23 Skidoo: Urban Savages

Before their drums fell silent, 23 Skidoo’s percussion-heavy apocalypses ripped away the city’s civilised surface to reveal its primitive heart. Now the long wait is over: the culling is coming again. 

“APPARENTLY WE’RE quite influential,” says 23 Skidoo’s Alex Turnbull, brow furrowing sardonically. “We never knew that.”

Influential 23 Skidoo certainly were. Their most celebrated records — namely Seven Songs, Urban Gamelan and The Culling Is Coming — have been long deleted and (to date) never reissued, but the reverberations of their apocalyptic ethnosavagery are still felt; their mashes of noise, beats, panic loops, frenzied percussion and screaming horns sounding uncannily prescient of much that has happened since on the borderlines between post-industrial cut-up culture, jazzed ethnofunk, jungle and drum ’n’ bass.

When they were most invisible, operating under their Ronin alias, Alex and Johnny Turnbull, Fritz Catlin (aka Fritz Haamann), and their longtime bassist Sketch extended Skidoo’s reach into HipHop Now they’re just about to release their first new album in 16 years, simply titled 23 Skidoo, but you wouldn’t know they’d been away so long from the clamour their name still generates.

If the new album has neither the apocalyptic pretensions nor the raggedy edges of old, it’s a true reflection of the Skidoo ethic: it defies generalisation. The opener, ‘Freeze Frame’, recalls old Skidoo, with its fast, funky manoeuvring, Ramayana monkey-style chatter and Tibetan horn motif From there on in, however, Skidoo metamorphose with each track, refusing to settle into any groove, however groovy The humid Ambient suspense of ‘Interzonal’ gives way to the sinister tom-toms of ‘Kendang’, like an advancing oriental army, which is in turn usurped by the neotropical jazz of ‘Catch 23’. The album’s restless shifts of mood and mode reflect the times that produced it.

Today we live in a sonic environment abundant with cut-up, juxtaposed found sounds, ethnological flavours and spices, dark Ambient and white noise, serrated electronica, recycled post-industrial detritus, obsessive-compulsive repetition, white boys co-opting black music for their own nefarious ends — sometimes all of these elements are mashed into a single, blipvert MTV moment, the radical impulses that first gave rise to them long forgotten.

Back in 1979, when 23 Skidoo formed in London, there was none of this left-field pop culture operated in an ominous darkness, in a crater of nothingness still smouldering from the aftershock of punk. The nowadays mandatory notion of indie- funk crossover was in its weird infancy. Electronica? The first “electrofunk” to be made in Britain was still four years away (52nd Street’s ‘Cool As Ice’).

Over in Bristol, meanwhile, the Pop Group had co-opted funk and disco rhythms to accompany their own hard left polemical agenda In Manchester, A Certain Ratio were taking a deadpan pleasure in stripping funk of its sexy flesh and shiny, hedonistic trappings, reducing it to a skeletal danse macabre — their cover of Banbarra’s ‘Shack Up’ resounded with glum Mancunian irony, as hollow as Kafka’s cheekbones. There were also Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and the excellent This Heat, unfairly ignored at the time because they came up the art rock way rather than through punk.

Then there were 23 Skidoo Their second single was recorded at Cabaret Voltaire’s Western Works and co-produced by Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge, who leased them rehearsal space at the Death Factory. 23 Skidoo shared TG’s interest in Burroughs, in using tape loop mantras, metallic noise and electronics to depict and expose the hollow core of Western (post-) industrial society

Skidoo drew from all of these groups, even as they sprang from the same avant garde margin. They may have had cerebral appeal, but they never considered that their music making methods were intellectual. “Although we do have arguments, and very strong ideas about what we want the music to sound like, we do avoid trying to be ’clever’ about what we do,” says Alex. What Skidoo brought was a palpably physical edge to their music, as evinced in their furious use of percussion Half-Chinese brothers Johnny and Alex Turnbull were and still are martial arts enthusiasts. Combined with their study of Burundi and Kodo drumming, they were aware of the spirit-enhancing qualities that could be achieved through such disciplined exertion.

Skidoo weren’t alone in taking a particular interest in the body in music in the early ’80s (perhaps the least ever decadent era in rock and pop). From the margins to the mainstream, from the banalities of Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Let’s Get Physical’, through the perturbing Leni Riefenstahl tendencies of Spandau Ballet’s ‘Musclebound’, to DAF’s ironic/erotic ‘Absolute Körperkontrolle’, physical effort was a key motif in those pre-sequencer days, in which the interface between work, rhythm, industry, sex, health and efficiency were much toyed with Skidoo, however, were more subtle, using their knowledge of martial arts to increase the insidious efficiency of their modus operandi When asked at the time if their music had a sexual dimension, Fritz Catlin demurred: “No. Our music makes me want to fight.”

“It’s a good way of venting anger, it has its similarities to the musical process,” says Alex. “A different plane of being, moving at a different speed through the environment.”

“Music is like a martial art in a way,” continues Johnny, “It’s a technique. You improve your knowledge, your technical proficiency.”

Coupled to their martial arts enthusiasm was their interest in World Music, now an internationally accepted marketing category, then a phrase that had barely been coined. Nowadays, the dissemination of World Music is a gentle pastime. The likes of Deep Forest come in peace to far-flung tribes, sample their birdsongs and exotic chants, then drape them over House beats for the delectation of Western domestic markets. World Music is the balmy soundtrack to an era of transglobal tourism and Body Shop, New Agey awareness of the wealth of other cultures out there to pander to our jaded Western palates in small, sampled doses.

When 23 Skidoo deployed “World Music”, by contrast, they did so in a spirit of cataclysmic menace. The Tibetan horn peal that reverberates through their 1981 single ‘The Gospel Comes To New Guinea’ sounded like the Last Trump, hoving in to bring the walls of Western cultural complacency crashing down. 23 Skidoo’s urban funk and ethnological sound savagery leapt out from the dark with fearsome, reproachful, anti-imperialist intent, gripping a knife between its teeth It was reflected in such song titles as ‘Coup’ and ‘The Culling Is Coming’. It echoed through the resounding cry of “Fuck You Gl” from the Vietcong hills, sampled from Apocalypse Now, a film often and rightly invoked by anyone reaching around for comparisons for Skidoo’s aural assault. A Certain Ratio had taken the Conradian notion of a journey to the heart of darkness so far, venturing into the “other” of funk, like young parodies of Dr Livingstone colonising Africa in their khaki shorts, exposing one or two cultural truths and ironies along the way 23 Skidoo ventured a whole lot further upriver, with the intention of taking their audience with them

Skidoo gigs were deliberately confounding and confrontational. “We were so aggressive because we really wanted to antagonise people who came to see us, to make them think about what they were doing,” Johnny once said. “We’d try and unhinge them by the performance we did.”

One of the most intense examples of 23 Skidoo’s confrontational performances was the first time I saw them, in 1982 at Scamps, a nightclub set in an Oxford shopping centre They swapped instruments constantly, built up mantric, concussive grooves against siren blasts of trumpet, white-hot funk guitar and industrial-strength bass, against a perturbing flicker-film bombardment of images. The performance reached a crescendo with a tape loop of the blackest, cranium-scraping white noise pierced by that eerily recurring Tibetan horn motif — the group had long since left the stage but the noise and the flickering images continued. The subliminal message seemed to be that atavistic savagery and turmoil wasn’t something located in faraway jungles — it was right here in our own cities, deep in our own heads. It wasn’t entertaining, it was irradiating. It was frightening. It was magnificent.

Skidoo themselves remember the gig as one of the finest, though with maturity, they disassociate themselves from some of the rage onstage. “Part of that sound reflected the age we were, in our late teens,” recalls Johnny. It was, of course, just a gig. However, in the context of the early 80s, against a remote backdrop of global political anxiety, riots and destabilisation, amid a music scene whose response to this was a riotous stylistic delirium, it carried real resonance.

By the mid-’80s, Skidoo had abated, disappeared underground as Ronin. Now, however, they’re back. Not, as they laughingly suggest some might imagine, to cash in on the cabaret caricature of the ’80s revival’, but brandishing their new album. 23 Skidoo hasn’t got the same firebrand aggression of their earliest stuff. Skidoo have cooled since then, though they haven’t exactly mellowed. They’ve spent the last ten or 15 years acquiring new technological expertise, wising up, continually soaking up new sounds, making occasional incursions into the heart of the music biz, doing remixes for Stevie Wonder, Ice T, Seal and Public Enemy among others. The new album is, in part, the sum of all these activities and absorptions. It’s a continually rewarding and unsettling experience. As Sketch puts it, “One of the main strengths of the band is that it is whatever we feel like doing in that moment. If you’re Status Quo, it must to be pretty bad because you have to spend your whole life Status Quo-shaped.”

Sketch, who began musical life with Britfunksters Linx, hooked up with 23 Skidoo back in 1983 after he appeared with them on the BBC youth TV show Riverside. He was intrigued by their open-ended attitude towards music making and has remained with the group since. Talking to Skidoo in their studio, amid the hi-tech equipment that was beyond their reach in their first flush, is a similar experience to listening to one of their records — fielding a relentless verbal crossfire, with lateral leaps from topic to topic.

“We’d wanted to make this record for ages but the opportunity never arrived,” says Alex. “We actually signed to Virgin back in 1991 — we built a studio on the strength of the advance. But there was a lot of record company politics going on then, with a possible EMI takeover on the cards. Amid all that uncertainty, they let us leave.

“After we made this, we thought, fuck, people are going to hate this,” he continues with relish. “It’s downtempo, it’s out of sync.” “Our attitude was, let’s not worry about drum ‘n’ bass, Techno, Big Beat, let’s just do our thing,” adds Johnny.

Fortunately for Skidoo, Virgin have held their nerve and kept faith with the group.”They didn’t know what we were going to do, neither did we,” recalls Johnny, “and when we produced the album it wasn’t what they expected However, when ‘Dawning’, the single, was well received, they gave us some leeway. They just said, ‘do your thing’ We have to respect them for that.”

Like ‘Kendang’, ‘Dawning’ spectacularly showcases the mazy, impassioned saxophone of Pharoah Sanders, veteran of the 60s New Thing, indeed one of the last active links with that incendiary era Persuading Sanders to do so was a coup in itself. 

“He was in London and we went to meet him — we thought he wasn’t into it, but it turned out that we were being stalled by one his agents,” explains Alex. “He’d actually been up for it; he’d waited in his hotel for us. So we met up with him in New York and recorded the two tracks over three hours. He’s a legend on one hand, but as far as he’s concerned himself, he’s a gigging musician. He’s just stuck with his music and got better at it, it’s a really inspiring thing.”

Although 23 Skidoo’s first single, the rare-as-a-Penny-Black ‘Ethics’/’Another Baby’s Face’, was released as early as 1980, it wasn’t until 1982 that they impacted on that era’s fast-shifting musical dialectic They list their own influences at that point as Fela Kuti, the Last Poets and New York HipHop, in which they saw an exciting street validation of hitherto academic musical ideas — “the way they took things out of context, juxtaposed things”.

However, despite its roots in a William S. Burroughs text, the name 23 Skidoo somehow engendered the mistaken belief that the group was part of the new wave of brisk, upful little white funksters — the clipped riffs of their second single on the long defunct Fetish 7″ ‘Last Words’, perhaps.

“We were very conscious of being lumped in with a bunch of very fluffy pop bands,” recalls Alex. “There was an early Face interview in which we were linked in with ABC, Heaven 17 and Haircut 100. The good thing about that was, we had all these people coming down to see us expecting straight pop. And that was when we said, ’Right, OK, this is who we’ve been waiting for, we’ve got you, now this is what we’re really about’.”

What Skidoo were really about was showcased on their debut album Seven Songs (1981), which amply delivered on all of their promise and threat. From the threshing machine frenzy of ‘Kundalini’, to the bleached ivory funk of ‘Vegas El Bandito’, to the horrific, decaying brass tape loop of ‘Mary’s Operation’, Skidoo were at once enticing us with possible musical futures, as well as hinting at possible future worst- case scenarios Like Joy Division, Skidoo invoked the giant shadow of terror many of us lived in back in those late Cold War Thatcher/Reaganite days — well, 1984 was just around the corner. Take ‘Porno Base’, in which a tape of odious Hitler groupie Unity Mitford ranting against the evils of pop music is set to a dank, dungeon-like bassline. It encapsulated the dark, rabidly reactionary strain of thought of certain Western leaders in the early 80s, which on one or two occasions threatened to visit disaster on us all.

“There was an impunity in those days,” says Fritz Catlin. “You couldn’t put something like that on a record nowadays. Not that Unity Mitford would have been likely to have come across a 23 Skidoo record.”

Skidoo’s career faltered after Seven Songs. Their next EP, Tearing Up The Plans (1982), was a less satisfying affair, recorded in the absence of the Turnbull brothers, who had taken extended leave to Indonesia in search of musical inspiration However, it does contain ‘Just Like Everybody’, featuring a disturbing yet beguiling cut-up tape of ex-CIA agent and arms smuggler Frank Terpil (“I regard myself as basically neutral and commercial”).

Skidoo became disgruntled with the contributions of guitarist Sam Mills and vocalist Tom Heslop (“I didn’t realise how much we were carrying them .’’ complained Catlin at the time). The pair left — or were they pushed? — as Skidoo entered their next phase, incorporating Sketch into their line-up. “We were impressed with Sketch because he had a cab account,” laughs Johnny “We thought, he is large!” 

The ‘Coup’ 12″ followed. With Aswad’s brass section roped in, it sounded curiously like it had been orchestrated by Bernard Herrmann. It was infectiously funky but again contained dark intimations of impending calamity The track was included on their next album, The Culling Is Coming (1983), in which Skidoo explicitly demonstrated their duality. “It was an exorcism,” asserts Johnny. “We wanted to banish a spirit and then redefine it. Aggressive on one side, structured on the other.”

Side one features a superheated live performance, puncturing the delicate atmosphere of ethnological forgery with scrap metal percussion The more ordered second side is modelled on the gamelan sounds that had so enthralled Alex and Johnny on their Indonesian excursion The composer Debussy had been similarly taken by this Balinese art almost 100 years earlier, incorporating its intricate time punctuations and elaborate polyrhythms into his own work, prefiguring many a 20th century composer’s romance with Indonesian musics. Skidoo, however, were not destined to revolutionise pop in the same way.

Critics were wary of The Culling… and its speedy follow-up, Urban Gamelan. Unsure what to make of Skidoo’s new plinky-plonky direction, they described it as meandering and “pointless”. Well, next to the metal-bashing volume of the then emerging Test Dept and Einstürzende Neubauten, it was hard, for the moment, to compete. What’s more, as the 80s wore on, the notion of funk noir, as practised by Sheffield groups like Chakk, was beginning to wear thin, a point most eloquently made by Simon Reynolds in a 1986 Monitor article, ‘Funk’s Fictional Threat’. By the late 80s, the pop, global and political mood had changed altogether, with the left reduced to a resigned realpolitik, the indie-funk melting pot now cooled into a bland, post-Live Aid consensus and the so-called ’Triumph Of The West’ having swallowed the world whole. The culling never came. There seemed, for the moment, no place for 23 Skidoo’s incendiary musical devices.

Skidoo’s demise, however, was down to a more practical snag — Genesis P-Orridge called time on their lease at the Death Factory. “He kind of went mad when Psychic TV occurred,” explains Fritz. “Came back and started redoing the place up in his own image after we’d done quite a lot of work on it We had a row and that was that.”

Skidoo reinvented themselves, forming the Ronin label in 1989, throwing themselves into HipHop, and producing cuts by the likes of Deckwrecka and Roots Manuva (who guests on ‘Where You At’ on the new Skidoo album). “We started off the production as the group, with the same aesthetic, the same principles — but in a digital incarnation,” says Alex. Ironically, DJ culture was just catching up with what Skidoo had been doing all along with cruder means. For instance, an unreleased late 80s Skidoo track, ‘Other Mix’, reflected Alex’s interest in DJ culture. “It was fucking heavy,” asserts Johnny. “It had everything loaded into it.”

Come the ’90s and Skidoo bided their time working on advertising soundtracks and commercial remixes. “Not Anchor butter or anything like that,” Alex assures me. “We did the Wrangler ad, back when they were trying to rebrand, using LL Cool J They wanted to get away from the Rodeo thing. Now they’ve gone back to the Rodeo thing!” They also worked on campaigns for Smirnoff and Nike.

If all of this indicated they were no longer the angry young men of yore, their ire was rekindled in the mid-’90s when the Chemical Brothers released ‘Block-Rockin’ Beats’, which scooped a Grammy award on the strength of a bassline filched lock and stock from Skidoo’s ‘Coup’.

“What was frustrating for us is, they paid Schoolly D for the fucking sample of his they used on ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, but they didn’t sample our riff, they just replayed it. And that riff is all that record is,” glowers Alex. “It’s an interesting situation because we have the same record company and the same A&R man. If they’d put it out, not paid us and then said it was a tribute to a band they really like, that would have been different. Remember when they were on MTV and the VJ played ‘Coup’ to them, and one of them put his head in his hands — discovered! The other one aggressively leaps up and puts the needle further down the record “Then they started going on about some sample that Ronin Records have used, which is really wack to try and grass someone up to justify, well, it’s practically an admission of guilt.”

“I’m amazed they got a Grammy for that shit,” mutters Johnny.

The irony of the Chemical spill is the ambivalent position pioneering cut-up artists like Skidoo find themselves in when their own legacy is “pirated” More pertinently, the Chemicals’ use of the Skidoo riff invites a contrast between the dance music of then and now. Back in 1984, ‘Coup’ was an unmanageable headcharge, a grenade thrown from leftfield, an act of musical intimidation and insolence that was unplayable on the radio. A decade later, we have the Chemicals, steeped in a sequencer-driven, post-rave culture of giddy hedonism and riotous plenty, whose sop to radicalism is the feeble whine of a police siren, whose commercially successful records have little subtext other than ‘There’s so much of everything, it’s mad!’ To even think of putting their music in some sort of geo-political context is risible.

Skidoo are all too aware that today’s technology has removed the physical dimension that was so important to the making of their music More importantly, says Fritz Catlin, the age of the computer has squeezed out the element of chance so important to Skidoo’s more primitive, Burroughs-inspired methodology. “We had things on a loop. We’d get dialogue on Walkmans. There was this cut-up, random element. Now, when you’re piecing things together on a sound system it’s not the same. It’s the nature of technology — computerising the music has minimised the risk, the physical touch, the random element. A lot of great music came from errors made in rehearsals. But there’s less margin for errors with computers and therefore less margin for creativity. You can’t really program randomness. That’s an oxymoron.”

Catlin’s comments prompt an inevitable wave of despondent comparison between then and now “Compared with the early 80s you have more choice, but in a sense you have less,” argues Alex. “Where could you see a band like the Cabs and This Heat now? I understand that people don’t want to feel depressed when they’re listening to music, but there has to be further scope in music other than this ‘up, up, up’. There has to be a greater gamut of expression. At a time when people should be more culturally open in terms of the access we’ve got to World Music and so forth, there’s actually less interest. Unless it’s over a House beat, and then it’s, ‘Yeah, that’s amazing, that’s mental’.” Sketch adds: “I saw the Pistols film [Julien Temple’s The Filth And The Fury] — a real rush … those were the days. There are very few musicians who would sit down and decide consciously, ‘I am going to shake up the world with my music’. There’s just this bland Zeitgeist nowadays, the times are very spin-doctored.”

Catlin says, “I went to Egypt and I said, ‘I’m a musician’, and they were excited, they said, ‘Really? What do you play?’ When I said, ‘The drums’, they were really disappointed. Because there, everyone plays drums and each village has its different beat. Of course, as the media turns us into a global village, we’re all going under the same beat.”

Ironically, since Skidoo first faded, so much of what they practised has become commonplace World Music as pop music; sampling and repetitive beats, cut-up video accompaniments; homebrewed Ambient recording à la Aphex Twin. Skidoo were, as former Cabaret Voltaire member Stephen Mallinder observed, “the original punks on funk”. Even the sensibility of their Neville Brody-designed sleeves. “It’s all down to us!” guffaws Johnny.

What’s missing, of course, is the sense of danger, the terrifying novelty of early Skidoo. The world has cooled, the smoke has cleared. Even they look back wryly at some of their pronouncements about the corruptness of the music industry, while Alex admits they’re no longer quite so avid about William Burroughs and the rest. “That was when we were young and at the height of our attitude,” smiles Alex, “our way of telling people we weren’t impressed.’’

“We’ve got older,” says Johnny. “With early Skidoo, we didn’t care — Seven Songs was recorded in two and a half days, badabam! Now, as musicians, we couldn’t do that. What we’re trying to achieve has moved on.”

Nonetheless, Skidoo continue to abide by their martial ethic, as encapsulated in the Skidoo dictum: “Absorb what is useful/Reject what is useless/And add what is specifically your own creation.” Skidoo are still waiting, still watching. Maybe the cull will come yet.

© David StubbsThe Wire, July 2000

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