In the early-80s an enigmatic outfit comprised of studio boffins, one real musician and a gobby cultural agitator combined mysterious philosophical meaningfulness with a lush, avant-garde and utterly artificial sound that predicted the future. Who’s afraid of the Art of Noise? Madonna and Sean Penn, possibly. But not Andrew Harrison…
The drums sounded like cannons. It’s late-1982/early-1983 and one of the least likely collaborations in musical history – resurrected prog rock behemoths Yes plus Ballardian bubblegum pop act The Buggles – is about to bear strange fruit. Producer and former Buggle Trevor Horn and his team are trying to get the drums right for an electronically-inspired album that will relocate Yes from the muddy, organic 1970s to the fluorescent 1980s. They are about to create the signature sound of the new decade, a crunching, stomping, boom-boom-tak that will rival ‘Funky Drummer’ and ‘When the Levee Breaks’ as the engine room of hip hop and more. But they don’t know it yet.
“We were on like month eleven of this thing and we’d been in every studio across London,” recalls Gary Langan, then Horn’s engineer. “We’d got Alan White’s drums up on a riser in the middle of Air Studio One and they sounded just fantastic, biggest drum sound I’d ever done. And then we got to the end of this incredible session and they said: ‘Yeah, we’re going to scrap it’.”
Langan, agog, sneaked the drum tapes back to Horn’s Sarm Studios and his mate JJ Jeczalik, a non-musician who had become custodian of the studio’s latest, most expensive toy. The £18,000 Fairlight “computer music instrument” could ingest any sound and play it back across the complete scale. Horn’s team had already used it to reconstruct every note that ABC played into the machined perfection of their ‘Lexicon of Love’ album. But they’d often wondered what would happen if, instead of trying to emulate real instruments, they used it to warp, layer and abuse sounds – any sounds – in a modern spin on musique concrète, mid-century French composer Pierre Schaefer’s technique of building music from found noises.
They threw White’s bass and snare into the Fairlight and stretched it as far as they could, looping it by ear. The beats became distorted and crushed. Without noticing they’d sampled it on the wrong beat, boom-boom-tak becoming tak-boom-boom. “But it sounded spot on,” says Jeczalik. “I’ve redone it ‘properly’ since and it just doesn’t work.” Hours of modification and additions produced an unreal soundscape of beats, electronics… and the sound of a tennis match.
This was ‘Beat Box’ and the beginning of the Art of Noise, in which Langan, Jeczalik, Horn’s keyboard player and string arranger Anne Dudley, plus the NME journalist Paul Morley, would form a group without a face – and make music for the future from pieces of the past. Represented only by images of theatre masks or spanners, the Art of Noise were usefully anonymous: when ‘Beat Box’ made No.1 on the US Dance Charts, the (all-white) band won one American magazine’s award for Best Black Act of 1984. Another early track, the languorous 10-minute ‘Moments in Love’, would become a Balearic staple, a prototype for several chillout booms, and the soundtrack for Madonna’s wedding to Sean Penn.
Their real legacy is in the successive waves of dance music prefigured in their early sampladelic experiments. You can hear echoes of the Art Of Noise in The Chemical Brothers’ own block rocking beatbox, in Coldcut and The Avalanches’ cut-and-paste jamborees, in Aphex and Autechre’s breezeblock collisions, in all the lineages of big beat and ambient house – Boards Of Canada’s woozy beauty is pure ‘Moments in Love’. And dance music knows this. The ‘Hey!’ that’s sampled on The Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ comes from ‘Close (To the Edit)’ by the Art of Noise, ‘Beat Box’’s nimbler cousin. All five Art Of Noisers get a writing credit on this multimillion seller. Surely it makes them more money than the originals did? “But I can tell you,” says Anne Dudley, “it is divided up into really tiny portions…”
Some 40 years after Gary Langan and JJ Jeczalik created what is reputedly the first-ever looped break on a sampler, they’re talking (and, separately, to Anne Dudley) via another emergent technology with horribly low bit rate and potential for abuse: Zoom. Today the pair are basking in the satisfaction of finally playing two VJ-augmented Art Of Noise shows at London’s Jazz Café which were postponed – twice – during the pandemic. Because it was just the two of them, they had to go under the name Art Of Noise/Revision. The two rhapsodise over the quality of bass available to the modern live show.
“We could never have done this back in the 80s,” says Langan. “The Fairlight’s bandwidth was about the size of a KitKat – long, long and skinny. No bottom end and no top end either. Now you can really wallop it.”
Langan is geezerish and energetic, a Londoner from Wimbledon who started as a junior engineer at Sarm Studios in east London more or less straight from technical college. His father had been a musician who played on the BBC Light Programme at lunchtimes. “It was from hanging out with my dad that I knew what I wanted to be,” he says. “I wanted to be on the other side of the glass, in these things called recording studios.”
JJ Jeczalik has the dry wit and laid-back demeanour you might associate with, say, an I.T. teacher at a progressive private school. That’s because he used to be an I.T. teacher at a progressive private school, after leaving music in the 2010s. Back in the early-80s, he had fallen into Trevor Horn’s orbit almost by accident. When Horn’s fellow Buggle Geoff Downes bought a Fairlight with the royalties from ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, it fell to Jeczalik to work out what to do with it. “I just looked at this thing,” he says, “And thought, wow, this is it. This is the future.”
The real genesis of the Art of Noise was the string of gleaming, perfect pop albums that the Horn team – Gary, JJ, Anne Dudley, engineer-producer Steve Lipson and a select few others – created in and around Sarm Studios. For ABC’s ‘Lexicon of Love’ in 1982 they’d taken the then-radical step of using the Fairlight and drum machines to precision-engineer the tightest dance record then possible. But ‘Duck Rock’, the album they made with former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, took things even further.
McLaren had the notion of assembling a travelogue of ‘folk dances of the world’ and enlisted Horn and the team to realise it. What could have been a dry exercise in anthropology turned into an ecstatic celebration which introduced British daytime radio to Sowetan township music, African-American competitive rope-skipping (‘Double Dutch’ was an actual hit)… and the hip hop universe of pirate radio and scratching.
“Malcolm, for all that he was a scoundrel and completely hopeless musically, he just had an attitude of mind that anything goes,” says Anne Dudley. “He broadened all of our minds. Malcolm’s brain worked at about twice the speed of sound. You couldn’t keep up with him.”
Making it, however, was a nightmare. After days of structureless paralysis in New York, Jeczalik stumbled on a late-night radio show where DJs the World’s Famous Supreme Team would scratch, rap and throw out shouts over nascent hip hop records. “These guys were amazing,” he says, “and they paid for their slot by going pickpocketing on Times Square… I thought if we could approach Malcolm’s album like their radio show then it might make sense.”
Jeczalik recorded Se’Devine The Mastermind and Just Allah The Superstar straight off the speaker into his Walkman. They are the shouts that set ‘Duck Rock’ alight: ‘all that scratchin’ is makin’ me itch… too much of that snow white.’ Later in London, Horn and his team cut all the world music they’d collected – Tennessee hillbilly fiddling, Dominican merengue, South African chants – onto acetates for the World’s Famous Supreme Team to scratch, then fed the results into the Fairlight. Dressed in Keith Haring illustrations, ‘Duck Rock’ became many a young B-Boy and B-Girl’s introduction to hip hop – even if it was crossbred with square-dance.
But there were offcuts, bits of mangled sound that didn’t have a home. “Trevor would go: ‘Ah, yeah, that’s an interesting racket, sort it out eh Gary?’” Jeczalik recalls. “And eventually we get the opportunity to pull out all these bits and do our
Dudley describes hours of free-range exploration. “Gary’s an absolute studio animal,” she says, “Whatever we did, Gary would do something to it and it would sound better. And JJ would be the first to admit that he’s not a musician. So, they’d play about all night with these rhythm sounds, and they didn’t really have anything to put on top – and I was happy to be the musical element of it.”
One instance was an early obsession with an iconic sound of the 1980s, the Orchestra Stab. They had four stabs, repeated Philip Glass-style, but no clear direction. Then Paul Morley – who had joined Horn’s ZTT label as a sort of in-house PR man and provocateur – asked: “Why don’t you just call it ‘Moments in Love’?” That was what the four notes appeared to be saying.
“We thought: ‘Oh, that’s perfect,” says Dudley, “and it immediately inspired us to get back to it and develop it into this huge ten-minute thing.”
As well as selecting the fabulously pretentious quotes from Nietzsche, Baudrillard and Kierkegaard which adorned ZTT releases, Morley was also responsible for the band’s name, borrowed from a manifesto by the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo: The Art of Noises (Jeczalik suggested dropping the ‘s’)
“We thought this name is so good, we have to be good to live up to it,” says Dudley. “All our tracks used to have really, really boring titles, like ‘Ruler’ (from the noise made by a twanged school ruler) and other dreadful things. We needed Morley to give it this sheen of mysterious philosophical meaningfulness.”
Morley was also the one behind the tactic of anonymity, which the band loved. “I was doing a lot with Frankie Goes To Hollywood at the time and I saw their taxi bills,” says Jeczalik. “They were getting mobbed and we certainly didn’t want to be in the public eye. Then Morley goes: ‘Well, what about using this spanner for your photos instead?’ And that’s it. Perfect.”
“I was doing a lot with Frankie Goes To Hollywood at the time and I saw their taxi bills. They were getting mobbed and we certainly didn’t want to be in the public eye. Then Morley goes: ‘Well, what about using this spanner for your photos instead?’ And that’s it. Perfect.”
After their relationship with ZTT fell apart – “the deal was crap,” says Langan succinctly – the Art of Noise moved on to China Records where they had hits including the ‘Beat Box’-a-like ‘Legs’, and were among the first to spot the potential in resurrecting the careers of neglected pop institutions. First came the prince of rock’n’roll guitar twang Duane Eddy. “He was very nervous,” says Jeczalik. “He thought we were going to sample him and make him sound horrible. But then he saw our piles of old analogue gear and relaxed somewhat.”
Next came Tom Jones, then in the doldrums of Vegas cabaret, for whom they turned Prince’s stripped-down ‘Kiss’ into a booming worldwide hit. “We were in awe of him,” says Dudley, “but he was actually extraordinarily open to anything we wanted to do. He’d done a lot of country rock but his heart is in rock’n’roll, and he could see that ‘Kiss’ was just a great rock’n’roll song. And he just went for it.”
Bands are not designed to last forever. By the early-90s The Art of Noise had wound down. “There’s only so many instrumental tracks that you want to do, really,” says Dudley. “We just sort of ran out of steam.” Would she rejoin Langan and Jeczalik for this latest iteration of the Art of Noise? “Well, never say never,” she replies.
Langan and Jeczalik, on the other hand, are preparing for three 80s Rewind festivals over the summer with the Revision/VJ set and toying with releasing one of the medleys from the show as a download. “But the thing is,” says Jeczalik, “Gary and I were so bowled over by the dynamics and the depth of the live sound. Do we really want to compress that down for the interwebs?”
“I like the idea that it’s there and gone,” says Langan. “You have to be there the next time.”
So, there you go. The most dedicatedly artificial band in pop are now concentrating on the sanctity of the live experience. Where will it end? You can even see their faces these days.