Sheffield’s own Kraftwerk: how Cabaret Voltaire and Richard H Kirk put the steel into synthpop

Richard H. Kirk (right) and Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire photographed in 1984 - Getty
Richard H. Kirk (right) and Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire photographed in 1984 - Getty

The future could never arrive quickly enough for Richard H Kirk, the guiding light behind groundbreaking electronic act Cabaret Voltaire, who has passed away aged 65.

Forged amid the brutalist architecture and social tensions of post-industrial Sheffield, Cabaret Voltaire were among the most influential artists of their generation. And of several generations to follow. They were South Yorkshire’s Kraftwerk, restless innovators whose pioneering synthpop paved the way for Throbbing Gristle, New Order, Depeche Mode and the rave scene of the late Eighties.

Cabaret Voltaire achieved all this whilst cultivating a fiercely defiant independent streak. As Sheffield contemporaries the Human League and Heaven 17 rushed to cash in their chips in the Eighties, Kirk and his collaborators were always suspicious of chart success.

They clocked up their share of old-fashioned hits – most notably, the mesmerising James Brown and Sensoria in 1984. Yet their engagement with the mainstream was always on Kirk’s terms. And so when he revived the Cabaret Voltaire “brand” several years ago, it was with the caveat that he would only play new material. He even turned down a massive payday to bash out his greatest hits at the Coachella rock festival in California. An awkward customer to the end, for him Cabaret Voltaire was always and only about art rather than commerce.

Kirk also left the world at least one masterpiece, 1981’s Red Mecca. It was clattering, claustrophobic fever dream, full of horror-show rhythms and haunting melodies. The LP was Kirk’s response to the inner city riots that swept Britain that year – and which he believed were a response to heavy-handed policing.

“It was made against a backdrop of civil unrest,” he told me last year, when promoting a new Cabaret Voltaire album, Shadow Of Fear. “People were going out and having to fight back against the coppers who were brutalising a lot of the black community.”

“People say that The Specials’ Ghost Town was the soundtrack to the unrest of that year. But a lot of people alternatively think that Red Mecca was the sound of that,” Kirk had explained to the producers of BBC documentary Synth Britannia in 2009. “Insurrection in the streets found its way into the music. We took some heart from the fact some people were kicking back…albeit in quite a crude manner, and were prepared to take on the police.”

Kirk and Cabaret Voltaire had themselves earned a reputation for standing up to the system. Inspired initially by Roxy Music, they were named after the Zurich nightclub which spawned the Dadaist moment – a confrontational celebration of “nonsense, irrationality and anti-bourgeois protest”. And where the Dadaists had been pushing back against the banalities of “bourgeois” art, so Kirk was kicking out against a UK rock scene which, in the mid-Seventies, had little to say to working class kids from Sheffield.

“We thought there was nothing for us,” he told Synth Britannia. “It was all bloated supergroups and progressive bands who weren’t even from the same social backgrounds….Once you started to discover the German bands [Kraftwerk, Can, Neu! etc] you realised there were entire albums that were made of electronica.”

Cabaret Voltaire in 2008 - Redferns
Cabaret Voltaire in 2008 - Redferns

“Cabaret Voltaire were way, way ahead of their time,” said DJ Magazine of their influence on music in 2013. “Creating a challenging sound that soaked up electronics, dub, found sounds and scuzzy punk, their sonics were hugely influential on the creation of industrial, house and techno.”

Kirk started the band in 1973 with Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson. Initially, they were a full-frontal assault, as Joy Division fans discovered in 1978 when Cabaret Voltaire were invited to open for Ian Curtis and company. Cabaret Voltaire, drawing on the musique concrète idea of art as ordeal, were an onslaught. At one gig, a punter waiting to hear Transmission and Atmosphere lost control and lobbed an unidentified object at Mallinder, who nearly parted ways with several teeth.

“When we started, we wanted to do something with sound, but none of us knew how to play an instrument,” Kirk revealed to the New York Times. “So we started using tape recorders and various pieces of junk and gradually learned to play instruments like guitars and bass.”

Kirk, like all great artists, was constantly shapeshifting. Slimmed down to a duo with Mallinder, by 1984 Cabaret Voltaire were signed to Virgin Records and cooking up skewed pop such as MTV hit Sensoria. Die-hard fans were appalled at this dalliance with the corporate music industry. Kirk wasn’t for turning. “A lot of people said it was rubbish,” he told me. “Fortunately, I think it has stood the test of time.”

Cabaret Voltaire had become defunct by the late Eighties. Kirk, though, was a long way from finished. Forming the early techno outfit Sweet Exorcist with Richard Barratt, he had the distinction of putting out the first official album release on Sheffield’s Warp Records (he continued to release pummelling techno, under a dizzying variety of aliases, through the decades to follow).

Warp would build on Kirk’s vision of unpromising art that also happens to sound utterly rollicking on the dance-floor. Indeed, a clear line can be drawn between his maverick sensibility and that of Warp artists such as Squarepusher, Autechre, Boards of Canada, and, in particular, the Aphex Twin’s Richard D James, whose compositions swerve from eerily beautiful to scorched-earth terrifying.

And when Kirk dusted down Cabaret Voltaire in 2009, that searing devotion to quality control endured. Shadow Of Fear, released last November to rave write-ups, was hallucinatory, brooding and brimming with beats. It confirmed Kirk as one of the true visionaries of British electronic music – an artist whose seismic influence is destined to echo on through future generations of synthpop.