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A battle of Witts: A brief look at ‘Taboos’ and the work of The Passage

“If music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it” (Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare)

Today’s blog is not academic but it’s about an academic (but I’ll come to that later). Back in the early 1980s when I was in my early teenage years, my obsession for music was fed by listening to the John Peel show every weekday night. I still have dozens of cassettes of the songs that I taped off the show that I still cannot throw away (and before you ask, yes I am a hoarder when it comes to anything music-related). It was 1981 when I first heard a song that has become one of my all-time favourites – ‘Taboos’ by post-punk band The Passage. From the opening verse I was transfixed. Here was a group writing songs about sexual dysfunction in both a cerebral and humorous way. Around this time I was also a massive fan of Adam and the Ants, particularly their songs on sexual perversions and paraphilias (which I have already documented in two previous blogs on the psychology of Adam Ant, and Ant as a portrait in pop perversion)

The Passage formed March 1978 in Manchester and the band was led by Richard ‘Dick’ Witts (formerly a percussionist in the Halle Orchestra) and the only ever present member until they split up in 1983. Their early material as been likened to The Fall (not totally a surprise given that The Passage’s first bassist Tony Friel also played bass in The Fall), and like The Fall there was a constant change of line-ups with Witts being the equivalent of The Fall’s lead singer Mark E. Smith. Witts was also an occasional television presenter of music programmes (such as The Oxford Road Show). Witts also recalled the story of Morrissey auditioning for them before he formed The Smiths (“‘As we were spineless about singing we once auditioned a bunch of hopefuls, including a certain Steve Morrissey, who we thought a bit too glum for the likes of us”).

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Between November 1980 and March 1983, The Passage released four great albums (Pindrop; For All And None; Degenerates; and Enflame) on three different record labels (first Object Music, then Virgin subsidiary label Night & Day, and finally with legendary indie label Cherry Red). The LPs were all re-released in 2003 on the LTM label along with a compilation album (BBC Sessions). There’s also a ‘best of’ CD collection with the homophonically titled Seedy (geddit? A prime example of Witts’ wit) which is well worth getting as a primer to their later recorded output. Much of their music was critically lauded including (then NME critic and later a member of the band Art of Noise) Paul Morley who compared them to Joy Division (a band that was actually the support act at one of The Passage’s early gigs). Morley’s review of their debut LP noted:

‘With the disquieting Pindrop, The Passage can be accepted as major even by the cowardly, cautious and cynical: it’s a work of disciplined intellectual aggression, frantic emotions and powerfully idiomatic musicality. Pindrop is densely shaded, erratically mixed (which often works in its favour), rough edged, heavy in an unloveable sense of the word…It’s as shocking a beautiful nightmare, as stormy and aware a debut LP as [Joy Division’s] Unknown Pleasures. Where you gasp a lot. Comparisons will harm. Their sound is their own. It’s the shock of the new – new shades, textures, noises, pulses, atmospheres, energies, the opening up of new realms of feeling.’

One of the things I loved about The Passage was they were never afraid to write songs that were lyrically intellectually political and/or sexual (e.g., ‘Troops Out’, ‘Carnal’, ‘Taboos’, ‘XoYo’). Their ‘love songs’ (to use a quote from the Soft Cell’s song ‘Perversity‘) are “deliciously twisted” (e.g., ’16 Hours’. Love Is As’, ‘Revelation’, ‘Time Will Tell’). In fact, a number of music critics would talk about Witts’ “rigorously intellectual approach” to music and lyric writing. Their second album (For All and None) even took its title from the four-part philosophical novel by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (i.e., Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None). In the song ‘My One Request’, Witts refrain “Love, fear, power, hope” appears to be his manifesto on life. In a lengthy interview with Johnny Black for indie fanzine Masterbag about his continued fascination with form and structure:

“‘We’ve done 53 songs now and they’re all based on just three words,’ says Witts, beginning to illustrate his musical triangle on a paper napkin. At the corners of the triangle he writes the words and speaks them as he does so. ‘Fear, power and…love.’ ‘Another triangle takes shape while he tells me about power. ‘Power is ambiguous, it depends on how it’s used. In the same way, a knife can be used to cut bread, or to slit a throat.’ ‘The second triangle is ready, and at each corner he writes, semitone, minor third, major third, then pushes the napkin over to me. ‘Within these triangles you can sum up everything about Western music.’ The Witts fixation with structure (and triangles) is reflected even in the design of their album covers. ‘We use only black, red and white, which are symbolic colours. The red flag, the black flag for anarchy, black and white united fight – all these things…There are three people in the group and I associate those colours with us. I’m red, Andrew [Wilson] blue, and Paul [Mahoney] is white.”

I should also note that the track ‘Love Song’ from their New Love Songs EP was the first song I ever heard that featured the word ‘c**t’ in a rhyming couplet (‘I love you/Cos I need a c**t/I love you/To use you back and front’). (As a possibly amusing aside, I was the first ever academic to get the word ‘f**kwit’ into the British Journal of Psychology in a study examining the role of cognitive bias in slot machine gambling – see ‘Further reading’ below). The same song also referred to fellatio (but Adam and the Ants had already covered the topic in the song Cleopatra on their 1980 debut LP Dirk Wears White Sox). The Passage are arguably one of the most unsung bands of the 1980s. Perhaps the best tribute to the band was from Nick Currie (aka the musician Momus) who said:

“[The Passage were] one of the greatest, yet least known of 80s groups. I bought ‘Pindrop’ after hearing a track on [the John Peel show]. The album (slightly murkier, more introverted and mysterious sounding than later releases) was like nothing else being made at the time. Totally electronic, spooky, intelligent, political, passionate as hell, like Laurie Anderson crossed with The Fall. ‘Degenerates’ and ‘Enflame’ are also great records, Brechtian politics melded to angular, caustic lyrics. The Passage were very un-English in their willingness to write about sex and politics. I think you’d have to see them as libertarians in a peculiarly Protestant mode, like Quakers or Methodist radicals or something”.

Which brings me to arguably their two greatest songs – ‘Taboos’ and ‘XoYo’ – both about sex but both very different both musically and lyrically (sexual dysfunction versus sexual liberation). Both songs are on the 2003 CD reissue of the Degenerates LP and most people that have heard of The Passage probably prefer ‘XoYo’ because they are likely to be one of the 100,000+ music lovers (like myself) that bought the Cherry Red indie classic sampler album Pillows and Prayers on which it also appeared. The opening quote by Shakespeare is actually the first lyric on ‘XoYo’ (which you can listen to here) and it fits perfectly with the lyrical content of the song (you can read all the lyrics here as they also work as prose).

The ‘Taboos’ single (which you can listen to here) was recorded at Stockport’s Strawberry Studio in August 1981. Witts was apparently unhappy with the mix (although I think it’s great) as he was quoted as saying: “I drowned the drumming with timpani and other percussion, in particular Taboos which now sounds more like an Orange Order marching band than the [Phil] SpectorWall of Sound‘ I had in mind”. Lyrically, I just loved the whole song. Below are the lyrics to the whole song that I transcribed myself as (unlike ‘XoYo’), they don’t appear to be published anywhere online:

“I use this magazine that gives instructions/It tells me many things about seduction/It comes in monthly parts, there’s 16 sections/I need nine more for the complete collection

In Number 6 there’s chapters on disorders/And Number 7’s all about withdrawal/In Number 8 there’s pictures of positions/I’m stuck till I receive the ninth edition

Whoever hopes to dance with me/Must abandon all such guides and schemes/And measure up a million ways and means/Take to heart strange choreography

We have to wait until we’ve read them through/With things like this we’re better safe than sorry/I have it written here, four things to do/Each one a cornerstone of carnal knowledge

It makes you go blind/By closing your mind/Obstructing the view/Too many taboos/Too many taboos

We really should wait till we’ve read them through/You know we’re/always better safe than sorry/You see it written here a thousand rules/Certain regulations should be followed

Perhaps these studies on cassette are wisest/While they play you try the exercises/Just one of 15 minutes would be plenty/My body can’t take all five C-120s

Whoever hopes to dance with me/Must leave behind what’s being heard and seen/And stepping through a thousand routes and dreams/Take to heart new choreography

It makes you go blind/Disclosing the mind/A little taboos/Two million taboos

Let’s wait until we’ve seen the TV series/A programme titled ‘All Your Bedroom Queries’/You may will think I’m making lame excuses/I just don’t like, you know it more than I do

My only option is to write about/A verse or two of hollow lies about you/So you’d be flattered by my sharp deception/And words were made to exercise deception

Whoever wants to dance with me/Must abandon traps and trickery/Take to heart new choreography/Take by storm strange choreography

It makes you go blind/By closing the mind/Obstructing the view/Too many taboos/Too many taboos”

‘Taboos’ (words and music: Dick Witts and Andy Wilson)

Since The Passage disbanded, Witts has put his musical talents to good use. He became an academic and university lecturer in modern music and has taught at Edinburgh University, Goldsmiths University (London) and Edge Hill University (Ormskirk, Lancashire). He’s also written some great books including ones on Nico and The Velvet Underground (that you can download at his academic website). Hopefully after reading this, a few more people will delve into The Passage’s back catalogue and discover one of the great cult bands of the 1980s.

Note: I would like to thank both Dick Witts and Keith Nuttall (at http://www.thepassage.co.uk) for their help in compiling this article.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). The role of cognitive bias and skill in fruit machine gambling. British Journal of Psychology, 85, 351-369.

Nice, J. (2003). The Passage\Biography. LTM Recordings. Located at: http://www.ltmrecordings.com/the_passage.html

Reynolds, S. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk, 1978–1984. New York: Penguin.

Wikipedia (2015). Richard Witts. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Witts

Wikipedia (2015). The Passage (band). Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Passage_(band)

Band aid: A brief look at my ‘Art of Noise’ obsession

“Their sources were scientific, their methods were artistic. They were breaking beats, setting up house, gliding through mental landscapes. They were masked, mechanical and, funnily enough, made up. Their image was daring, anonymous and addictive, and has more than stood the test of time. The music hasn’t just stood the test of time but fed the time that has passed; the Art of Noise are one of the most sampled groups in history” (Salvo Record Label)

“[The Art of Noise track] ‘Moments In Love’ graced a 7 [single]…Almost ambient, it was addictive” (So Many Records, So Little Time website)

[The Art of Noise’s record label ZTT] was a record label inspired by books and the addictive property of ideas as much as music” (from Paul Morley’s sleeve notes in the ZTT Box Set book).

The Art of Noise are one of popular music’s most unusual bands ever. The opening quotes claim both their image and their music is “addictive” and that their record label was inspired by the “addictive property” of ideas.That alone is enough ammunition for me to write a blog on them. And as chance would have it, the Art of Noise also happen to be one of my all time favourite bands as mentioned in my previous blog on record collecting as an addiction and my previous blog on my personal (and somewhat obsessive) record collecting behaviour.

Along with Factory Records (home of Joy Division, New Order, and the Happy Mondays), the ZTT label was of one of the most iconic record labels of the 1980s and 1990s (and home of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Propaganda, Seal, 808 State). ZTT Records was founded by the trio of record producer Trevor Horn (ex-lead singer of The Buggles), businesswoman Jill Sinclair (and Horn’s wife), and music journalist Paul Morley. The initials ZTT stand for Zang Tumb Tuum (although some of the record labels said Zang Tuum Tumb) and come from the poem Zang Tumb Tumb by Italian poet (and founder of the artistic and social Futurist Movement) Filippo Tommoso Marinetti.

The Art of Noise were the so-called ‘house band’ of ZTT and have been described by some an “avant-garde synthpop” band (but I would argue that their earliest releases with their original line-up almost defy categorization. The original (and I would argue ‘classic’) line-up comprised ZTT founders Trevor Horn and Paul Morley along with classically trained musician and musical arranger Anne Dudley, the engineer/producer Gary Langan, and programmer J.J. Jeczalik. Although best known worldwide for their collaborations with Duane Eddy (Peter Gunn) and Tom Jones (Kiss) it was their early (primarily) instrumental compositionsthat were the most novel and groundbreaking. The first time I heard ‘Close To The Edit’ on BBC Radio 1 in May 1984 I rushed straight out to my local record shop and bought the 7” vinyl version. That night I played it again and again. It was one of the most unique sounding songs I had ever heard. If there was ever an ‘addictive record’ this was it.If you’ve never heard the Art of Noise’s early recordings it’s hard to describe them as musical recordings as such. As the Wikipedia entry on them notes:

“[The] compositions were novel melodic sound collages based on digital sampler technology, which was new at the time. Inspired by turn-of-the-20th-century revolutions in music, the Art of Noise were initially packaged as a faceless anti- or non-group, blurring the distinction between the art and its creators. The band is noted for innovative use of electronics and computers in pop music and particularly for innovative use of sampling…The technological impetus for the Art of Noise was the advent of the Fairlight CMI sampler, an electronic musical instrument invented in Australia. With the Fairlight, short digital sound recordings called samples could be ‘played’ through a piano-like keyboard, while a computer processor altered such characteristics as pitch and timbre. Music producer Trevor Horn was among the first people to purchase a Fairlight. While some musicians were using samples as adornment in their works, Horn and his colleagues saw the potential to craft entire compositions with the sampler, disrupting the traditional rock aesthetic”.

Before the Art of Noise officially formed in 1983, four of the five ‘classic’ line-up (i.e., everyone bar Morley) were already working together as the production team behind such records as ABC’s The Lexicon of Love (1982) and Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock. However, it was while they were (some would say bizarrely) working on the Yes album 90125 that (while bored) Jeczalik and Langan took a scrapped riff by Yes’ drummer Alan White and sampled it using the Fairlight sequencer (which according to Wikipedia was the first time that an entire drum pattern had been sampled into the machine). Non-musical sounds were then layered on top of the sampled drum riff. Jeczalik and Langan then played their musical creation to Horn and was subsequently released as the ‘Red & Blue Mix’ of Yes’ US No.1 single ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ (which if you’ve never heard it does indeed sound like a Yes-Art of Noise mash-up). Many of the samples originally used on the yes LP ended up on the Art of Noise’s first (9-track) EP in 1983 (Into Battle With The Art of Noise) – a truly wonderful record made even better with the 2011 deluxe reissue expanded into 27 tracks.

Horn loved the new and innovative sound and brought in Morley as the fifth member of the band to develop the concept and marketing strategy, write the press releases, and shape the artistic style of the project’s visual imagery. The Futurism movement not only provided the name of the ZTT record label but also provided the name of the new group. Morley had read Luigi Russolo’s essay (and Futurist manifesto) ‘The Art of Noises’ (dropping the final ‘s’ at the insistence of Jeczalik). In a 2002 article in The Observer Sunday newspaper, Morley wrote:

“I loved the name Art of Noise so much that I forced my way into the group. If over the years people asked me what I did in the group, I replied that I named them, and it was such a great name, that was enough to justify my role. I was the Ringo Starr of Art of Noise. I made the tea. Oh, and I wrote the lyrics to one of the loveliest pieces of pop music ever, Moments in Love”.

One of the things I loved about the Art of Noise was that they were completely faceless and did little promotion outside of the verbose (and arguably pretentious) print advertisements written by Morley. Band photographs never appeared on their records and they never appeared in their own videos. Morley was the “face” of the band but a non-musician. As a teenager still discovering the wonders of music I was transfixed by the group’s [non-]image and the compelling nature of their music. The first album (Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise?) was unlike any LP I had ever heard before.

During my first year at university (1985), the original line-up split acrimoniously with Langan, Dudley, and Jeczalik (who kept the Art of Noise name) divorcing themselves from Horn, Morley and the ZTT label. The new Art of Noise line-up made further good albums on the China Records label – In Visible Silence (1986), In No Sense? Nonsense! (1987) and Below The Waste (1989) – but none as compelling as the early recordings. In 1990, the Art of Noise (that since 1987 had been a duo of Dudley and Jeczalik) disbanded.

In 1998, the original line-up (minus Jeczalik and Langan) temporarily reformed (adding the ex-10cc guitarist Lol Crème) and released the critically acclaimed concept LP The Seduction of Claude Debussy back on the ZTT label in 1999. The new line-up then performed some live shows in the UK and US, but disbanded again shortly afterwards. A live CD (Reconstructed) using various performances from these shows was released in 2003.

Despite the group splitting up in the early 2000s, August 2006 saw the release of a 4-CD boxed set of unreleased tracks from the ‘classic’ 1983-1985 period (And What Have You Done with My Body, God?) which was an Art of Noise collector’s Holy Grail. The Art of Noise disciples amongst us lapped it up and it fed our need and obsession for new musical product. Over the last few years more unreleased Art of Noise recordings have surfaced on various compilations and deluxe editions of the early recordings, and there is another boxed set (3CD/1DVD) of unreleased recordings due for issue later this year (Art Of Noise At The End Of A Century). No, I’m not addicted to the Art of Noise, but they’re not a group that I ever want to give up.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Art of Noise (2014). Art of Noise authorized website. Located at: http://theartofnoiseonline.com/Home.php

Wikipedia (2014). Art of Noise. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_of_Noise

Wikipedia (2014). ZTT Records. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ZTT_Records

ZTT records official site (2014). Located at: http://www.ztt.com