23 November 2003

Richard H. Kirk - the second prelude....

So why does Richard H. Kirk mean so much to me? I mean, most reasonably informed electronica fans are aware of his work, and maybe even like the odd record. But what makes me follow his 'career' so slavishly, buying all these obscure CDs on obscure labels under obscure aliases? Why have I bought just about every Kirk or Cabs product on the first day of release for nearly the past 20 years?

Basically, it's because this is where it all began for me. Most people's first taste of alternative music usually begins with the usual reference points - Velvet Underground, Smiths, Fall. Me, I went straight from Smash Hits to The Crackdown. Cabaret Voltaire were my gateway to the underground. I discovered them by chance when the videos for "Just Fascination" and "Sensoria" were played on the Max Headroom show. Remember Max? That pseudo-computer generated personality played by Matt Frewer? 'Course you do! Everybody remembers Max and his mad stuttering dialogue. The pop videos broadcast on his show varied from total pop-fluff to obscure hair-metal to even more obscure indie-experimenters. Every episode was some sort of learning experience for me. But it was those Cabs promos that really got under my skin, particularly Just Fascination which I taped and watched over and over again. I felt the change a-comin'. The realisation that maybe there was more to music beyond Queen, Billy Joel and Nik Kershaw. Something about Mal's freaky staring eyes, or maybe Richard's spectral presence...perhaps Peter Care's superb video direction and visual techniques..Definitely something about those hard rhythms. Quite accessible yet very un-pop with none of the usual hooklines. That ominous synthetic groove was the hook. The lyrics... more like a mantra, "This private... Fascination, just fascination, just fascination", looping, hypnotic, mesmerising. It's also quite possible that Peter Care's voyeuristic close-ups of the mysterious female in the black stilleto's and fishnets had some kind of profound effect on my still-developing psyche, introducing me to a particular adult pasttime known as sexual fetishism. (Even now, I'm still turned-on by a nice pair of ankles in high heels - thanks for that, Pete). Overall I was getting the impression that here was something with bit more depth than the usual chart-fodder. Something that took a little time and effort to assimilate and form opinions about. Something that perhaps had a message within the message. Something that had something important to say, but wasn't gonna say it directly. It wanted the listener/viewer to draw their own conclusions; there was a veil of mystery, an aura of subversivness, that just clicked with me.

At that point I could've gone either way. Maybe if I hadn't taped that video, it wouldn't have had the chance to really work it's way under my skin through repeated exposure. If I hadn't been infected with the Cabs virus back then, maybe I'd be listening to fucking Sting albums today. Who knows?

Eventually I went to my local record shop - Kays Records and Tapes (still there, kids)- and had a cautious flick through the 'C' section. Perhaps surprisingly, there was a Cabs album in there. It was called The Crackdown. The sleeve looked slick but kinda surreal too. Two guys with video camera equipment looking straight back at me impassively, their image somehow processed, like a negative but not quite. Check the rear sleeve for some track titles..."Why Kill Time (When You Can Kill Yourself)", hmmmmm....not the kind of song title you'd find on a Go West album. The music was...really fucking different. I must admit I had a real struggle getting into it at first. Without the visual accompaniment, it was hard for me to wade through 45 minutes of music that had so little melody and so little conventional verse-chorus pop structure. It was so linear, groove-based and repetitive. I admit it took maybe a couple of months to really warm to it. I remember playing it as background music when revising for my 'O' levels...it seemed to promote concentration rather than a distraction. Over time, The Crackdown gradually re-programmed my brain to accept and appreciate new kinds of audio stimuli. Before too long I began to listen specifically to percussion sounds and other non-melodic sources - synthetic textures, snippets of dialogue from unknown origins, subliminal audio artifacts. I began to realise that up until that point I'd only been listening to foreground, now I was digesting all that stuff in the background, the building-blocks of sound. Nothing short of a revelation.

Perhaps of equal importance, I'd discovered something all on my own. Something that none of my friends or family had heard of or could appreciate. As far as I was concerned, I was the only person in the world who was into this album. Therefore a sort of "bonding" occurred. I developed a strong emotional attachment to the name Cabaret Voltaire and to their particular methods of composition, to the point where I became quite militant about them, scorning other music, preferring to seek out and familiarize myself with the sonic boundaries mapped-out in their back catalogue. I guess I must've spent the next couple of years just soaking up "The Voice Of America", "2x45", "Microphonies" etc. I'm sure it was this grounding in the Cabs' music that made me so instantly receptive to Hip-Hop, House and Techno. They seemed perfectly natural developments of the Cabs methodology. It also lead me to discover other stuff that I'd missed first time, like the early Mute & Factory Records releases, Suicide, 'Industrial Music', and to appreciate aspects of The Human League, Soft Cell and other left-of-centre chart acts that I'd not noticed before. Later on, it lead me to krautrock, psychedelia and (eventually) the Velvets. Miles Davis, George Clinton, William Burroughs and J G Ballard. Basically, if Kirk and co. mentioned some influence in an interview, I'd go and check it out.

Cabaret Voltaire opened my very own personal Doors Of Perception. Even though there were three members of the group (and yes I also follow Mal and Chris Watson's careers), Kirk always seemed to embody the values and beliefs of the group most fervently. That's why I owe it to Kirk to stick with him all the way. Even now, he's still developing as an artist. It's just unfortunate that, despite the current high-profile of the Cabs' recorded legacy, Kirk the contemporary solo artist is an increasingly marginalised figure. I'll be talking about his recent work shortly....