The art of storytelling is one that is not necessarily defined by harsh, dyed-in-the-wool lines but by watercolor smears, oil-black-swoops, wet-inky-lines, blood, sweat, and most definitely tears. (When This Mortal Coil titled one of their albums, It’ll End in Tears, they weren’t joking around and neither am I.) Like its spiritual predecessor, the experimental short film, the music video have more accepted freedom to get out of the linearity-box and immediately douse said box with nitroglycerin while tossing a lit cigarette at it. This rich soil provided a fertile playing ground for natural born innovators. Cue in Cabaret Voltaire and director Peter Care.
Formed in Sheffield, England in the early 1970s by the trio of Richard H. Kirk, Stephen Mallinder, and Chris Watson, Cabaret Voltaire were artful sonic experimenters whose music incorporated rhythms and samples that move your core while often filling you with a tangible and tangled nest of dread, tension, and taut neurosis. While Watson would depart in 1981, leaving the band’s core firmly with Kirk and Mallinder, they continued to be one of the most striking bands that emerged out of the 1970s whose work retains a steadfast freshness. They were and are a charismatic band that often utilized art to reflect the rougher sides of culture and humanity at large. That isn’t a wholly fair summary because they are bigger than a simple pat description, but, hey, it’s a start.
In 1979, the band would create a soundtrack for a short film entitled Johnny Yesno directed by a graduate of the Psalter Lane School of Art in Sheffield, Peter Care. The meeting of Care and Cabaret Voltaire would be fortuitous, to say the least. From directing their 1983 video for “Just Fascination” all the way to 1989’s “Hypnotised,” the combination of Care’s innovative direction, Burroughsian cut-ups meets early Jodorowsky style editing, and the new-musical-wheel-makers that are Cabaret Voltaire is one that created some of the most perfect music videos of the 1980s.
Out of all of the videos that Care made with Cabaret Voltaire, 1985’s “Sensoria” is the one that garnered the most amount of critical acclaim, including being featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art the same year, entitled “Music Video: The Industry & Its Fringes.” Rightfully so, because it’s a total stunner and features a subplot involving the strange lanky adult male spiritual revivalist and his young daughter, healing, dancing and approaching a sign that points to good or evil. The characters are painted as if they stepped right out of a Flannery O’Connor story. But if O’Connor was the American writer whose spirit touched “Sensoria,” then Jim Thompson is the one whose bloody, craggy thumbprint can be seen in 1987’s “Don’t Argue.”
My first introduction to both Cabaret Voltaire and the song “Don’t Argue” was inexplicably through a budget comp I had found as a kid at Wal-Mart called Euro Beat. The fact that this paranoid-electronic gem of a track was nestled on the same tape that also had The Vapours and Kajagoogoo was both goony and subversive. (In fairness to the comp, it did at least also have Gang of Four and Thomas Dolby’s “Europa & the Pirate Twins.”) It would be many more years before I got to see the video. I couldn’t find any info to indicate whether or not the video played on MTV in the United States back in 1987, but given the amount of implied violence, the proliferation of gun imagery, and Bud Dwyer flash frames, I wouldn’t be shocked if it didn’t. After all, this is the same channel that at one point banned Blue Oyster Cult’s “Joan Crawford” video due to the implied cannibalistic schoolgirls. Remember, it’s okay to sexually exploit Catholic school girls, which was downright a trope in rock videos in the 1980s and 90s, but if said schoolgirls start eating creepy men, then THAT is obscene.
It’s not safe to go out, it’s not right to stay home
He said my advice is to carry a gun
Released on their 1987 album Code, “Don’t Argue” as a song was one of the best gateways one could have for this band. The rhythm is both danceable and ominous, like the funkiest track you will hear before entering into a musty wood-paneled room with black mold and blood-stained carpets. The song begins with dialogue sourced from a 1945 American propaganda film that was directed by Frank Capra called Your Job in Germany. The narration sound digitally altered to sound both deeper but also harder to place, making lines like “…be suspicious of everyone…” and “…they’ve been trained to hate and destroy…” sound even uglier, as if such a thing was possible.
The visual potential for such a track is potent and with Peter Care at the helm, the end result matches the song beat for beat. (Though try to watch the video set to the album version of “Don’t Argue.” When the video was originally released, the version of the song is the remixed version, which has less teeth and misplaced female backup vocals, making a song that was originally timeless sound a little dated. They were a poor substitution for Mallinder’s vocals, which provide us a cool and calm warning.
The video itself features some breakneck editing with a clear and aesthetic purpose. (One of Care’s many superpowers.) Fast edits have been used enough in the format to the extent that nowadays when a feature film has a lot of quick cuts, critics will often refer to it as “music video style” editing. The latter can be uttered derisively, but with “Don’t Argue” and Care’s body of work in general, the substance is one with the style. Add Cabaret Voltaire to the mix and the union grows tenfold.
There is a multitude of threads throughout, all coming together kinetically in a hyper-needlepoint display. Set both in a rural and Western desert location and Sin City herself, Las Vegas, there are a handful of characters at play. Presented like the nastiest character stepping out of Jim Thompson’s classic crime-pulp novel, The Killer Inside Me is character actor Ron Gilbert as a sinister American sheriff. Gilbert sports some grade A gristled gravitas in the role, whether he is wielding a large baton to destroy religious altars or acting menacingly towards various under-dressed women at a desolate ranch. The man means business and the business is most definitely not good.
There are a number of shots of Gilbert’s Sheriff driving around the desert, looking casually predatory. Contrast that with the shots of both Mallinder and Kirk riding in a taxi around Vegas, looking shadowy and nervous. The Vegas footage has a fantastic glitzy-grimy patina, with echoes of some of the nastier giallos with a close up of a knife being extended against the neon lights backdrop. When violence isn’t bubbling up under the surface, it is lacerating its way through the surface. The ranch of women, who are mostly clad in a mix of stylish loungewear, vintage lingerie, and bathing suits, is a sensual tableau of beautiful aggression. The women, which include fashion and music video model Kathy Foy-Asaro, are often prepared to defend themselves against the main intruder, which is the sheriff. Foy-Asaro, who had previously worked with Care when he directed her in the video for American pop singer Robbie Nevil’s hit, “C’est la Vie,” in particular protects herself with a giant rake and an even bigger attitude. Quick cuts of one someone cutting the sofa cushions and digging in to grab what is possibly wads of cash intimate a ranch of writhing and perilous women with firearms, hammering further home the American pulp-novel vibe. (On a trivia note, Foy-Asaro’s music video work is pretty impressive, since she also appeared in David Bowie’s “Day In Day Out” and George Michael’s “Father Figure.”)
There are some equally striking shots of Mallinder singing in front of a car on fire, as well as footage of a couple performing a type of religious rite, the aforementioned Budd Dwyer shots, minus the infamous and very real footage of him committing suicide via a gunshot to the head, though the audio of that incident can be heard in the album version of the song and appears in at least one fan edit of the video, and venomous snake handling. Sex, guns, and religion are the holy trinity of the American nightmare, with the song brilliantly taking the soundbites from the Capra propaganda, which was originally warning US soldiers against interacting with German citizens, and subverting it to warn people about what the Gun Club would call, a “bad America.”
The United States in the 1980s was a hotbed of fundamentalist Christianity and its nasty bed mate of sexual repression, as evidenced by such entities as the PMRC and the Meese Commission, as well as a gun-toting conservatism. “Don’t Argue” is a red-target reflection of this era. Flip that mirror around now and not a whole lot has changed. In the current climate of milquetoast nostalgia, complete with remakes and “reboots,” the cultural era of the Western world is feeling akin, for a lot of us, to the worst reboot of the 1980s. Its nuclear fear for a planet already on fire, but that’s no excuse to not celebrate the artists who got it right and continue to do just that. Both Kirk and Mallinder are still active as artists, with the latter being in the excellent electronic band, Wrangler and the former creating a number of both solo works and a number of side bands. Care would continue to work as a music video director, including working quite a bit with REM from 1991 to 2004 and would go on to direct the feature film, 2002’s The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. He is currently still active with this production company, Geniusville.
When the world of the visual can become intrinsically synced with the aural, the promise of art that is exciting, boundary-bending, and challenging can grow. There is no better proof of this than examining the work Kirk, Mallinder, and Care.