23 Skidoo

The origins of 23 Skidoo lie in a punk-inspired schoolboy trio formed in North London in 1978. By 1980 the group had expanded into a quartet, with Fritz Catlin on drums, Sam Mills on guitar and vocals, Johnny Turnbull on guitar and Patrick Griffiths on bass. Their chosen name, 23 Skidoo, was appropriated from the experimental literature of William S. Burroughs, although the American slang phrase dates back to the 1920s, and translates loosely as 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.

After local gigs in North London, including several art colleges and the Scala Cinema, in October 1980 the group recorded their first single, coupling Ethics with Another Baby’s Face. The session was financed and produced by Mark Bedford of Madness, who had seen the group perform at the Dublin Castle in Camden, and released on 7” by Pineapple Records, a small indie set up by Nigel Wilkinson, one of the owners of the Honky Tonk record shop in Kentish Town where Fritz then worked, and also the band’s driver-sum-manager. The single was recorded as a four-piece by Sam, Fritz, Johnny and Patrick, although shortly afterwards expanded into a sextet, joined by Alex Turnbull (percussion and trumpet) and Tom Heslop on vocals, electronics and saxophone.

These developments meant that by the time the single appeared in February 1981, the brand of energetic 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.’

Indeed the expanded Skidoo were coming on in leaps and bounds, their influences now ranging from ACR, Parliament and Rebop Kwaku Baah to Can, Eno and Fela Kuti. Sponsored by Colin Faver of London promoters Final Solution, the precocious sextet played several high-profile shows, including the University of London Union with The Associates, The Sound and Repetition on 30 January 1981, and at North London Polytechnic with A Certain Ratio and Bush Tetras on 27 March. Reviewing the landmark North London Poly show for Sounds, Terry Senai noted: ‘Since last year, 23 Skidoo have plunged forward. They’re no longer painfully embarrassed, they’ve overcome their diffidence with a surly curtness, and then stumble off stage touchingly incredulous at their substantial applause.’

In the NME, Paul Tickell wrote: ‘Slideshows are usually more a distraction than a reinforcement of what a band is all about, This isn’t the case with 23 Skidoo, who have images projected behind them in choosy, clear series of three. The flow flickers in a primitivist direction, but it’s far from the dubious bleached ethnicity which the Pop Group or the Slits might inject into a slideshow if they had one… The ‘jungle’ roots to the music are similarly mediated rather than immediate. The wall of sound is delicate and calculated; the drama in Tom Heslop’s voice is kept low-key, just as drums, percussion, guitars, bass and tapes never let excitement become mere exoticism. Of course, there’s always the danger that this kind of balancing act might end up as the cerebral funkster’s version of psychedelia (“acid test” was a recurring phrase during one number!). Maybe the band even want to be a new, boho, self-congratulatory s(l)ideshow… And, bugger me, if this isn’t where A Certain Ratio already are.’

As well as enthusiastic reviews, the North London Poly show also earned them their first major feature, written by Paul Morley and published in NME in April. The developing buzz around the group also spurred Sounds to award Ethics belated praise as a Single of the Week. Even at this early stage, however, Skidoo were wary of fleeting hip credibility. ‘We’ve been dumped in with the funk thing,’ Fritz told Pacemaker fanzine in May. ‘We really like funk music, but there’s a lot of other things there. We’ve radically changed since the old single, though I don’t think it’s bad for what it is. Maybe it will all fall through in three months. You know, we’ll have the 23 Skidoo backlash. I don’t think, with the music we’re playing, we’re ever going to get really big audiences anyway.’

Most early press interviews were conducted by Fritz, Tom and Sam, with the Turnbull brothers notable by their absence. This was unusual, not least because Johnny and Alex were of Singapore-Chinese descent, and their ethnicity was one of several factors which underlined Skidoo’s essential otherness. Indeed the brothers came from a creative background (their father William Turnbull and mother Kim Lim were both highly regarded visual artists), and in the late 1970s both were teenage skateboard stars, with Alex winning the UK championship title in 197?. However, none of these background details were aired in the press, or in Skidoo publicity.

On 13 June 1981 the group supported Defunkt at The Venue, and despite appearing unbilled impressed Rod Pearce of Fetish Records sufficiently to offer to record the group. By happy coincidence, Tom Heslop had also shared a squat with Fetish design director Neville Brody. Established in 1980 and run from Pearce’s flat at Denbigh Street, Maida Vale, Fetish had commenced operations with a series of New York funk and no wave releases by Snatch, Bush Tetras, 8 Eyed Spy and the Bongos, before recording a raft of leading British ‘industrial’ experimentalists, including Clock DVA, Throbbing Gristle and Steven Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire. Indeed over the next few months half the Fetish UK roster would be impressed to assist in recording new boys 23 Skidoo.

For their debut single, Skidoo recorded one of their most funky and commercial song, Last Words, the lyric of which was another Burroughs reference. Tom Heslop revealed: ‘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 that opened live sets, with Fritz on bass. Patrick Griffiths having departed prior to recording, Johnny Turnbull played his bassline on Last Words, although by now there were no fixed instrumental roles within the group. Both tracks were recorded on ? July at Western Works, the basic Sheffield studio owned by Cabaret Voltaire, and produced by the band together with Stephen Mallinder and Ken Thomas, the latter an enthusiastic Fetish regular who would go on to produce the Sugarcubes and Sigur Ros.

Fetish perhaps imagined that they had signed a more edgy version of Funkapolitan, Stimulin or even Haircut 100, but in fact Skidoo shared more in common with the avant-garde wing of the Fetish roster. Throbbing Gristle provided rehearsal space at 10 Martello Street in Hackney, and Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson would replace Mallinder as their co-producers. TG soundman Daniel Landin (aka Stan Bingo) also introduced the band to a variety of FX, erase head and tape loop techniques. Live, the band avoided regular rock clubs as the Rock Garden, Marquee and Moonlight Club, preferring instead alternative venues such as the Action Space in Kentish Town, where they performed with This Heat on 17 July, and again with Family Fodder on 11 September. Skidoo also shared a bill with Biting Tongues at the WAG Club on 19 August. Johnny Turnbull: ‘We were careful to avoid the ‘white funk’ thing, but then we’d play a gig half funk and half completely unconventional. People would come and look at the person in front of them, because no-one was really sure why they were there.’

In September 1981 the group began to break through, appearing at the Futurama 3 festival in Stafford, and supporting Cabaret Voltaire at North London Poly on the 25th. The middle of the month saw them record an excellent session for John Peel, comprising Retain Control, Macaw Gungah, View From Here and Four Note Bass, with none of the four tracks subsequently appearing on record. 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 the a-side, 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.’

Johnny Turnbull confirmed in Blast magazine: ‘We tend now to think of The Gospel as our first single, because Alex wasn’t even in the group before that. It was the first record that meant anything to us, and gave us the impetus to explore non-musical mediums, like using films. Everything was a process of experience, and although we didn’t know what we wanted to do, we did know what we didn’t want, which was to play conventional songs.’

At the end of November Skidoo recorded the mini album Seven Songs at Jacob’s Studio in Farnham, with Ken Thomas engineering, and where Clock DVA, Tuxedomoon and Malaria! also cut albums. The cryptic production credit for ‘Tony, Terry and David’ disguised Genesis P-Orridge, Peter Christopherson and Ken Thomas, the humorous pseudonym being adopted to play down associations with TG. The eight (rather than seven) tracks were recorded over two? days, and like Skidoo live shows were half funk (IY, Vegas El Bandito) and half experimental, featuring ? on Quiet Pillage and within Porno Base the refined voice of Diana Mitford, decrying the pernicious influence of pop music. A knockabout outtake version of the theme from Hawaii 5-0 was later released on a Fetish compilation, The Last Testament. Seven Songs still sounds contemporary today, combining grooves and sample culture, metallic noise and industrial ambiance, elements of world and fusion, a political consciousness, and was every bit as trailblazing as My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.

Johnny Turnbull later told Blast magazine: ‘At the time we were trying to get into Eastern African rhythms and the album seemed a good blend of what was happening at that time. We tend to all work on things separately and then fuse them together. Our approach tends to change frequently, but we have a concrete agreement that we don’t want to be conventional musicians. To me, each time you make a record you make a statement, and it angers me that people can make that same statement over and over again. I think that’s why we try to make every record different.’’

Alex added: ‘Actually it surprised us that it was taken up by so many people. When we recorded Last Words we thought that it might become popular, but with Seven Songs it was much more a case of us thinking, “Well, fuck everybody, we’ll do what we want to do”. It just so happened that there were two or three pieces on the album that were relatively catchy.’

Following the recording of Seven Songs, Alex and Johnny left to travel in the Far East for six 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 extended, aleatory EP at [regents park studio]?, with P-Orridge, Christopherson and Thomas again producing. Even more experimental than Seven Songs, joujouka and Gregorian chant were now added to the sonic palette, guitar and bass entirely absent, while stand-out track Just Like Everybody featured a cut-up tape of CIA operative Frank Turpel. Eventually released on 12” as Tearing Up The Plans in June, both Fetish and Pineapple shared credited as the label.

Released at the beginning of February 1982, Seven Songs retailed at £2.99. It debuted at #20 on the NME independent charts at the end of the month, rising to #14 the following week, and #2 by mid-March, held off the top spot by Pigbag’s Dr Heckle & Mr Jive, and just above Sextet, the second album by A Certain Ratio. Reviews were ecstatic, with Paul Morley of NME describing it as ‘one of the most exciting records I’ve heard since Unknown Pleasures… 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.’

If such stellar post-punk associations were becoming slightly passé by early 1982, Morley also offered that Skidoo ‘represents as cunningly and as convincingly as anyone from ABC through to the Associates through to Heaven 17 how the original excitement and liveliness of pop has decayed and how a completely new range of incitement, insightfulness and enjoyment is being introduced. They have performed a sharp and salutary cauterising operation on corrupt forms, believing that a fresh start can be made. 23 Skidoo give voice to new and active thoughts.’

This unexpected success meant that the Turnbull brothers were hurriedly recalled from Singapore, and live dates by the full band hastily arranged. The first was a bill with the Au Pairs at North London Poly on 22 February, followed by dates in Eindhoven (Holland) and Berlin early in March. Back in the UK, and at the top of the independent charts, on 12 and 13 March the group played dates in Glasgow and Edinburgh with the Virgin Prunes. Profiling the band for Melody Maker from Edinburgh, Adam Sweeting wrote that ‘Primed by a day of Fela Kuti and William Burroughs, Skidoo played a menacing set to an appreciative audience. Their slide show shoulders all the subversion, flicking super speed images of the band’s recent bombed-out arrest for graffiti-ing the Berlin wall. But beneath all this anti-theory, Skidoo thrive on making a great bloody row.’

By April a VHS video version of Seven Songs was available from Fetish, priced at £15 and packaged in a plastic bag which also included a boiled sweet, elastoplast and a coloured 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. ‘The films are really important,’ Alex explained to NME. ‘For a start, there’s not very much light when we play, which we like ‘cos we’re not very extrovert performers, we don’t tend to bounce around onstage. At one point we were using four carousels and two 8mm, which was crazy. Sometimes we try to get the images projected round the back and sides, and sometimes we hang bits of material from the ceiling to catch part of the light. The relationship of the slides to the music is now evolving at the same pace as the music itself. Richard interprets what we’re playing, but we’re trying to make the two things even more closely related, because, unless it’s worked out beforehand, it’s not always possible to et the slides where you want them.’

‘It works in a couple of ways,’ revealed Richard Heslop. ‘One is the movement of the films in rhythm with the music, and the other is the specific content of each piece of film. Like Kundalini on the video is just about energy and sexual energy, to do with movement and colour. The films are basically composed of cut-ups of TV programmes and so on. I’m at St Martin’s film school anyway, so I can use their facilities. The 8mm films I’ve been shooting are just looking at rituals of society… There’s obviously a lot of chance involved, which is good, ‘cos one slide can give a song a totally different shade of meaning.’

Skidoo headlined at London University Union on 14 May, and at the newly-opened Hacienda club in Manchester on the 29th. In an NME interview with Barney Hoskyns, Alex explained that the success of Seven Songs had taken the band by surprise. ‘Definitely. When Fetish wired Johnny and me to come back from Singapore ‘coz the album had gone in at number one, we thought Rod was winding us up. I think it’s because a lot of people thought we were like ABC or Stimulin, or a funky dance band like Pigbag, and then bought the record to find that wasn’t really so… From the reaction we had to The Gospel Comes To New Guinea, people tended to just review Last Words and not mention the rest of it. I think lots of people do come to our gigs who only want to hear the ‘funky’ ones… To be quite honest, I don’t think we’ve ever really been a dance band’

‘But I think it’s better,’ continued Johnny, ‘playing to a closed-minded audience rather than a cliquey sort of one, which makes you feel like you’re preaching to the converted. If you’ve got an image of being some kind of ‘weird’ band, you’re only gonna attract the sort of audience that accepts everything you do. If you can get a single into the charts… you might get the occasional person who [buys] an album which is gonna surprise him.’

While dismissing New Pop as ‘just so much bullshit’, and spurning overtures from labels such as Island and EMI?, the Turnbull brothers did not discount making a pop record. ‘It would have to be a one-off,’ explained Alex. ‘It would be hard to come up with something commercially feasible… And I think there’s a danger in making a real lot of money. There are so many bands who mind what people say about them because they’re so anxious to get famous and make money. So many bands find a formula ad then don’t let go of it in case they lose their audience. We’re fortunate in that we don’t all have to live off the band, so we don’t have to think of it as a commercial proposition.’

Reviewing the show at Sheffield Victoria Hotel on 11 June for Melody Maker, Frank Worrell observed with complete accuracy: ‘23 Skidoo have come a remarkably long way in a remarkably short time. I’m not making a claim for them as potential messiahs (the mini album was too patchy for that), but clearly Skidoo are attempting and gradually working their way towards an alternative music… Skidoo provoke, invoke and soak their audiences with provocative ideas. Yes, Skidoo are worthy pioneers.’

To some, Skidoo’s next move seemed more random than radical. On 16 June the group headlined a prestige London show at The Venue, with support from Mark Springer and Palais Shaumberg. Shortly before going onstage, Sam Mills and Tom Heslop were dismissed from the band, though to their great credit both still performed that night, and again at a final booking in Leicester. For Fritz and the Turnbull brothers, it truly was a case of 23 Skidoo, and Tearing up the Plans – ironically enough, the title of the new Skidoo EP just released on 12”, and featuring the ‘reduced personnel’ of Fritz, Sam and Tom six months earlier. Fetish, among many others, were wholly perplexed. Challenging audiences and spurning major label deals was subversive enough, but sacking the guitarist and singer appeared frankly perverse.

Sam Mills recalls: ‘Tensions had been building since the European dates in March. I didn’t take to the increasing rejection of structure so easily, and was becoming a bit of a Brian Jones figure. Being told that we were no longer required was a shock, but it was a relief too. I already had a place at LSE to read anthropology, so I went on to do that, and continued playing music with other people.’

The departure of Sam and Tom was not reported in the press, and shortly afterwards the group were announced as a late addition to the polycultural WOMAD festival, held at Shepton Mallet in Somerset in July, organized by Peter Gabriel and others as a celebration of world music, arts and dance. As well as orthodox rock acts such as Echo & the Bunnymen and Simple Minds, the festival also offered a wealth of world music, including the Drummers of Burundi and the Balinese Gamelan Ensemble. For their set on 17 July, Skidoo elected to perform a ritual to ‘banish’ their previous incarnation as hip press darlings, and were even joined by David Tibet of Psychic TV on thigh bone trumpet.

Alex Turnbull recalls: ‘Skidoo elected not to use traditional instruments, but instead to improvise a performance with instruments made of scrap metal and tape loops – at this time, literally looped sections of tape. The ritual of banishing, invocation and healing mirrored the changes that had occurred within the group. Indeed this cycle of renewal is something very basic to the concept of 23 Skidoo. At 11 am on a sunny summer morning Skidoo - heads shaven, faces camouflaged – took to the stage. The bleary-eyed festival crowd, expecting a trendy funk band, were greeted by a wall of noise. Some fled, but those that remained witnessed Skidoo at their most confrontational.’

While expectations were shattered, Skidoo’s radical mid-morning gesture was missed by the music weeklies, and thus passed unreported at the time. Oddly Sam Mills was in the audience, and judged the performance very good. Just twelve months on from the recording of Last Words, 23 Skidoo had delivered their most unambiguous public rejection of mainstream commercial concerns. This annoyed Rod Pearce, and Fetish closed down soon after, after which he and style guru Perry Haines concentrated on manufacturing pop band King. In a sleevenote for farewell Fetish compilation The Last Testament, Jon Savage wrote: ‘Fetish’s greatest success was to occur at the point when mogul Rod Pearce was shutting up shop… Seven Songs became Number 1 in the indie charts. Phew! Luckily, insufficient interest combined with too much time spent promoting The Bongos meant that this incredible success was nipped in the bud.’ Tragically, Rod Pearce was murdered in Mexico in 199? in appalling circumstances.

As post-punk gave way to new pop, groups such as Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA and even Psychic TV began stepping 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 both on conventional percussion and scrap metal. Gamelan is a Balinese ceremonial style in which light yet insistent percussion forms a rhythmic base to which chiming melodies by gongs and bells can be added. Adding their own slant, Skidoo came up with the concept of ‘urban’ gamelan. ‘Real Gamelan instruments are made from gold 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.’

The Fetish/Some Bizarre avant-garde allowed themselves one last hurrah at part of the Final Academy, a season of readings by William S. Burroughs in London and Manchester, organised by Genesis P-Orridge and ?. These shows also featured performances by a variety of writers, artists and groups, the latter including Cabaret Voltaire, Psychic TV, Z’ev, Last Few Days and 23 Skidoo. Skidoo performed as a trio at the Brixton Ritzy show on 29 September, describing themselves in the Final Academy catalogue as ‘cultural assassins’ who ‘embrace this ceremony of the constant random factor’.

The following month Skidoo took part in a short Crepuscule package tour in Belgium billed as Move Back-Bite Harder, which also included Cabaret Voltaire, Antena, Tuxedomoon, Isolation Ward and The Pale Fountains. Several of the shows were professionally recorded, and Skidoo’s 27 minute loop-based performance at Tielt on 8 October was later issued as a bonus track on the CD version of The Culling Is Coming. The following night at Leuven Skidoo evidenced a more gamelan/Gregouka feel. Blaine L. Reininger of Tuxedomoon was among those fascinated: ‘I was envious and impressed by three things. Unlike us with our many heavy boxes full of electronic gear, they only had to acquire some empty gas cylinders used in any bar for beer. These they would percuss in interesting ways, while also availing themselves of field recordings and concrete acoustic tape assemblies, which they all carried on portable recorders. Also they were from Singapore. Add to that the name suggestive of Burroughs and the Illuminati, and I was intrigued.’

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 travelled 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 their own infamous WOMAD performance, the Dartington recordings became side two of the second (and secondary) 23 Skidoo album, The Culling Is Coming.

With Fetish now being wound down, The Culling Is Coming was released on 4 February 1983, initially on Operation Twilight, the label run Patrick Moore (aka writer Philip Hoare) and allied to Les Disques du Crepuscule in Belgium. Moore was then a near neighbour of both Fritz Catlin and Genesis P-Orridge in bohemian Beck Road, Hackney, and… Crepuscule also released the album in Europe, albeit in a less extravagant ? sleeve. Both sides lasted 23 minutes, and side one signed off with a stylus-hostile lock groove. Indeed listeners tended to react in much the same way as the original audience at WOMAD. NME reviewer Richard Cook blasted an album that ‘traipses disconsolately across an arid terrain swept clear of form or relationship… They have missed the point of improvised music, of minds and instruments fusing and sparring to create a new world… Why bother with Skidoo?’

Writing in Sounds, Dave McCullough was scarcely more generous: ‘I must say that after hearing it, I still can’t dismiss the proposition that Skidoo are one of the few acts I would cross the road for. It’s just that The Culling Is Coming is an awfully long, some would say impossible, road to cross. There’s always been a thrill to Skidoo. They were like an elastic band you could stretch ridiculously far. With Culling, that elastic gets close to snapping.’

Steve Sutherland of Melody Maker was more positive, praising the ‘brave simplicity’ and calm of the Dartington material, but clearly less keen on the fearless WOMAD recording: ‘Like an orgy in an abattoir… Further listening should decide if the record cuts, or is simply a con.’ However, Sutherland at least understood where Skidoo were at creatively. ‘Sometime last year, more by misleading coincidence than deliberate design, popular music and 23 Skidoo crossed paths. The superlative Seven Songs was rhythmically direct enough to be loosely dubbed funk, and un-asked-for responsibilities were heaped on this flexible lot to prove they were worthy pioneers. Skidoo didn’t play the game, wouldn’t join the race, but instead shed two of the members once accepted as their public image and simply did something else. And whatever you think of The Culling Is Coming, is certainly is something else.’

Skidoo refused subsequently to view the album as a mistake. ‘Culling was very necessary at the time,’ Fritz told Sounds two years later. ‘Because it felt as if the music press was right behind us, ready to present the group as the new wonder boys. But we wanted to flush all that down the toilet, and make something very clear about our attitude.’

Punter puzzlement aside, one unforeseen downside was that The Culling Is Coming made it hard for Skidoo to find a new label, and hard to persuade some shops to stock the next record when eventually they did. As Alex later reflected: ‘We haven’t exactly been laying low, but due to the response to The Culling Is Coming people seem to have deemed us less worthy of notice. Culling was music as function. But when we really involved ourselves in the idea of music as function, for myself anyway, it got a bit obscured from the fact that one of music’s most basic messages is to actually dance.’

For the remainder of 1983, Skidoo activity was restricted to occasional gigs at home and abroad. [Sheffield Leadmill]. 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 occasional LFD contributor was none other than Sam Mills. In April 1983 LFD were invited by Laibach to play at Zagreb’s prestigious new music Biennale, at which 23 Skidoo also performed. 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 with David Tibet on the first Current 93 release, a 12” EP titled LAShTAL, recorded in 1982 and eventually issued on the Crepuscule-sponsored Laylah Antirecords in 1983

In mid? 1983 Skidoo filmed an interview for BBC arts programme Riverside with Fetish cohort and i-D magazine publisher Perry Haines. The group insisted on recording and replaying the dialogue as it went along, with the result that the interview was not broadcast. All was not lost, however, for at the studio the band met virtuoso bass player Peter ‘Sketch’ Martin, previously a member of Britfunk chart duo Linx. In Sounds Johnny explained: ‘Sketch told us he’d been involved in commercial music and wanted to move out of that area, and we told him we hadn’t been involved in commercial music but wanted to move towards it. Months later, we got him over for a rehearsal, and the first thing he did was ask if he could hire us as a rhythm section to record a hit single he had planned. So we went to work for him on his project and it ended up as Language.’

‘There is a dichotomy,’ confirmed Sketch, ‘but that’s what it’s all about. If 23 Skidoo were like Linx I wouldn’t be working with them. We’re working together, but we give each other infinite leeway to try things out. But if you ask me what 23 Skidoo are about, I wouldn’t have an answer.’

While Skidoo continued to explore a variety of musical and rhythmic forms, including hard reggae, funk and Burundi drumming, the concept of urban gamelan remained the backbone of (and title for) their album in progress. That said, the band were keen to distance themselves from metal-bashers such as SPK and Test Department. Fritz explained: ‘We stayed with a friend in Germany once, who had a he metal structure in his room. We spent hours hitting it, and after a while a whole range of tonal relationships became apparent between the different shapes and types of metal. It’s this we’ve been developing in our own music, using ideas borne of gamelan traditions.’

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. The single version 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 bout 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.’

‘Our application of our instruments has changed,’ Alex added in Sounds, ‘and that’s what Coup is all about. It’s quite funky – which I use in a very loose sense of the word, in terms of rhythm – but it hasn’t been made as our ‘commercial’ single.’

In fact Coup had undoubted commercial potential, yet no 7” was issued, which in turn meant no radio airplay, and no chart hit. Despite this, O’Hagan voiced the concern that its wider appeal might raise precisely the same problems of expectation as had Last Words. ‘Then we were kind of lumbered with that new white funk scene,’ said Alex. ‘In many ways it’s a pity we don’t have that kind of audience now, because I’m sure we could take better advantage of it. You see, it gave us a lot of confidence. The fact that we could consciously reject that, and then come back, has meant that we no longer worry about appearing commercial. It’s all in the attitude, really. Coup may be commercial on one level, but it isn’t your average chart single.’

Fritz agreed. ‘We can use a kind of camouflage to superficially fit in with the music-biz game whilst actually using it for our own advantage. The commercial arena is so small, and outside it lies a vast area, still relatively unexplored, of other music, other sounds… we like to work on the periphery, sometimes jumping into the small commercial area, then dodging back out again and hopefully pulling a few people out with us.’

In July Skidoo followed Coup with Language, the track co-created with Sketch Martin and featuring ?. The a-side version of the single had been recorded the previous year, but never quite completed, and it’s the longer dub version of the track on the flipside that works best. During this period 23 Skidoo did not play live, and instead the core trio practised 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 released by Illuminated in August 1984. Perversely, the various single versions of Coup and Language were omitted, with the former appearing in radically different form as GI Fuck You (with added bass and a vocal sample from Apocalypse Now), and the latter in sparse percussive form. Although eagerly anticipated by many, the album was far less accessible that either of the 45s. Reviewing it for NME, Mat Snow recalled: ‘Back in 1981 I walked out of the 23 Skidoo experience, I thought never to return. That is, until Coup thundered over the horizon earlier this year. A mighty 45, Coup is a vinyl TV cop show car chase driven by Sketch Martin’s bass, with Aswad’s horn section blazing away in hot pursuit… A pity there’s nothing half so much fun on Urban Gamelan… No single piece is allowed to unfold and grow, thus remaining little more than a series of tintinnabulating percussion workouts occasionally rounded out with other instrumentation, distant chants and Jah Wobble-ish humourous asides.’ Blast magazine also offered qualified praise, judging the album ‘a frightening journey of great endurance, a collection of sounds which is extremely difficult to translate’ while asserting that ‘criticism breaks down in the face of art like 23 Skidoo’s.’

With Skidoo still essentially a trio of Fritz, Alex and Johnny, live performance of their more commercial tracks remained problematic, and for a series of dates in Spain and London the group relied on backing tapes. Johnny told Sounds: ‘Something like Coup is very simple, there isn’t anything particularly complex going on in any of the parts. But there are still six or seven separate elements to that song which, unless you’re going to use backing tapes, makes it very difficult to perform live. That’s why we’re planning to use very sparse tapes.’

‘It’s funny,’ Alex added, ‘because we’re justifying the use of backing tapes, things we’ve tended to scoff at in the past. OK, so we’ve always used a lot of tapes, but in different ways, so this is just a different application that allows us to move on and not be restricted by playing bass, drums and guitar.’

Soon after the Spanish dates in Granada and Mercia, Fritz Catlin took a sabbatical from the group, while the Turnbulls devoted their energies to obtaining black belts in ?. The next Skidoo single would not emerge until 1986, when Illuminated released the hip-hop informed Assassin, backed with Ooze and T.O.Y. (Thoughts of You), the latter featuring vocals by Danny Ricketts. A different version of Assassin also appeared as Shgyosha Step on several compilations, including Funky Alternatives (Vol 1). The single GI, released on Saderal in 1986 and credited to 400 Blows/23 Skidoo Assemblage, had no legitimate link to the group. The following year Catlin returned to the fold, and Illuminated (as Bleeding Chin) released Just Like Everybody, a compilation of Skidoo tracks recorded between 1981 and 1986, including a previously unreleased monitor mix of Coup. A new track, Magrehbi, was also released as a promo, but no album followed.

For much of the next decade, 23 Skidoo activity was subsumed by remix and production work under various guises, including Assassins With Soul, ? and 23 Skidoo. The group built their own eight-track studio in Highbury, and ?. Clients included ?, Bomb The Bass, Public Enemy, The Weathermen, Nigo. However, sessions with Mark Morrison didn’t pan out. ‘That’s a funny story,’ Alex later told Mojo magazine. ‘Just when he was about to get big, we got hooked up to do some production for him. We played him some tracks and we were all set to do it. Then for some reason we started talking about 23 Skidoo and played him the live side of The Culling Is Coming. Never heard from him again!’

In 1990 The Turnbull brothers also founded their own label, Ronin, releasing a raft of British hip-hop and breakbeat sides by Paradox, F.O.R.C.E., Skitz and Deckwrecka, A selection of 23 Skidoo and Ronin recordings from this period was later released as a somewhat uneven album, Just Like Everybody (Part Two), which features Catlin, Sketch and the Turnbulls, as well as contributions from P Stern and A Gold. In 1997 Fritz Catlin and Sam Mills used the Ronin studio to record the album Real Sugar by Paban Das Baul, released by RealWorld and a substantial success in India. In March 1997 Coup seemed finally to have broken into the British singles chart within the familiar-sounding bassline of the Chemical Brothers’ single Block Rockin’ Beats. Three years later Alex explained: ‘Everybody was like, ‘Oh shit, they’ve ripped off 23 Skidoo.’ It’s not actually a straight sample, they actually replayed it. But yes, it’s been quite good for us. Maybe I’ll refrain from saying any more.’

A year earlier, 23 Skidoo had contracted to record a new album for Virgin, although it would be four years before the tapes were delivered, the delay due in part to Catlin suffering serious illness. The album, simply titled 23 Skidoo, was released in August 2000 on CD and double vinyl, with a limited edition triple album set also available. Dawning was also released as a single, featuring jazz legend Pharoah Sanders on saxophone. Reviewing the first new Skidoo album for sixteen years, Q magazine praised ‘muscular, motorik fare that at it’s best – the eerie Interzonal, the noirish Catch 23 – is thoroughly engaging’ and the ‘various mutations of hip hop, dub and jazz’, but expressed overall disappointment. Mojo noted a ‘mildly nagging sense of a band slightly intoxicated with their own production finesse’ but found that the return of ‘one of the most influential bands of the 80s’ proved an eclectic and groovy exception to the prevailing rule of underwhelming comebacks.

Quizzed by Mojo on whether Skidoo were still an ‘angry’ band, Alex replied: ‘Yes, I think so. But you change as you get older. A lot of the angst in those early records was good and relevant, but it doesn’t need to be repeated. You don’t become less rebellious, your way of rebellion just changes. Shouting and screaming only achieves so much. We’re more subtle and subversive now.’

The group re-released their back catalogue on CD through the Ronin label in 2001 and 2002. Unfortunately Ronin then ceased trading, and these first CD reissues were soon unavailable. Nevertheless, Skidoo’s critical reputation continued to grow, with Simon Reynolds writing of the group in his seminal 2005 book Rip It Up and Start Again: ‘23 Skidoo conceived of funk as a sinister energy, an active metaphor for Control. Groove as trap and treadmill. Seven Songs still sounds blood-curdlingly intense… Best of all is Porno Bass, in which industrial finally makes a long-overdue anti-fascist statement. Skidoo allowed black America back in. And they let the rest of the world get a look in, too.’

23 Skidoo also played at...