In 1983, the world was introduced to a collective of musical misfits that would forever change the sound of music and the way that musicians were perceived. The motley crew known as The Art of Noise (whose name comes from the essay The Art of Noises written by futurist Luigi Russolo) consisted of Gary Langan, Trevor Horn, Anne Dudley, J.J. Jeczalik and Paul Morley and came together almost accidentally after a late-night, impromptu studio session at the legendary Air Studios in London while working on the Yes album 90125. It's hard to say whether they knew it or not, but what would be born out of a sleep-deprived jam session that night would change the face of electronic music forever.
Seen by many as the groundbreaking predecessors to artists such as Gorillaz, Moby and Fatboy Slim, this eclectic bunch is widely known for their innovative use of sampling (before it was the cool thing to do), particularly with the Fairlight CMI sampler, to create many of their multilayered sonic collages. Borrowing elements from almost every conceivable genre and combining them with their own homegrown sonic elements, the band stormed into the industry with a debut EP Into Battle with The Art of Noise (ZTT, 1983). Winning over fans from dance, pop and a bourgeoning electronic scene, the group opted to place its art in front of its ego and adorn various masks to conceal the band members' true identities.
“When we first started to appear on television in the UK and in Europe, we were behind these masks, so that nobody would know who we were. None of us really wanted to be in a band,” says Gary Langan on the group's decision to initially remain anonymous. “We all had really good day jobs. I was a successful engineer, Anne was a very successful arranger and pianist and J.J. was a successful computer programmer. If everybody knew who we were, it would interfere with our day jobs. Besides, none of us looked good anyway.”
Looks aside, no one could deny the fresh new sound that the group was creating. Taking inspiration from the most unlikely of places to create aural mash-ups (even sampling an actual racquetball and table tennis game for a record), the collective continued to put forth new and envelope-pushing ideas into its music even after the masks were removed. “Our goal was just to make people happy and raise questions,” Langan says of the method to the group's madness. “That's what I think music should do: raise questions. And it shouldn't be giving you all the answers.” The 1984 follow up Who's Afraid of The Art of Noise (ZTT/Island) contained hits such as “Close (to the Edit)” and “Moments in Love,” which proved that the left-field antics of a group that described itself as “mad” were obviously calculated attacks on many people's perception of the possibilities of music.
The group later signed to China Records, which brought about both a roster change (with Trevor Horn and Paul Morley leaving the group) and a new appreciation for the collabo, making music with a wide array of artists including a Grammy-winning cover of the Peter Gunn theme with guitarist Duane Eddy and a cover of Prince's hit “Kiss” with Tom Jones. More changes in the group's lineup would follow, along with a concept album centered on the work of Claude Debussy, but future projects paled in comparison to the cohesiveness and synergy created by the group's original cast.
Members of the group, however, still enjoy individual success. Most notably, Anne Dudley won an Academy Award for her score of the film The Full Monty. Individual accolades aside, Langan still finds enormous value in the contribution that the group made as a whole. With a new box set (What Have You Done with My Body, God?, ZTT) of some of the band's greatest compositions released in August, both old and new fans will have the privilege of experiencing what it sounds like to redefine the boundaries of music.
“Without The Art of Noise, a lot of weird and wonderful avenues that have been explored probably wouldn't have happened,” Langan says. “The world of sampling wouldn't have unfolded in the same way. What we gave was a license for people to go out there and experiment. We showed people that you could try things and twist and push them to the limit.”