As abstract as their music got, Throbbing Gristle almost always feels black and white.
The album really picks up momentum with “Dead on Arrival”, a hallucinogenic trek across a debauched and unknowable countryside. With its trolleying rhythm and squeamish sonic outbursts, one could imagine the group crafting the song as a soundtrack to be played en route to the death camps. It’s on tracks like this that Throbbing Gristle taps into experimental ranges of psychedelia. But instead of extracting a multivalent array of tonalities and possibilities, the group focuses on the utter despair of the bad trip and intimately links it with the quotidian realities of the 20th century. As abstract as their music got, Throbbing Gristle almost always feels black and white; a kind of psychedelic realism forged from the perspective of Control’s fantastical lies, a setting where distortions ring true and the bitter ends seems as inevitable as the cold and brutal means.
The rest of the album is equally stunning as well, a misfit mélange of songs, but a stimulatingly recalcitrant lot whose defiance invites further thought rather than frustrated dismissal. Besides the aforementioned “Hamburger Lady”, there’s “Weeping”, a tale of P-Orridge’s own suicide attempts with elegant jangly violin drippets percolating through a space echo; “Hometime”, a Tutti solo effort that’s almost plaintive and cozy; “AB/7A”, Carter’s towering kosmische reimagining of the electronic architecture of Kraftwerk’s “Kometenmelodie 2” that’s a tryout for his own masterpiece The Space Between, and “Wall of Sound”, the live set closer that does exactly what it says on the tin.
The bonus disc of D.O.A is not quite as essential as its counterpart, but it’s not mere filler fluff. A series of live and alternate takes on “I.B.M”, “After Cease to Exist”, and “Hamburger Lady” showcase how the band could remix and reimagine its own material in dramatic and drastic ways on stage, resisting canonization with every ounce of its being. Then there are the parts that are barely even wholes at all. “Whistling Song” is practically just piecemeal, cracked fever dream remnants scooped together to form a blurry memory. “Mother Spunk” just pins two unusual segments of dialogue placed in alternating channels like two Warhol panels placed next to each other with the camera running verité style.
The unremitting “We Hate You (Little Girls)” may have been pretty unforgivable, but the lyrics of the flip side single “Five Knuckle Shuffle” makes an important distinction between Throbbing Gristle and some of their late stage peers. As a maddening loop plays like a whirlpool surrounding a narrator who “am fucking a fed up”, P-Orridge invokes some ritual magick to inhabit a body who thinks of himself as “just an animal, a twisted up animal. I want to be left alone”. The criticism frequently leveled against the TG-inspired crypto-fascist noise outfit Whitehouse, extremist death metal groups like Emperor, and rape rappers like Tyler the Creator and Eminem is that the horror stories only ever seem to be told from the perspective of the dominant aggressor and never the victim. TG liberally alternated roles between the victimizer and the abused because they understood all too well the ways in which violence, as a force and function of control, contracted participants through violence. “Am always a victim/ Am tired of the victim”, P-Orridge says, “I want that not to assess me, not to possess me, not to attack me”, the narrator gnashing his teeth and ready to retaliate (in this instance through sex with a prostitute).
20 Jazz Funk Greats is often thought of as Throbbing Gristle’s commercial album, the one which sparked a move towards pop that would continue as the members formed new projects after Throbbing Gristle’s dissolution. However, few sellout albums contain material as strange as the disconcertingly ambient “Tanith” or as dark as “Persuasion”, an ad-libbed live piece about a man trying to convince his wife to participate in a porno (the line about having a “biscuit tin/That I keep your panties in” is particularly distant from Rod Stewart material), not to mention the abrasion of cuts like “What a Day” or “Six Six Sixties”.
If the group was trying to become a malfunctioning cog within the machine, they were far too hastily inventive with their instruments to become a convincing substitute for the high gloss and perfectionism of the pop matrix. Because of this though, 20 Jazz Funk Greats is a delightfully distorted funhouse mirror of pop. It’s perhaps only fitting that a blog would name itself after the album and indirectly launch the Altered Zones generation. 20 Jazz Funk Greats is the ground zero for alternate reality of mutant disco and unrepentantly ugly pop (or both in the case of the proto-techno “Hot on the Heels of Love”).
The bonus disc of 20 Jazz Funk Greats oddly discards this vision, but has a pretty assured collection of the dronier and noisier material they were also playing with at this time. The live-in-the-studio Heathen Earth, a last gasp and psychotic episode before bowing out, is similarly a retreat from pop, but also an abstract junk construct that reveals how much the group has grown since 2nd Annual Report.
Ultimately, this was a violation of Throbbing Gristle’s goal of pure creativity. Heathen Earth had proved that there was now a Throbbing Gristle “sound”, making it an appropriate time to bow out. Throbbing Gristle had once rejected punk because it forced its young artists to learn three-too-many chords, but the freedom that their rule-breaking afforded just found them growing far too comfortable with one another than a group renowned for disquieting the comfortable could be comfortable with. Besides, the music they created had assumed a life of its own. True to their prognostics, their abuse had begat abuse in the form of a power electronics scene thrilled and inspired by the willpower of rapists and killers.
But their music didn’t only spawn bastard children, it sparked miscreant fans who’d go on to craft 2nd wave industrial dance, laptop glitch, hauntology, Detroit techno, dark ambient, synthpop, avant-funk, drone, dub techno, and noise, amongst others sounds and scenes. Unlike other groundbreaking acts that were dismembered upon breakup, each of Throbbing Gristle’s members continued to make compelling sonic fictions (as Psychic TV, Coil, and Chris & Cosey, amongst other projects) up until the group’s reunion in 2004, but none of these projects seemed so intimately linked to the actual grit and grime of the world around it. As good as the post-TG bands were at being alchemists, none of them were journalists.
Throbbing Gristle in 2006
// Notes from the Road
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