Wednesday, September 22, 2021


Truly saddened to learn of the death of Richard H. Kirk, all-round sonic visionary and - it's not remarked upon often enough - one of the great postpunk guitarists. 

He is most renowned as a founding member - and the longest lasting member - of Cabaret Voltaire. But along with the Cabs's astonishingly productive peak-era run of sustained innovation and strangeness - one of the truly original, unlike-anything-else sounds of that time - Kirk enjoyed a second golden moment  in the early 1990s with his collaborative techno projects Sweet Exorcist and Xon, through which came some of the greatest Yorkshire bleep tracks. Tenacious bugger that he was, Kirk carried on making interesting records in great number under a profusion of aliases (including a stream of  "machine soul" / electronic-listening-music EPs and LPs as Sandoz) right up to last year's Shadow of Fear, a fine restatement of the classic Cabs sound.  

I didn't know Richard well, but do have fond memories of him generously giving me a guided tour of Sheffield postpunk landmarks on a grey, intermittently rainy day during the summer of 2002, when I was back in the UK to research Rip It Up and making similar expeditions to Manchester and Bristol hoping to detect any lingering aura-of-era that might still cling to particular buildings and streets. In Sheffield, many of the sites of historical interest to the postpunk scholar had been effaced by the passage of time. But Richard showed me the building where Western Works had been located, the road where Adi Newton lived in a fetid den of artistic and lifestyle experimentation, the record and book shop Rare and Racy (a longstanding hub for the city's left-field listeners, still in vibrant fettle in 2002) and various other nodes of oppositional culture. Then we went for a curry before I headed back to London on the train. 

I first met Richard many years before, early in my time at Melody Maker, when I went up to Sheffield for the first time, to do a cover story on Chakk, one of the better second-wave avant-funk outfits who came in the wake of Cabaret Voltaire and 23 Skidoo.  Chakk manager Amrik Rai took me round the Cabs's gaff, where I was surprised to observe that they enjoyed a puff (somehow it didn't seem to fit their stern, no-hippie-shit image). Later in 1986, I interviewed Kirk & Mallinder - if memory serves in London, at the ICA bar. They seemed at a bit of a cross-roads - if not as disconsolately rudderless as Sheffield peers Heaven 17, who I also interviewed around that time -  then not knowing quite where to go next. They'd done a series of cool records through the Some Bizarre / Virgin arrangement, culminating in The Covenant, The Sword and The Arm of Lord, which I'd liked a lot, but they hadn't broken through as hoped. Soon they were to make a bid to go even nearer the mainstream, signing to EMI and taking on a glossier club-targeted sound.  Cabs fiends disagree about that phase. Kirk would have more success  penetrating the house scene - and sounded more convincing and compelling - when he partnered with DJ Parrot as Sweet Exorcist, releasing the early Warp classic "Testone".  A pioneer of industrial dance was reborn as a hardcore rave forefather. 

(Read this interview with DJ Parrot aka Richard Barratt, which has stuff on the primitive set-up they struggled with to make "Testone")

video directed by Jarvis Cocker apparently!

After that milestone of emaciated minimalism, Sweet Exorcist released a mini-LP of maximalist bleep titled C.C.C.D., whose title track "Clonk's Coming" is an under-appreciated wonder. 

Then there was Kirk's collaboration with bleep pioneer Robert Gordon as Xon, resulting in gems like "Dissonance" off the 1991 EP The Mood Set.

Here is a stash of writings by me on Cabaret Voltaire and Kirk's bleep + bass works. And below just a handful of top tunes. 

And here is a Tribune tribute to Richard H. Kirk by Owen Hatherley, situating Cabaret Voltaire and Sweet Exorcist in the political and socioeconomic landscape of the post-industrial North. 

If  - and this seems unlikely, knowing the readership - you happen to have never heard any Cabs music, may I recommend checking out Eight Crepuscule Tracks? It's the perfect distillation of peak-era Cab creativity - their equivalent to The Fall's Slates 10-inch maxi-EP.  (And yet not quite equivalent - Eight is a 1987 expansion of the Three Crepuscule Tracks EP, originally released in 1981 - the same year as Slates)

was so pleased to have this this on the Rip It Up compilation CD


"Black Mask" was the first Cabs tune to blow me away - still one of my ab faves out of their uuuurrrv

For some of Kirk's more obscure techno/bleep era excursions and aliases, check out this tribute thread at Dissensus. 

For a cultural and material topography of postpunk Sheffield, check out this interview I did with the late Andy Gill, the NME's Sheffield correspondent during this legendary time and friends with the Cabs and most of the other significant musicians in the town. 

Here's what Andy had to say about the Cabs and RHK:

“... Before the Cabs had a record out, they used to come into Virgin, where I worked.  I had hair down to my waist in those days. They came up to the counter and asked 'Have you got any records by Cabaret Voltaire?'. I’d heard of the name, and what I’d heard about them sounded really intriguing to me. So, I said ‘As far as I know they haven’t got anything out yet, but I’d really be interested in hearing them, cos it’s my kind of thing.’ I remember them being quite shocked that this guy who looked like a Ted Nugent fan was heavily into that kind of that stuff. Ever since then we’ve been mates....

"Mal and Rich and Chris  and their gang were heavily into the sonics of Roxy. Although Mal was heavily into clothes too.  He had two rooms in his flat, and one room was where he lived and the other was his wardrobe – and he had an ironing board in the middle of it. It was just completely full of clothes. Mal was the most stylish person I’d ever met; he always had a consummate sense of style.

“The early Cabs gigs were trying to get a reaction – it was a racket, just squealing noise. And there’d be films behind them of god knows what: biological warfare experiments, people in chemical warfare suits. They’d collect old Super-8 footage of things like that.

"Around 1975 or 1976, we became friends. They had been going since ‘73 or ’74. So, it was a bit after that I got to meet them. They had this studio in this old industrial building. The whole building was called Western Works – and they recorded in it and called the studio Western Works.”

What were they like as people, Cabaret Voltaire?

“Richard’s always been a bit stroppy –in that very Yorkshire way. He can be hellishly stubborn. That’s a typically Yorkshire thing:  ‘if you say don’t do this, I’ll do it’.  He’s got that thing in his voice.

"In Sheffield, it wasn’t like the London Musicians Collective, where everyone’s got wire-rim glasses and that sort of avantgarde middle class attitude. In Sheffield, it was working class Dada. They were heavily into Dada and liked to get a reaction. Wake people up. Richard, then, mainly played guitar and clarinet. Mal did rudimentary bass and vocals, treated beyond legibility."