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Cabaret Voltaire: Johnny YesNo revisited

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  • Sex, drugs and decay: Peter Care and Richard H. Kirk on the making - and re-making - of their Sheffield film noir.
  • published
    10 Oct 2011
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    Cabaret Voltaire
    Kiran Sande
    Pete Care
    Richard H. Kirk
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Later this year, Mute are reissuing the king of cult films: Peter Care’s Johnny YesNo.

The 1982 short feature – arguably the first, if not the last, instance of Sheffield film noir – is one of the great visual evocations of the UK’s post-industrial dysphoria, as poignant as Derek Jarman’s The Last of England and a good deal less trying. But while the action of Jarman’s apocalyptic masterpiece centered on London, Johnny YesNo is all about the North. Filmed largely in the Steel City – with a few external scenes captured in Manchester – its ambiguous but grimly compelling narrative follows our eponymous anti-hero through a neon-lashed nightmare world of sex, drugs and existential crisis.


The film’s broodingly psychotic, morally compromised atmosphere is beautifully echoed and enhanced by its soundtrack, written and performed by Cabaret Voltaire. Care used portions of their The Voice of America LP in his rough-cut, before meeting Stephen Mallinder at an advance screening of Apocalypse Now and inviting the Cabs to create an original score. Impressed by Care’s imagery, Mallinder and Richard H. Kirk set about doing just that, and the results count among the most thrilling and prescient work of their career, bridging the paranoid bricolage of their early records and the increasingly minimalist, dancefloor-conscious rhythms they would come to favour in their next discrete stage of evolution.

But Cabaret Voltaire’s involvement in Johnny YesNo extended beyond their role as soundtrackers: they released the film on their own VHS label, Double Vision, a short-lived but seminal hub of guerilla film-making and mixed media mischief. While the OST album has remained available over the years, the film has never been re-released, or made it onto DVD. Until now.

Richard H. Kirk remixed the film’s soundtrack for a putative Mute reissue, and contacted Peter Care to ask if he’d like to create some new visual material to accompany it. Care, now based in Los Angeles and a successful director whose credits include videos for the likes of REM and Bruce Springsteen as well as numerous high-profile ad campaigns, decided that he would create an all-new version of Johnny YesNo – this time set in the Californian underworld.

You can judge for yourself whether the new Johnny YesNo matches the squalid power of the original when Mute release the Johnny YesNo Redux box set on November 14, a package which includes both films plus Kirk’s sensitively but assertively remixed score, and much bonus material besides. FACT spoke briefly on the phone to both Kirk and Care to find out more about Johnny YesNo and the conditions that gave to rise it, and to discuss their decision to re-make it.

 


Cabaret Voltaire


Visuals – specifically film – quickly became central to Cabaret Voltaire’s practice. How come?

Richard H. Kirk: “I inherited a standard-8 camera from my father and had long been playing around with that, and from a fairly early point we began integrating visuals into the Cabs live shows, editing between two machines. It just built from there really.”

Why did you choose to start an independent video label rather than a record label? What were your hopes for Double Vision?

RHK: “We had this idea that we could create our own alternative television, if you like. There was a real shortage of underground, arty material on regular television, barely anything in fact. The idea that we could do our thing, with no censorship, was very appealing.”

“We had this idea that we could create our own alternative television…”



And the advent of VHS meant it could be a truly DIY endeavour…

RHK: “Yeah, we had our own little cottage industry set up, where we were creating, dubbing, packaging and distributing the videos all from the local area. We went about as far as we could go without proper financing – we pushed it to the limit.”

Peter Care: “It was incredibly liberating to work Double Vision. It was kind of a cottage industry, they released a lot of video tapes in a short space of time. It was really part of something pioneering, the democratization of film-making – I remember talking to Paul Smith, who was managing them and the label at the time, and he said that he got this call from the Virgin record store asking what’s going on, these Cabaret Voltaire VHS releases are outselling Siouxsie’s Greatest Hits or whatever! [laughs] Fantastic. Double Vision was basically a fuck-you to typically unadventurous industry. It was in an appalling state, the British film industry, it really was.”


“Double Vision was basically a fuck-you to typically unadventurous industry.”


The two best known Double Vision releases are probably Johnny YesNo and Double Vision Presents Cabaret Voltaire, but the output of the label was substantial and quite varied. I was intrigued to read about TV Wipeout, which I’ve never seen before – a magazine show of sorts?

RHK:TV Wipeout was on a three-hour video cassette, but there was only one hour of content on it – the gimmick was, you know, you’ve two hours of blank tape to play with yourselves and use as you wish. It sounds a bit cheesy now, but it was quite radical then [laughs].

“It was like one of those things like Network 7 or those kind of music shows you used to get in the early 80s. A mixture of interviews, film clips etc. Because we working with Virgin at the time, we got access to Warhol stuff, and there was an interview with Bowie, some quite high-profile material.”



Excerpt from Johnny YesNo (1982)


How many copies of these were you producing and selling?

RHK: “I can’t remember exactly, but it would have been a few thousand. The same as a record, really.”

How did Cabaret Voltaire meet Peter Care and become involved with Johnny YesNo?

RHK: “Peter Care was teaching at the art school that I attended in Sheffield, but I didn’t really know him at the time. As far as I remember, a few years later there was an advance screening of Apocalypse Now in town, you know, a preview for film fans before it had come out, and Mal [Stephen Mallinder] had gone to that. He met Peter Care there, who told him he’d made this film, and asked if Cabaret Voltaire wanted to do the soundtrack. The next step was him showing us the rough cuts, for which he’d used some music from The Voice of America, so we knew what kind of feel he wanted, and from there we went away and created specific stuff for specific scenes and it grew from there.”

PC: “I graduated from art school in Sheffield in ’75, and I’d been spending 98% of my time there in the film department. When I left, I got two grants from the Yorkshire Arts Association, which was awarding grants to filmmakers for specific projects. The second of my two grants was for Johnny YesNo.”

Why did you decide to make the kind of film you did?

PC: “At that time the English independent film scene was full of really important work, most of it political: you know, documentaries about the Glasgow rent strike and that sort of thing, left-wing subjects. I was involved in some of that work and believed in it, but for my own self-expression I wanted to make something that was the diametric opposite – so partly Johnny YesNo was a reaction to what I saw as the norm. But I was fascinated anyway by the idea that you could make a film about psychology, as opposed to politics.

“Film noir was the perfect arena for me, I ate up those films, and wanted to do my own take on it. I like it when the British film industry copies an American idea and makes it its own.”


“I was fascinated anyway by the idea that you could make a film about psychology, as opposed to politics.”


Johnny YesNo was filmed in Sheffield and Manchester, and is really defined by that curiously British setting. Did you see an untapped poetic potential in the post-industrial zones of Northern England? PC:

“Well, Johnny YesNo was very much a response to the world around me. It was the 70s, industry was really starting to die, it really was an atmosphere and a landscape of urban decay. And I thought it was a marvellous backdrop for a film! [laughs]

“What’s funny is that back then so few films used that kind of backdrop. Nowadays every other cop movie or whathaveyou has a scene set in a crumbling warehouse, but back then that post-industrial landscape wasn’t often used. Perhaps in American movies, but rarely in anything British.”

How did you first encounter the Cabs and what was about it their work that attracted you?

“I was always going to see the Cabs’ gigs and buying their records. They did this amazing performance at the Art School while I was still there where they were playing loops of tapes and radio shows against that backdrop of minimalist industrial music. I thought this was way more interesting than what was going on at the art school, and way more interesting than what the filmmakers using our workshop facilities were doing. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of worthwhile and heartfelt work going on in the art school, but boy, was it boring. The Cabs were a far more exciting prospect.”

Had you collaborated with musicians much before Johnny YesNo?

PC: “The first band I did work for was pre-split Human League – I helped them with a slideshow, did a little bit of a film. There was an amazing show at the Leadmill, the Cabs then The Human League, it was some kind of charity thing – one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to, it was amazing. The thing is, I never felt the Human League’s music to be particularly cinematic, whereas Cabaret Voltaire’s did have a cinematic quality to it, a richness.

Where did the idea to revisit Johnny YesNo all these years later stem from? PC:

“I hadn’t spoken to Richard for a long time, though I continued to buy his post-Cabs records over the years. The call from him came completely out of the blue; he said that Mute were thinking of doing something with the Cabs back catalogue and that one thing they wanted him to do was a remix album of the Johnny YesNo soundtrack – and so he asked, would I be interested in doing some visual material for the remixes?”More than half of me was very excited, but the other part of me was thinking fuck, what do I do? How do I get back to the right kind of sensibility? Can I stir up the muscle memory? [laughs] It would mean getting back into the kind of filmmaking that I hadn’t done for a long, long time.”


Excerpt from Johnny YesNo Redux (2011)

But in the end you chose to take the plunge…

PC: “Even once I decided to go for it, it took a while to make it happen. For example, it was quite difficult to cast – LA in 2011 is not like Sheffield in the 70s, it’s hard to find actors who are able or willing to work for free. In terms of crew, I have a fairly regular group of people that I work on commercials with and it was important for me to wait for them to become available too.”The year before we commenced filming I bought a cheap video camera and was trying to work out how I could use it like I used the super-8, standard-8 and 16mm back in the day – with those old machines I could edit in-camera; in a lot of my old work there’s no editing machine, it’s all just done through the starting and stopping of the camera.”


“Cabaret Voltaire’s music had a cinematic quality to it, a richness.”


Was it a challenge to preserve the spirit of the original Johnny YesNo in relocating the action from Sheffield to LA?

PC: “There were more similarities than you might think. When I worked with Cabaret Voltaire Sheffield there were so many empty warehouses, it was the crappy side of the industrial landscape; well, there’s a lot of that around here in Los Angeles these days. The motel set in the new film, that was built many years ago by a guy who used to be a production designer on a lot of my music videos. I described to him what we’d been doing in the North of England and he understood; he was German and he had an instinct for it anyway, the idea of Americana seen through the eyes of a European. I live near Venice, and around there there’s a lot of seediness and back alleys and great lighting – it’s if these places have been lit for a film noir movie already.

“The scene in the first film where he’s stumbling out of the quarry and over the moorland – well, here in LA I was able to expand that into the desert and another kind of surreal, fucked-up landscape, and that was exciting. And it’s funny, when you drive around here with the Cabs on the stereo there’s a sort of resonance that doesn’t really happen in England – a lot of the sounds on those records were sampled from American radio, and it really just clicks with what you see and hear over here.

“Ironically, I don’t think the Sheffield of today would have worked as a setting – it’s just one big shopping centre now.”


Kiran Sande

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