23 Skidoo (Contemporary Musicians)
Industrial rock group
Whereas most groups, especially those outside the mainstream, are all but forgotten during a prolonged absence, 23 Skidoo have proven themselves an exception. "Apparently we're quite influential," said 23 Skidoo's Alex Turnbull in an interview with David Stubbs of the Wire. "We never knew that." Compatriots of Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle on Great Britain's experimental/industrial scene in the 1980s, 23 Skidoo were creative and way ahead of their time. They specialized in a blend of jazz, ethnic music, and synthesized sounds long before the terms "trip-hop" or "techno" existed. According to Tom Laskin, reviewer for the Daily Page, "23 Skidoo set a standard for rhythmbased experimentation that few contemporary mixmasters have even approached, let alone surpassed."
Applying the word "influential" to 23 Skidoo's music, therefore, seems limiting, given the fact that the group not only inspired others, but also helped to define a whole new genre of modern music. The reverberations of their most celebrated recordingsamely Seven Songs, Urban Gamelan, and The Culling Is Comingre easily recognizable in the work of today's noise, industrial, jungle, and drum 'n' bass artists. Rap artist Ice T, for one, sampled the group's music for his song "Peel Their Caps Back" (from the Punisher LP), while the Chemical Brothers apparently lifted 23 Skidoo's funk workout "Coup" for their Grammy Award-winning hit "Block Rockin' Blues." In 2000, 15 years after their last album, the group returned with the simply titled 23 Skidoo, yet another reflection of the group's refusal to settle into any particular groove and their ability to defy generalizations. "But it's not like we haven't been doing anything for all that timee've been running the Ronin label," Turnbull informed Ben Wilmott of iCrunch about the group's period of silence. "Ronin is 23 Skidoo, in effect. People think we've reformed in the light of our latest notoriety, but we've been making this album for the past four years."
The members of 23 Skidoo include brothers Alex and Johnny Turnbull, Fritz Catlin (also known as Fritz Haamann), and bassist Sketch, who joined in the early 1980s. It is worth noting that when 23 Skidoo were at their height, electronica was still in its infancy, and a group of white boys co-opting black music for their own ends was practically unheard of. However, several groups in England were ready to shake things up. In Bristol, the Pop Group began lifting funk and disco rhythms to accompany their leftist political agenda, while in Manchester, A Certain Ratio were stripping funk to its bare essentials. Other notables included the art rock groups Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and This Heat.
Formed in London, England, in 1979 around the Turnbull brothers, percussionists who studied Burundi and Kodo drumming and were martial arts experts, and Catlin, 23 Skidoo were likewise bucking trends, questioning tradition, and avoiding clichés. They named themselves after the obscure American phrase "23 skidoo," one that appeared in the works of Aleister Crowley, William Burroughs, and filmmaker Julian Biggs. A sense of mystery surrounded the band as well. On their early records, no names were listed (incidentally, enabling many phonies to claim linkage to the band), and their cover art was created by Neville Brody. This artwork is now documented as a part of graphic art history in The Graphic Language of Neville Brody, in which a whole chapter is reserved for 23 Skidoo.
Influenced early on by Fela Kuti, the Last Poets, and the rising rap/hip-hop scene in New York City, the trio (and others) released their first single, "Ethics,"/"Another Baby's Face," in 1980. However, 23 Skidoo's true vision would not reveal itself until the release of their second single, "The Gospel Comes To New Guinea." Recorded at Cabaret Voltaire's Western Works studio and co-produced by Throbbing Gristle's Genesis P-Orridge, who shared the group's interest in using tape loops, metallic noise, and electronics to expose the hollow core of post-industrial society, the song utilized urban funk and ethnological sounds to reveal 23 Skidoo's views toward Western cultural complacency. Because of such anti-imperialist sentiments and their non-traditional musical techniques, some said that 23 Skidoo sprang from the avant-garde margin. However, the group members themselves never viewed their methods as intellectual. "Although we do have arguments, and very strong ideas about what we want the music to sound like, we do avoid trying to be 'clever' about what we do," Alex Turnbull told Stubbs.
Around this time, 23 Skidoo also began to gain recognition for their infamous live act. "We were so aggressive because we really wanted to antagonize people who came to see us, to make them think about what they were doing," said Johnny Turnbull, as quoted by Stubbs. "We'd try and unhinge them by the performance we did." Playing a different set at each gig and swapping instruments constantly while on stage, the group created an atmosphere of turmoil. Siren blasts of trumpet, funk guitar, industrial bass, and manic percussion instruments blared in a fury under a haze of smoke and projected images. At one point in the band's history, 23 Skidoo quit using regular instruments altogether. Instead, they simply used percussion instruments made from scrap metal. "It wasn't entertaining," wrote Stubbs about one particular show in Oxford in 1982, "it was irradiating. It was frightening. It was magnificent." With maturity, however, the group now tends to disassociate themselves from their youthful rage. "Part of that sound reflected the age we were, in our late teens," recalled Johnny Turnbull.
23 Skidoo fully showcased their ability to produce feelings of both promise and threat with their 1981 debut LP, Seven Songs. Offering tracks like the thrashing "Kundalini," the funk-inspired "Vegas El Bandito," and the decaying "Mary's Operation," the group simultaneously enticed the listener with new musical sounds and hinted at a disastrous future for the world. Like Joy Division and others, 23 Skidoo played upon the sense of terror cast upon the West during the Cold War era. Their next record, however, faltered by comparison, though it did contain the disturbing yet beguiling track "Just Like Everybody." The EP Tearing Up The Plans, released in 1982, was recorded in the absence of the Turnbull brothers, who had traveled to Indonesia in search of musical inspiration.
Upon the Turnbull's return to London, 23 Skidoo initiated a new phase in their career. Pushing out the nominal members of the grouphich at that time included guitarist Sam Mills and vocalist Tom Heslophe core members enlisted longtime bassist Sketch, formerly of the group Linx. Immediately intrigued by 23 Skidoo's open-ended approach to making music, Sketch teamed up with the Turnbulls and Catlin in 1983 after he appeared with them on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) youth television show Riverside. That same year, the quartet released the 12-inch single "Coup," an infectiously funky song that again contained suggestions of calamity. The song was also featured on their second album, The Culling Is Coming released in 1983. Here, 23 Skidoo made an explicit attempt to illustrate their duality. Side one was comprised of heated live performances, while the more ordered and orchestrated side two revealed the influences of the Turnbull's excursions in Southeast Asia.
However, The Culling Is Coming and its speedy 1984 follow-up, Urban Gamelan, confused many critics and fans, who by now expected industrial music to always sound as loud and chaotic as emerging groups like Einstürzende Neubauten or Test Dept. Although 23 Skidoo more or less dissolved the band in 1984, they continued to record sporadically throughout the rest of the decade. Working from their own Precinct 23 studio in North London, the members of 23 Skidoo ran their own label, Ronin, which opened its doors in 1989. While 23 Skidoo did not release any new material during the 1990s, they nurtured the hip-hop scene in Great Britain through their Ronin imprint by signing groups like Roots Manuva, Deckwrecka, Skitz, and Rodney P, and recorded tracks for advertisers such as Nike, Wrangler, and Smirnoff. And with their reputation as top-notch producers preceding them, 23 Skidoo remixed tracks for artists including Stevie Wonder, Seal, Ice T, and Public Enemy.
Finally, after signing an agreement with Virgin Records, 23 Skidoo returned with a new, self-titled album in 2000. It was, in effect, evidence that 23 Skidoo had not been forgotten. A classic-sounding and surprisingly cohesive album considering the group's gestation period, 23 Skidoo combined funk, wayward jazz, and ambient and industrial textures. Rather than settling upon a single style, the record included examples of free-form dub ("Interzonal") and urban gamelan ("Kendang"). It also contained a song featuring legendary jazz saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders entitled "Dawning," which received a fair amount of radio play. Dubbed "A true original from the true originals" by Martin James of Playlouder, 23 Skidoo also prompted a renewed interest in the group's past records. Thus, Ronin plans to reissue the entire 23 Skidoo back catalog beginning in 2001.
Singles and EPs
"Ethics. T Another Baby's Face" (7-inch single), Pineapple Products, 1980.
"The Gospel Comes To New Guinea" (12-inch single), Fetish, 1981.
"Just Like Everybody," Bleeding Chin, 1982.
Tearing Up The Plans (EP), Fetish, 1982.
"Coup" (12-inch single), Illuminated, 1983.
"Language" (12-inch single), Illuminated, 1984.
Seven Songs, Fetish, 1981.
The Culling Is Coming, Crepuscle, 1983.
Urban Gamelan, Illuminated, 1984.
23 Skidoo, Ronin/Virgin, 2000.
Wire, July 2000.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 22, 2000).
iCrunch, http://www.icrunch.com (December 22, 2000).
The Daily Page, http://www.thedailypage.com (December 22, 2000).
Playlouder, http://www.playlouder.com (December 22, 2000).
The Raft: 23 Skidoo, (December 22, 2000).