Thursday, October 21, 2021

Tape Leaders Rewind!

Velocity Press have just issued an expanded and amended version of Ian Helliwell's Tape Leaders: A Compendium of Early British Electronic Composers! Prompting me to wheel and come again with my own review from several years ago (see below). It's even more of a lavishly illustrated fetish object than before. You can buy the new edition of Tape Leaders here

(While we're on this subject, a huge cache of pieces - by one of the figures in Helliwell's Encyclopedia Anglotronica, the avant-choreographer Ernest Berk - has found its way onto YouTube. Thirteen pieces in all, some of them lengthy, and all accompanied by stills of his ballet ensemble performing, sometimes starkers - Berk was a fervent naturist - and daubed in psychedelic body-paint)  

Ian Helliwell also has a retrospective of his experimental filmwork showing at The Cube in Bristol this Sunday 24th October. 


For years now independent researcher Ian Helliwell has been excavating the early decades of electronic and tape-based experimental music, with a particular focus on the British story. He's displayed his discoveries via a radio series, The Tone Generation,  the  F.C. Judd documentary Practical Electronica, and most recently through an irregular series of in-depth features in The Wire.  Now he's written a book, Tape Leaders: A Compendium Of Early British Electronic Music Composers.

As seen with his Wire article on Practical Electronics magazine as a hub for DIY synth operators, Helliwell's special fascination is for a breed of British amateurs who doggedly pursued their eccentric interests. Unlike Europe, where composers generally came out of the academy or were attached  to the experimental units of national radio stations, or America, where they might also be supported by corporations like Bell, the U.K. was a particularly fertile ground for hobbyists - boffins like Peter Keen and Brian Whibley who cobbled together contraptions in shed or garage workshops.

 Other archetypes discernible in the pages of Tape Leaders are the formally trained composer who  - in the absence of institutional encouragement or funding  - is forced to go it alone (Janet Beat, Cyril Clouts) and the artistic polymath drawn to electronics as an accompaniment to their visual or performance work (Ken Gray, who prefers to think of himself as a "communications engineer", or the choreographer and dancer  Ernest Berk,  who was also a naturist and all-round free living and free thinking chap).

Styled as an encyclopedia, Tape Leaders doesn't go in much for evocation of sonix, but the book bulges with fascinating details and the illustrative material is fabulous: groovy looking flyers and posters for electronic music events and multi-media arts festivals, diagrams of equipment set-ups, adverts for brands of tape, and as you might expect lots of black-and-white photos of  middle-aged experimenters with well-combed hair, ties and button shirts with the sleeves rolled up posed next to banks of wires, dials, and reel-to-reels.  Helliwell has fun with the guidebook format: a rating system evaluates each composer in terms of Commitment Factor, Obscurity Quotient, and Recording Availability. The latter is rather often "Poor".  That tantalising effect is one of the only downsides with this delightful book. So often the reader's desire is piqued hopelessly by the knowledge that these works - many written for arty film shorts, theatrical plays or avant-garde ballets - exist in the world but that it's pretty unlikely you'll ever get to hear them. Those pangs are mitigated slightly by the 15-track CD that accompanies Tape Leaders which includes impossibly obscure work by the likes of Peter Grogono,  Donald Henshilwood, David Piper, and the aforementioned Berk.


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."

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Lost in their music

Sometimes, when writing about a revered legend, you can reach a point where you find yourself thinking, "why do I ever listen to anything else but this?". So it was with the subject of my new piece for Tidal, the Chic Organization and its dominance of the Eighties audio Zeitgeist. Listening to non-stop Chic, Sister Sledge, the album Rodgers & Edwards wrote and produced for Diana Ross, etc, for several days, I was truly "living in ecstasy". But then the obsession focused to where I only wanted to play a single single - "Everybody Dance" over and over. Then it zoomed in further still and I was just playing Bernard Edwards's miraculous bass break again and again and again. (Some "air bass" did occur, I confess).   

The famous singles everybody knows and loves - "Le Freak", "Good Times", "We Are Family", "Lost In Music", "I Want Your Love", "He's The Greatest Dancer", "My Forbidden Lover".... 

But how about the ChicOrg deep cuts?

This is almost too obvious to mention, beautifully doubled as it by Robert Wyatt's version

I also found myself fixated on these albums cuts, "Happy Man" and especially "(Funny) Bone" . 

Love the singles off Diana Ross. "Upside Down" particularly - unusually for Chic Org, the fast-flecked rhythm guitar takes a very far-back back seat and the arrangement is based around some wonderful piano vamps. This somewhat overlooked beauty was the third single off the Diana Ross album and funnily enough it's called "My Old Piano". 

"My Feet Keep Dancing" was a Chic single but it felt less familiar to me - it has this wonderful steadfast chugging groove with a slightly involuntary, forced-march feel to it, and then this really gorgeous glassy motif that I think is electric piano, a real ice cube sliding down the back of your neck tingle effect.

Always liked this Carly Simon tune with a lilting, reggae-ish feel