Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Sheffield Music Interview: VICE VERSA & CLOCK DVA


I’d interviewed Genesis P Orridge for the ‘Styng’ underground 
newspaper, defended Marc Bolan’s up-switch to electric guitar in 
‘Melody Maker’, and done a scattering of music-related features for 
various fanzines. But encountering ‘NEUTRON RECORDS’ and the 
Sheffield bands VICE VERSA and CLOCK DVA was a revelation 
 that shocked me around and altered the trajectory of my writing. 
 This is what I consider my first real piece of Music Journalism. 
This is what started it all for me. 
 Everything that followed, had its origins here…

Clock DVA has ten legs. It is lost behind a storm of strobes. From where I’m sitting at the ‘F-Club’ in Leeds, backed up against the amp stack, I get fragmented repetitive impressions of green luminous digitals set into the high-technology backdrop. A mangrove-bearded saxist shreds bits of John Coltrane into spacio-temporal dislocations. A guitarist in white pointed-toe boots (which I envy), plays with two broken strings. And a vocalist with a Tommy Steele quiff and bagged uniform pants rasps what remains of a tormented bow across a violin. Now seen in silhouette, now in stark white leprous light. Clock DVA is doing “Brigade”, a nuclear love song which is their contribution to a seven-inch 33-&-a-third rpm compilation EP of Sheffield bands called ‘1980: The First Fifteen Minutes’. It’s an industrial romance.

When the nukes start to fall, and the evening (of civilisation) is high, we will celebrate this way…!

It’s a strange night. Earlier, Genesis P Orridge, in military fatigues, supervised setting up Monte Cazazza’s equipment, synching the tapes, triggering soundcheck reverb careening over packed heads and poking holes in the smoke. Now, theirs is a two-piece fifteen-minutes of musique concrète white noise. A girl, who is probably Cosey Fanni Tutti in leather, sits engrossed in evoking discord from a guitar, while a guy with a synthesiser howls incomprehensible “Sperm Song” lyrics through voice distortion, then another about child-strangler “Mary Bell”. It’s cut-ups of sound like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen used to construct in Paris arts-labs in the late-fifties, the kind of thing usually aimed at elitist modern classical audiences and critically deconstructed in ultra-serious arts magazines. A little more aggressive now perhaps, but here in Leeds, kids are bouncing up and down like it’s Blondie or something. Spontaneous reactions striking intuitively deep at unprepared brain-centres.

Lights around the stage event horizon drill upwards. As it gets hotter and the air gets more congested the lights get buried beneath mounds of discarded leather jackets. Internal combustion results in columns of toxic smoke drifting hazily across the snaking wires and control boxes. People stand around, watching like it’s Special-FX, Queen’s Dry-Ice or something. I’m watching, lager in hand – but at fifty-pence a pint I’m not about to offer to extinguish the imminent conflagration. Sound grates on. From the back of the stage Genesis P watches plumes of smoke gather and dissolve, and starts gesticulating like a refugee from Martha Graham’s Modern Dance, until Roadies slam to the front hurtling smouldering leather jackets – with button-badges of Throbbing Gristle/ Police/ Toyah, at odd trajectories into the crowd. A strange night.

Let’s take a CRUISE to oblivion, this time we’ll REALLY get high…!

Shift of location. Now Clock DVA is playing dates in Rotterdam, ‘Jazz Violence’ with label-mates Vice Versa. A venue that is a converted shipping refinery where Joy Division once played and William Burroughs read excerpts from his next novel. Vice Versa has six legs. It is a three-piece post-Modernist post-Rock band, which means they don’t use guitars, and have no drummer. What they do have is sharp intelligent songs fused through Punk-fuelled adrenalin-rush and processed by a daunting armoury of electronic noise. They have an EP – ‘Music 4’ (September 1979), on their own Neutron label (PX1092), which opens with “New Girls Neutrons” and “Science Fact”, then flips into a soundtrack sequence running “Riot Squad”/ “Camille”. A chillingly tactile threat cannibalising spoken inserts which fade into focus before being submerged in multi-layered incandescent electronics.

Vice Versa spout the regulation New Austerity spiel, their ‘product’, their ‘advertisers perception of truth’. Yet behind such cutesy relentless modernity they have the intellectual intensity to give it content, making it more than just a this-year’s-model stance. This is Rock with the appliance of science. They make all the correct cultural connections and write a mean Manifesto that arch-Futurist Filippo T Marinetti would smile on. When you buy Neutron, you buy a conceptual package deal. You buy the full corporate image, the whole shrink-wrapped, date-stamped philosophy. The music is not necessarily the product. It is the vehicle, the weapons-strike delivery system through which the product is targeted, channelled, and communicated.

“Modern As In Mary Quant” is an as-yet unrecorded song, their paean to consumerism. ‘Mary makes the most of your trash aesthetic, Mary is messiah of the trash aesthetic.’ It is contagious, it irradiates the stage with lethal hook-lines. I hear it once, and I can’t get it out of my head.

In the corner of a Sheffield pub some time before the gig, Mark White talks in fast humorous epithets. He is around twenty-one, and intends staying there, has freshly shorn dark hair he keeps irrigating obsessively with the fingers of both hands. He disclaims my tentative analogies with other synthesiser bands. ‘All the clichés are there now. It’s all become so stereotyped. You’re either Gary Numan or the Human League.’

So what about chart bands like, say, Cure or Orchestral Manoeuvres? ‘No. We work against that to produce a reaction. We do everything conceivable to discount this. Anti-feeling. In a way it’s negative, but it produces a positive thing.’

Martin Fry speaks more carefully, as though calculating effect. On stage he will later lead a between-numbers ‘Ommmm’ chant that will perplex the nouveau trendy, and rekindle memories of the Fugs and Allen Ginsberg in those who – like me, have been around long enough to remember. The most recent addition to Vice Versa, his effect on the trio’s direction has already been considerable. ‘I was always interested in synthesisers. It was such a stylistic revelation. We were into that kind of feeling. But we’ve already exhausted that form of synthesis.’

White punctuates and emphasises with infectious animation, a constant infusion of mainline energy that he will exorcise on stage in a ritual auto-destruction of his jacket. Each balletically-induced tear captured by the voyeuristic swoop of a video camera freezing the event for future scrutiny.

I suggest that the rigidity of the drum-machine works counter to improvisation, straight-jacketing (pun intended) spontaneity. ‘Yes, it does in a way, but that’s good because the improvisation then comes out vocally. We don’t stick religiously to it because then you’re just static. We are developing towards a kind of Funk Vision.’

Speed-reading their biographical-data print-out/ Manifesto – ‘Our methods involve seduction by cheap sexual fantasy, lies, appealing to the consumer’s greed and the implications of romantic blackness and modernity. The effect is of shrink-wrap beef burgers.

Vice Versa come from Sheffield and their motives are ‘Situationist or subversive, moral and Dada’. Only Stephen Singleton, insistent propagandist and some-time sax-player is missing, being interviewed by local Hallam Radio. Stage frontman and vocalist Mark White sits balanced on the edge of his chair, leaning forward to establish conversational territory. Percussionist and synth-player Martin Fry slouches back in the well-worn leather upholstery, a slur of blonde hair infiltrating his forehead, voice sometimes dropping beneath the level of background Pub inanities.

From them, I piece together genealogies. The band coalescing around 1977, drawing inspiration from Punk, but resisting the cliché of falling into the three-chord thrash, channelling it rather into more unorthodox forms. I list other possible influences for reaction.

David Bowie? ‘He’s offered a lot of blueprints.’

Sex Pistols? ‘There wouldn’t be a massive underground now if it wasn’t for the Pistols, the climate wouldn’t have existed where a whole underground could spring up.’ A calculated pause. ‘All right, it’s gone a bit sour, but a lot of things have come up which wouldn’t have happened otherwise, which EMI would not have supported, which CBS would have let die.’

The Dada anti-art movement? ‘The thing about Dada is that – whether they call it Dada or not, it’s a permanent force, a perpetual revolution. It’s a substitute word for Punk, I suppose. The original Cabaret Voltaire connection. Hugo Ball. Tristan Tzara.’

Chic, Giorgio Morodor? ‘Disco is an excellent vehicle.’

Acid Punk? ‘The Standells. Thirteenth Floor Elevators. The Electric Prunes “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night”. I bought Lenny Kaye’s excellent ‘Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era’ (1972) double-album, ‘cos I was desperate to get hold of first statements.’

Early group experiments dispensed with the bulky human drummer in favour of rhythm-generator, and they took improvisation into the realm of formless aural mosaic. This direction was also curtailed as an incestuous self-indulgence. Masturbation limited in appeal to both listener and musician. The further disposal of guitars in favour of synths and a variety of prepared tape segments initiated a miniaturisation policy in preparation for the becoming the first attaché case commuter band.

Martin Fry originally came round to interview the band for his ‘Modern Drugs’ fanzine, and he never left.

So there’s still a chance for me? ‘We’re sizing you up!’

Martin redirects conversation to Neutron’s current preoccupations. ‘What interests us now is the speed of operation. Shelf-life for everything. Everything is marked ‘Sell by…’ Records should have a sticker on, ‘this will be out of fashion in three-and-a-half minutes’.’

Mark concurs. ‘And the way things are burning themselves up. We did a song – “Artists At War”, exposing the cyclical nature of fashion. Mods coming back – you didn’t think it had gone away, but it’s back! Gradually speeded up. A snowball effect. You can’t even see them they’re going so fast. Now you get one-hit Disco wonders, which is a true Andy Warhol fifteen minutes.’

Fry admits to ‘walking in a dead man’s shoes’ through his first months with Vice Versa (replacing founder-member David Sydenham). They toured with Cowboys International, treading the line between energy and experimentation, meeting and subduing-deflecting skinhead opposition at the Middlesborough ‘Rock Gardens’. They recorded “Genetic Warfare” for the ‘1980: The First Fifteen Minutes’ EP compilation (Neutron NT003), alongside Clock DVA, “Beautiful People” by the Stunt Kites, and “I Don’t Know” by I’m So Hollow, lovingly wrapped into a six-sided fold-out sleeve. Organisation of the record was done along democratic lines, each of the four bands allotted four minutes vinyl time and thirty-six square inches of art area within its lavish sleeve. Neutron pressed it up in successive tranches of one-thousand. It was voted ‘Best Package Of The Week’ by ‘Melody Maker’, and scored heavily on various alternative charts.

Meanwhile, Vice Versa supported the Beat at Sheffield’s ‘Top Rank’, played a series of half-hour sets in the local Virgin store interspersed with customer-relations chat, and performed a slot at the Leeds Queens Hall ‘Futurama 2 Festival’ (14 September) as part of a two-day bill with Clock DVA, Soft Cell, and Bill Nelson, headlined by Siouxsie & The Banshees.

But now it is 1980 – the next fifteen minutes…

‘The next THIRTY minutes’ asserts Martin Fry confidently.

The material that’s become manifest since he joined the trio provides evidence of a remarkable evolution. Three numbers – in particular, stand out. The aforementioned “Modern As In Mary Quant” and “Artists At War” – urging ‘slash your wrists!’, ‘always forward!’, ‘anti-age’, ‘be dynamic!’, plus “Jazz Drugs, Jazz Violence” – ‘jazz drugs, jazz look, jazz age, jazz mambo, jazz waltz, jazz damn thing to love...’ – the latter two available in cassette form as part of their Neutron C60 ‘Eight Aspects Of April ‘80’ (later retrospected – quoting this feature, at Julian Cope’s http://www.headheritage.co.uk/unsung/review/2026/ ).

‘On the earlier recorded material, the lyric were mine’ offers Mark. ‘Since then they’ve been a combination of the band. We did “Body Sculpture”, “Jazz Drugs”, and it was quite different. The sound is much denser. More dark, less erratic. We’ve pooled together more on these songs.’

Will this product be placed on vinyl? ‘At the moment we’re a bit disillusioned with the independent market. It’s just saturated with rubbish. We appreciate the Punk ethic – ‘do what you want, anybody can do it’. But it’s got no commitment. It’s manifesting itself in Rough Trade’s attitude. They are becoming more and more selective. With the independents you’re reaching a certain market. A certain ideology. We don’t want that, we want populism. You’ve probably heard this line before from bands. It’s a dangerous line between populism and crass commercialism. You tend to sacrifice one for the other’ (in fact, the full Vice Versa catalogue would not be re-mastered and issued on vinyl until November 2014 with the brilliant 4-LP Box Set ‘Vice Versa: Electrogenesis 1978-1980’, http://www.vinyl-on-demand.com/-1-402-507.htm ).

Shift of location. After the Continental tour they play home turf. At Sheffield City Hall, Vice Versa ride that dangerous line, and acquit themselves magnificently. And Clock DVA is a nihilistic Captain Beefheart with a black, black light show of repetitive verticals and pure monochrome Bridget Riley grids. A full frontal pandemonium shadow-show with deranged vocalist Adi Newton and mangrove-bearded saxist Charlie Collins as components in a tightly-controlled visual-audial spectacle. A full relief cerebral massage. They figure in all the correct mythologies. Tape-coaxer Adi was involved with the two founder members of the now-Human League in an enterprise called the Future. While DVA’s contribution to journalist Nigel Burnham’s North-Eastern compilation LP ‘Hicks From The Sticks’ (Rockburgh Records ROC 111, April 1980) – “You’re Without Sound”, was produced by Cabaret Voltaire at their Sheffield ‘Western Works’ studios.

Adi compounds the band’s mystique, contending that ‘your dislike is our wanted reaction.’ With ‘events too perverse to perform openly, too decadent for Sheffield by far.’

Clock DVA-tions? ‘From the very beginning our aim was to provoke, to gain adverse response, to create the perfect, pornographic, electronic violence. A wall sound that sweeps.’ It’s a devastating multi-purpose concept that they’re capable of translating into an all-encompassing sensory event, encapsulating on vinyl, or placing on film. Their movie ‘Genitals And Genosis’ features ‘pornographic surrealism’, splicing news-film of the Myra Hindley and Ian Brady trial with domestic scenes of Genesis P Orridge at home.

In performance the voice is treated as just another instrument, a device for generating sound and atmosphere rather than a conveyance medium for lyrics. It’s melded well down into the aural wash to be distorted into incomprehensibility. Even the two poems read at the City Hall, with their Cold War allusions, are treated as a sonic – rather than a literal, exercise. An ‘aural wallpaper’ using ‘unconventional music on conventional instruments, form and formless.’

It provides the demarcation line between the two units. For Vice Versa there is no such deliberate obscurantism. Their lyrics may be staccato, cut-up, and prevocational, but they’re also well-structured, and their importance to the band is not to be underestimated. I will remember this fistful of nights…

Shift of location. Shift of form. To misquote Chuck Berry, I look at Clock DVA, it’s a quarter past 1981, and THIS is the next fifteen minutes! The Genesis P Orridge connection has reached maturation in the Fetish-label album ‘Thirst’ (Fetish FR2002). You know the rest, you’ve read the reviews, been seduced by the superlatives, seen the Indie chart submit to the inevitable force of the year’s most ponderously hypnotic and intense album.

And for Vice Versa the Neutron first-year plan closes with the imminent release of a single – “Stilyagi” c/w “Eyes Of Christ” from Rotterdam’s Backstreet Backlash Records, a kind of Glitter Band backbeat over Eurasian shortwave Pop-pulse. Eulogising Russian Teddy-Boys as ‘we want to meet you, we are foreign as you,’ it uses a fizzy synthesis and hard-nose foot-stomping that takes technicoloured crayons and paints out all the grey. Ironically its release comes at a time when the group itself is undergoing metamorphosis. They are charting new assaults on shelf-life through a re-packaging of product. A remake remodel that mutates the Funk vision through a biological extension of drummer David Robinson and bass player Mark Lickley.

The new ID is ABC, a radical dance faction aimed at the world’s first swaying elite. They mean business. It is very much in your interest to stay tuned…

This piece was picked up by ‘Hot Press’ – the Dublin-based 
fortnightly paper which was then expanding its circulation 
into England. Unfortunately, by then, Vice Versa 
were in the process of rebranding themselves into ABC, 
and they made it quite clear to me that they no longer 
wanted an interview about Vice Versa to appear! I was 
in a desperate quandary. This was my chance to get a 
major feature published in a wide-circulation 
newsstand music paper, I didn’t want to lose that opportunity. 
So I was on the phone to ‘Hot Press’ then I was on the 
phone to Vice Versa. I hastily rewrote the last two 
paragraphs to update it, reading the amendments out 
aloud on the phone to Dublin. And eventually the 
group agreed to the interview going ahead, on the 
understanding that I’d then do a follow-up feature on ABC. 
Which duly happened. My twenty-year stint with ‘Hot Press’ 
was up and running. Incidentally, ‘New Musical Express’ 
had turned this interview down, but within months they 
were falling over themselves to get interviews with both ABC 
and the amazing Clock DVA…!

Published in:
‘WOOL CITY ROCKERS no.12’ (February 1981 – UK)
‘HOT PRESS Vol.5 No.4’ (Eire – March 1981)
‘ROCKERILLA no.9’ (January 1981 – Italy)


Henri said...

Accidentally bumped into this while searching for Clock DVA interviews online. Essential reading - brilliant scans!

Thank you very much for sharing.

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Dark Eyes of London said...

Great writeup. I travelled up to Sheffield twice in 1979/1980 to do an article about the Sheffield music scene. Martin Fry was kind enough to let me stay in his flat (Jud Turner had a room next door) and I spent a few days getting to know all the characters on the scene, including watching I'm So Hollow rehearse, hanging out at Clock DVA's rehearsal space, and having various meals at Stephen Singleton's and Jud Turner's mum's houses. I was also lucky enough on the first trip to see Vice Versa play at the George IV (the Screaming Abdabs had pulled out and they were asked to step in at the last moment).

Sadly my article didn't get published (Zigzag magazine, who I initially pitched it to got cold feet and NME and MM didn't want to publish a feature from an unknown writer). By the second trip there was a suspicion that I was only really there for Clock DVA (I sense there was a lot of dope fuelled suspicion operating) and I was made to feel less welcome.Vice Versa were coming to the end of their road - I remember seeing them at the City Hall gig and Mark White ceremonially tore him raincoat in half. Stephen played me a few tapes of some stuff they'd be doing which sounded to me like a bad Clock DVA tribute band. But then I think on the last day I saw Martin Fry standing in front of a mirror, crooning into a hairbrush (true!) and it was fairly obvious what was going to happen next.