Test Dept feel remarkably contemporary. This was a group that grappled with politics, but also recognised that such a message was meaningless if it didn’t come as part of a deeper and broader artistic vision. Test Dept didn’t preach: they provoked, agitated, challenged and sent up. Perhaps their approach feels resonant today because here is a group for whom music, politics, and life were tightly intertwined.
Formed in London’s New Cross in 1981, Test Dept developed a rhythmic industrial sound employing the cheapest materials they could get their hands on – oil drums, springs, canisters and piping, salvaged from local scrap yards. Despite this, they were hardly basic or primitive. Their visual iconography was striking, drawing on the bold geometries of Russian constructivist and suprematist art, while their live performances, often held in site-specific locations were theatrical and fully multimedia affairs.
I nabbed a copy of The Unacceptable Face Of Freedom at some point in the late ’80s (cool fold-out cover, btw) and listened to it quite a bit. But, as with most of the experimental industrial bands, I found Test Dept so much more interesting for their views and pronouncements expressed in interviews. This new interrogation by FACT with founding member Angus Farquhar is no exception.
I especially love the short bit about touring internationally … as the band couldn’t bring all their individually constructed metalworks with them across the ocean, apparently they’d have to arrive a few days early to scour scrapyards for road gear:
If you went to the States on tour, of course, you couldn’t bring anything – so you had to spend two or three days scrapping before starting a show. It piled on all this pressure, because sonically you never knew what you would be dealing with. But there were certain generic things you could always find. You could always find a water tank. You could always find springs on a juggernaut lorry, they had a very good sound. Gas bottles of different sizes would give you the high registers. And if were on a big stage, we could get hold of these three or four ton tanks – which would take 13 or 14 people to maneuver into position. Some of the bass we were getting off those – you could resonate an entire room.
FACT: So the scrap yard was your guitar store.