❉ A tribute to the Cabaret Voltaire founder member, who died on 21 September 2021 aged 65.
Whenever anyone sits down to tell the musical story of Sheffield it is impossible for the roads not to lead to one of its most influential groups, Cabaret Voltaire. Yet the band, and especially founding member and last man standing Richard H. Kirk who died yesterday, rarely get the kudos they really deserve. One of the reasons for their importance was down to the fact that they got there first.
Originally formed in 1973 by Chris Watson and Richard H. Kirk and stemming from Watson’s desire to make “music without musical instruments” the band used tape loops and electronics to create their early ideas. Kirk gradually encouraged the addition of more traditional instruments which lead to the inclusion of Stephen Mallinder and the proper beginnings of Cabaret Voltaire.
As the band developed, they started playing live and soon found themselves as the regular opening act for Joy Division. The group had begun creating a recording space called Western Works and the promise of a four-track recording machine in lieu of an advance convinced the band to sign to Rough Trade.
Over the next 3 years the band recorded a hugely distinctive body of work including 3 studio albums and numerous singles. The work could sound abrasive and controversial yet was never less than innovative. Whether creating their own wonky take on dub with the likes of Silent Command or the electro punk thrash of Nag Nag Nag to the strange otherworldly innovations found on their most cohesive work that is the Red Mecca LP.
By 1982 the band were not only experimenting with the cut up ideas found in tape loops but also in video too. The group founded Doublevision to promote innovative video filmmakers and sell to the works to the public at an affordable price. The group made films for a number of their own works mixing found footage with original pieces in a style which became known as video scratching. Although short-lived it was another example of the group’s desire to innovate.
Watson departed the band at this time and Kirk and Mallinder spent the rest of the decade taking Cabaret Voltaire in increasingly more commercial directions. Firstly with Virgin via a deal with Some Bizzare and latterly with EMI, the band moved with the times and created a more accessible version of their earlier selves despite never really managing to sell anything in great quantities.
Although critical acclaim for this period has always been mixed it remains amongst the most original sounding electronic music of its era. A cursory listen to albums such as The Crackdown or Code, or the magnificent single Sensoria – the hit that never was but should have been – make the case all by themselves.
After the split with Mallinder and the end of Cabaret Voltaire in the early ‘90s Kirk continued making music which, although reflecting the shifting worlds of electronic dance music, was always distinctively his own. Eventually Kirk came full circle with his final work once again appearing under the Cabaret Voltaire name.
Trawling back through interviews and listening to the music he produced across his extremely productive lifetime he stands out as someone who never really appears to have found an ability to compromise. Ever the outsider, unlike almost any of his contemporaries Kirk managed the rare feat of being the past, present, and future of the sound of Sheffield. With his passing he might finally get more of the recognition his remarkable musical life deserves.
❉ Richard H. Kirk (21 March 1956 – 21 September 2021)
❉ Peter Robinson is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.