Post Sex Pistols/Grundy Interview at the end of 1976 punk bands appeared almost overnight across Britain. Not since the skiffle boom of the late 50’s had so many people been prompted to pick up a guitar, learn three chords and form a band.
Manchester in particular asserted its position as the punk capital of the North but everywhere, even Norwich was able to boast a band or two. The notable exception was Sheffield.Fifth biggest city in Britain. Sheffield had a long-standing reputation for its steel and compared with the likes of Leeds or Manchester at the time was relatively prosperous. It wasn’t exactly Venice or Milan, but it had a huge public housing stock, anyone who wanted a home could get one from the council although that might mean living in one of the many high rises that dotted the hills around the city. It also had incredibly cheap public transport and other public facilities, it was possible to live a relatively good life in Steeltown.
What it never produced was a punk band. In some ways the city bypassed punk and went straight for the new wave of heavy metal a couple of years later when South Yorkshire became the epicentre for the movement. In terms of punk noise however they had to wait until 2002 and the Arctic Monkeys.
Although Sheffield was a northern working-class town it wasn’t particularly downtrodden. In an era where socialism was still a possibility it was possible for example to run an arts lab properly funded and pretty much free giving local youths a chance to make music of films without any real expectation that there would be a finished project.
Also influential were Roxy Music who were huge in the city and Brian Eno in particular who was establishing the premise that you didn’t really have to be a musician to create music.
Recipients of this liberal thinking were early members of the Human League and, the Stones to their Beatles, Cabaret Voltaire.
The ‘band’ consisted of the late Richard Kirk on clarinet and guitar, Steven Mallinder on Bass and vocals and Chris Watson on organ. The instrumentation at first was a bit of red herring, a lot of early ‘compositions’ were tape loops and treated noises. Their first gig at a university disco ended up in a riot due to the audience not fully expecting a tape loop of a steam hammer as percussion accompanied by treated clarinet noises.It was the sort of gig reputations thrive on, for three guys influenced by Dada this was a major result.
Of course, as time when on ears became more accustomed to this sort of thing but also the band started to become a bit more mainstream. Kirk started playing more guitar, the sharp dressed Mallinder started adding treated vocals and becoming a kind of front man. They also started to wrangle their way into the emerging punk world with support slots and although they might not have been exactly what Buzzcocks fans wanted it was all publicity.
The apex of the intersection of the avant guard and the accessible occurred with the single Nag,Nag , Nag. Featuring Mallinder’s distorted vocals, Farfisa drum machine and organ influenced by American Garage band The Seeds it’s a prime work of repetition that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
For the rest of the 70’s and early 80’s the band were like a damp stain under the carpet, always present lurking on the fringes. You would only hear them on John Peel or if someone you knew had bought a single. I would find them exhilarating, intriguing or just plain irritating depending on my mood. I bought Red Mecca, possibly their defining album and still listen to it to this day (I even re purchased it as a download) with the same reactions. The fact remains though that the drum machine on Nag,Nag,Nag just keeps the pace goingwhich isn’t the case for a lot of their other material at the time.The sound of Cabaret Voltaire around this period is a musical representation of paranoia, its not comfortable listening.
At some point Watson left the band. Perhaps the most anarchic influence, he had a job as an telephone engineer and could create sounds with a soldering iron and a collection of transistors. His departure coincided with a huge boom in technology and soon the remaining Cabs were using keyboards and samplers as well as more sophisticated drum machines. The result was hours of music with a malevolent disco vibe. I went to see them at Nottingham’s Rock City, a gig I can remember almost nothing of beyond it went on and on and on…
So; a band I admire rather than love, from a time when idea’s were more important than product, when working class young men had a working knowledge of philosophy and grey pleated flannels were the height of sartorial sophistication the band live on.
Just like that damp stain
Here’s a companion piece about the Human League