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Art Of Noise - Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise?

  by Jon Rogers

published: 3 / 10 / 2011

Art Of Noise - Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise?
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Jon Rogers examines the Art of Noise's influential 1984 electronic album, 'Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise?, which has just been released in a new deluxe edition

Despite its forward-looking ethos a lot of bands in the post-punk era looked regressively to modernism for inspiration. Cabaret Voltaire took their name from a Dadaist nightclub. Pere Ubu looked to dramatist Alfred Jarry for inspiration. The Fall's Mark E Smith looked to modernist science fiction writers like JG Ballard and Philip K Dick for lyrical inspiration. and the graphic design from the likes of Factory's art director Peter Saville was, largely, taken from Constructivist and De Stijl ideas. This really reached a zenith (or nadir, depending on your point of view) with art conceptualists the Art of Noise, who were named after Italian Luigi Russolo's 1913 manifesto 'The Art of Noises' which set out a ground plan for Futurist music. And with a name like that, what other label could they have been signed to apart from ZTT - Zang Tuum Tumb - a corrupted onomatopoeic phrase used by Futurist leader Marinetti in a letter to Russolo to describe the sound of the Bulgarian canons bombarding the Ottoman Turks. Although the group had high art pretentions, its origin was much more mundane and lay with most of the band working on Malcolm McLaren's 'Buffalo Gals' and the album 'Duck Rock' who had been roped in by producer Trevor Horn to give McLaren's ideas musical shape. Horn would form part of the group, along with arranger and keyboardist Anne Dudley, engineer Gary Langan and computer programmer JJ Jeczalik. Also playing a part in the group was former music journalist Paul Morley who had given up his staff job at the ‘NME’ to become involved with ZTT. Morley never had an official job title at the label, but was generally the conceptualist behind what the label did, writing the sleeve notes, label copy and lending a hand to the graphic design of the sleeves. But before the Art of Noise could get going properly Horn, Langan and Jeczalik all worked on the production of prog-rock Yes' album '90125'. During a break in recording Jeczalik and Langan started messing around with a Fairlight CMI Series II sampler - at the time it was at the very front of digital music technology being the world's first keyboard-based sampler, but by today's standards very basic and rudimentary. Using the drum track from an aborted Yes song they started playing around with it, beefing it up and looping the rhythm. That drum sample would form the basis for perhaps the stand-out track on 'Who's Afraid...', 'Beat Box'. In fact the Fairlight really defined the band's sound. At the time the sampler was - to most - prohibitively expensive and seen as state of the art technology, but it was limited in what it could do. It recorded sounds at low resolution, so sound quality was pretty poor and it could only record up to 1.2 second clips of sound. Even an accomplished computer operator like Jeczalik couldn't do too much with that. The technological limitation impacted on the band, those short bursts of sound gave the group a short, staccato style and delivered the songs with a sharp rabbit punch. Effectively the Art of Noise's songs became an eclectic pick 'n' mix of found and manipulated sounds which were then mashed up together and sculptured into something coherent. Or as Dudley once described the band's sound as "inconsistencies, hyperbole, non sequitur and conflicting themes". That music compositional style isn't all that different from any dance act or rave DJ that would be so dominant in the 90s. The only thing was this was the early 80s. 'Who's Afraid...' reflects that pick 'n' mix style and features some of the Art of Noise's finest moments - along with three versions of 'Beat Box' there are three different takes on lilting 'Moments in Love' (both tracks taken from the EP 'Into Battle with the Art of Noise' which was released in September 1983). And that's not even taking account of the versions that appear on the DVD bonus disc. That might very well be testing the patience of the most ardent fan,but at least the various versions are radically different which reflected the band's attitude that songs weren't tethered to a fixed format but more fluid and seen as a never finished work in progress. 'Beat Box' was, in fact, a prime example of this, as it spawned its close relation 'Close (to the Edit)' which also gets an airing here, as it used the same drum break from the discarded Yes track. "It's not called 'Close (to the Edit) for nothing," Dudley told Simon Reynolds in his book 'Rip It Up and Start Again'. "You could more or less stitch any bit of 'Close' into 'Beat Box' and it would still sound like one piece. I can't actually remember where 'Close' ended and 'Beat Box' began because at one point they were one track." Looking back now it's perhaps easy to question Morley's role within the band, just what exactly did he add to the music? Perhaps actually very little, according to Jeczalik but Dudley sees him as the main drive behind the band. Talking to Reynolds she states: "Paul, to his credit, was the entire creator of all the titles, the artwork, the manifestos. He gave us an identity. None of us had really intended to be a band. But Paul got very excited by it and swept us along with his enthusiasm. Without him, we wouldn't have existed - we would have been a bunch of session musicians. He gave us the name and we thought we ought to live up to it because it was so good." Not only was the music of the group innovative but also the very idea of the Art of Noise as a group was too. At their very first group meeting in February 1983 they decided never to have photos of the band members taken nor would any ever appear on the records or in interviews. They would never appear in videos and there wouldn't be the traditional lead singer as a focal point of the band. Effectively the band would be faceless. Early promo pictures sent out to the media were of spanners and roses and would lead Morley to later quip at a ZTT showcase night at the Ambassador's Theatre in London: "a spanner is intrinsically more interesting than the lead singer of Tears for Fears." As Dudley told BBC1's 'Breakfast Time', "When the group first started, we thought it would be a good idea to have an image that wasn't based around a fashion look. We thought it would encourage people to look at the music instead of the members of the band." While Art of Noise were steeped very much in a European art aesthetic the group never really gained widespread appeal on the continent, only 'Close (to the Edit)' went Top 10 in the UK, reaching a very respectable number eight. They had much more commercial success in the USA where 'Beat Box' attracted the breakdancers and would be a popular source for sampling, going on to hit number 1 in the 'Billboard' dance chart. The band didn't last long though and certainly by the latter part of 1985 it was all over. Although no one has spoken directly about the break-up it has been widely speculated that it was down to questions of creative control, with Dudley, Langan and Jeczalik becoming resentful of the plans being dreamt up by Morley and Horn. Supposedly the three members walked out on Morley and Horn on 25 May just before they were due to play at the ZTT showcase at the Ambassador's Theatre, leaving Morley to improvise on his own, reading an essay whilst 'Beat Box' played and three dancers performed in the background. Jeczalik gave an interview to 'Melody Maker' in October 1985 where he stated in response to what exactly Morley and Thorn did creatively: "It’s difficult to tell. We say approximately 1.73 percent, but it could even be as high as two percent. You see, all that has happened is that Gary and I started something, it was taken away, and we have taken steps to get it back." In the time the dust should have settled in July 2002 Morley was clearly still rather bitter about how things ended, writing about the band in an article for 'The Guardian': "I loved the name Art of Noise so much that I forced my way into the group. If over the years people asked me what I did in the group, I replied that I named them, and it was such a great name, that was enough to justify my role. I was the Ringo Starr of Art of Noise. I made the tea. Oh, and I wrote the lyrics to one of the loveliest pieces of pop music ever, 'Moments in Love'. When Trevor and I left, they became a novelty group who had hits with Tom Jones." The final snide remark referring to a collaboration the remaining members of the band did with the Welsh singer on a version of Prince's 'Kiss' in 1988 after the band had reformed. By the time he talked to Reynolds for his book he had rather mellowed, saying: "It comes back to this weird thing - if you're manipulated, it doesn't matter if the people manipulating you are getting you to do fantastic stuff, you still feel manipulated. You want to do it yourself." While the band might have gained some popular success with individual tracks when the original album of 'Who's Afraid of...' was released in 1984 it generally failed to make much of an impact, only reaching 27 in the UK and a rather lowly 85 in the US, where it had been released by Island. And so now the album gets the standard 'deluxe' treatment, which in this case basically means the original album and lots of 'extras', a couple of BBC Radio 1 live sessions and a whole extra DVD of videos which include videos for 'Beat Box' and 'Closer' and the odd live performance as well as some fun commercials (one even featuring the Carry On star Kenneth Williams). Time though hasn't been all that kind to the Art of Noise. While at the time they were innovators and well ahead of the curve with their use of sampling, technology has progressed rapidly since then and now it all sounds rather dated. Most just about manage to stand up though although the beauty of 'Moments in Love' is really worth the price tag alone.

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