"Playing back recordings of an accident can produce another accident," wrote William S Burroughs in his 1970 tract, The Electronic Revolution. "Riot sound effects can produce an actual riot in a riot situation . . . cut/ups on the tape recorder can be used as a weapon."
Decoder, a dystopian German film from 1984 about Muzak and the power of tape recorders, takes Burroughs' writings from the early 1970s to their logical conclusion. The movie stars the cream of Industrial music and the darker reaches of post-punk culture; the soundtrack to the film, featuring Genesis P-Orridge, FM Einheit, and Soft Cell's Dave Ball, among others, is a notable document of the Industrial era.
FM Einheit, also known as Mufti from Einstürzende Neubauten, is Decoder's wily protagonist. Bill Rice, the only person in the film with any bona fide acting credentials, plays a sad man with a painfully sad face, entrusted by Muzak with foiling Einheit's plans. The German underground fixture Christiane F plays a seductress of sorts, a punky peepshow worker in Hamburg's infamous red-light district, the Reeperbahn, who harbors a strange obsession with frogs. (The Reeperbahn scenes in the film are soundtracked by the slow throb of Soft Cell's 'Seedy Films', making the Reeperbahn seem even sleazier than it is.)
Burroughs himself has a cameo in the film, appearing as a shop owner who sells electronic gear; Burroughs gives Einheit a cassette tape, and tells him that it is all he needs. Genesis P-Orridge makes a cameo appearance in the movie as a priest in reverse, intoning lines like "Information is like a bank; our job is to rob that bank."
In 1984, P-Orridge published an essay titled 'Muzak: A Concept in Human Engineering' in the pages of Vague magazine. The piece – dense with references to Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Tibetan singing bowls, sacred flutes in New Guinea, and magick, among other things – also put forth a manifesto on Psychic TV: "We openly declared we should eventually like to invent an anti-muzak that, instead of cushioning thee sounds of a factory environment, made use of those very sounds to create rhythmic patterns and structures that incorporated thee liberating effects of music by unexpected means. This approach is diametrically opposed to thee position of official MUZAK…"
In Decoder, Muzak is the enemy – a symbol of totalitarianism, of social control. In the greasy hamburger joint H-Burger, the smooth strains of Muzak are used to calm and quiet the masses, rendering the German consumer amenable to American fast food and corporate brainwashing. Only one man can save them, and it is FM Einheit and his special cassette deck. Einheit's custom-made yellow cassette tapes play anti-Muzak – noise that obliterates the Muzak, stimulating the diners to throw up in tandem, or to instigate riots. Einheit's noise liberates the placid hamburger-munching Germans from their aural and gustatory tranquilizers, waking them up to their latent revolutionary impulses.
No movie before or since has played out Burroughs' teachings from that time so literally. The makers of Decoder were directly inspired not only by The Electronic Revolution, but also by Burroughs' Revised Boy Scout Manual – in which Burroughs offered fearsomely practical advice on how to take his tactics to the streets – and Burroughs' 1971 novel The Wild Boys, which was inter-spliced with surreal segments on the "penny arcade peep show." "Our aim is total chaos…" Burroughs writes in The Wild Boys. "Fifty boys with portable tape recorders record riots from TV. They are dressed in identical grey flannel suits. They strap on the recorders under gabardine topcoats and dust their clothes lightly with tear gas. They hit the rush hour in a flying wedge riot recordings on full blast police whistles, screams, breaking glass crunch of nightsticks tear gas flapping from their clothes."
The chaotic riot footage at the end of Decoder, perhaps the most mind-melting part of an already twisted film, is real. If accounts from the time are to be believed, Decoder's director Klaus Maeck and his team planned, at first, to stage a riot. But actual riots raged in Berlin against Ronald Reagan, who made his first visit to Germany in 1982. According to Tom Vague, writing in Zig-Zag in 1985, the Decoder crew found boomboxes already set up in windows in Berlin, with sounds of gunshots being played by protesters. According to Maeck, over 200 tape recorders were confiscated by police. The world described by Burroughs and Decoder had already become reality.
Geeta Dayal is the author of Another Green World (Continuum, 2009) and is currently at work on a new book on the history of electronic music.
Sound On Film
Sound on Film examines how sound, music and film inform one another, from soundtracks and sound design to documentaries and live performance. We explore cinema past and present, digging into archives and seeking out new symbioses of sound and image.