Obituary: Richard H. Kirk, a vital force in electronic music

Died: September 2021.

RICHARD H. Kirk, who has died aged 65, was a pioneer of British electronic music. He was the only constant member of Cabaret Voltaire, the Sheffield-sired group he formed in 1973 with Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson, and also released a plethora of solo and collaborative works.

His prolific output saw him record both under his own name and a roll-call of more than 40 aliases that included Sandoz, Electronic Eye and Sweet Exorcist.

Naming their group after the Zurich-based Dadaist nightclub that had opened in 1916, Kirk, Mallinder and Watson initially produced sonic collages that drew from the cut-up aesthetic of the American novelist, William Burroughs. They fused primitive tape experiments and samples with psych garage, dub, funk and German kosmische influences.

With Kirk adding treated guitar, clarinet and saxophone to the electronic stew, the band’s early experiments were at times discomforting deconstructions that gradually translated into great pop singles such as the now-classic Nag Nag Nag (1979) and Silent Command (1980).

As provocative as their dissections of power and paranoia were across albums such as Mix-Up (1979), The Voice of America (1980), and Red Mecca, (1981), a rhythmic charge was a constant behind the sonic sludge. This gradually evolved into a machine-age proto-techno approach that caught the groove of developing 1980s club culture.

With Cabaret Voltaire by now a duo of Kirk and Mallinder, for all the funkiness of singles such as Yashar (1983) and major record-label backing, the sense of experimentalism never stopped. Kirk’s influence was at the heart of both periods, and continued when the duo returned to independent releases.

Mallinder’s departure saw Kirk plough his own very singular furrow, and he found a natural home among a new underground electronic scene. His numerous collaborations and solo nom de plumes saw him operate in a near-samizdat, or clandestine, fashion.

This led to his ever-expanding canon sitting on the cutting-edge of electronic sound alongside a younger generation of musicians. As one half of Sweet Exorcist with DJ Parrot, he released a single, Testone, (1990), on Sheffield’s Warp record label, and Warp’s first album, Clonk’s Coming (1991).

The last decade saw him reignite the Cabaret Voltaire name as a solo project. Shadow of Fear, released on the Mute label in 2020, showcased the first original material to be released under the band’s name in a quarter of a century.

As with the mountain of records produced by Kirk since the original Cabaret Voltaire’s final release, The Conversation (1994), the new material sounded as urgent as anything that had gone before.

He had initially revived the band name in 2008, as its sole member. The same year, he played Edinburgh at a night run by the Sheffield nightclub, Sugarbeat. The show was for both the night and the host venue’s third birthday. The fact that the Blair Street club was called Cabaret Voltaire was an in-joke that recognised the influence of their guest artist’s former band. It also demonstrated how the future Kirk was forever pushing beyond was at last catching up with the sonic revolution he had helped set in motion.

Richard Harold Kirk was born in Sheffield, where he lived all his life. His father was a steel worker, whose hobbies included tinkering with radios and electronics. Kirk inherited an attic-load of his father’s ephemera, including practical electronics magazines and a Super 8 camera. It was a short step for him to experiment with short-wave radio sounds and film.

He did a one-year foundation course in sculpture at art school, but it was more the influence of David Bowie and Brian Eno-era Roxy Music that marked out his future creative path.

In 2014, he played as Cabaret Voltaire at the Berlin Atonal festival of sonic and visual art, presenting new material in a set up ‘consisting solely of machines, multi-screen projections and Richard H. Kirk’. He performed a similar set as Cabaret Voltaire two years later at Amsterdam’s Dekmantel festival.

Reclaiming the Cabaret Voltaire name was far from an exercise in nostalgia. Kirk stubbornly refused to play greatest hits, and was only interested in pushing things forward. Despite this, Shadow of Fear sounded as current in its concerns and as intensely oppositionist as anything produced by the original band during the politically reactionary late 1970s and early 1980s.

This was evident on two archive collections, 1974-1976, and Chance versus Causality, in 2019. The former showcased some of Cabaret Voltaire’s earliest experiments; the latter contained a hitherto unreleased soundtrack to a 1979 film by artist Babette Mondini.

Several other Cabaret Voltaire records followed Shadow of Fear. An EP, Shadow of Funk (2021), was followed by two drone-based works, Dekadrone, in March this year, and, in April, BN9Drone.

Kirk’s prolific output saw him cut and paste a multitude of influences to help redefine the possibilities of sound. As he took the avant-garde onto the dancefloor while retaining its edge, the vast body of work he created remains a vital force of British electronic music.

He is survived by his partner, Lynne.


The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992