Art Of Noise
I'm going to tell you the story of one of the most fascinating studio-based bands that ever existed. And just to be awkward, I'm going to structure it around the three times I saw them play live.
1. Ambassadors Theatre, London, 25th May 1985
It's terrifying to think that as we enter the 21st century, the Art Of Noise is 17 years old. If it was a person rather than a band, you could legally have sex with it now. Although technically speaking, it all really started in 1982 - with Malcolm McLaren's Buffalo Gals single, and the Duck Rock album that followed it early the next year. With his usual ear for a quick buck, McLaren heard the trends that were coming through popular music in the early eighties - specifically, the rise of hip-hop in the US and the growing popularity of African music over here - and decided to exploit them for himself. Not having any musical ability of his own, McLaren's choice of collaborator was key: and luckily for him, he chose Trevor Horn.
Horn was the producer of choice back in '82. He'd had his own fifteen minutes in the limelight with the Buggles, but nowadays spent his time applying his high-tech production sheen to other people's records, turning the pop ditties of ABC and Dollar into huge symphonic epics. He did this with the aid of a close group of collaborators. Anne Dudley, pianist and orchestral arranger extraordinaire: JJ Jeczalik, who was a dab hand at the Fairlight sampling technology that was just starting to hit the market: and engineer Gary Langan, who (in the immortal words of Reg Presley) "put fairy dust over the baaarstard".
Their work on McLaren's album was different, though. Rather than enhancing the work of other musicians, Horn and his team were effectively constructing records from the ground up. With the assistance of some African musicians and the World's Famous Supreme Team, they produced a high-tech pastiche of the most fashionable black music styles of the time, and Malcy (in his usual irrepressible manner) took all the credit. But the experience of creating their own music obviously left a big impression. I remember spending most of Christmas 1982 obsessively playing a limited edition remix of ABC's The Look Of Love that was obviously all the work of Horn and co: they'd taken a three minute pop single and rearranged it literally to the point of destruction. It was only the beginning.
Fast forward to 1983, and the creation of Zang Tuum Tumb Records. Founded by Trevor Horn and NME journalist Paul Morley, the label burst onto the scene in a flurry of manifestoes proclaiming its intention to change the face of popular music. (There's obviously something about NME hacks and manifestoes, eh, Swells?) With Horn keeping a close ear on what it all sounded like, and Morley sloganising and hyping like there was no tomorrow, it was the last great hurrah of the pop record as a package, before CDs homogenised everything into five inch squares of mush. We had Frankie Goes To Hollywood causing outrage, Propaganda being Germanic and foxy, and a whole host of lesser acts generally ignored by everyone apart from rabid ZTT fanboys like Lou and myself (Nasty Rox Inc and Hoodlum Priest to name but two). And in the middle of all this, the mysterious masked entities known only as the Art Of Noise, whose identities would have remained a complete mystery if the records hadn't credited Dudley, Horn, Jeczalik, Langan and Morley as their composers.
Art Of Noise set their stall out in a 1983 record that was too long for a 12" single and too short for an album. Into Battle With The Art Of Noise took everything they'd done so far and abstracted it to the max. The key track was Beat Box: over a drum track that sounded for all the world like two elephants shagging in a tin hut, all manner of sampled noises - car engines, tennis players, fake instruments - did battle against a series of heavily processed vocal sounds. It was typical of their output, in that it was impossible to listen to this music and visualise people playing it: you knew in the back of your mind that it came from five people messing around with electronic equipment that was way beyond your personal budget, but it sounded like it came from some other planet entirely. Even their more conventional pieces felt like that: witness the lovely Moments In Love, ten minutes of slow breathy noodling whose only real drama came from changes in volume in the rhythm track.
The material on Into Battle was substantially reworked for their 1984 proper album, Who's Afraid Of The Art Of Noise. The engine noises on Beat Box got a track of their own - Close (To The Edit), the band's first hit. Throughout the increasing acclaim, the Art Of Noise refused to act like a real group: their publicity photos were lovingly shot pictures of spanners, their appearances on TV were dominated by anonymous figures in masks, their videos featured pianos being bisected with chainsaws.
And this was the background to my first experience of the Art Of Noise playing live. When it was announced that they were going to perform as part of a ZTT package show entitled The Value Of Entertainment for a two week run at a London West End theatre, it seemed too good to be true. And sure enough, it was. Too good to be true, that is. The Art Of Noise's contribution to the show was a trio of dancers performing to a backing tape of Beat Box and Close (To The Edit), bookending a hilariously bitter stand-up lecture by Paul Morley. His theme was the tension that existed between the Art Of Noise as a concept and as a group of working musicians, and how we'd obviously come to the show expecting the latter when we were only going to get the former.
In fact, the truth only emerged a few weeks later: Dudley, Jeczalik and Langan - the three people in the band who actually, you know, did the music - had walked out before the show, leaving Horn and Morley in the lurch and forcing them to improvise wildly. The show officially marked the end of the Art Of Noise as a concept...
2. Hammersmith Odeon, London, 15th August 1986
...but the beginning of the Art Of Noise as a band, as the three musicians took the name with them and set up shop on China Records. Or, as Morley put it in the delightfully snotty sleevenotes to Daft, a compilation of their ZTT recordings: "[they] have now decided that they are competent enough to pursue a conventional rock career, and that this is what they prefer - the settled patterns of a rock schedule, its unsubtle, manufactured sincerity."
Morley, of course, recognised that as a pure pop group, the Art Of Noise would never be as influential again. Their ZTT material was imitated and ransacked for years on end, culminating in the use of a sample from Close (To The Edit) as a key element of the Prodigy's Firestarter. The air of mystery surrounding the band meant that they could, in a famous mixup, receive an American magazine's award for best black act of the year - not bad for five middle-aged, middle-class, white English people. Once the Art Of Noise became like every other band, posing for pictures and performing on the telly, they'd never have the same impact.
Having said that, this was the period when they had all their big hits. But this was mainly due to a series of gimmicky guest appearances on their records. The China Best Of Art Of Noise album tells the story: Duane Eddy playing guitar on Peter Gunn, Max Headroom stammering through Paranoimia, Tom Jones busting the proverbial gut on the cover version of Kiss. The technology was still there, but used in a much more restrained fashion: the beats were less outrageous, the found sounds were replaced with more musical ones, and there wasn't the sense any more that an Art Of Noise record could do anything.
And this was the background to my second experience of the Art Of Noise playing live. The Hammersmith Odeon show was an eagerly awaited affair, given their West End blowout of the previous year. There was much speculation as to whether the records could ever be reproduced live. In fact, if you sit down and seriously analyse the ZTT recordings, they weren't particularly complex: with a couple of people in the studio on Fairlights you could do most of Into Battle in a single take. By 1986, the technology had advanced to the degree where an entire performing band's instruments could be wired up to trigger all manner of bizarre noises from a bank of Fairlights, allowing a drummer to recreate those mile-high riffs with the minimum of effort. It was fun, admittedly, but people came out humming the hardware rather than the tunes.
The band existed for three more albums, though Langan drifted off after the first one, In Visible Silence. Despite all this, they continued to innovate: In No Sense? Nonsense! was an ambient record a couple of years before its time, its lower-key tracks carefully sequenced into a seamless whole. But by the time Below The Waste came out in 1989, the cracks were showing: more gimmicks (although Yebo was a fine piece of Afro-electro, more or less bringing them back to where they started), more cover versions (the themes from Robinson Crusoe and James Bond), and the distinct feeling that there was an unbridgeable split between Jeczalik's pure electronic tracks and Dudley's more classical work.
After this, it all went quiet for a bit. Ten years, in fact. Anne Dudley worked on a number of solo projects, most notably film scoring (winning an Oscar for The Full Monty). JJ Jeczalik set up his own band with the rather cheeky name of Art Of Silence, gaining brief fame for being one of the first groups to name their album after their website. (Don't look for www.artofsilence.co.uk, it's not there any more.) AoN became one of those bands who have more compilations available than real records, as the dance artists who'd been influenced by their pioneering work repaid the favour with a series of remix albums. It was expected that that was that.
3. Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, 22nd March 2000
But when did Art Of Noise ever do what you'd expect?
Suddenly, in 1999, it was announced that the Art of Noise were back, and back on ZTT records too. It all stemmed from a meeting between Anne Dudley and Trevor Horn, when they suddenly came up with the idea for a new project. They dragged Paul Morley back into the fold, and recruited Lol Creme (formerly of 10CC) for added musical ballast. The result was The Seduction Of Claude Debussy.
The middle period Art Of Noise was characterised by a lack of the pretension that Morley sometimes brought to their packaging and presentation. But by God, it was back with a vengeance now. Taking the form of a concept album loosely based around the life of Debussy, it had lush orchestral samples of the man's works mixed up with drum 'n' bass rhythms, duelling female vocalists, John Hurt's narration and Rakim doing a rap that rhymed "evening air" with "Baudelaire". It owed nothing to anything the Art Of Noise had ever done before, except some of Anne Dudley's orchestral experiments on the later albums. But for the first time in years, you had no idea while listening to the record what it would sound like in sixty seconds time, and you'd always be pleasantly surprised when you found out. In short, they were back on form.
And this was the background to my third experience of the Art Of Noise playing live. In this incarnation, the musicianship took precedence over the technology, reduced to two boffins pushing buttons at the back of the stage. Dudley, Horn and Creme swapped instruments as required: soprano Amanda Boyd contributed everything from trilling whispers to Vocodered screams: and in the middle of it all, acting as ringmaster, Morley beat out time with a hammer on his hand and kept us amused in his usual style. There were a few highlights from the AoN's early period, and suspiciously only one (Peter Gunn) from their middle: the rest was a series of variations on the tunes from the Debussy album, reworked to varying degrees, always successfully. Unlike the Hammersmith show back in 1986, this was all about the music, and this time the main topic of conversation on the way out wasn't how much the Fairlights cost.
Where the Art Of Noise go from here is anybody's guess. Was Debussy just a one-off (ignoring the remix album Reduction that coincided with the live show), or is there more to come? Can they keep a stable lineup for more than two albums at a time? Will they have changed style again completely by the time I next see them perform? I'm prepared to wait and see. The Art Of Noise have been three of the most fascinating studio-based bands that ever existed, and that's good enough for me. Being a monkey, and all.
The Art Of Noise's Wonderful World Of The World is the official AoN site, and obviously has Paul Morley's mucky pawmarks all over it. Lots of bizarre philosophising and reference-dropping, plus a heap of downloadable audiovisual delights and the odd bit of hard news about the band's activities. Not to be confused with Art Of Noise (a car radio shop) or Art Of Noise! (a German music school).
ZTT Records' official site appears to be under construction - i.e. there's bugger all there - at the time of writing. Never mind, there are a couple of nice unofficial sites like ZTT Remembered which can tell you about the label's past, present and future.
CD Paradise, this site's preferred music supplier, will sell you loads of Art Of Noise product if you cross their palm with a major credit card. Although their search doesn't pick up The Seduction Of Claude Debussy, they sell that too. However, with all due respect to barquing, Amazon seem to have more of the albums in stock right now... (and of course, they have some useful audio samples as well)
Lol Creme - Digital Artist appears to be Lol's personal homepage, showing off the video and digital art skills he's put to one side while he gets back to music. This may explain why the site hasn't been updated for at least two years.
The Trevor Horn Worship Hall is an ever-so-slightly terrifying fan site dedicated to the genius producer and all his works. "Be immersed in his holy aura and be enlightened by his eternal 20Bit 44k stereo ProTools (TM) processed spirit!"
Amanda Boyd, the soprano vocalist who's become a temporary member of the band while they tour, has an official home page if you're interested. She's done proper singing as well, look.
Thepopcam.com did the whole of the Art Of Noise's Shepherds Bush concert as a webcast, albeit in the rather crappy QuickTime streaming format. If you're reading this before the end of April, it should still be there, but hurry.
TGG's Demos From Hell includes a Real Audio download of the Troggs Tapes, the source of Reg Presley's "fairy dust" comment and some of the most hysterically bad language ever accidentally recorded. Dubba dubba dubba cha.
April 26th 2000