In the latest Bleepography entry, Matt Anniss looks at Cabaret Voltaire’s first foray into Bleep & Bass, 1990 gem ‘Easy Life’
As Bleep & Bass began to become a style of music in its own right in 1990, patterns began to emerge that reflected the particular circumstances, environment and musical heritage of the cities with which the records were made. Many of the tracks made in Leeds reflected the dominance of soundsystem culture within Chapeltown and Hyde Park, the two West Indian neighbourhoods that spawned almost all of that city’s bleep producers, while London’s small but growing contribution to the style was sample-heavy and made greater use of breakbeats sampled from hip-hop, funk and soul records.
As for Sheffield, the city most associated with the sound thanks to the success of Warp Records, the particular sound was hard, bass-heavy and more industrial than found anywhere else. This was in part because Sheffield had once been a genuine industrial powerhouse – the clanking, metallic percussion sounds found in some Bleep cuts made there echoed the giant steel hammers that could be heard echoing across the city from foundries and factories down by the River Don – but also because the city was associated with industrial music.
From the mid 1970s onwards the Steel City could boast industrial music pioneers, and later some of the most vibrant bands within the ‘industrial funk’ sub-genre. Chief amongst these was Cabaret Voltaire, an act that slowly mutated from electronic punk mavericks to purveyors of cutting-edge dance music throughout the course of the 1980s.
In Join The Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music, there’s a whole chapter exploring the relationship between Cabaret Voltaire and Bleep & Bass. Earlier in the year The Quietus published this online as an extended excerpt, so if you want to know more about the Cabs’ and Bleep – as well as Richard H Kirk’s offshoot Bleep-era projects such as Sweet Exorcist (with Jive Turkey resident DJ Parrot) and Xon (with Rob Gordon) – then I’d suggest you head over there once you’ve finished this.
To cut a long story short, the Cabs’ Richard H Kirk and Stephen Mallinder were both regular club-goers. They would often head down to key Sheffield club nights such as Jive Turkey and Cuba at Occasions, a Wednesday night event that drew in foot-workers, serious dancers and bedroom producers from as far afield as Leeds and Nottingham.
Acid house and Detroit techno both interested Kirk and “Mal”, as did dub reggae. So when Yorkshire-made tracks started appearing that melded elements of all three things, they sat up and took notice. Kirk partnered with DJ Parrot (real name Richard Barratt) as Sweet Exorcist and made “Testone”, a track we’ll be covering in the Bleepography series at a later date. When he and Mallinder came to make a new Cabaret Voltaire album for their then label Parlophone, they decided to record some tracks with Chicago’s hottest house producers – Marshall Jefferson and his Ten City outfit to be precise – and some at home in Sheffield with some of the new breed of producers powering forward the cutting edge Bleep & Bass sound.
By far the best of the Bleep-influenced tracks on the resultant album, Groovy, Laidback & Nasty (a set I erroneously called Laidback, Groovy & Nasty on at least one occasion in Join The Future – d’oh!), was ‘Easy Life’.
Initially recorded at the duo’s infamous Western Works studio, it was subsequently beaten in to shape at FON, the Sheffield studio set-up by former Cabs’ proteges Chakk, by in-house production team Mark Brydon (later to form Moloko with Roisin Murphy) and Rob Gordon (Warp co-founder and one third of Forgemasters, whose single ‘Track With No Name’ was one of the earliest Bleep hits). By all accounts sessions weren’t easy as Kirk was not used to working with other producers, but the results were impressive.
The album version, featuring Mallinder’s distinctive lead vocals, offered a uniquely accessible take on Bleep & Bass that mixed dreamy chords, a Rob Gordon-enhanced sub-heavy bassline, electrically-charged synthesizer string stabs, a chiming melody, weird noises and unfussy drum machine beats that came accompanied by occasional short bursts of drums reportedly sampled from an African record provided by DJ Parrot. It was wisely chosen by Parlophone as one of the singles, which meant getting a slew of remixes done in order to service club DJs.
It’s these remixes that set the track apart. The main 12” single came accompanied by the slightly shorter and even more bass-heavy “Jive Turkey Mix”, one of a number of Bleep-era cuts that make reference to key club nights of the period (see also Cyclone’s ‘A Place Called Bliss’, and the ‘Occasions Mix’ of The Step’s ‘Yeah You’). This was put together by Brydon and Gordon with input from the Jive Turkey resident DJs DJ Parrot and Winston Hazel; Parrot had a toke or two on one of Gordon’s industrial strength spliffs and fell asleep beneath the mixing desk, thus missing most of the session.
By stripping the album version back to its key elements, removing Mallinder’s vocal and giving more prominence to both the footworker-friendly sampled percussion and a bleeping melody line, Gordon and Brydon turned into ‘Easy Life’ into a genuine Bleep & Bass anthem, with just the right level of bassbin bothering low-end weight and rush-inducing melodic elements. It’s the ‘Jive Turkey Mix’ of ‘Easy Life’ that appears on Join The Future: UK Bleep & Bass 1988-91, fittingly re-mastered by Rob Gordon from FON’s master tapes.
Back in 1990, Gordon also contributed a trio of remixes of his own, which Parlophone released on a separately sold 12” single. These are worth checking, particularly the mis-titled, vocal-free A-side “Vocal Mix”. For this, Gordon dispensed with the sampled break bar occasionally snatches atop his own programmed TR-909 drums. These were crispy and crunchy, and worked in perfect harmony with the stabbing string line, main melody and the weighty bassline, which he naturally made the headline attraction. It’s a far more ‘underground’ mix and, for the most part, is the one that has become the most celebrated.
The other side of the 12” features the ‘Very Strange Mix’ (B1) and the ‘Strange Mix’ (B2), which appear to have been included on the record in the wrong order. As the former features Mallinder’s vocal, it’s most likely that it was actually Gordon’s ‘Vocal Mix’ rather than the ‘Strange Mix’ or ‘Very Strange Mix’. That would mean that the A-side is the ‘Strange Mix’ and the B2 the ‘Very Strange Mix’. Got that?
Whatever it was meant to be called, the B2 version on the Rob Gordon remix 12” is indeed very strange, with the Forgemasters man wrapping unsettling, off-key motifs and weird electronic noises around a superb groove. During the period Gordon had a track record of delivering weird, sub-heavy dubs that sound like the result of some dystopian acid trip; this definitely fits into that category.
Cabaret Voltaire’s relationship with Parlophone soured quickly following the release of ‘Groovy, Laidback and Nasty’, an album that Kirk has slated in recent years. They did though continue to release weighty, Bleep-inspired techno on other labels in the years that followed, so you can expect to read about some of those in future Bleepography entries.
To purchase a physical or digital copy of Matt Anniss’s book Join The Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music, head to the Velocity Press website. To pre-order vinyl or digital copies of the Join The Future: UK Bleep & Bass 1988-91 compilation, head to Bandcamp or Bleep.com