The “Code” Enigma [Cabaret Voltaire’s missing performances 1987-1988]

Cabaret Voltaire’s approach to promoting releases through touring was always a bit erratic.  Sometimes there would be a couple of dates here and there (Microphonies) or a full tour some months after a release (The Covenant…), but with the signing to EMI it was expected that the Cabs would promote their new LP “Code” with a full tour, both in the UK and Europe, but particularly in America where their signing to EMI-Manhattan was their first US label and meant that recordings would no longer be import only.

Cabaret Voltaire made one short appearance at the CMJ Seminar in New York and then…nothing.  There had definitely been plans made for a US tour in the spring of 1988.  As far as I know this never took place.  There have never been any recordings appearing from this time or even reviews or information of the Cabs playing anywhere.  So what happened?

“It’s been well over a year since the Cabs last live appearance and this to a lukewarm reception at some highbrow performance arts festival in Vienna.  The experience has obviously left Kirk a little nonplussed.  Even given 14 months to reflect, he still hasn’t managed to figure out just how it was that the duo found themselves in front of several thousand middle-aged Austrians, whose hiking boot toecaps were stubbornly glued to the floor.

“The event may have caused Kirk to consolidate his opinion of the Austrian nation, but it hasn’t diminished his enthusiasm for live work in general.  EMI are just as keen to see Cabaret Voltaire on stage, but it’s uncertain when they will actually get around to organising it.

“If it’s not before the end of the year, it’ll be sometime next year.  You know how it is”, he adds with simple fatalism.

“Exact dates and places will no doubt be determined by the pace of the new album’s sales.  Meanwhile the Cabs themselves have already given some thought to the matter.  The main focus of attention is on how to duplicate live the new-found precision of Code.

“We’ve upgraded our sound on record, so I think it’s important to do that with the way we present ourselves live.  I’d also like to make the performances much more strict, much less improvised.  For the last two tours we had a drummer and percussionist on stage, but since it’s all programmed on Code anyway, I think it will end up with just the two of us and lots of machines.”

“He accepts that replacing manpower with machine is rather flying in the face of current trends.  Even if you rely exclusively on technology in the studio, when it comes to live work these days you’re expected to “prove” your musicianship by retrieving the guitar, bass and drums from the bin and thrashing it out with that warts-and-all human feel.  The overt use of technology is no longer a novelty on stage, in fact many punters once again regard it as some form of cheating.

“Whether you actually play live or not, people still think you’re using backing tapes.  I’ve been at concerts where you know for a fact it’s really being played and people in the audience have said, ‘yes, but you know it’s all on tape’.  Personally I think it’s irrelevant how it’s done.  The main thing for me is to make the performance sound good.”

“For their last couple of tours CV have been content to record the backing tracks (mainly just a few keyboard parts and sound effects) into high quality cassette.  They’ve tended to fight shy of any other form of sequencing since, although Kirk has never had any problem with them himself, he knows “hundreds of people” who have.  However, it looks like the next tour with a stripped down line-up will involve a more sophisticated approach.

“I’ve been toying with the idea of using a sampler to store the basic backbone of the music in the form of sample loops.  Like with the Emax you can create a whole song by putting two bars of music down, looping it, then sequencing different loops one after the other.  Because it’s got lots of different outputs on the back, you can get some interesting stereo effects.”

“However, there’s a distinctly more exciting idea on the cards: the use of CDV (Compact Disc Video).  This medium, pioneered by Philips, allows around 20 minutes of video information to be stored on compact disc along with accompanying soundtrack.

“Because we always use films and projections when we play live it seemed like a good idea to be able to play the backing tracks and feed out a visual image to the projectors at the same time.  That way we’ll have the advantage of perfect sync.  We’ll be able to get about six tracks onto each disc and obviously the CD format means we’ll be able to program the tracks in any order we like, so we can shuffle the set around every night if we want.  I like the idea of going on tour with a couple of compact discs instead of a big flight case full of cassettes and stuff.”

“The only snag is that a master disc costs around £1000 to manufacture.  That’s quite an investment for an hour long show.  However the Cabs management is looking at the possibility of sponsorship from Philips.  And, of course, copies could always be reproduced for sale to the punters after the show: sing-a-long to the backing of your favourite experimental synth duo in the privacy of your own bedroom?

“Yeah, why not?” says Kirk brightly, the spinning dollar signs almost discernible at the back of his eyes.  Only I’ve lived with the album for so long that the last thing I want to do is record the backing tracks.”

(Nicholas Rowland – interview with Richard H Kirk Music Technology 12.87)

Music Tech 12.87

So obviously a fair amount of thought had gone into preparation for the Code tour.  As mentioned earlier, the Cabs did manage one performance at the CMJ New Music Seminar in New York on Friday 30th October 1987.  Mal was interviewed prior to this during a round of promotion for Code.

“I was surprised to hear about the live spot in New York.  You lately haven’t been performing live.”

SM: “No, we haven’t been.  We’re not doing a full set, just 20 minutes, so it’s just a little appearance we put together.  We haven’t played live in about a year and a half.”

“Why is that?  Too busy with recording?”

SM: “That was it.  For us, we have to stop and concentrate on what we plan to do live as it’s because we do spend more time in the studio than doing shows.  We’re not a massive gigging band, we have to really concentrate, and we couldn’t as we were in the studio.  This is a mini presentation, only three long songs.”

“Maybe we can start a riot and persuade you to play longer.”

SM: “The thing is that’s all we really have together live.  We’d have to play the same thing again backwards if you want more!” (laughs)

“I suppose we’d embarrass you if we asked for an encore!  I’m surprised you even bother to perform as you always joke around about being horrible musicians live.”

SM: “Well, it won’t be so bad this time around as I’m just going to be a horrible singer.  I’m just doing vocals, not playing bass. (laughs)  We’re still not efficient live but technology overcomes a lot of things.  It allows us to put things into the set without having to be incredible technicians.  I think the simplest things work best anyhow!” (laughs)

(Sandra A. Garcia – interview with Stephen Mallinder B-side 02-03.88)


So to the night itself, a support slot for Red Hot Chilli Peppers at the Limelight Club, New York on Hallowe’en night.  Given its limited nature, it got a reasonable amount of press coverage, the NME in the UK covered it, although I’m not sure why!

“Ten years ago Cabaret Voltaire gave the appearance of being ‘needed’ on the principle that today’s avant-garde is tomorrow’s ready-to-wear.  These days there’s nothing as old hat as the shock of the new, there’s nothing as out of date as the idea of experimental music.  But somebody has forgotten to tell the Cabs who still churn out that same calliper-clad, sotto voce, industrial funk groove they seem to have been mining for centuries.  It’s about as relevant as arts labs, performance art spaces or concrete poetry.  If you really want innovative dance music, forget Cabaret Voltaire and listen to New York’s Nitro Deluxe or Detroit’s Rythim Is Rythim …Cabaret Voltaire’s problem is that in trying to be ahead of the times they’ve been surpassed by the times.”

(Frank Owen NME 28.11.87)

CV Live 1987

A more interesting, not to say bizarre, review appeared in the US technical press:

“Cabaret Voltaire …vs Nighclubzilla.  Their New York Hallowe’en showcase…was it a trick or a treat?

“A blue dinosaur walks by, a human arm hanging out of it’s mouth, a bottle of imported beer in one…er…claw.  In the corner by the bar, an androgynous vampire, sipping something green from a fluted goblet, gives me the eye…while indicating that other anatomical parts might also be attainable.

“It’s Hallowe’en Weekend at Limelight, a New York Club situated in a de-sanctified church, and Cabaret Voltaire is about to hit the stage.  This special Friday night performance is a teaser for an upcoming American tour, and the band’s surreal blend of sound and image couldn’t be more apropos for a Manhattan Walpurgisnacht pagan ritual.

“Some of the people in this club have ceased to be human, period.  Besides the audience resembling creatures from a Bosch painting, there’s been an unusual amount of ant-like activity on stage.  Roadies have built a hill of television monitors along the back wall, while the only front line instruments are a few keyboards, spot-lit centre stage.

“Something spooks the road crew and they scramble out of sight, then suddenly the television monitors crackle to life and the club fills with a churning techno-throb, chunky and hard-edged.  Bright, out-of-focus images flash on the screens behind mallinder, while Kirk grinds up the crowd with his keyboards.  The effect is hypnotic and kinetic, like the music from a club scene in a cyberpunk horror film.  The crowd, soaked in ‘Code’, sweats and pulses…their costumes and mutant makeup awash in the flickering light from the monitors on stage.

“When Cabaret Voltaire’s official American tour starts in Spring ’88, Kirk and Mallinder promise an even more energetic presentation.  While many of this show’s rhythm tracks are coming from a Sony F1, future dates will feature a live drummer.  “For (large venue) touring, the sound and sight of a real drummer is much more exciting,” claims Mallinder.  Are there any plans for creating Code’s backing vocals by Dolette McDonald and Tessa Nile, and Bill Nelson’s guitar playing on the tour, too?  “Everything’s in the planning stages, but we (do know that) we’re not going to try to duplicate our record live; so much of it is a product of ‘studio as instrument’ concept.  The tour will feature a stripped down, more spontaneous sound.”

“The future’s too far away for the Limelight crowd, frozen in Clubland’s Eternal Now.  Someone tries to sell me some re-combinant DNA, but I wave them off angrily, thedemons inside my head already raging and spitting…because at the centre of the dance floor is a blue dinosaur dancing with my vampire.

“Children of the night, what sweet music they make…”

(Jeffrey H. Allgeier – interview with Stephen Mallinder  Music, Computers & Software April 1988)


So there we have it, the entire ‘Code’ live experience, reduced to 3 long songs in a New York nightclub.  Did the difficulty of transferring ‘Code’ to a live format prove too much?  Were the sales of ‘Code’ too poor to justify the tour?  Or was it the rumoured split in 1988 (both members took time out to work on their own projects, Love Street and Wicky Wacky) that scuppered the chance to hear those songs in a live format?