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Monday, October 24, 2016

Lost & Found: The Cabal/Null Set EP

(Awf-Trak, 1984)

Cabal EP (Awf-Trak, 1984)

On two successive weekends, my wife Amy has spotted Cabal's self-titled six-song EP in two different record stores in Frederick, Maryland. Amy now has multiple copies of this album (as do I), leading her friends to joke that she must leave some in the record bins for future fans to discover!

Amy scores "Cabal" at Rock & Roll Graveyard on E. Patrick Street, Frederick

Amy spots "Cabal" at Record Exchange on N. Market Street, Frederick

Cabal was basically a continuation of Null Set, the early '80s Baltimore band formed by her ex-husband, the dearly departed guitar whiz "Mark Harp" (Mark Linthicum, 1957-2004) and singer Bill Dawson, minus bassist John Chriest and drummer Louis Frisino (who was replaced by Rich Dickson). Null Set had to change their name because there was a New Jersey group, the synth-pop Nullset, recording under that name in 1983. (Ironically, there are now countless bands listed on Discogs.com using both the Null Set and Cabal monikers.) Though only Harp, Dawson and Dickson are credited on the record, Cabal the live band was augmented by a rotating cast of sidemen, including: bassists Les Hendrix, Dave Zidek, and Dick Hertz; second guitarist Mark King; keyboardist Danny Brown; and Steve Palmieri, a sound engineer who played synths.

Null Set debuts at Baltimore's Marble Bar (October 30, 1982)

Cabal: Mark King, Rich Dickson, Bill Dawson, Les Hendrix, Mark Harp

Bill Dawson steps to the mic

Bill Dawson's Napoleon impression

Bill Dawson, smoking live!

Null Set frontman Bill Dawson rocks the plaid

Null Set singer Bill Dawson contemplates Nordic Ennui in Dundalk, Wintertime 1980s

Mark Harp, Null Set

Mark Harp (in his "Choose Death" tee) with Cabal

Cabal: Les Hendrix, Mark Harp, and Mark King

"It's a sign from Mark," Amy remarked when she spotted a copy of the record in an E. Patrick Street store called (appropriately enough) "Rock & Roll Graveyard." If so, Cabal has taken up residence in this DC Bedroom community of Frederick County, for she sighted yet another copy the very next week around the corner at Record Exchange on N. Market Street.

Back of 6-song Cabal EP

The tracks on this rare EP are:

1. Null Theme
2. In Touch
3. Future In Pain
4. Blissful Trust
5. Fall Flat
6. New Horizon

The CD reissue of the 6-song EP featured 10 remixes and bonus songs from the Cabal/Null Set era 1981-1985, including two Cabal tracks recorded live at the Marble Bar in 1983 and three Null Set demos (including "Perception," arguably their best and most commercial song) recorded in 1981 and produced by Sam Prager at Eastern Studios in Glen Burnie, MD. It's available for downloading from the web site 24 Hours with Mark Harp, where Mark himself described the Cabal record as "Dark post-punk." That's an understatement. Whereas humor was always part-and-parcel of Mark Harp's musical output, Null Set/Cabal was dead serious business. As Bill Dawson sang in Null Set's signature "Theme" song, "Paint it black/You know where we're at!" Performing live, Bill sometimes even bit down on fake blood capsules for added dramatic visual effect. The music may have been all Mark, but the lyrical narrative was all Bill, and the songs that resulted from their collaboration reflect the influence of the UK post-punk bands they were listening to at the time: Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Joy Division, Gang of Four, PiL, and John Foxx's Ultravox, to name but a few. The synth-heavy "Open Up" (originally available only on cassette) even channels a Devo vibe, while the radio-friendly "New Horizon"'s danceable beat suggests Cabal could be a pop band when they wanted to be.

The Cabal record was recorded in Spring 1984 at Studio North in Fallston, MD,  with Buck Awf (Bucky Baum) credited as the executive producer, though Mark Harp produced and mixed the music with engineer Steve Palmieri. The EP came with a picture sleeve insert, designed by Bill Dawson with original artwork by Andrew Goldys, caligraphy by Paul Yu Rek, and photographs of the musicians by Mark King.

Cabal EP insert, sleeve design by Bill Dawson

At the very top it said, "This record is dedicated to the memory of Roger Anderson." Roger Anderson, owner of Baltimore's legendary rock club The Marble Bar, had just passed away from a heart attack in April 1984. At the time, the Marble Bar was the reigning home of alternative rock music, a place that - in the words of City Paper music critic Michael Yockel - provided "spiky-haired punks/punkettes and skinny-tied new wavers a sanctuary to play/dance/hang out." Early on, Roger Anderson committed to providing an outlet for groups like Null Set/Cabal as opposed to the cover bands and mainstream rock ensembles appearing in clubs around the Beltway circuit.

The insert listed the band as Bill Dawson (vocals, backing vocals), Rich Dickson (drums, percussion), and Mark Harp (guitars, basses, Casio, Oberheim, percussion, backing vocals, and drum programming). (I admit that I had to look up "Oberheim" - it's a synthesizer, named after its inventor Tom Oberheim; Oberheim Electronics also manufactured the DMX drum machine, which was a staple of early hip-hop records.)

Mark Harp (photo by Mark King)

Bill Dawson (photo by Mark King)

Rich Dickson (photo by Mark King)

Thanks were given to "a cast of thousands," including Bill's girlfriend Michelle, Mark's sweetie Amy, LesLee (Anderson, who continued to operate the Marble Bar following her husband Roger Anderson's death in 1984), Pam (City Paper writer Pamela Purdy), Lizard (Ed Rosen), Louie (Louis Frisino, original Null Set drummer) and, of course, "Bob" (Church of the Subgenius avatar J.R. "Bob" Dobbs).

Cabal says "Thanks!"

Watch Bill Dawson sing "Null Theme" and "Fall Flat" with the Mark Harp All-Stars at the May 26, 2013 SoWeBohemian Festival in Baltimore:

Ceil Strakna and Bill Dawson with the Mark Harp All-Stars, SoWeBohemian Festival (May 26, 2013)

One of the best and most detailed reviews of the Cabal record can be found at "Fantod Under Glass" which, for convenience, I've inserted below:

*************** CABAL/NULL SET REVIEW ***************

Cabal 6-song EP (Awf-Trak, 1984)
By some accounts Baltimore's first and greatest postpunk band, Null Set was the brainchild of singer Bill Dawson (previously seen here with Black Pete) and guitarist Mark Harp. Null Set's highest-profile gig was opening for the Ramones at Johns Hopkins University's Shriver Hall, and they were semi-regulars at the Marble Bar and DC's 9:30 Club in the early 80s. Their Bauhaus fandom shows pretty clearly in their early recordings; "An Evening In Town" is their "Bela Lugosi's Dead". Null Set came to an abrupt end when an identically-named band from another city put out a record; Baltimore's Null Set ended up changing their name to Cabal. In 1984 they released their only record, a self-titled 6-song EP on Buck Awf's ad-hoc Awf-Trak label; on it they started to come out from under the Bauhaus influence and expand their sound, even approaching synth-pop on "New Horizon." Commercial success did not ensue, however, and the band drifted apart. Mark Harp went on to record hundreds of hours of music in a myriad of different projects; he eventually divided them into 24 hour-long thematic sections and posted them on his website (and at the Internet Archive) as 24 Hours with Mark Harp. Mark died in December 2004, but his website is still there. What I am presenting here is the 12:00 AM hour of 24 Hours, containing all the Null Set and Cabal recordings; I have renamed the files and added ID3 tags for better playback display, and put them into a single zip file for easy downloading. The tracks are:
  1. Cabal - Null Theme (Tracks 1-6 are from the Cabal EP)
  2. Cabal - In Touch
  3. Cabal - Future In Pain
  4. Cabal - Blissful Trust
  5. Cabal - Fall Flat
  6. Cabal - New Horizon
  7. Cabal - Open Up (Cassette only track from the Cabal EP release)
  8. Cabal - Assistance (Live at The Marble Bar Baltimore 1983)
  9. Cabal - Brash Finale (Also live at The Marble Bar 1983)
  10. Cabal - Check This Out (Recorded live in Bill's basement 1984)
  11. Cabal - No Way Out (Recorded live in Bill's basement 1984)
  12. Null Set - Null Theme (Tracks 12-14 from Null Set's demo recorded 1981 at Eastern Studios in Glen Burnie, MD, produced by Sam Prager)
  13. Null Set – Perception
  14. Null Set - Go!
  15. Null Set - An Evening In Town (synth thanks to Jack Heinicke)
CABAL - Bill Dawson - Vocals, Mark Harp - Guitars and stuff, Rich Dickson - Drums, Dave Zidek - Bass, Dick Hertz - Bass, Danny Brown - Keys, Steve Palmieri - Synth and sound, Les Hendrix - Bass, Mark King - Guitar & keys
NULL SET - Bill Dawson - Vocals, Mark Harp - Guitars & Stuff, John Chriest - Bass, Louis Frisino - Drums
Get the zip file here or here. (New links)


By the way, I was lucky enough to be at that near-capacity Johns Hopkins University Shriver Hall show (March 1, 1982) mentioned above where Null Set opened for The Ramones (Mark wouldn't allow Amy to go, for some reason - a missed opportunity she's always regretted), and it wasn't just their highest-profile performance, it was perhaps their best.

I recall that it was very dramatic, opening in pitch blackness with the "Null Theme." The four-piece band came onstage one at a time, timed to match their musical contribution to the song. Mark came on first playing the guitar riff and illuminated only by his lit cigarette glowing in the darkness; next, Louis Frisino took a seat behind his drum kit as the percussion kicked in; he was followed by John Chriest laying down the bass; finally, the lights came up as Bill Dawson stepped to the microphone to sing "We are null, there is nothing/Nothing clapping, no one dancing/We are the preset, mental incest/Paint it black, you know where we're a-a-a-at...Null Set, Null Set, always gray/Null Set, Null Set, nowhere today, Null Set, Null Set, floating bodies/Null Set Null Set, a new something now!"

It was electrifying and all the locals gathered there that night were convinced that this might be the one rock band to break out of Baltimore and make it nationally. (Ha! How were we to know it would be The Ravyns, albeit briefly, with their '82 hit "Raised On the Radio," as featured in the Fast Times At Ridgemont High soundtrack? Foo!) Well, maybe everybody except Johns Hopkins University News-letter writers Hunt Salisbury and (future City Paper scribe) Granville Greene. In their "Gabba Gabba Ramones" review (March 5, 1982, Volume 86, Number 19), they described Null Set as follows:

 "Embodying some kind of nihilistic, conceptually-obnoxious philosophy (the band wore only black), Null Set, its lead singer resembling both Gary Numan and Herman Munster, played a loud and strident set concerned with (what else?) alienation and the decline of society...Null Set opened up with a few hot trendies and blasted our poor little ears. Their first couple of songs were pretty good, but they went steadily downhill from there, ending their last song with the words 'it's just not funny anymore,' defining themselves in a nutshell."
Null Set blurb from JHU News-letter review

"Gaba Gabba Ramones" full review, page 1

"Gabba Gabba Ramones" full review, page 2

Ouch! I totally disagree, but then the reviewers seemed to have a New Wave chip on their shoulders, given headlines like "Drugged Punks Pogo Between Seats" and this description of Null Set's fans:

"On the left aisle were bopping boppers, Gabba-Gabba Heying to their hearts content, while on the right, trendy Null Set fans continued to strut their stuff. When the Ramones came on, this group of people bashed and crashed in the aisle, while simultaneously being given probable permanent ear damage by the ridiculously loud speakers. The game was to push and be pushed, slam and be slammed. How punk. I got hit in the balls twice. What fun."

Null Set fans at Shriver Hall (photo by Michael Fitzgerald)

Admittedly, there was a rather dour, downbeat feel to most Null Set/Cabal songs, and I'm sure they were one of the bands indirectly referenced in Food For Worms' clever send-up of Goth/Industrial music, "Gloom Club" (available on 2001's The Ultimate Diet).

By the way, "Null Theme" is structured musically like a pop palindrome. The song begins and ends the same way: opening with solo guitar, guitar + drums, guitar + drums + bass, guitar + drums + bass + voice, and then subtracting each element  one at a time (first voice, then drums, then bass) until returning to the solo guitar riff that started it all.

In accordance with musical catch-and-release principles, Amy has now vowed to return any subsequent Cabal records she finds to their respective record bins so that they may be discovered by future generations of discerning post-punk rock cognoscenti.

Finally, reflecting on that pic of Amy outside Frederick's Rock & Roll Graveyard record store, I realized that the store's sidewalk sign depicted the cover of Mountain's Climbing! LP, the album whose lead track was Leslie West's cowbell-propelled hit "Mississippi Queen."

Mountain - "Climbing!" (Windfall Records, 1970)

How curious that after Cabal broke up, Bill Dawson teamed up with George Hagegeorge to form Black Pete and play guitar-driven industrial music in the vein of Ministry and Skinny Puppy - and release a 12-inch single cover of "Mississippi Queen" (Calvert Street Records, 1989)!

Black Pete - "Mississippi Queen" b/w "Vicious" & "Ablaze" (Calvert Street Records, 1989)

According to Hagegeorge's wife Cherly Fair, the lyrics were modified to make the song's character a vampire. Cheryl adds that Black Pete was strictly a studio project. The 12-inch received some airplay and appeared on several compilations. Though they were interviewed on the radio and were popular with club DJs, they never played live or made a music video (though you can listen to "Mississippi Queen" and the B-sides "Vicious" and "Ablaze" on her YouTube channel).

And as blogger Burl Veneer (former WJHU DJ Bill Barnett, who now broadcasts at WVUD 93.1 FM) points out, Ministry later followed Black Pete's lead, covering "Mississippi Queen" on their 2008 collection of classic rock covers, Cover Up!

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