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SPK: From Disease to Disco

Time was, if you wanted to get onstage half-naked and bang a piece of sheet metal against an oilcan while screaming into a six-foot column of fire, you were expected to give a reason for doing so.

Most of the founding industrial groups of the 70s and 80s used theories to explain and justify their radical practices. In those days, if you were going to get onstage half-naked, with grainy films of surgical procedures projected onto your oil and blood-smeared torso, and then bang a piece of sheet metal against an oilcan while screaming into a six-foot column of fire for several hours, you were expected to give a witty reason for doing so. Throbbing Gristle and its followers had William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s occult strategies for undermining systems of control; Laibach had the ideologies of Eastern and Western totalitarian states; Einstürzende Neubauten had Dada and Surrealism’s revolt against modernity; Test Dept. had socialism.

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Industrial founders SPK were also socialists of a kind. They took their name and theory from the Sozialistisches Patientenkollektiv, or Socialist Patients’ Collective, that Dr. Wolfgang Huber started at a mental hospital in Heidelberg, Germany in the early 70s. Huber thought that capitalism caused mental illness, and that it was the economic system that had to be cured, not the patients. The patients’ mental disorders were symptoms of the contradictions within capitalism, which apparently healthy subjects had just done a better job of repressing. Therefore, it would be a good idea to have more mental illness, in order to make these contradictions manifest and bring about the revolution. “Turn illness into a weapon,” the Socialist Patients’ Collective said.

Graeme Revell formed his own SPK (short for Sozialistisches Patienten Kollektiv, but also Surgical Penis Klinik, System Planning Korporation, SePpuKu, etc.) in 1978, when he was working in a mental hospital in Sydney, Australia. When he and mental patient Neil Hill (a/k/a Ne/H/il) started SPK, they played punk rock with a heavy overlay of synth and tape noise, but they dropped the punk and rock elements after their first few singles. Synth and tape noise, along with horrifying images of surgery and bodily decay, were SPK’s weapons for spreading psychological disease.

SPK “Retard”

Dokument One, the zine that came with the first SPK album (Information Overload Unit), included a statement of purpose: “The project ideal is to express the content of various psycho-pathological conditions, especially schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychosis, mental retardation and paranoia. Information Overload supersedes normal, rational thought structures, forcing deviation into less restrictive mental procedures of so-called ‘mental illness.’” The zine went on to solicit letters from listeners, “especially those with interest in, or history of, psychotic disorder,” and promised to “reply personally to all correspondence.” Dokument II, included with the second album, Leichenschrei, elaborated on SPK’s theories about using sounds and images to produce psychotic states.

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SPK underwent a remarkable change between 1982 and 1984. Can you hear or see a difference? First, here they are performing “Wars of Islam” in 1982:

SPK “Wars of Islam” (includes disturbing medical curiosities and autopsy stills)

Now, here’s the music video from SPK’s 1984 single “Junk Funk”:

SPK “Junk Funk” (includes disturbing music video clichés)

As you may have guessed, SPK signed with a major label for “Junk Funk,” the first single from their third album, Machine Age Voodoo. This record did not come with Dokument III or anyimages of trepanned Siamese twins from medical textbooks. No, on this album—written, produced, and arranged by Revell, with vocals by his wife Sinan Leong—SPK seems to stand for “Signed Paying Kontrakt.” Few (if any) of the songs on Machine Age Voodoo would have sounded out of place on the Fletch soundtrack, but this is hardly surprising, given that Revell has been scoring Hollywood movies since the late 80s. If you’ve watched The Crow, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, orShark Night 3D, then you’ve heard a Graeme Revell score. Good for him. But shouldn’t career moves need pages of theory for justification, too?

Previously - Nationalize the Music Industry