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A true confession

[Originally published 1992 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

Time for a confession: Until this year, I knew nothing of Cabaret Voltaire. For a music writer, that's as bad as being interested in film without knowing the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard. It's like the character in Don DeLillo's novel White Noise who pioneers the field of Hitler studies but lives in fear that someone will find out he doesn't know German. When it comes to ignorance of Cabaret Voltaire, mea, like, culpa.

But I have always believed in the power of redemption, so in the last few months I have taken to listening to Cabaret Voltaire, finally. It's tempting to refer to their records as dance music, given that they consist of the kind of electronic beats and weird disjointed vocal phrases you find in that genre, but if that's what Cabaret Voltaire really amounts to, then they must be visitors from some future century with a radically different conception of rhythm. Imagine taking a conventional dance record (that's record, as in vinyl; house music works best) and skipping the needle over the surface, pausing for short random intervals at each landing. Presto! You have just produced your own Cabaret Voltaire bassline.

The band's songs simulate a form of musical semiconsciousness akin to the sensation of being asleep but just awake enough to incorporate sounds in the "real" world into your dreams – the phone rings by your bed and it rings in your head, that sort of thing. The music is vaguely unreal and amenable to projections of whatever you're feeling. It has a definite presence, but not a huge impact.

The lyrics? Well, let's just call them words. Some are enunciated by Richard Kirk and Stephen Mallinder, the Brits who constitute Cabaret Voltaire; many are dropped in electronically as recorded samples. With the rise of rap and mainstream dance music, sampling is so ubiquitous that it's become hard to pull off convincingly, yet Cabaret Voltaire acquits itself well in sampling, possibly as a result of taking to the form when it was still novel. The band has been around, though not always active, since the late '70s; its albums date from the early and mid-'80s. This, in the music business, is known as experience, and it shows. Amorphous lines like "24-24... 24 hours a day" and "Go to church... always work... do right" match the music – diffuse, hard to pin down, enigmatic. Also impressive, in an age where "remix albums" so often contain third-rate variants of the original songs, is Cabaret Voltaire's recent remix album, Technology: Western Re-Works 1992, a fine encapsulation of the æsthetic that's more than enough Cabaret Voltaire for most people.

Permit me, however, one objection to the band's work, or rather to the its effect on society. We can assign half the blame for a certain now-omnipresent genre of contemporary typography to Cabaret Voltaire, in that in 1979 they engaged the British graphic designer Neville Brody to produce many of their album covers, posters, and (most touchingly today) the labels surrounding the spindles on their records. (He also art-directed The Face in the '80s, which garners the other half of the blame.) Brody's fetishistic use of his own typefaces – overcondensed, angular, jagged, clearly the work of a hotshot young intellectual out to make a Big Graphic Statement – put him on the graphic-design map and would ultimately give anyone with a Macintosh and a laser printer implicit license to use similar fonts regardless of their suitability to the context. I can't walk onto the subway without seeing one of Neville Brody's fonts or a look-alike; this I resent. In a word, it's tired. If Cabaret Voltaire hadn't hired him, Brody might be a mere footnote to graphical history now and contemporary designers would have had to come up with their own designs instead of using Brody's œuvre as a form of auxiliary brain.

Anyway, count me in as one of the Cabaret Voltaire faithful, though my new passion for this old band makes me think of the legions of 19-year-olds who are only now discovering the Smiths and scurrying onstage at every Morrissey concert. Better late than never, I say. If, as someone once wrote of Devo, nothing is older than yesterday's futurism, Cabaret Voltaire has nothing to fear; it offers us tomorrow's futurism today. And that's all the sloganeering I'll be doing in this column.