Throbbing Gristle identified music's conventions as control mechanisms constructed to pacify listeners.
Underneath all this dressing though was the music itself, which has been occasionally been dismissed as secondary to the group’s statements. The truth is that the two are inseparable. None of the conceptual framework or cultural underpinnings would have made any sense had the group been making music that sounded like Pink Floyd or The Doors (two groups that actually bore some influence on P-Orridge). It was only because the band had decided to sonically abandon influence and to completely disregard any notions of musicality as most of the world knew it that the band is even worth remembering.
Throbbing Gristle identified music’s conventions—melodies, structure, riffs, solos, rhythm—as control mechanisms constructed to pacify listeners. Comprised as they were of non-musicians, Throbbing Gristle saw themselves as the ideal weapon to use against a commercially compromised music world and indeed their ignorance of “proper” playing lent them over to using conventional instruments like the cornet (“Cornet”), violin (“Weeping”), bass (“Bass”), or electric guitar (Tutti’s stunning guitar work is among some of the most underrated in music) in violent, unexpected, or explosively innovative ways. To compliment their misappropriation of traditional instruments, Throbbing Gristle also created their own tools such as the homemade synthesizers and effects pedals engineered by Carter and Sleazy.
Despite the litany of live tapes, Throbbing Gristle retrospectives tend to focus mostly on their full lengths; The Second Annual Report of Throbbing Gristle, D.O.A. The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle, 20 Jazz Funk Greats, and the posthumous Heathen Earth. All of which, along with the Greatest Hits compilation, have been reissued by Industrial with a brand new remastering job by Carter, a fantastic packaging design consisting of new photos and essays, and a bonus disc added to every album, each one including essential 7-inch singles, alternate takes, and miscellaneous moments from throughout the rest of the group’s less-experienced extended catalogue.
Carter’s remaster is admittedly a “light touch”. Before the group’s distribution contract with Mute ran out, digital clones of all the band’s original master tapes were made. Carter added no equalizing or compression, but simply cleaned up a few rough patches. While the changes are minor, one could see diehard fans being upset by these tweaks, as the Throbbing Gristle many of us know is supposed to sound a bit crappy, claustrophobic, and difficult to discern—as close to a snuff film as an audio recording can be.
However, since many of these recordings were made on a single mono cassette recorder with no multitracking, time has truly been shown to have been rough to the recordings in their various incarnations throughout the years. The latest digital transfer, by contrast, has exposed a remarkable clarity and depth heretofore unheard of in the music. Throbbing Gristle are a highly timbral and atmospheric outfit. Those who’ve been acquainted with these recordings for years can be forgiven for thinking that they’re only just now hearing the whole songs that they thought they knew.
This is perhaps the first time to hear Throbbing Gristle’s music as it was intended to be heard—as body music pulsing throughout your skin, its bass rumbles possessing your innards, its zapping ohms electrifying your inner ear, its deformed frequencies twisting your stomach, and its vile words trawling into your brain like a parasite. “Entertainment Through Pain” often amounted to assaults on the audience and even with the current remastering job, there are still moments of unbearable shrillness and guttural unease, “errors” left as is for future displeasure. What made Throbbing Gristle remarkable and distinct from their conceptual peers in prog-rock or even punk was how they could form a sonic correlative to a music world that cleansed every ounce of grit, every last bit of gristle, from their recordings.
The group’s obsession with the body as a decaying vessel, subject to disease, disfigurement, chemical imbalance, bone rot, and acute psychosis, found them conceiving “pain” as being as much about humility as physical pain. Perhaps this is best exemplified what is almost universally recognized as the “ultimate” Throbbing Gristle song, “Hamburger Lady”, a tune based on P-Orridge’s cut-up of a letter written by mail artist Al Ackerman about a burn ward victim so badly disfigured that her body looks like it has been melted into hamburger meat. On “Hamburger Lady”, a deep electronic hum vacuums across the aural carpet at an arrested rate like a slow-motion EKG, enunciating the drag of time acutely. Every respiration is a moan, marked in whinnying tremolo synth tones. The whole process sounds labored. P-Orridge’s heavily phased vocals are delivered dry and clinically, but the effects make him sound cachexy. This disconnect comments wildly on the authoritarian relationship at play; the dispassionate doctor is just as sick as the woman in the bed.
Throbbing Gristle in 1979
Obsessed with magick, P-Orridge and Sleazy were convinced that language and sound could literally possess the bodies they encounter, the non-tactile inducing the corporeal. The group experimented with this by using frequencies to scare off bothersome neighbors or attempting to shudder the bowels of their audiences using “brown” frequencies. This continued even after the death of TG with Sleazy making music to harness male sexual energy in Coil and P-Orridge eventually adopting sexual reassignment almost as a kind of art experiment. In a way, their adoption of the cut-up method in lyrics and samples was a way of fighting back against the word, which had betrayed the body by taking on a life of its own. Overall, Throbbing Gristle were disturbed by the way communication was alienated from the body. Perhaps that’s why they were so drawn to ways in which the mind used the body to communicate, particularly through sex and violence, or any combination thereof.
Sanguinary malevolence abounds on 2nd Annual Report. Always the least liked of Throbbing Gristle’s major works, it’s hard to disagree that the record, mostly comprised of early live takes, can be a challenging listen. “Live at Brighton” features snippets confessions of a killer who bashed in the head of a 10-year-old girl. “After Cease to Exist” features news clips about a ring of pedophiles abducting boys from youth hostels. Then there’s inceptive “Slug Bait”, third-rate post-Zappa trash whose lyrical directness (“I get your husband to your front bedroom /I cut his balls off with my knife / I make him eat them right there / In front of his pregnant wife / He chews his balls off…”) almost undermines the group’s entire mission of using shock value tactically, rather than just grossing people out for the fuck of it. It doesn’t help that the backing music on the canonized track barely even attempts to compete against the vocal. It’s sloppy, as TG are wont to be, but it lacks the chaotic fervor and manipulated lunacy that elevates early TG above the level of mere outsider art.
It’s an embarrassing introduction to a life-altering discography, but “Live at Southhampton”, which follows “Slug Bait”, is a prime example of how the band could simultaneously toy with convention while forging something new. The initial bassline seems like a tense lead-in to a more rock-structured piece, but the band does not allow entry. Instead Tutti’s nasty guitar snarls an hisses in post-psychedelic tantrum until the cut quietly winds down. Nothing accomplished and nothing gained, the entire grand narrative of rock n’ roll’s ego eradicated.
While much of the blueprint for noise and industrial is lingering about on 2nd Annual Report, Throbbing Gristle were already thinking bigger. The bonus disc with 2nd Annual Report boasts a number of wild, crunchy, and woozy freeform jams, many of which outshine the actual album, but the real standout is the mutant disco song “United”. This blatant love song was another attempt to disrupt expectation as the band began to suspect fans were becoming too comfortable with atonality. Released in the same month (May 1978) as The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette/TVOD” single, “United” shared that other minimal synth classic’s primitive drum programming and beyond-basic alien chord changes. Just as well, it was likely just as pivotal in “launching” synthpop, albeit launching it in a different direction.
True to form, Throbbing Gristle put “United”, their only song with commercial viability, on D.O.A, albeit after speeding the song up to an incomprehensible sixteen seconds in a possible show of one-upsmanship to the second side of Neu! 2. Listeners who bought the album after hearing it on the John Peel show must have hurled their LPs at the wall at this point. Unfortunately, they would have missed out on what is Throbbing Gristle’s pinnacle alchemical combination of music and non-music.
Starting out with a reel of churning computer noise, D.O.A.s “I.B.M.” sounds like a transmission into the future, a rotary phone dialing out and getting a rudimentary modem on the other end. “Hit By a Rock” then begins the communiqué with a tortured howl from P-Orridge. P-Orridge never seems to go down in the history books as a premier vocalist, but caught at the right moments, his lacerating shrieks embody far more than all of the group’s gory details combined. They’re mini-symphonies in and of themselves.