too – released on quasi-anarcho collective Rough Trade, which through egalitarian ideals and ethos managed to support so much of the punk movement and what came after. Many records such as this simply wouldn’t have existed without Rough Trade’s distribution and finance deals.
But in terms of content, this LP’s scope reaches beyond those easy definitions. Industrial is often a by-word for simply dark, atonal and grinding and there’s plenty of that on display – “Premonition” a good example – but here there’s lots more going on.
Although I had bought a few CV 12”s and 7”s from Probe in Liverpool, it wasn’t until I moved to London in ‘83 that I got to know this album. It’s a tough listen in many ways and strangely (or perhaps typically for the time) my avenue of access was putting it on while watching VHS cassettes of randomly recorded material from TV. Suddenly conjunctions, juxtapositions, synchronisations would appear in a way that music less dense or regular just doesn’t generate. Eventually it was decided to commit one of the finest of these moments of serendipity to tape, so “Partially Submerged” was dubbed as the new soundtrack for documentary footage (from BBC2) of brain surgery. The wonderfully nauseous varispeed vocal tape loop of an incomprehensible word (Oh Michael? Oh my god? No Mah Jong?) added expressive horror to the sight of some poor patient’s bleeding grey matter slooping around in the surgeon’s gloved hands. The high point came at the end; not being the audio professional I am today the track over-ran and the beginning of “Kneel To The Boss” came in just as the skull drilling began. For me, 30 years later, that grainy, squeaky little drum machine scratching away its distorted Bossa Nova still has the feel of steel on living bone.
There are many sources of the richness in this music. Again, not a pretty album and by no means a technical or even musical tour de force, but its real and lasting value is the areas for musical and textual experiment and discovery that it opens up. Here, techniques and concepts generally reserved for elitist and academic art come at you from 12 inches of vinyl funded, distributed and performed through the pathways of punk rock. Tape manipulation, found sounds, Burroughs style cut-ups, environmental recordings in musical context, electronic soundscapes, the studio as an instrument, radical politics etc. – all brought to you by the sub-culture that brought you The Exploited. I had come down to London to study music – on one hand hoping to be a composer, on the other hoping that one of the bands I was in would ‘make-it.’ What The Voice Of America did for me was bring these two ideas together – made it possible to envisage putting all the techniques and concepts I was exploring in art music and bring them seamlessly to the audience in the clubs, bars, squats and derelict spaces where the real ferment of culture was bubbling away.
And that’s broadly what I’ve been doing since. Of course there’s no one album or event that can decide a life’s trajectory, but this album played an enormous part for me by demonstrating the range possible for my work and ideas.
With 33 years hindsight it’s possible to look at The Voice Of America as both historical document and portent of things to come. Times were hard – as they are today, but especially exacerbated by two enormous factors: the cold war promise of global nuclear annihilation at the push of a button; and the viciously implemented shift from an industrial to a post-industrial UK society. As Mal barks at us in “Premonition,” we were all aware that we had to be “ready to die.” It was a common experience in the early-80s that with any unexpected atmospheric conditions, sudden warm zephyrs or commotions, to have the reflex thought: THEY’VE PRESSED THE BUTTON AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE. If that isn’t horrific enough for younger readers, we were all also utterly convinced of our powerlessness to stop this happening. Rebellion and revolutionary thought had a kind of gallows humour about it. Bleak, grim acceptance of our fates, conferred on us by Washington and The Kremlin, leading to equally bleak musical atmospheres – “Kneel To The Boss” indeed. If conventional wisdom had led to such an insupportable state of affairs then ALL the cultural conventions, even of pop/rock, had to be confronted and disturbed too – timing, tuning, structure, method, instrumentation, hierarchy, rhythm. “Stay Out Of It” proves the point; using live drums and conventional rock instrumentation, it is the most dysfunctional deconstruction of a traditional song you could hope for.
The most positive aspects of this album are in its legacy. Chris Watson’s fabulous tape manipulation and source materials paving the way for the sampladelica of the ‘90s and beyond. Collage as a viable compositional device in commercial music – a story still working itself out. As with dub reggae and fellow experimental forerunners Can, CV had their own workspace – allowing for greater experimentation and to give voice to the studio itself as an instrument. This model has now become the norm as every young composer these days carries a studio around in the processor power of their phone. Emancipated from the hessian hell of the 70s rock studio meant, among other liberties, you could put a phaser on anything and everything, you could put all the drums through the ring modulator, you could turn the vocals on and off mid-line, therefore re-inventing the lyric. All stuff that would be more than the engineer’s job was worth at music’s primary interface with the military/industrial complex.
In general, an album so much of its time in its technology and references but rich enough to reach well beyond that and provide inspiration and ideas today.
More meat for the mincer, more fuel for the wheels!!!
P.S. As if just by force of sheer cultural gravity I got to know and work with both Richard H Kirk and Stephen Mallinder and spent many happy hours in various illuminated states in Sheffield. Richard gets a credit on my first album, Dry Hip Rotation, with Peter Hope, for lending us his beloved EMS synthi AKS complete with 26 pins (“…and I want them all back!”).
Notes On The Artist:
Jono Podmore is best known latterly for his tireless work curating and managing the archives of Krautrock pioneers Can. In this respect, his by proxy masterstroke to date has been assembling last year’s essential The Lost Tapes boxset; which distilled, edited and spliced together reels and reels of Can’s studio outtakes, film scores and live recordings into a labyrinthine yet accessible package that adjoins the band’s already illustrious catalogue with well-crafted cohesiveness. As a happy extension to his direct Can connections, Podmore now forms part of new self-proclaimed ‘double-duo’ Cyclopean, alongside Burnt Friedman and Can veterans Jaki Liebezeit and Irmin Schmidt. Cyclopean’s impressive eponymous 4-track debut EP is available now on Mute/Spoon. The foursome will be playing select live shows in Europe during May.
Outside of Can and Cyclopean duties, Podmore has been no slouch with his own musical projects. Amongst many things, Podmore has worked under his Kumo alias across multiple releases that have included collaborations with the likes of B.J. Cole and Irmin Schmidt; his ongoing Horrorshow multimedia venture grafts live soundtracks to short films; and his other recently established group Metamono finds new life in vintage analogue electronics. The latter outfit will release a new 7” single imminently – featuring a cover of David Bowie’s “Warszawa” on the A-side. A Metamono album is due to follow in September of this year.