“You see, the people who constantly listen to pop have their ears degraded by wrong style and reiteration, senseless reiteration…”
– Unity Mitford, taped on ‘Porno Base’
WHAT MAKES 23 Skidoo different? Why is it that where such previous experimental expeditions as Cabaret Voltaire and A Certain Ratio have failed, 23 Skidoo have broken through barriers and limits of artiness and avant-gardism and lodged themselves deep in some collective psyche?
Perhaps it’s because their senseless reiteration is so much more dynamic, threatening, and invigorating than those of the forebears. Skidoo have admirably caught the balance between the primal and the technological, the sacred and the paranoic.
They are forbidding, but not because they bear down as representatives of some Higher Alternative Art. At the same time they are prepared to take risks which might imply such apartness. They appreciate the violence of repetition – in sex, religion, industry, in all ritual – and grasp it with a polysensual clash of forms and media that make the Cabs look constipated.
Tapes, slides, and bongoes: founded upon a control of rhythms almost awesome in five such young and unassertive men, the multi-mediated event of a 23 Skidoo concert exceeds and effaces its social/functional context. Their ideas, methods, and techniques are no more sophisticated than those of their peers, merely sharper and more disciplined.
“Words lose their meaning in the darkened realm of sound,” wrote Mallarme, and indulging the furtive darkness, mystery, and violence of their performance a week or so after taking tea with three of their number proved a rewarding alienation.***
SKIDOO DRAW probably the most consciously, even measurably, “hip” audience in London but merely because they are anonymous and let machines do part of their energetic and demanding work for them doesn’t justify scorn based on sentimental obsessions with less chaste practitioners of the art.
Haven’t they at least bridged, inadvertently or otherwise, a gulf between self-preening highbrow experimentation and semi-aware middlebrow trendhopping? Or are they just being historically tailored as an acceptably “superior” group?
True, parts of their material and execution would strike even the staunchest survivor of the “avant-garde” as somewhat meretricious exercises in primitivism – the occasional sound of horns blown away on eerie winds set against the busy burping of tapes, odd twists of percussion, and TV footage of African fertility rites…as auditors/spectators we know very well how we are being used, manipulated, indulged. But then other parts will come to the rescue, parts which turn on a real tension and bounce tirelessly around intricate rhythms in such a way that not even the most blase accompanying images still or moving, could possibly act as a blanket of compensation.
“The sign of a degenerating race…I would liken pop to the effect of drugs…”
rants the Mitford woman.
Skidoo’s remarkable prowess and near-virtuosity in the realm of rhythm, which draws on sources as diverse as those of Fela Kuti, Augustus Pablo, and Jajouaaka the Moroccan “Master Musicians”, has led people to equate the group with a funk scene that in truth they do not adhere to.
While they admit to the influence, possibly decisive, of a certain ACR, 23 Skidoo do not claim to be in the business of dance qua nightclubs. And while they may overawe some of their more timid contemporaries with their lack of a public image, with their surplus gadgetry, they at least do not condescend by claiming allegiance to some gregarious gospel of “fun”.
23 Skidoo are closer to Dziga Vertov than to Haircut 100 – and you don’t need so many Skidoos.***
THREE SKIDOOS have voted to undertake this session of spokesmanship, the two half-Asian brothers Alex and Johnny and the film-maker Richard.
The 236 bus from London’s Finsbury Park having all but dropped you on Johnny’s doorstep in the outer reaches of Hackney, you are treated with hospitality if not explicit deference. Real tea and Richard’s offer of “alternative cupcakes” reassure one of being on terra firma.
Skidoo boys are serious but not surly. After all, what could they possibly complain about? Success? Why, that’s simply not done. Pausing between cupcakes, I ask if the success of Seven Songs has surprised them.
Alex: “Definitely, when Fetish wired Johnny and me to come back from Singapore coz the album’d gone in at number one we thought he was winding us up.”
Did they think they lacked the necessary following to put it so high?
“Yeah, but I think it’s because a lot of people thought we were like ABC or Stimulin, or a funky dance band like Pigbag, and then bought the record to find that wasn’t really so.
Isn’t that being a bit humble?
“No. I think it’s being realistic. From the reaction we had to The Gospel According To New Guinea, people tended to just review ‘Last Words’ and not mention the rest of it. I think lots of people do come to our gigs who only want to hear the “funky” ones…”
Johnny: “But I think it’s better really playing to a closed-minded audience rather than a cliquey sort of one which makes you feel like you’re preaching to the converted. If you’ve got an image of being some kind of “weird” band, you’re only gonna attract the sort of audience that accepts everything you do.”
Alex: “Like, a lot of people thought of Cabaret Voltaire as a really over-the-top experimental band and didn’t go near them…”
Johnny: “I mean, if you can get a single into the charts, doing a pop single, a completely different type of music, as well as doing the “extreme” stuff, you might get the occasional person who sees an album which is gonna surprise him…”
And are you going to make a pop record?
Johnny: “Yeah, I think we might…”
Alex: “It would have to be one-off, it would be hard to come up with something commercially feasible…and I think there’s a danger in making a real lot of money.”
In the new golden dawn of pop muzak, isn’t that the tiniest bit puritanical?
Johnny: “Well, I think this whole thing about the new pop music is just so much bullshit! I mean, music’s just made out to be so much that it isn’t, and so many people believe all this stuff. Rock stars have got to be the most uninteresting people you could meet.”
Richard: “Most of the stuff coming out at the moment is just neo-bubblegum…”
How pop-orientated, how commercially aware would you say you are?
Johnny: “Well, if we got on Top Of The Pops, I’d make sure I looked good, but I think things get totally destroyed when they get turned into fashion.”
Alex: “Listen mate, we’re a ‘petulant perversion and ambient exoticism’. Geddit?”***
SURE. AND THE new EP on Fetish/Pineapple, Tearing Up The Plans, is full of petulant, ambient, not to say strange and seductive noises.
There’s a piece which sounds like some expert fusion of Suicide and the Cabs: a jungle-like mass of tapes and effects set to an engagingly robotic yet coasting Marty-Rev style beat. Another is closer to, say, the Can of Limited Edition, a wavering, ethereal, and oriental melee of opiated pipes, violins, and acoustic guitars, hovering and dipping over the snakey punctuation of whiplash percussion directly reminiscent of Jaki Liebezeit.
Even more startling is a final piece that slides sinisterly from synths to what sound like bouzouki to a spectral, nerve-rackingly disembodied echo chamber of violins and double-basses to finally some pure Gothic-schlockmeister tricks with voices and tapes. (One day 23 Skidoo will write the soundtrack for Exorcist 3: The Gospel According To William Burroughs).
Alex: “There are so many bands who mind what people say about them because they’re so anxious to get famous and make money. So many bands find a formula and then don’t let go of it in case they lose their audience. We’re fortunate in that we don’t all have to live off the band, so we don’t have to think of it as a commercial proposition.
“With The Gospel to some extent, we compromised because the trouble was that when people bought it they either listened to the “funky” side or the “experimental” side, they never really crossed over from one to the other. So with Seven Songs we thought, Right we’re just gonna make a record which is about what we’re doing.”
Johnny: “I think Seven Songs is one of the best showcases I’ve heard.”
Do you think people are intimidated by you?
Johnny: “People still don’t really know what we look like, which is good, it means there’s less chance of people coming to see us with preconceptions. Because our music encompasses so many different areas, obviously there’s gonna be bits that certain people can relate to, whether it’s the funky bits or the really extreme bits, and so with any luck we can gradually lure people out of their preconceptions, to the point where they don’t automatically switch off when there’s just tapes playing or whatever.
“Concerts on the whole are just really boring. They’re just what people are conditioned to expect and they don’t expect anymore. We’d like to make our concerts even more varied than they already are.”
Alex: “That’s why the films are really important, and I think we ought to talk about them. For a start, there’s not very much light when we play, which we like cos we’re not very extrovert performers, we don’t tend to bounce around on stage…”
Richard: “People seem to think the films are psychedelic or something, I don’t know why.”
Alex: “I’ve never seen any films of The Velvet Underground’s light shows, but I wouldn’t imagine them to be anything like our slides.”
Johnny: “I just think it’s important to have visual and well as audio-stimulation, to work on those two dimensions…”
Richard: “It works in a couple of ways. One is the movement of the films in rhythm with the music, and the other is the specific content of each piece of film. Like ‘Kundalini’ on the video is just about energy and sexual energy, to do with movement and colour. The films are basically composed of cut-ups of TV programmes and so on. I’m at St Martin’s film school anyway, so I can use their facilities. The 8mm films I’ve been shooting are just looking at rituals of society.”
Johnny: “You can do so much by presenting images out of context…”
Is it arbitrary at times or are the links specific and uniformly co-ordinated?
Richard: “There’s obviously a lot of chance involved, which is good, cos one slide can give a song a totally different shade of meaning.”
What equipment are you using at the moment?
Richard: “Just three slide projectors and one 8mm, which I think is enough.”
Alex: “At one point we were using four carousels and two 8mm, which was crazy.”
Richard: “Yeah, it was getting really swamped…”
Alex: “Sometimes we try to get the images projected round the back and sides and sometimes we hang bits of material from the ceiling which catch part of the light. The relationship of the slides to the music is now evolving at the same pace as the music itself. Richard interprets what we’re playing, but we’re retrying to make the two things even more closely-related, because, unless it’s worked out before, it’s not always possible to get the slides where you want them.”***
23 SKIDOO MAY make TOTP one day but in the meantime they’re content with things like Genesis P. Orridge’s Final Academy nights in the autumn. This is a series of events centred around no less a legend than William Burroughs, who all things permitting, will be reading for a week at Dalston’s Ritzy, supported each night by such interested parties as Psychic Television, Brio Gysin, The Last Few Days and Cabaret Voltaire. Folks, these are the real stars.
What’s ultimately refreshing about 23 Skidoo is they don’t get hung up on going for the offbeat, the introspective, the unconventional. They’re plugged into the elements just like they’re plugged into FBI files. They’re plugged in. Their music crosses history and transcends epochs, excavating the past and probing the future. Their darkness could be your light.
Alex: “To be quite honest, I don’t think we’ve ever really been a dance band.”
© Barney Hoskyns, New Musical Express, 12 June 1982