Cabaret Voltaire: Nag Nag Nag
hen my friend Pete and I were in high school, one of the things that brought us together was a love of truly obnoxious music. I still remember many a glorious summer night spent mostly in front of the local New Orleans Pizza eating slices out by the van Pete’s parents would usually let us borrow, “With Portfolio” or “Ventolin” cranked to max until we saw the cops coming around the corner, at which point we’d ease the dial back out of the red. They always looked at us suspiciously, but we were good kids (hell, we were nerds), and while we were probably violating some noise ordinance, nothing more untoward was happening. Or maybe Pete would be working that night as a pizza delivery guy for one of the other places in town, in which case we’d be running the van through dark neighbourhoods and the occasional trailer park or nuclear power plant (just for variety) in our quest to deliver hot ‘za. But again: Music blaring, and often causing people to swear in our general direction.
Now, we weren’t blasting Mogwai just to piss off passersby (although that was part of it, yes—we were adolescents, after all); we genuinely got a charge out of all that noise. Although the years since have introduced both of us to new vistas of music our parents hate (it pains me that it took so long for Pete to finally listen to “Cop Shoot Cop”, for example), my love for noise as an aesthetic, as an end onto itself dates from that period. I’ll be the first to admit that my tastes in that area aren’t as extreme as others, but a band like Flying Saucer Attack or The Radio Dept. will nearly always get my approval. “With Portfolio” may have caused most of the guys I knew in high school to dub it “not music”, but I did and do love the way the simple piano phases into that massive staticky roar that goes speaker to speaker.
One thing Pete and I didn’t have, though, was a grasp of the classics. I wouldn’t even hear of the Jesus And Mary Chain until late high school, for example. We had Godspeed You Black Emperor!, not Glenn Branca. That sort of thing. And even then, it wasn’t just noise we loved—it was annoyance: Songs we could love that sent most of our contemporaries running for the hills. If there was something great about sheets of noise, it was gravy to have others give you odd looks for enjoying it. It was only after I left high school and my home town that I found the ur Annoying Song, at least by our formulation of the term: Cabaret Voltaire’s “Nag Nag Nag”.
I mean, listen to it. The whole thing is shrouded in a thick digital detritus, there’s a primitivist drum machine that every so often breaks into a maddeningly happy but oh-so-crucial breakdown, and the synthesizers in the back only serve to amplify parts of the static. The singer sounds like a jerk, and most of what he says is unintelligible, except the chorus, which is just the title a few times. Not only was it messy and primitive and, well, nagging, it advertised the fact! Could it be any more perfect?
I honestly can’t remember if I followed through on the impulse, but my first reaction was that I needed to call up Pete, crank up my speakers and play him this song. It married our love for noise with our then-new appreciation of electronic music (I still credit Pete with getting me into Amon Tobin and Squarepusher, among others), and it was malicious to boot. A few years later when I finally picked up Cabaret Voltaire’s fine The Original Sound Of Sheffield 78/82 compilation my suspicions were confirmed: Here was a ban of pure shit disturbers, who made music they loved but tried to piss everyone else off at the same time. “Nag Nag Nag” is a great song on strictly sonic merits, sure, but it’s also the musical equivalent of suspecting a pail of water above a door left ajar.
There are antecedents to the Cabs’ sound, Suicide for one, but they all were off just slightly. They were noisy, but not aggressive in the same way. Or they were as off-putting to others, but they lacked the sense of humour or dynamism that “Nag Nag Nag” has. And nothing else has that happy little drum machine. Although I still hang out with Pete as often as possible, it doesn’t tend to be back home – we’re rarely in town at the same time. Next time we are, look for us out in front of the pizza place at two in the morning. You can guess what we’ll be blasting, scaring away a whole new generation of annoying high school kids.