The origins of 23 Skidoo lie in a punk-inspired schoolboy trio formed in North London in 1979. Their chosen name, 23 Skidoo, was borrowed from the experimental Illuminati trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, although the American slang phrase is much older and also features in the work of William S. Burroughs and Aleister Crowley, translating loosely as move it, or get out while the going is good. This same philosophy - cut, run and confound - would become a guiding principle for this extraordinary and highly influential group. By 1980, 23 Skidoo were a quartet, comprising Fritz Catlin on drums, Sam Mills on guitar, Johnny Turnbull on guitar and Patrick Griffiths on bass.
After local gigs in North London, including several art colleges and the Scala Cinema, the group recorded their first single in October 1980, coupling Ethics with Another Baby's Face. The session was financed and produced by Mark Bedford of Madness, who Skidoo had supported at the Dublin Castle in Camden, and released on 7“ by Pineapple Records, a small indie set up by Nigel Wilkinson and Dave Henderson. As well as being the band's driver-cum-manager, Wilkinson was one of the owners of the Honky Tonk record shop in Kentish Town where Fritz worked, and Skidoo rehearsed. Ethics was recorded as a four-piece by Sam, Fritz, Johnny and Patrick, although the group shortly afterwards expanded into a sextet, joined by Alex Turnbull (percussion, drums and bass) and Tom Heslop on vocals, electronics and saxophone.
This meant that by the time the single appeared in February 1981, the scratchy punk-funk on offer was already unrepresentative, as Chris Bohn noted in the NME: 'Does scant justice to the more confidently aggressive edgy funk that 23 Skidoo make now� But Another Baby's Face is a better hint of what they're doing today: an angry stomp/hot dance beat wittily curdled by a slyly cool voice. For their debut Fetish single, Skidoo recorded one of their most funky and commercial songs, Last Words, the lyric of which referenced Burroughs. Tom Heslop admitted: 'Certainly I read a lot of William Burroughs, and we've played with the cut-up thing. Oh yeah, it works. It always comes out with some meaning, even if it's a bit strange.
' No less impressive was the flipside, The Gospel Comes To New Guinea, the dark, brooding ten minute instrumental which opened live sets, with Fritz on bass, Alex on drums, Sam on guitar and Johnny on percussion. The track also featured a cassette loop of the band chanting a Chinese phrase and Johnny playing clarinet. Both tracks were recorded in July at Western Works, the Sheffield studio owned by Cabaret Voltaire, and produced by the band together with Stephen Mallinder and Ken Thomas, the latter a Fetish regular who would go on to produce the Sugarcubes and Sigur Ros. Mallinder recalls: 'Cabaret Voltaire played quite a few shows with Skidoo and I'd personally gotten to know them well through Neville Brody and the TG collective prior to my going into the studio with them and Ken Thomas.
They were capturing that moment better than any other band, a real collision of modern and tribal that somehow worked more effectively in the pre-digital period, more organic, everything cutting and folding, made for the 12 inch format. Everyone was breaking the anchors of analogue, using instruments and studio equipment pretty loosely, but they were very focused on what elements worked and what they wanted. It was a full contingent with pretty fluid roles for everyone. Ken was perfect for getting that across with structure but without diluting that live dynamic. I just remember they were always long sessions over a few days, much fun with brief breaks for a bit of sleep and breakfasts back at my old gothic house that seemed as anarchically organized as the studio sessions.
' In September 1981 the fast-rising group appeared at the Futurama 3 festival in Stafford, supported Cabaret Voltaire at North London Poly on the 25th, and played two nights with Defunkt at The Venue the following month. The middle of the month saw Skidoo record an impressive session for John Peel, comprising Retain Control, Macaw Gungah, View From Here and Four Note Bass, with only the last subsequently appearing on record (as Porno Base). September also saw the release of Last Words, the extended 12” also joined by a promotional 7” edit, featuring a dub version on the flip. Most seized on the tight-but-loose funk of Last Words, although reviewing the single as a whole in the NME, Paul Morley wrote presciently: '17 minutes of dense rhythms and insolent effect - interested partners looking to fit 23 Skidoo in with the more theatrical images of funk will not have much of a poetically pleasant time.
' At the end of November Skidoo entered Jacob's Studio in Farnham to record a new EP. The result was the seminal Seven Songs, which expanded to become a mini album with the addition of several spontaneous, experimental tracks. The cryptic production credit for 'Tony, Terry and David' disguised the identities of Genesis P-Orridge, Peter Christopherson and Ken Thomas, the humorous pseudonym being adopted to play down associations with TG. The eight tracks were recorded over three days, and like Skidoo live shows were half funk (IY, Vegas El Bandito and Kundalini) and half experimental, featuring thumb piano and pygmy pipe on Martin Denny pastiche Quiet Pillage, a lock groove, and within Porno Base the refined voice of Diana Mitford, decrying the pernicious influence of pop music.
Seven Songs still sounds contemporary today, combining grooves, industrial ambiance, metallic noise, fluid percussion, and anticipating world music and sample culture. Every bit as trailblazing as the scholarly My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, it was also a lot more fun. Immediately after the recording, Alex and Johnny left to travel in the Far East for three months. Still as 23 Skidoo, the remaining three members performed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) on 3 January 1982 along with Dislocation Dance and former Pop Group man Mark Springer, extracts from which were broadcast on Capital Radio. On 26 and 27 January the same 'reduced personnel' trio of Fritz, Sam and Tom also recorded an aleatory EP with P-Orridge, Christopherson and Thomas again producing.
With guitar and bass entirely absent, it was even more experimental than Seven Songs, joujouka and Gregorian chant were combined on Gregouka, while Just Like Everybody, a collaboration with Tim Soar, featured a cut-up tape of CIA operative Frank Turpel. The 12” was eventually released as Tearing Up The Plans in June. A variably energetic and stimulating addition to that collection of perceptions, hallucinations and associations brought into play by Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and A Certain Ratio. It tears away deceptive dramatic or sentimental gloss and mixes a neutral type of documentary candour with thrilling regenerative abstraction.
It's candid, obstinate, intimate, incomplete, uncommon... rather solitary. Very appropriate. Intoxicating. By April a VHS video version of Seven Songs was available from Fetish, packaged in a plastic bag which also included a boiled sweet, elastoplast and a colored condom. The clips were shot and edited by Richard Heslop, who also provided Skidoo's live visuals, generated by three slide projectors and one 8mm film. As the matt textures of post-punk gave way to the gloss finish of new pop, groups such as Cabaret Voltaire, the revamped Clock DVA and even Psychic TV began to step cautiously towards the mainstream, streamlining their music and membership, and signing deals with major labels.
In stark contrast, 23 Skidoo abandoned the commercial zone entirely, the core trio of Alex, Johnny and Fritz now embracing tape effects, cut-ups, and a form of gamelan performed on conventional percussion and scrap metal. Gamelan is a ceremonial style in which light yet insistent percussion forms a rhythmic base, to which chiming melodies by gongs and bells are added. Adding their own slant, Skidoo came up with the concept of 'urban' gamelan. 'Real Gamelan instruments are made from bronze and wood and elaborately carved,' explained Johnny, 'which makes them very expensive, so we've had to make our own. Hence the cylinders.
It's very attractive as an idea, simply because it's an available source of music.' Having seen the Balinese Gamelan Ensemble perform at WOMAD in July, Skidoo arranged a recording session using authentic gamelan instruments at Dartington College on 22 and 23 October. Alex Turnbull recalls of the session: 'It shows the other, meditative side of Skidoo... We traveled down to Devon for the weekend with a mobile eight-track studio, and spent the next three days and nights improvising and recording rhythms, which were later taken to Jacobs Studio to edit and mix with Ken Thomas.
' The featured instruments included gamelan and kendang drums, gongs and bamboo flutes. Paired with a recording of the WOMAD performance, the Dartington sessions then became side two of the second (and secondary) 23 Skidoo album, The Culling Is Coming. Culling was released on 4 February 1983, initially on Operation Twilight, the label run Patrick Moore (aka writer Philip Hoare) and allied to Crepuscule in Belgium. Crepuscule also released the album in Europe, albeit in a less extravagant pantone sleeve. Both sides lasted 23 minutes, and side one included a stylus-hostile lock groove midway. Listeners tended to react in much the same way as the original audience at WOMAD. For the remainder of 1983, Skidoo activity was restricted to occasional gigs at home and abroad.
During 1981 Catlin had begun performing with Last Few Days, a deliberately esoteric collective centred around Daniel Landin, Kier Fraser and Si Joyce. LFD avoided making records, and instead performed infrequent concerts featuring megaphones, tape loops and hard sonic barrages. Another early LFD contributor was none other than Sam Mills. In April 1983 LFD and 23 Skidoo were invited by Laibach to play at Zagreb's prestigious new music Biennale. Skidoo also performed with at the Tone und Gegentone festival in Vienna in May. LFD returned to Europe for a lengthy tour with Laibach at the end of the year, recordings from which were later edited into the album Pure Spit & Saliva.
On this tour Catlin also performed with Laibach, and played drums on the recordings that formed their first single. Catlin also collaborated on the first Current 93 release, and in 1986 performed again with Laibach behind choreographer Michael Clark for his show No Fire Escape in Hell, staged in London, Brighton and Los Angeles. The move towards more commercial music outlined to Sketch bore fruit in February 1984 with the release of Coup, a tight dance version of a track that had been around for some time in various forms, including Coup In the Palace and GI Fuck You. This outstanding funk single featured a classic bassline from Sketch, and horns courtesy of Aswad.
'It's certainly more accessible,' Johnny told Sean O'Hagan of NME, 'but we've always allowed ourselves the space to do what we want, absorb what we need and move about in different directions. It was always part of the plan to confound the audience's expectations, and part of that requires that you question your own popularity. That's exactly what we did after Seven Songs... If we'd released Coup after Seven Songs then the story of 23 Skidoo would be very different. We have always put ourselves in a position where we don't make a lot of money.' In July Skidoo followed Coup with Language, the track co-created with Sketch Martin, and featuring co-producer Simon Boswell on glass piano. The a-side version had been recorded the previous year, but never quite completed, and it's the longer dub version on the flipside that works best.
During this period 23 Skidoo did not play live, and instead the core trio practiced chops of a different kind through extensive martial arts training. 'We could do a whole new interview about Bruce Lee,' revealed Johnny. 'He was the greatest, the last of the warriors. You should mention the importance of Jeet Kune Do - that's his fighting system and philosophy. It's the idea that you just use what works for you at any given time, which is what we are doing.' The album Urban Gamelan was finally released by Illuminated in August 1984. Perversely, the singles were omitted, with Coup appearing in radically different form as GI Fuck You, and Language in sparse percussive form.
Although eagerly anticipated by many, the album was less accessible that either of the 45´s. The group re-released their back catalogue on CD through the Ronin label in 2001 and 2002. Unfortunately Ronin subsequently ceased trading, and these first CD reissues were soon unavailable. Nevertheless, Skidoo's critical reputation continued to grow, buoyed by appearances on landmark compilations such as Andrew Weatherall's 9 O'Clock Drop (2000) and Soul Jazz collection In The Beginning There Was Rhythm (2001), and high praise in Simon Reynolds 2005 book Rip It Up and Start Again. These new expanded CD editions remind us again of the unique achievements of the utterly fearless 23 Skidoo. Extracts taken from the biography written by James Nice. ()