Monday, December 24, 2007


When one speaks of Cabaret Voltaire as pioneers in the electronic wing of post-punk music history, one is speaking of them specifically in the late seventies and early eighties when they, along with groups like Throbbing Gristle and D.A.F., created music as much by assemblage as traditional composition, combined stark industrial landscapes with the calculated manipulation of the listener's visceral response, and revived the Dada aesthetic.

As the eighties wore on, many of the artists from this school of tape loops and high/low technology settled into less experimental forms, and later fans appreciate them for very different reasons. Eventually Cabaret Voltaire moved completely into dance music, creating songs more for the club than for an album experience. But there was a brief time in between, when they had one foot in each camp. Too experimental for the house fans, and too dance-oriented for the post-punk fans, Cabaret Voltaire released Code, which quickly went out of print, and remains so to this day.

There are some real finds on this album. 'Here to go' pushes almost completely into the established dance format of the time. 'Sex money freaks' is a slimy funk number with processed vocals. And the title track draws on rhythm arrangements Cabaret Voltaire had used on earlier recordings, but without as dark an aesthetic.

The best, though, is 'Don't argue', and even more so, the 12" reworking, entitled 'Don't argue (dance)'. It's a semi-serious take on the vintage cold war xenophobia that pervaded the United States and Western Europe. A four-on-the-floor drum track and a bumping synth bass line set a rigid, slightly militaristic tone, augmented by clicking that wanders back and forth between the stereo channels. I'd guess that Trent Reznor studied this rhythm arrangement closely when he was preparing Pretty Hate Machine.

The first voice we hear sounds like a sampled narrator from a fifties intelligence training film, describing the enemy personnel the trainees may encounter and infiltrate. 'You are in enemy country... Be alert and suspicious of everyone... They were brought up on strange propaganda... Don't argue with them... Don't clasp the hand... It's not the kind of hand you can clasp in friendship...' We can suppose that in its time it was serious and could be taken seriously. By 1987 it had the same ring as the 'Duck and Cover' film: antiquated and unrealistic.

Cabaret Voltaire are only taking half a swipe at that alarmist mentality, though. Their lyrics are vaguely ironic but certainly not sarcastic. 'It's not safe to go out / It's not right to stay home / Listen my advice / is to carry a gun.' Stephen Mallinder's voice is hushed and almost colorless, as if he's speaking to us in the dark from the other side of a hedge. The lyrics devolve into more abstract warnings ('You're trying to drive with no hands on the wheel') but before we become too alarmed, in come the female back-up singers who have been vocoded within inches of their lives. They are a lot more concerned for their vibe than anyone's safety. 'No no no better watch / better watch your step boy'. They go on to mimic Mallinder's lyrics as though they're high on helium at a lounge audition, rather than narrating a cautionary film, even adding yelps as additional flourishes.

What's this all about? Should we be concerned, or not? Cabaret Voltaire was not particularly known for their wit, but they seem to have found a particularly dry strain of it for 'Don't argue'. The specter of communism, socialism and nuclear winter weren't gone in 1987, but they didn't loom as large, and songs like 'Russians', 'Two tribes' and 'Land of confusion' showed that popular culture was lightening up on the subject, even chuckling about it, albeit somewhat nervously. 'Don't argue (dance)' means exactly what its title says; the only real exhortation here is to dance. 'Watch your step boy' is more a mandate to be coordinated on the dance floor than it is to watch one's back. The song is an elaborate play on the overlap in terminology.

As long as they have existed, twelve inch dance remixes have struggled to avoid stifling formal conventions; in most cases their effect is to water down the original material, which makes it harder rather than easier to enjoy it for the extended duration. But there are glittering exceptions when artists, producers and remixers have used the remix as a real opportunity to up the ante on the original track, sometimes transforming it entirely. 'Don't argue (dance)' is an excellent example, in which the song itself has been streamlined, and new elements have fortified the track, rather than weakening it.

Cabaret Voltaire have a rightfully deserved place in the early electronic cannon, though their subsequent discography is unquestionably inconsistent. But Code, an overlooked landmark in the dance genre, deserves a reissue. Paradoxically, 'Don't argue (dance)' is more easily found, on the Re-Mixed compilation. It's not the track that best represents Cabaret Voltaire, but it fiercely holds its own.

Cabaret Voltaire official website