Richard H. Kirk, who passed away last week, was the co-founder of Cabaret Voltaire, the Sheffield group he formed with Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson in the mid-1970s. Named after the epicentre of the Dada movement in Zurich’s old town, Cabaret Voltaire initially offered a specifically industrial form of post-punk and would go on to leave a manifest imprint on electronic music for the best part of five decades. A peripatetic creator and innovator, Kirk steered Cabaret Voltaire’s prolific output while, as a solo musician of a thousand disguises, his prodigious output never repeated itself while always remaining true to his specific vision.
Reclusive and rarely interviewed, it remains one of my greatest disappointments that I never got a chance to speak with him about what drove his relentless work ethic. The closest I came to understanding his creative motivation was a conversation with Paul Smith, the founder of Blast First and who had worked with Cabaret Voltaire on their Doublevision label. “Richard creates every day,” Smith told me in 2005. “It's what he does with his life and he's very dedicated – hence why he releases a lot of diverse recordings.”
Trying to provide documentary evidence for the highlights of a career that includes hundreds of releases is an impossible task. It is with that cautionary statement that I’ve assembled seven moments of Richard H. Kirk’s back catalogue; these are, if nothing else, at least partially representative of some of the music he made in his Western Works base in Sheffield, while inevitably understating his significant legacy.
Richard Harold Kirk, 1956 – 2021.
- - -
Cabaret Voltaire – Mix-Up (Rough Trade, 1979)
‘Mix-Up’ was Cabaret Voltaire’s first album proper, released by the forward-thinking Rough Trade imprint in 1979 following an eponymous tape handed out by the band the year before. It was the embodiment of the early Cabs sound – skeletal rhythms, often created using primitive rhythm boxes from old organs that Richard H. Kirk was still happily using decades later; rudimentary electronics and wiry guitars; Chris Watson’s tapes; Stephen Mallinder’s trance-like vocals.
‘Mix-Up’ was in thrall to the rough edges of post-punk and dub, smitten with the uncompromising threat of Suicide and as raw and enticing as The Velvet Underground (whose ‘Here She Comes Now’ they covered for their 1978 Rough Trade EP), yet delivered with noisy, scuffed-up textures that were entirely their own.
- - -
Richard H. Kirk – Time High Fiction (Doublevision, 1983)
Released in 1983, ‘Time High Fiction’ was a window into what would become a signifier of Kirk’s later work – his prolific work ethic, which would later manifest itself in a dizzying n
umber of aliases. Cabaret Voltaire were omnipresent between 1979 and 1982, and yet somehow Kirk managed to record the tracks for this double album through the band’s Doublevision imprint right in the middle of CV’s intense release schedule. For a shadowy, often reclusive presence, the processed photo of Kirk on the sleeve was initially a shock, but strangely in keeping with a beautifully sprawling, viciously intense and uncompromising collection of pieces, some of which deployed echoing, squealing saxophone, Kirk’s original instrument before delving into electronics.
On the escalating tension of ‘Black Honeymoon’ we hear Kirk’s shrouded vocal, a brief emergence from the shadows of his own creation, while the nauseatingly distressed jazz loops of the two-part ‘Dead Relatives’ is pure musique concrete noir.
- - -
Cabaret Voltaire – Micro-Phonies (Virgin / Some Bizarre, 1984)
Like a lot of bands that emerged in the post-punk era, Cabaret Voltaire’s sound got progressively cleaner as the 1980s unfolded. Micro-Phonies was the band’s second album for Virgin, then at their most accommodating in terms of a major label letting their artists develop in their own way. The band were now a duo – Chris Watson had left by 1981 – and their sound was more acutely focussed on electronics and an awkward funk sound.
The rough edges might have been smoothed down, but ‘Micro-Phonies’ was a far cry from other synth duos. Co-produced with Flood, the album was slick but nag-nag-naggingly insistent, with tracks like ‘Sensoria’ and ‘Do Right’ carrying a seductive, dancefloor-ready euphoria. Director John Hughes was clearly a fan – a poster for ‘Micro-Phonies’ is to be found in the bedroom of Ferris Bueller.
- - -
Sweet Exorcist – Clonk’s Coming (Warp, 1991)
Sweet Exorcist paired Kirk with fellow Sheffielder DJ Parrott (All Seeing I’s Richard Barratt). ‘Clonk’s Coming’ was the first album released on Warp, the label that connected the dots between dance music and the Sheffield sound that bands like Cabaret Voltaire and Hula had honed, whose machine rhythms were said to have emerged in response to the factory presses and forges which dominated the Sheffield soundscape.
Cabaret Voltaire had already dabbled with dance music – their instrumental ‘Colours’ EP was acid house with an edge somewhere between ambient and industrial – but the minimal repetitive beats and inchoate hooks of ‘Clonk’s Coming’ was like dance music deconstructed to its rawest, wonkiest materials, while also representing some of Kirk’s lighter, more playful moments.
- - -
Richard H. Kirk – Virtual State (Warp / Intone, 1994)
Warp proved to be a receptive home for Kirk, much like Mute would for the final part of his career. He appeared on the label’s seminal ‘Artificial Intelligence’ compilations and released several albums for the label, while simultaneously releasing work elsewhere as Sandoz and Electronic Eye and yet more aliases that we may never be able to now identify as Kirk. His output for Warp existed in a space that fused ambient textures with found sounds and rhythm and vocal samples respectfully borrowed from different cultures, while still being instantly recognisable as his work.
‘Virtual State’ hypothesised a future that was free of borders and cultural divisions, released just as the nascent internet was allowing connections to form in precisely that utopian way; in contrast, Kirk’s parallel work as the dystopian Electronic Eye paranoically observed the growth in surveillance culture, CCTV and frustrated civil liberties in the wake of the Criminal Justice Act.
- - -
Cabaret Voltaire – The Conversation (Apollo / R&S, 1994)
‘The Conversation’ was released by R&S ambient sub-label Apollo in 1994. A double album lasting over two hours, with one disc taken up by the fifty-minute, slowly-evolving masterpiece ‘Project80’, The Conversation nodded in the direction of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film of the same name in focussing its gaze on surveillance, a major concern for Kirk in the 1990s.
While billed as a Cabaret Voltaire album, this felt more like a Kirk solo project, and its specific ambient leanings were anything but drifty ephemerality, sounding not dissimilar to the likes of Biosphere. Rhythmic, laden with samples culled from scanning the airwaves, ‘The Conversation’ was robust, challenging and unsettling – just like CV’s finest moments always were.
- - -
Cabaret Voltaire – Johnny Yesno Redux (Mute, 2011)
Cabaret Voltaire were no strangers to film. Their Doublevision imprint saw them experimenting with the VHS format, and they’d already worked on several soundtracks by the time director Peter Care’s harrowing ‘Johnny Yesno’ was released in 1980, accompanied by a CV soundtrack that was partially improvised while watching the film’s rushes. In 2011 Kirk revisited the soundtrack and offered up a redux version, featuring new material and reimagined pieces alongside a version of the film that was similarly reworked. It didn’t become official for a few years, but Cabaret Voltaire was now a solo enterprise for Kirk, and albums ‘Shadow Of Fear’ (2020) and this years ‘Dekadrone’ and ‘BN9Drone’ followed his reanimation of the CV brand.
In what we now painfully accept as his final years, Kirk was producing some of his best ever material; respectful of his past endeavours but resolutely forward-looking, his final CV albums were innovative and resolutely idiosyncratic, just like the man who crafted them.
- - -
Words: Mat Smith