Initially composed of Stephen Mallinder, Richard H. Kirk and Chris Watson, the group was named after the Cabaret Voltaire, a nightclub in Zurich, Switzerland that was a center for the early Dada movement.
Their earliest performances were dada-influenced performance art, but Cabaret Voltaire later developed into one of the most prolific and important groups to blend pop with dance music, techno, dub house and experimental electronic music.
In 1978, Cabaret Voltaire signed to Rough Trade Records. With Rough Trade they released several highly acclaimed musically experimental singles and EPs, including Extended Play, Nag Nag Nag and Three Mantras, and albums such as The Voice of America in 1980 and the widely-hailed Red Mecca in 1981.
During this time they toured Europe, Japan and America without major-label support, releasing Hai!, a live album recorded in Japan, in 1982.
In 1983, coinciding with the departure of Watson (who went on to found The Hafler Trio with Andrew M. McKenzie before becoming a BBC sound engineer and then a soloist), Cabaret Voltaire decided consciously to turn in a more commercial direction, with the album The Crackdown on Some Bizzare / Virgin Records. This decision was rewarded with the album reaching No. 31 in the UK - over 60 places higher than their previous (and only) chart placing. In 1984, the singles "Sensoria" and "James Brown" from the album Micro Phonies (also on Virgin) charted on the independent music charts as well as getting heavy play in the underground dance scene.
In 1987, the band released Code, followed by the house-influenced Groovy, Laidback & Nasty in 1990. A series of completely instrumental works under the Cabaret Voltaire name were released on Instinct Records in 1993 and 1994. The last CV release to feature Mallinder singing is the ethno-techno single, Colours in 1990.
Since the mid-late '80s, Kirk has begun a solo career under several names, including Electronic Eye and Sandoz, while Mallinder has relocated to Perth, Australia and records with a collaborator under the name Sassi & Loco and more recently in another collaborative effort the Kuling-Bros. Mallinder also helps run his own Offworld Sounds label and contributed to synths and programming on The Happy Mondays' singer Shaun Ryder's solo album Amateur Night at the Big Top.
In 1996, Mallinder reported to Inpress magazine's Andrez Bergen that "I do think the manipulation of sound in our early days - the physical act of cutting up tapes, creating tape loops and all that - has a strong reference to Burroughs and Gysin; in terms of the Dada thing, there's a similarity between the Dadaists' reaction to the bourgeoisie and the war and our own position - we felt alienated from popular culture ourselves. I think those kinds of attitudes become embedded within you, but I'm not sure how it relates now..."
Hopes of a Cabaret Voltaire reunion were raised when Kirk dropped hints in the late '90s, the most significant being in the notes of a reissue of Radiation, where Kirk says he is working on new CV material due to be released soon. This never happened. In a special 'Depeche Mode/History of Electro-pop' edition of Q Magazine, Kirk suggests he is still considering resurrecting the CV name but this time he plans to "Get some young people involved".