We live in nostalgic times, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that Total State Machine – a new book commemorating the activities of the 80s industrial group Test Dept – is just more post-punk retromania. Why, then, does it feel like something more?
It’s become a cliché in recent times to ask where the “protest music” is, as if a few more artists strumming an acoustic guitar and telling us that Tories are bad might somehow sort out this mess we’re in. The truth, of course, is that music that grapples with politics is everywhere, but just not always didactic, or carrying a Billy Bragg songbook: take Sleaford Mods’ poetry of drudgery, for instance, or Holly Herndon’s conceptual responses to surveillance and capitalism.
Maybe this is why Test Dept feel remarkably contemporary. This was a group that grappled with politics, but also recognised that such a message was meaningless if it didn’t come as part of a deeper and broader artistic vision. Test Dept didn’t preach: they provoked, agitated, challenged and sent up. Perhaps their approach feels resonant today because here is a group for whom music, politics, and life were tightly intertwined.
Formed in London’s New Cross in 1981, Test Dept developed a rhythmic industrial sound employing the cheapest materials they could get their hands on – oil drums, springs, canisters and piping, salvaged from local scrap yards. Despite this, they were hardly basic or primitive. Their visual iconography was striking, drawing on the bold geometries of Russian constructivist and suprematist art, while their live performances, often held in site-specific locations were theatrical and fully multimedia affairs, featuring slide projections and film helmed by Brett Turnbull (today, a celebrated video director who’s worked with everyone from Dizzee to Pink Floyd).
Whereas much industrial music embraces misanthropy and political ambiguity, there’s little doubt where Test Dept’s loyalties lie. As Thatcher set out to smash the unions, Test Dept recorded with a choir of striking South Wales miners and performed at a benefit for print workers during the 1987 Siege Of Wapping, sampling the crashing machinery of a printing press and integrating its sound into a gigantic percussion piece. In 1989, they even shared a stage with Tony Benn, backing the Labour patrician with a rumble of beaten riot shields as he spoke at the SHOUT! Voices Against Censorship event at the ICA. “He said it was the most frightening experience he’d ever had on stage,” laughs Angus Farquhar, one of Test Dept’s five founder members. “He said it was like standing on the edge of the cliff of Dover and someone was about to push him over.”
Today, Farquar is 53, and creative director of NVA, an arts company based in Glasgow. But it was Test Dept, he says, that set him on his creative path – and as he talks about the making of Total State Machine, you get the sense of what it meant to him: “How often do you get a chance to really look back at what you were doing in your late teens and early 20s? Not only in the sense of a sort of visceral memory that’s imprinted in you, but as something imprinted into our hands, and our backs, and our attitude to life?”
While they haven’t reformed, exactly, Test Dept are busy in 2015: as well as the book, they have a film of archive footage, DS30, showing in cinemas and a full catalogue reissue due in the next few months. FACT spoke with Farquar about the making of Total State Machine, provoking their audience, and dance music as liberation.
All photos and stills courtesy of Test Dept.
Being in Test Dept looked like it could be hard labour.
Certainly, and I can touch on that. But also, intellectually – there were many moves we made that were really very instinctive, and it was part of a political awakening for all of the members. To now [with the book] be able to go into deeper depth – to explain our use of propaganda, our use of the constructivist image, and what that meant and what that means now – it’s been very, very rich. It’s a real serious assessment of the counterculture from that period. Because it’s interesting – a lot of looking back at the 80s, it’s this really banal, glossy, horribly mainstream version of the decade that plays out through endless looped videos of a particular musical scene. But of course what was really going on, where the intelligence was, was this subculture where people were motivated not for profit, but to explore things, and do something with their lives.
That real angry, experimental legacy – which I think is the true legacy of punk, rather than this banal speeded up rock’n’roll – was all about the people taking these DIY principles and organizing real networks. And that, I think, is very meaningful to people in their 20s now. Because in many ways things are worse. You know, you have this emollient grief that is Cameron and the soft-soaping Tories, but you look closer and their policies are worse than Thatcher.
Everything that’s come after Thatcher seemed to echo her. She set the United Kingdom on a path we haven’t turned off.
Without a doubt. And that was the biggest disillusionment with New Labour. It was when we began to discover where the power really lies – with the corporates and multinationals – and that national governments had become incapable of really stopping these juggernauts: the Amazons, the Starbucks, the big banks. They control international finance – they decide how they’re taxed or not taxed. There was a lot of disillusionment from a left perspective in the late 90s, early 2000s. Most of us stopped voting Labour as soon as the Iraq war happened. It was just the end of that relationship.
But to go back: Test Dept was a lot about discovering our physicality. We underwent this transition of being experimental in a slightly chaotic way in the first year or two, and then we really went through this period of sheer graft, locking ourselves away in this dusty cellar in New Cross Gate at 8 Nettleton Road. It’s funny – really quite Dickensian, looking back now. Literally, a rag and bone man would pull up outside with some canisters for us, and we’d give him a couple of quid.
One interesting thing about Test Dept’s use of constructivist imagery is that it harks back to the idea that art should or could be a sort of radical proletarian manoeuver. While today, the avant-garde is often something thought of in a slightly high-minded way – something to be explored in music conservatories.
Yes. Brett, our filmmaker talks about it well – the attitude was: we haven’t got much, but let’s use what’s around us. There’s a really practical edge to that. And with us there was a lot of practicality in the decisions. We couldn’t afford to buy big drum kits, so making your own became both an ideological decision but also a practical one. You could find lots of equipment very cheap. One you start doing that, it becomes natural to you, and you develop your oeuvre. The thing about constructivism – that imagery did not feel like it had been bastardised or mutilated in the marketplace, in the way it later did through advertising or overexposure. It’s very interesting, Laibach did it as the same time, drawing on that suprematist imagery – even [architect] Zaha Hadid was drawing on constructivist and supremacist images in her early design.
But what was really exciting, looking back, was that the avant-garde and social change were not two mutually exclusive things. The really forward-looking, innovative artists of that era were working in pottery, glass, clothes-making, curtains. There was this idea that you trusted people to be open, and you were making a better world together, expressing this new reality. But like all these things, it was vastly illusory. Statism crushed those early ventures in Russian art, and what followed was this social realist work, which was more ironic, abusive use – a misuse, really – of workerist imagery, to justify a highly intolerant and manipulative state machinery. So that was the other side to what we were doing – it was laden with irony. And therein lies the complexity. It’s interesting to look back, because even from song to song our message would change – at times we were using things at face value, and other times taking oppositional positions to ourselves. We were playing with propaganda, trying to become the state and represent the state, rather than critiquing it. We were provoking our audience: like, do you like this or do you hate it?
Which is a very industrial maneuver. A way of making people consider their own attitudes, think for themselves.
Definitely. We were doing that to ourselves, and to a large swathe of our audience at the time. We were five or six people liberating themselves in an increasingly right-wing environment – and it was intoxicating. It’s intoxicating when you discover that creative voice, and get a sense of your own power.
“We were playing with propaganda, trying to become the state and represent the state, rather than critiquing it. We were provoking our audience: like, do you like this or do you hate it?”
At the same time, you wore your politics on your sleeves. It was clear where you were coming from. You made records with striking miners, for instance. While others seemed to take that ambiguity to darker places.
That was a deliberate choice, and we in our own minds had already distanced ourselves… I mean, if you look at Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle as being the real starting point and really influential, some of that next wave of groups took the sensational aspects of TG and worked with that: pornography, necrophilia, the extremes of what the body could be put through. I think we always felt slightly uncomfortable with some of the stances that were being taken. Some of it was people who were into that stuff – which is fair enough, but it wasn’t really where we wanted to be. The anger in Test Dept, it had all came from our own individual stories, and it wasn’t directionless, it was something we were focusing back out. After we’d been together for three or four years, there was a lot of internal dialogue: what do we stand for? If there was misinterpretation, was is interesting to us? Was ambiguity useful? We felt that things were becoming so extreme, in terms of this polarization of society, that it was time to use what we had in very particular ways.
There was this fantastic moment when Test Dept went out to Canada to play at the World Expo in Vancouver. It was a real wind up what we were doing – we had a Kent miner naked in a blanket, doing Bobby Sands hunger poetry. There was Gene “Scottie” Muir, who was the best bugler in the British army, but wasn’t given a promotion because he was black. And there was a very suave and sophisticated government representative there, and he was like [adopts plummy voice]: “Oh boys – this is far too sophisticated to be politically effective.” [laughs] I just love that. The establishment just cruise on, it doesn’t even touch the sides.
But as we later found out, through the Stasi files, and through being phone tapped, I think we were a thorn in the side. It’s quite good that at least we know we did manage to stir things up, that we were regarded as seditious. The amount of SPG [special patrol group officers] that were following us through London, around West and East Europe, at least they felt it was worth their while to see what we were doing. At least it was having some effect.
I interviewed Penny Rimbaud from Crass, he told me how they’d had their phones tapped. It’s unbelievable… or maybe it’s not, maybe I’m just naïve.
Well, at the time it all seemed more black and white. These days, as we well know, every time you put your bank card in, every time you log onto your computer – all of that is being crunched in a far more invasive way. So just… amazing to me. It feels like we’re moving into a darker time.
Do you see contemporary examples of groups working in the way that Test Dept did?
It’s difficult – there’s such a welter of information, sounds and images out there now. If we, or Cabaret Voltaire, were on the front of NME, or Melody Maker or Sounds, that was it – you were able to speak to about 70 or 80 percent of the independent music scene. You just can’t do that now. You can set up a brilliant site and market things in certain ways but it’s almost inevitable things are going to be more segmented now. I’m not saying that’s better; it definitely is very democratic, and it’s exciting for people to be more creative. There are great things out there. For instance, the Adam Curtis film on Afghanistan [Bitter Lake] – very, very strong. I think people are actually still able to effect a change.
“The mainstream will always suck in ideas from any source – it draws other people’s air, their oxygen. And sometimes leaves them spent.”
I always thought Adam Curtis’ films had a sort of industrial music quality – his use of montage and collage. But I’m not sure that’s his background.
Maybe he’s come to it through another path. It’s interesting though, our film DS30, which is out now – it cuts together archive footage from our tour around the miner’s strike with other footage that Paul Jamrozy has put together.
We showed it at the launch night at the [Brixton] Ritzy, and it did not feel nostalgic. I have no interest in being in a band again – no deep-rooted need to get up on a stage and do a bad version of what we were doing 30 years ago. But if the ides are still relevant, and they can be communicated to people who were born 20 or 30 years after you, then it’s worth doing. It did not feel nostalgic in that room. It feels there is still grist in the material. Space to look again at it, and think about new ways we might use it.
I’m curious, where did you source your metal from?
Well, at that time if you went on a 10 mile run from Deptford down the Thames there were some amazing big scrapyards. Different yards providing different things. You could get brilliant water tanks from some. We scavenged things from a lot of old buildings – we’d look for lead piping we could cut into smaller sticks. We’d make use of sledgehammers, claw hammers. If you went to the States on tour, of course, you couldn’t bring anything – so you had to spend two or three days scrapping before starting a show. It piled on all this pressure, because sonically you never knew what you would be dealing with. But there were certain generic things you could always find. You could always find a water tank. You could always find springs on a juggernaut lorry, they had a very good sound. Gas bottles of different sizes would give you the high registers. And if were on a big stage, we could get hold of these three or four ton tanks – which would take 13 or 14 people to maneuver into position. Some of the bass we were getting off those – you could resonate an entire room.
So the scrap yard was your guitar store.
How was it to see ideas that you pioneered move into the mainstream? I always assumed Depeche Mode’s Construction Time Again was directly inspired by Test Dept…
[laughs] I think it was. I know Daniel Miller had one of our early films, with these images of buglers, and that was a straightforward lift. I mean, do you take these sorts of things as a compliment? The mainstream will always suck in ideas from any source – it draws other people’s air, their oxygen. And sometimes leaves them spent. It’s difficult when you’re starting out, and other people draw on your aesthetic – it cheapens it. It loses its effect to some degree. But you know, I’m doing this artwork now, Speed Of Light, featuring endurance runners in light suits. Then suddenly, Adidas come out with an advert with Lionel Messi in a light suit, and they call it New Speed of Light. Do you take it as a compliment? Maybe it’s just what capitalism doing what it does, stealing ideas and making them its own. Um – at the time, it wasn’t particularly nice, it didn’t feel good – but I think we can forgive Depeche Mode retrospectively [laughs]. For all that they care.
Later, Test Dept started making techno-influenced records. What was the stuff that really turned your head?
That’s not really a question for me. I left in 1989, and moved back to Scotland. But Test Dept had always made dance records, really – the first single ‘Compulsion’ got played in Heaven, and it even had its own dance routine, this master/slave thing. But it’s funny, when we tried to make dance music it was often undanceable – while when we were doing our mass rhythms, our more experimental work, it turned out to be really good to dance to. We had this idea that dance music was about personal liberation – it wasn’t just about escapism, it was about liberating yourselves from this very bleak scene. At the time, we had a couple of new members who were more dance-orientated – and of course, we were working in more sophisticated studios, and there was a democratization of technology underway: suddenly you could record a whole album using Cubase. It was a difficult transition for the band, but I think Paul and Graham [Cunnington] would say some of those tracks stand up really well.
You have to move on, don’t you?
Well you do – but you don’t expect a blues player to stop being a blues player, do you? There’s always a danger, when new technologies come into the marketplace – you’re sort of beta testing a new product. You have to ask yourself, was I really dreaming of this technology? Or was it just a means to an end, an easy route? Great artists will always transcend the technology they’re using. Ultimately, you always have to ask yourself that question: am I controlling this technology – or is it controlling me? It’s one of those strange things – if you remain very experimental, you can go out into the wilderness for 20 years, and then suddenly you get rediscovered. And when you do, what’s you’re up to can be incredibly powerful – because you never stopped refining your form.