“What man is at ease in his Inn?
Wide is the world and cold.
Thou hast become an initiate.
Aleister Crowley – ‘Skidoo’, chapter 23 of the Book Of Lies.
IT’S EASY to look back now and think: what the hell was all the fuss about? But punk, for a nanosecond, changed everything. However hopeless the records were (and many of them were extremely hopeless), they planted a seed in the head of every dissatisfied youth in the country: YOU CAN DO THIS TOO. In fact, it had much the same effect as The Sun‘s acid house exposé headline SPACED OUT would 12 years later. It was an invitation to rebel.
The problem with punk was that it was musically limited. Essentially it was just rehashed rock’n’roll with spiky haircuts and Hepatitis B. Dissatisfaction quickly set in. In other words, if you were 18 years old in 1977 and never wore a bin liner, you never had a heart. If you were 20 and still wearing one in 1979, you never had a brain. “Punk was a reaction to something and it occurred best as that, as a phase,” says Alex Turnbull of 23 Skidoo. “It’s not like you’re going to go ‘fuck it’ for the whole of your life, but after you’ve said, ‘fuck it’ well, what then?” What then, indeed.
Something odd happened in the late seventies. A collection of loosely aggregated bands began making strange and interesting music that didn’t sound – as everyone else did – like Chuck Berry on crystal meth. These bands – they were not a genre, it was far too loose an association – seemed to have aspirations to either become the next Cameo or Can (or, in some cases, both). Their music was trapped in that chasm between effort and attainment and was all the better for it. They were propelled by a desire to be funky rather than angry and interesting rather than loud. Spitting was not allowed.
In Sheffield, Cabaret Voltaire mapped out new directions for electronic music while, across the Pennines, A Certain Ratio made wildly dissonant funk records with Manchester’s Clyde Stubblefield, Donald Johnson, tethered to the drum stool. In the west country, the influential Pop Group kept that punk rock anger and filtered it through a percussive wall of sound, while the art scene had Throbbing Gristle and This Heat. In London there was 23 Skidoo, wilful, perverse and, at times, brilliant.
23 Skidoo were doing tribal while Junior Vasquez was still a fashion designer; scaring the fuck out of audiences when Aphex Twin was still being potty-trained and incorporating dance and hip hop elements into their music when Norman Cook was still playing bass in the Housemartins. In the early years they had so many band members changing, they might well have had a revolving door in their rehearsal studio. However, they have maintained the same line-up for the past 17 years – Fritz Catlin, Sketch and brothers Alex and Johnny Turnbull – and a consistently interesting and inquisitive approach to music; this restlessness often brought to life in their recordings.
When they first started, largely through a numerical anomaly, they somehow found themselves lumped in with funky pop acts like Haircut 100 and Heaven 17. Financed and produced by Mark Bedford of Madness, their debut single, ‘Ethics’, gave no hint of what was to come. By the recording of ‘The Gospel Comes To New Guinea’, produced by Cabaret Voltaire alongside Ken Thomas and 23 Skidoo, the sound had dramatically changed into something altogether more interesting. Out went orthodox song structure and in its place ethno-rhythms, tape loops and chants.
“I have very fond memories of working with Skidoo,” remembers Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Mallinder, who later went to make house records for Warp. “We had the same interests: Burroughs, Gysin, funk, dub, Kenneth Anger and martial arts movies. Along with ACR they were perhaps one of the most influential, but underrated bands of that early 80s period – the original punks on funk. The gigs we all did around the time were groundbreaking in terms of the fusion of influences.”
Live 23 Skidoo were something else. Tape loops whirred menacingly in the background, film projections drenched the stage in jarring visions of some awful present or future, as band members skipped from one instrument to another, the music never stopping, the audience barely given chance to catch its breath. If you can imagine Apocalypse Now as a stage show, it might well have looked and sounded like this.
Despite having built up a strong live set, by the time they came to record the mini-album Seven Songs, they threw everything out and started again. “There are whole sets of material which are unrecorded. There’s one full set, before Seven Songs, and most of that stuff never got recorded, because when it came to doing Seven Songs we were just like, ‘oh, let’s do a whole new lot of stuff.'” Seven Songs took three days from scratch to record and mix. Improbably, it reached number 1 in the independent charts.
Their reaction was almost instant. They seemed to take their growing popularity as a personal affront. Two more band members left after a hastily recorded single, ‘Tearing Up The Plans’, and an appearance at the first WOMAD in 1982 turned into one side of the next album, The Culling Is Coming. They arrived on stage at 11am with shaven heads, faces daubed with camouflage paint and had the crowd either fleeing for their lives or utterly mesmerised. “Everyone was expecting us to be pseudo-ethnic, lots of congas and funky rhythms and we were like, ‘fuck that’,” laughs Alex. “That was the first time we used stuff like metal. There were tape loops, gas cylinders, metal sheets, beer kegs and no drums, no congas. It was a live experiment which, for better or worse, we put on a record. It was really badly received which, with hindsight, is not really surprising.”
The Culling Is Coming had the desired effect. It alienated much of their audience and was no help in getting them a record deal, either. “Except for very exceptional circumstances, I can’t see myself listening to metal noise music now,” reflects Alex. “In terms of The Culling Is Coming, it’s not what I’d choose to listen to now for musical enjoyment. But at the time when we made that, that wasn’t the case, because we were making it as a statement.”
It didn’t alienate everyone. At an appearance on arty BBC2 programme The Riverside Show they met Sketch. The interview, hilariously conducted with the aid of repeating tape loops so the interviewer’s questions were repeated back to him, was never transmitted. “We met Sketch just after we were in our weirdest period and everyone else was going” – Alex makes the sign of the cross – “‘ssss!’ and he was like ‘wow, that’s really interesting!’ That was when we’d gone our farthest away and were starting to orbit back in and Sketch was sort of zoning out.”
“That’s what intrigued me about these guys, because this was the absolute antithesis of what I’d just come out of,” recalls Sketch. “We’d been waiting for something like 18 months for Trevor Horn to do the third Linx album. Why were we waiting for one guy? And it was because he’d been successful and because Chrysalis thought we needed to move up a gear. They had totally turned their backs on that, really, and that was really refreshing. They were younger than me and they’d already made that decision and I was already pretty anti the whole scene that I’d just come out of.”
They began working together at Throbbing Gristle’s studio in Martello Street, Hackney. The contrast between the traditional method of working with which Sketch was familiar – the song is sacrosanct – and 23 Skidoo’s could not have been greater. “I can really remember clearly one time when we were working out a song,” says Sketch, “and someone said, ‘we’ll do it for 16 bars then we’ll change to the next bit’, and Fritz said, ‘why don’t we do it for 17 bars? That’ll really mess ’em up!’ So there was this idea that there’s no need to do what everyone else does and it was very refreshing to see that.”
The end result of their initial collaboration was the album Urban Gamelan – a world album before most people knew there was a ‘world’ – and a remix of the album track, ‘F.U.G.I’, which became the single ‘Coup’, a masterful tune featuring Aswad’s horn section, two basslines and (uncredited) inspiration for the Chemical Brothers’ ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, something that remains a source of contention. What is the current the situation? “There isn’t one, really,” says Alex, though Sketch swiftly interjects, “Yeah, but listen to the bass on that riff…” “There was a piece on MTV that someone sent me,” continues Alex, “where the interviewer played it to them. She goes, ‘Does this sound familiar?’ And they started talking about Ronin and trying to say how we’d sampled something; some really bogus shit to justify themselves. Tantamount to guilt, really. It’s not a sample in any case, it’s re-played, and we’ve got better things to worry about than that.” So there.
23 Skidoo’s final recordings before they transformed into Ronin were ‘Language’ and ‘Thoughts Of You’, the latter reflecting a growing interest in hip hop culture (something more fully realised in their Ronin guise). Since hip hop is the most avant garde music ever to enter popular consciousness and 23 Skidoo weren’t exactly churning out hits for Stock, Aitken & Waterman this shouldn’t come as a surprise. “It was a bit of a hallelujah moment when samplers and turntables arrived,” recalls Alex. “The first time I went to see Red Alert and some breakdancers at the Shaw Theatre in 1984, it was just like wow: the heavy drum beats, the funk records, isolating the breaks and the scratch noises. In 1985 we were going out doing gigs and parties, playing records with Sketch and his bass.”
The assumption is that 23 Skidoo simply disappeared sometime in the late eighties, consumed by dwindling interest and audiences. In fact, they never went anywhere, preferring to re-emerge as Ronin. “The thing is, Alex was DJing and we were at a different social and cultural point,” explains Sketch. “So by the time we started thinking about musical identity, we weren’t really making music like a band, so we almost needed another persona. And 23 Skidoo being what it is it was easy for it to be subsumed into Ronin. We knew what that meant, but for others it was like, ‘where’s the band gone?'”
As Ronin, they have largely worked as producers and songwriters for a variety of acts, initially securing an album deal on Virgin for young British hip hop act F.O.R.C.E. and K-Zee (these days F.O.R.C.E. is part of the Staines Massive, working as Ali G’s DJ). They have also produced albums for Mica Paris (which was never released) and Sonique (ditto, though two songs, including the title track, appeared on Hear My Song). Frustratingly the last, eponymously-titled, album, nearly four years in the making, barely got a release by Virgin who appeared to get cold feet after the enormous interest generated by their brilliant collaboration with Pharoah Saunders, ‘The Dawning’. In fact, it’s comfortably the best album they’ve produced, though there were dark mutterings by certain noise terrorists that it didn’t sound like old Skidoo; which somehow misses the point.
They continue their commitment to hip hop with Deckwrecka and Skitz, both signed to their own label, with Alex claiming there’s always been a hip hop element to 23 Skidoo’s music. “23 Skidoo are hip hop in an old school way; at least that’s what I think,” asserts Alex. Why? “Well, obviously someone who was into hip hop wouldn’t listen to 23 Skidoo and go ‘oh that’s hip hop’. I’m just saying from a personal point of view, I feel that there are a lot of influences there that also influenced hip hop.” Turnbull sees parallels between 23 Skidoo and hip hop’s young bucks. “I think in the context of what we were doing in the early eighties, I think that what Deckwrecka and other guys are doing is the modern equivalent of what we were trying to do back then.”
That they’ve even lasted this long is impressive. That they’ve done it by making consistently challenging (and, if you ignore The Culling Is Coming, listenable) music is remarkable. Nearly 20 years down the line and Seven Songs sounds as urgent and relevant as it always has, while Urban Gamelan‘s fascination with Asian and African instrumentation predates the present fetish for Afro-beat and ethnic diversity by well over a decade. Always moving, never static: 23 is the magic number.
© Bill Brewster, Jockey Slut, 2001