ZIGZAG : February 1984


Jonh Scot Wilde on more steel (metal) music. This time it's SPK. Can anyone tell the difference?
Pix by Alastair Indge.

To take a metaphor at face value. We might have been dragged to distraction throughout last year by the uprush of the metal dance - the incessant crash - as Test Department, Einsturzende Neubauten and SPK hustled and rushed for the dubious acclaim as young, new hopefuls. Some entertained illusions that the next crucial wave was upon us, as though the New Dark Age was the drastic re-ordering of life that we were all secretly praying for. In the final analysis, as we were able to reflect with some sanity at the end of the year, realistically the only would-be contender truly worth an exclamation mark mark or some sudden surprise were Test Department (live). Did someone get carded away?
SPK seemed somewhat more dubious than the rest. Their only activity was limited to a handful of (unconvincing) live performances and their one record release the blatantly commercial mutant-disco of 'Metal Dance', popularly regarded as the first glaring sell-out of the so-called 'Metal Wave'.
SPK, therefore, (variously known as 'Systems Planning Korporation', 'Surgical Penis Klinic', SePpuKku' and 'Sozialistiche Patienten Kollective' throughout their five year existence) certainly entered 1983 with a fairly abrupt change of face. Anyone familiar with their '82 LP, 'Leichenschrei', exposed to that startling (though hardly illuminating), grotesque collage of raw-edged pain and simulated slow-death would hardly recognise the band that emerged last year. SPK had lain dormant for some time, planning their next change (abrupt mutation being their nature) and emerged, the first signings to Chris Parry's 'Desire' Label, suddenly (gleefully) riding along on the crest of this hyped-up metal genesis. Well. Hold it just there. I won't take a metaphor at face value. We had to meet. Vocalist Sinan, 'instrumentalist' Derek Thompson and my humble self. Martin from 'Desire' got the coffees in (half-a-sugar my man). I wanted to know. Was I missing the point? I mean 'Metal Dance'. What was the point?

'We had the same audience figures for so long,' argues Derek, from behind his ever present shades, 'every record we made would sell to 2,000 people - that established underground that never grows or falls. We just wanted to continue experimenting, but with a more commercial sound. It WAS a compromise but, basically, we DO like commercial records and dance records. It was meant to be commercial at heart, but roughed up with the use of metal percussion. We haven't lost anything because of 'Metal Dance' because we still have the ability to do whatever we want.'
Sinan agrees, 'We have been going since 1978 and we've always been concerned principally with the idea of experiment. 'Metal Dance' WAS just an experiment. After five years of experimentation, we have reached a ceiling.'
They spilled over. They lost the edge.
Sinan continues, 'In the beginning, it started when Graeme (instrumentalist) was working in a psychiatric hospital and Neil (a former SPK member) was a patient. So it was an ideal setup. It all evolved from there really. At that time our music was closely related to the problems of madness in the human condition and psychiatric solutions - it was a revolt against the medicalisation of people.
'Originally, SPK stood for 'Sozialistiche Planning Kollective' which was a movement in Heidelberg, Germany, set up by a group of mental patients who were demonstrating for their own rights. The original SPK was set up as a homage to that idea - for the rights of people who were living on the fringe of 'normality'. In a lot of the early gigs, we would use slides a lot (showing foetus, autopsies and morgues) - just to show that there was an alternative side to life from the glamourised, idolised version of it. There was no intention of using it as a shock element. There were all these comparisons originally with Throbbing Gristle, but we were never anything like them. They were essentially concerned with 'Industrial' music. We never wanted to fit into any category.
'A lot of the visual side in the early days' explains Derek, 'was just straightforward medical film, like people having their brains taken out or the middle of their bodies taken apart. SPK used to be heavily criticised for using that sort of imagery, but if it was shown on 'Horizon', people would just say, 'Yeah, that was really interesting."

Happy-go-lucky they were not. SPK up to 'Leichenschrei' might not have been totally concerned with making the rafters ring (I mean...autopsies...C'mon!) but it WAS at least reaching for the point of no return. They created a burning malaise of sound in 'Leichenschrei' that convulsed and ached with a rare screaming extremity. 'Metal Dance' followed. It seemed tragically frigid and a little overdone. SPK, whether they liked it or not were suddenly part of the new overvalued movement that was being fostered by over-eager NME hacks. How did they feel about the metal idea being moulded into a next big thing?
'Well', says Sinan, 'metal percussion is not fundamental to SPK whereas it is to someone like Test Department. We have been using metal and various objects like glass and wood since 1980.
Derek feels that there is no reason for them to argue that they have nothing to do with the likes of Test Department, if people want to suggest that.
'our music', he argues, 'is obviously very different. We use anything that sounds good and it is purely coincidental that there are other bands using metal percussion about. But, we are not aligning ourselves to any movement. It will be impossible to confine us to that idea because we are apt to change so frequently. At the moment, we are interested in using the aspects of modern songs and treating them with metal percussion. Live, especially, there is this theatrical element, I suppose, with the use of oil drums, gas cylinders and flame-throwers. It is a very visual thing. At the moment we are working on ways of using those elements in the studio.'
Live, they are a curious phenomenon, but hardly the prophetic inspiration that the general brouhaha has led us to believe. Their use of metal might be over-worked but (visually at least), the demented compulsion of percussion at least lifts their sprawling set of vacuous sub-Euro-disco from absolute oblivion. Ultimately, though, their live performance currnetly highlights their lack of real songs (bar 'Sandstorm Method') and also, perhaps, the bareness of emotional life in their music - usually sounding so solid and unresponsive. The theory is one thing. SPK's stiff limited scope is another. Derek would beg to differ. I'm sure.

'I think we induce things like wild terror in our audiences', he tells me (in all seriousness?). Most people just stand there, mouths open, wondering what is going on. Certain people won't come near you afterwards because of the sheer violence of our live performance. There IS this barrier between us and our audience, as though if they came near us, we'd turn round and hit them with hammers or something. Live, there is a great physical feeling for us. For me, the guitar is not a very physical thing - but if you are beating oil drums and smashing things around you, it IS very physical. It pumps pure adrenalin. It's a very natural thing - it just builds to a head.
'We get a great mixture of people, as well. It's not the expected underground following or 'weirdos'. Obviously, people are coming along without any pre-conceptions.'
Sinan's promise that all their 'violence' was all in the form of energy and rhythm - 'not directed at the audience' sounded dubious to say the least, in view of their London Venue gig in December last year, where the concept of audience participation was taken to new lenghts in sheer imbecility. That night, SPK were dying on their feet, failing consistently to raise themselves from a dragging, colourless monotony. For all their talk of 'wild terror', they had been barely believable in their pretentious, unimpassioned immobility. They were becoming desperate. It was showing. They were barely moving. One of the band then began experiments with a heavy, lenghty metal chain - swinging it at the oil drums and clumsily wrapping around every object in sight. Finally wresting it free, though still looking hopelessly addle-brained, he brought it to the front of the stage and, to the disbelief of all, began to swing it INTO and AT the crowd. Before the audience at the very front began to surge back in confusion, the chain had worked a few circles and come dangerously close to striking bodies (mine included). As the Venue stewarts milled about in confusion, the chain was swung wildly and uncontrollably for the last time, coming a full circle and striking Sinan violently as it whirled back to the stage. The curtains closed amongst the general chaos that ensued.
The crucial point. It took THAT - a rather desperate attempt at crezting some (ha) wildness, some harum-scarum recklessness - to break out of the safety, the spiritless lack of risk, the transparent consideration behind it all.
Our only hope could be that SPK sense that it is time for a break with the present, a change of heart and a change of course (as radical as the one that brought them into 1983 and 'overground'). As Derek explains, 'this year is likely to witness something more diverse, with much of their activity channelled into interests outside the concept of 'SPK'.

'We are going to be using a number of different bands. There's a project called 'Cruel Pleasures' which we should all be involved in, but it will be something different from the history of SPK. We just want to use it to do anything we FEEL like doing - even something totally commercial (without ANY artistic credibility). I also have my own project which I'm calling 'A Man Without Qualities'. I'm working on that at the moment. It won't just be SPK doing things. If we do gain some large audience, we could then move into something very different from 'chart music'. At the moment, and this was the point of 'Metal Dance', we are going through a phase where we are trying to gain an audience for everything that we are doing. We just want to function freely. Our ambitions are as straightforward as that really. At the moment, we are very restricted due to financial restraints. We want to use absolutely anything. We don't feel as though we HAVE to use metal. People should not expect us to stand still, doing the same things.
Their next involvement though will be a compilation LP on which they are collaborating on with 'Nurse With Wound', the German band 'Deadly Doris' and the French band 'DDAA'. It will be concerned with the interpretation of the work of the German artist Adolf Wolfli, who wrote his music notation on six stage as opposed to five and combined the notations with drawings and writings. The bands are taking his music and interpreting.
As Sinan explains, 'Wolfli's idea was to present the musical notation in pictorial form. Er... then he would transcribe the idea to paper... then roll the paper up and blow through it... like a trumpet. That sort of sums up the idea of SPK in a way. If you see what I mean? (Thank you and Goodnight... Ed)
But me? I'm still guessing. 1983. It was a somewhat unambitious year for SPK. A time of transition. Arguably 'necessary' to elevate them from their 'underground' interment; ultimately a storm in a teacup. I wish them a sudden and savage metamorphosis. Would I waste my breath? I'd rather tell you. SPK were falling short. At this juncture, Test Dept are the only band to employ metal percussion with any radical twist of imagination, at least recognising the essential emotive impulse - using with real sense of purpose, rather than as superfluous decoration.
We might have expected more.

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