Interview / Alex Turnbull / 23 Skidoo

I discovered 23 Skidoo through their mini-LP, Seven Songs. I picked the 12” out of the “Industrial” rack, in a second-hand record store, called Reckless, on Berwick Street, in Soho. I knew nothing about the band, but a Balearic Beat devotee, and an Andrew Weatherall groupie, I was searching for “alternative” dance-floor dynamite, and was drawn to the striking Neville Brody-designed sleeve. The 12 was priced at pennies, so I took a punt. I went on to buy everything by the group that I could find. From the frankly baffling at the time The Culling Is Coming, to the cut-up electro of the Assassins With Soul. 23 Skidoo would go on to embrace hip hop fully – founding the studio, Precinct 23, and label, Ronin – where they worked with UK legends such as Skitz and Roots Manuva. My favourite side of theirs, however, remains Vegas El Bandito`s tightly twisted funk. I was lucky enough to catch them perform the track at The 100 Club, in the autumn of 2019, and nearly 40 years later it still fucking rocked. 

23 Skidoo, though, I guess are probably best known for the tune, Coup, since it`s been included on various era / genre-defining compilations, and served as the inspiration for countless young punk funk outfits. The bass / guitar riff being super distinctive, and instantly recognizable. I recently talked to Alex Turnbull from the band, catching him while he was in L.A., filming for a documentary project on global street culture. I was working on a piece, focused on Coup, and Alex very, very kindly helped me meet some extremely tight time-lines. The interview below revolves around the recording of the track, events leading up it, those that directly followed, and an edit of the article appears in Issue 90 of Electronic Sound. A huge “Thank you!” to Alex, for making it happen.

Prior to Coup you seemed to be a pains to distance yourselves from anything commercial, or danceable.

Most of the early Skidoo stuff was pre-Coup. The Gospel Comes To New Guinea/Last Words, in 1981, Seven Songs – recorded in December 1981 in 3 days, and released in February 1982, Tearing Up The Plans – which was recorded when Johnny and I were away travelling in Bali, researching gamelan music. Your statement isn’t really correct as Last Words was super danceable, as was much of the early Skidoo live stuff. The vibe was very percussive, mixed with a Burroughs-esque tape loop vibe. There was actually a whole set of music that we had when we first became popular that never got recoded which was very dance orientated.

It should be noted that the first 7” single, ETHICS / Another Baby’s Face, which was sponsored by Madness’ bass player, Mark Bedford, and recorded in 1980 before I was in the group, was very indie dance and very ahead of it’s time.

As soon as you released something danceable, such as Vegas El Bandito, you seemed to immediately follow it with something less accessible.

What happened was when we recorded Seven Songs, we decided that we wanted to try something different. In a way it’s a shame that set of music, tracks like Amphetafunk, never got recorded, as it was kind of cool and would have actually been less challenging and more popular than much of the stuff we did record. Kundalini, though pretty experimental, is actually very danceable – in an extreme way – as was IY. It’s just that as much of the rest of the material was super experimental, we kind of got that tag. That along with where we went after! We really didn’t want to be seen as pop or in any way commercial. The Culling Is Coming, for example, is drastically different to Coup.

What were the reasons behind this initial stance, and why the change of mind?

The Culling is a whole different story. While Johnny and I were away in Bali, the others recorded Tearing Up The Plans. During this production,Genesis p-Orridge – who along with Sleazy aka Peter Christopherson from Throbbing – produced Seven Songs and Tearing Up The Plans, kind of set in motion a rift in the band that festered and resulted in Thom Heslop, our then vocalist, and Sam Mills being ejected from the band after the Seven Songs tour. In hindsight this was probably a pretty big mistake. Kicking out the singer and the guitarist just as we’d had an indie chart No.1. Gen was kind of like that. Brilliant but a bit mischievous. The A side of The Culling was actually recorded at a live performance, at the very first WOMAD FESTIVAL. We had decided that people were expecting us to be this funky-percussive thing and we didn’t want to be defined by anyone. So we did the diametric opposite. Instead of a nice easy funky set, we decided we would perform a ritual that would act as a sort of exorcism/rebirth for the band using scrap metal – this is pre Einsturze Neubauten and Test Department – and tape loops. The B side was recorded using gamelan instruments at Darlington College of music in Devon. We decided to release this as our next album. Both were one-off experiments and not really reflective of the band`s music. The press hated it and it kind of resulted in us being excommunicated from the music industry. Where previously we were almost ‘press darlings’, we subsequently became the ‘arch enemy’, and from that point on never received any industry support whatsoever. This led to us eventually creating Ronin Records in order to have an outlet to release our music, as no other avenues were open to us.

I should add, that at the recent gigs we’ve done over the past 5 years have involved Thom, and Sam to a lesser extent as he had other musical commitments, and this actually served as a very positive healing process for the band, since the way they were unceremoniously ejected – just before we went onstage before the final gig of the tour at The Venue in London – was in hindsight not so cool and something I personally regret.

I read that the press at the time were lumping you in with artists such as Funkapolitan, which so obviously wrong. You had far more in common with Cabaret Voltaire.

Again, there’s a lot to unpack there. Funkapolitan were cool. They were doing funk/rap before most. We actually knew Funkapolitan’s Kadir and Sagat Guirey from when Johnny and I were skating in the mid `70s. We played an early gig with them at the LFC  – the london film collective in Camden not Liverpool football club! If my memory serves me correctly this was actually the first gig we played after Thom and I joined the band, which had existed I’m various forms before.

To answer the question, it was more that the first time we were mentioned in The Face magazine – at this point in its infancy – we were lumped in an article with ABC and Haircut 100, which we definitely found offensive! In some ways this propelled us to be even more experimental, as we wanted to make it clear we were not pop. 

As for Cabaret Voltaire we always loved them and when Rod Pierce from Fetish Records arranged for us to make our first 12” record with them, it was kind of like getting to work with our ‘heroes’. They were all super cool and super encouraging and The Gospel is one of my favourite Skidoo tracks. When we went to their studio in Sheffield  – Western Works – we recorded Last Words first and then went out for dinner. When we came back Johnny, on percussion & Canton horn, Fritz, on bass, and me, on drums, went in to the studio and freestyled The Gospel over an FX backing tape that we’d prepared at our rehearsal room behind Honky Tonk Records in Kentish Town, where Fritz worked. When we walked back into the control room afterwards the Cabs were blown away They were like ‘Wow what was that’ as I think they were very much used to working with drum machines and were blown away by the live drums and percussive elements, and it’s rawness.

Who was in the band at the time of recording Coup?

Me, on main bass riff and timbales, Johnny, on guitar, tape loops and congas, Fritz, on drums, and Sketch, on harmonic bass, and also the main chorus theme which he originally came up with as a bass part.

I get the impression that, generally, you swapped instruments a lot.

Yes. I originally joined as a percussionist, since Fritz was the drummer for the band. But as I also played drums with other bands, it was natural that we would interchange sporadically. Johnny and Sam were both great guitarists and bassists so same applies. Johnny is also a fantastic percussionist so there you have it.

Were roles fixed in the studio? Was there a lot of improvisation going on?

Nothing was fixed. Everything was fluid. The Gospel and Seven Songs probably had more improvisation. By the time we came to recording Urban Gamelan – from which Coup evolved – Sketch had joined the band and we were operating in a slightly more structured way. This was probably a necessary evolution from the completely free-form nature of The Culling Is Coming.

How did you meet Sketch?

It’s a funny story! We were doing a performance on an early experimental TV show, called Riverside, compared by a guy called Perry Haines – one of the early writers for The Face and ID magazine, and a friend of Fetish’s Rod Pierce, who Sketch was living with. This was during The Culling period. We did some super outlandish thing with tape loops while Perry interviewed us. He got really freaked out during the interview, and as he got more worked up, his voice looped back at him. Unsurprisingly it never got aired but Sketch, who happened to be there, loved it. He’d just left Lynx and was moving away from being commercial – if you know Sketch then you’ll know that he’s actually super anti-commercial. We, on the other hand, we’re going in the opposite direction, and were trying to find some order /structure in our music. We hit it off immediately and that was that.

I read somewhere that Coup started life as a track that Sketch had “mapped out”. Is that true?

No, that’s not correct. That was Language, which came after. We already had the idea for Coup when we met. The original title was 10 Week War – a front page cover headline from The Sun during the Falklands War which was on at the time. It then got renamed Coup In The Palace, after another Sun front cover headline ‘Koo In The Palace’ . At the time Prince Andrew – yes him – or ‘Randy Andy’ as he was known then, was going out with Page 3 model Koo Stark, so we kind of reinterpolated it. It eventually got abbreviated to Coup. As for Prince Andrew ….

Coup actually started out as GIFU or Fuck You GI – a track on Urban Gamelan. This was our response to Paul Hardcastle’s 19, which had just gone to Number 1. I actually really liked 19 and bought it when it came out. Again this is before hip hop existed, and it was termed electro. I was just getting into DJing at this point, but what wrangled with us was that 19 was going on about American casualties in the Vietnam war; the vocal sample was something like ‘The average age of the dead American soldier was 19’. We were like ‘Fuck that’, the average age of the dead Vietnamese was probably much younger, but no one was talking about that. So we took a sample from Apocalypse Now – another Skidoo staple. It’s the amazing scene where Martin Sheen is in the trenches and the black GI’s are talking about ‘Gooks on the wire’. They get ‘The Roach’, who, just by listening, shoots the Vietnamese soldier who is taunting them from a distance. We looped it so that he keeps coming back, as a tribute to the Vietnamese fortitude. It’s crazy if you think about it. There so many parallels between what’s happening in the Ukraine right now and the Vietnam war – with the exception that Vietnam does not border America. It’s a David vs Goliath type situation only the Vietnamese were – and in many ways still are – vilified whereas the US troops have had countless films glorifying this horrific and barbaric war, typifying an attitude towards Asians still prevelant in some sections of American society. GIFU was our statement on this insane situation. Having recorded it we decided we’d also try something a little more ‘user friendly’ and that’s how Coup came about.

Was Coup the first thing that you recorded with Sketch on board?

Yes. Then Language which was a bit of a mish-mash, and dogged by a terrible engineer in a studio Sketch had managed to get in through his connections with PRS – who he worked from after Lynx and before we met. I always thought the second half of Language was the best bit.

Can you remember where Coup was recorded?

Aosis Studio in Chalk Farm.

Was it a studio that you had used before?

No, I think it was through Illuminated, our label at the time, run by a chap called Keith Bagley, and who at that time were the only people that would take a chance and work with us. It was kind of a one man operation and was super low-fi but in hindsight Coup would never have been recorded without his support.

Who else was involved, other than the band? Can you remember who was producing and engineering?

It was produced by a guy called Simon Boswell and I think the final mix was actually done in Simon’s studio though I may be mistaken there.

You’d worked previously with Genesis P. Orridge and Stephen Mallinder producing. Was there a particular reason for the change?

That was all much earlier, in 1981, and pretty much down to Rod Pierce, from our first label Fetish, who sadly died in tragic circumstance some years later in Mexico. Rod is actually a very important and overlooked record industry guy. He was the first person to believe in us – other than Nigel Wilkinson from Honky Tonk Records. Fetish had an amazing roster of artists from The Bush Tetras, Defunkt, Clock DVA, as well as releasing stuff by Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. He’s the one that put us together with The Cabs and Genesis, and all that great early Skidoo music owes him a huge debt.

In terms of the change in producers, it was really just what was available at the time. There was no social media or mobile phones so it was very hard to stay in touch with people and by 1984 when we made Urban Gamelan, we’d lost touch with Mal, Richard Kirk and Gen.

Was Coup influenced by any artists, or pieces of music, that you were listening to at the time?

I can’t speak for the others but personally my bass part, which is kind of the backbone of the track, was influenced by White Lines by Grandmaster Flash, which was a wholesale lift from the Liquid Liquid track, Cavern. It might not be an obvious association but once you know, it kind of is!

You had a couple of veteran reggae musicians playing on the track, Vin and Eddie, how did you make that connection?

We always loved Aswad. They are one of the greatest British reggae bands. Warrior Charge and Dub Charge were staples of Skidoo listening. The horn section on Coup played on this record. Eddie ‘Tan Tan’ Harris, on trumpet, Steve Gregory, on saxophone, and of course the mighty Vin Gordon, on trombone. I remember when Vin walked in he was listing all the legendary reggae artists that he’d played with: Bob Marley, Gregory Isaacs etc. We’d bought some weed for the session. They asked to roll a joint and put the whole 1/8 in one spliff.

Can you remember how long the sessions were?

A single day. As I said we had no resources so had to be resourceful. The Gospel Comes To New Guinea / Last Words was recorded in a day and a half. Seven Songs was recorded and mixed in 3 days. Coup was recorded in one day and mixed later in one session. There was no money for long elaborate sessions.

Were any other tracks recorded at the same time?

No. That said, as mentioned, the idea and base for the track had already been recorded when we made Urban Gamelan – which was recorded in 5 days at Foel studios, a tiny recoding studio somewhere deep in the Welsh countryside – again found by Illuminated. We are talking beyond budget!

Were there any instruments, or pieces of equipment that were key in making the track sound so unique?

For me it was an HH echo unit that I put the bass through, which gave it that throbbing echo. I can’t speak for the others but I think that kind of set the vibe for the track.

How had you hooked up with the label, Illuminated?

Desperation. As I said, they were the only people that would work with us after we released The Culling!

What was your connection with Neville Brody, who designed your sleeves? Did you have any input into the amazing artwork?

Again this is solely down to Rod Pierce from Fetish. Neville did all the covers for Fetish. This was pretty much before he went on to become art director at The Face. Neville changed the nature of modern typography and magazine design. I feel super privileged to have had him design our covers and I still think many off them stand out to this day.

23 Skidoo Seven Songs

What was the press reaction to Coup?


Was it a hit?

You could say that it`s viewed that way now – as ‘our’ hit – but it was hardly feted at the time. The music industry and press still distrusted us after The Culling Is Coming, and I think they were reluctant to afford us any visibility. It was almost like, “You had your chance and you blew it.”

Did it pick up any radio airplay?

No. There were no independent radio stations and Radio One were never going to play it.

Did you ever hear the record played in a club?

Keith Bagley took us to the Hippodrome in Leicester Square which had just opened. He knew the DJ who played it but other than that, a resounding ‘No’.

Did you find that you were getting more bookings, gigs?

Hell no!

How did fans react when you played the track live?

I think some were actually a bit annoyed as they’d just got used to the weird stuff and it was too funky and ‘commercial’. You have to remember that this was before funk or hip hop were popular so we were kind of in a no win vacuum.

Did Coup`s success have any impact on what the band did next?

What success? It only with hindsight and many decades later that the track is seen as ‘a classic’.

In 2000, were you surprised when Nuphonic approached you to license Coup for Andrew Weatherall`s compilation, 9 O`Clock Drop?

It’s always nice to get a bit of recognition for what give done. This is really our payment as we never earned much from Skidoo what with it being so leftfield for the time. That and our labels being so skint!

Did you ever meet or work with Andrew?

Weatherall is a bona fide legend, but we operated in very different fields of music. He came to DJ before our gig at the Scala when our album, 23 Skidoo, was released on Virgin in 2000. Sadly the label never did any promotion on the record – which incorporated rap, reggae, and funk, along with our more experimental side, but before rap music was really popular, or the phenomenon it’s become now. Again it was probably a little ahead of its time and consequently fell between the die hard Skidoo fans who thought it wasn’t obscure enough, and anyone vaguely mainstream. But Andrew was super cool and it was great having him as part of the night, even if the gig itself signified the end of this incarnation of the band. Fritz – who had been dealing with some quite serious health issues – left the band and we ended up focusing on Ronin Records and our studio, Precinct 23.

This is bit of an aside, but, you famously immersed yourselves in electro and hip hop culture, I was wondering what you made of rave and acid house. In prep for the interview I went back and listened to the 1988 / second summer of love track Maghrebi, which is amazing. Did make any more house-related tracks? Were you going out to clubs and / or raves at the time?

Maghrebi is sort of an anomaly. I’d started DJing around 1983, after seeing Red Alert at the Shaw Theatre the same year. As we were huge William Burroughs fans, we’d always used tape loops, which we made by cutting cassette tape and sticking it together in loops, and then recorded on using the first black Sony Walkmans. As a drummer, when I saw Red Alert cutting up drum breaks on time  – our tape loops had always been totally arhythmic – I was completely fascinated and set about learning to DJ with 2 belt-drive turntables hot-wired into the back of an amp – with no mixer! There was no equipment available or money to buy it even if there was. I was probably DJing for 2 years before I got my first Technics 1210. It was another year and a half before I got the second. By this point I had gone to New York and had brought back a GLI mixer and so began my journey. I was actually playing one of my first proper DJ gigs at a club, Enter The Dragon, in Kensington with Colin Favor and Trevor Fung, when acid house first hit. At the time to be honest, I wasn’t really into the 4-4 electronic beat. I was always into funky, swung drums and while my mates – like my early DJ spar Jeremy Healy – started making big money at raves, I was still trying to fly the flag for early hip hop and rare groove. Swimming against the current seems to be a recurring theme in my musical journey.

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