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Denzil Watson pays personal tribute to Cabaret Voltaire frontman Richard H. Kirk, who died unexpectedly in September.
Writing an obituary straight after someone has died is always an emotionally fraught exercise, especially when it is an artist or person you revere, and the passing is such a shock. Over a month has now passed since the sudden death of Richard H Kirk on September 21st, 2021. As is the way, you can always remember exactly where you were when you first heard the news. On that fateful Tuesday, I was on a number 76 bus in Sheffield heading home after a day of drudgery at work when I saw the news come up on my Facebook feed. By now you will have already read numerous tributes to Richard’s incredible contribution to industrial and electronic music, both with Cabaret Voltaire and his numerous projects spanning five decades. Hence it seems pointless to go back down that path again. What follows is a personal reflection on Richard H Kirk, the impact he has had on me at a music fan and the legacy he has left behind.
Richard H Kirk first came onto my radar during the Summer of 1983. I was reading an interview Cabaret Voltaire gave 'Sounds' in support of their fantastic 'Crackdown' album in the August 27th edition while on holiday in North Wales. It immediately gripped me and caught my imagination. Both the words and band imagery. That picture of them both stood below that 'Caution. Blind Persons' sign was instantly burned into my mind. As soon as I got back off holiday, I took the train from Grantham over to Nottingham and bought my vinyl copy of the album from Selectadisc along with the bonus 12”. An album I have to this very day. Over the next few weeks I played the album repeatedly on my Amstrad Tower system and became drawn deeper and deeper into their wondrous soundscapes. It was a pivotal time for me. That year I was choosing my university of study and hearing The Cabs' music and their strong affinity with Sheffield inspired me to take up my studies in Economics in the Steel City.
After moving to Sheffield to commence my undergraduate degree I soon set about scouring the record shops of Sheffield to build up my Cabs collection. Rare and Racey on Division Street and Record Collector in Broomhill proved very useful hunting grounds to those ends. And much to my delight, I also managed to locate the 'Caution. Blind Persons' sign, just off Sheffield’s main drag West Street, on Maplin Street. But the real excitement was to come with my first Cabs gig at The Leadmill, Sheffield on 30th November, 1984. In the end it turned out to be a rather strange experience. The band had just released their critically acclaimed 'Microphones' album but played only two tracks from the album. I barely recognised any of the songs. Most came from their future release 'Drinking Gasoline' and the only other track I recognised was “The Crackdown”. They barely spoke to the audience, who chatted throughout the gig and seemed more bothered about being “seen” there as each song ran into each other. It was sensory overload with all the visuals and a truly bewildering experience. But as I came to learn, this was the Cabs' way; never look backwards, always look forwards. A mantra carried by Richard H Kirk right up to his untimely demise.
After that, the Cabs didn’t play their home city again for well over a year. But just like buses, where there will'll be was nothing for ages, all of a sudden two came along in quick succession. The first of the gigs was on 28th February, 1986, again in their native Sheffield, in the main hall at Sheffield City Polytechnic. It was part of a national tour to promote their album 'The Covenant, The Sword and the Arm of the Lord”' In typical Cabs fashion I remember them playing few songs from the album and, again, a lot of songs that I’d never heard. I remember there being little interaction with the crowd and it all being a bit of a strange place for them to play. The second gig in the depths of the City Hall’s subterranean ballroom was stranger still. It was on the 14th June, 1986 and was part of an Artists Against Apartheid gig. I’d watched New Order and Billy Bragg up in the main auditorium before making may way downstairs to see the Cabs who came on stage at about half-past ten. I have to admit, by then, I was flagging a little and have little memory of the gig and there is next to no record of it. All that I can remember was once again being quite perplexed by their performance and it being very loud and there being a lot of red lights making it feel like I'd walked into Dante's inferno. That was to be the last time I saw the band live.
After that I had to content myself with listening to the records. In 1987 I moved into a new student house on School Road in the Crookesmoor area of Sheffield. And as chance would have it, just round the corner from Richard’s house on Conduit Road. His house was inconspicuous as instead of the traditional curtains, Richard had elected for those horizontal aluminium blinds. Outside was parked his old pale-blue canvas-topped Mercedes. I saw him around the area on multiple occasions, unmissable with distinctive copper-coloured Barnet and dark sunglasses. I. however, never plucked up the courage to speak to him. On one occasion I was queuing in the sandwich shop across the way from me and who should be ahead of me in the queue but Richard himself buying his lunching in an Dadist art-terrorist fashion, of course. I excitedly told the woman behind me that it was Richard H Kirk from Cabaret Voltaire and that he was a popstar. He must have overheard me as he turned around and gave me a disparaging look!
A friend recently recalled a chance meeting with Richard in Sheffield. He’d gone on an after-works drink to the Frog and Parrot on Division Street where a gig was in progress. And who should come into the pub and stand next to him but local nightclub entrepreneur, Ralf Razor, along with Richard H Kirk. At an opportune moment my friend turned to him and said “Are you Richard H Kirk?”. “No” was the curt reply. After a minute or so had passed, my friend turned to him again and said “Okay, are you Richard?”. “Yes, I am” came the reply and after that they struck up a conversation. In the end I did chat with Richard myself. It wasn’t in person but via the telephone. It was back in December 2008 for an interview I did with him about the recent release of 'Communications : The Factory Box Set' to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the iconic and innovative Manchester based-label. We talked about the band's early years, their involvement with the fledgling Factory Records, their friendship with Joy Division and the return of the Cabs with just Richard, planned for 2009. He was incredibly engaging and generous with his time and it is an interview that I hold in deep fondness. Reading the interview back fills me with we a sense of joy and sadness in equal measures. A joy as I finally got to speak to one of my musical heroes and it reaffirmed to me why I was so captivated by Cabaret Voltaire in those early day. The sadness bit is equally as obvious. That on that dark day in September, 2021, alternative music lost one of its true innovators and originators. The sadness tempered by the Richard's prolific career and sheer volume of material to remember him by.
Rest uneasy and stir it up up there, Richard.
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