[1 February 2012]
When we finished that first record, we went outside and we suddenly heard trains going past, and little workshops under the railway arches, and the lathes going and electric saws, and we suddenly thought, “We haven’t actually created anything at all, we’ve just taken it in subconsciously and re-created it.”
—Genesis P-Orridge, 1983
Imagine walking down blurred streets of havoc, post-civilisation, stray dogs eating refuse, wind creeping across tendrils…. It’s the death factory society, hypnotic mechanical grinding, music of hopelessness…. The music of 1984 has arrived. Made up of various people from all creative areas, post-psychedelic thrash, vanguard for thee Wild Boys, death seekers.
—Flyer for Throbbing Gristle’s debut “disconcert”, July 1976
Please Note: The quality and content of this album should not be compared to conventional commercial live or studio recordings. The Throbbing Gristle repertoire consisted of a diverse range of intentional (and unintentional) tonalities, timbres including: tape hiss, phase errors, white noise, distortion, clicks, pops, extreme high and low frequencies and occasionally silence. Please bear this in mind when listening to these recordings.
—Chris Carter, liner notes to 2011 reissues
I first came in contact with Throbbing Gristle when I ordered a copy of D.O.A: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle from the BMG record club as a burgeoning pre-teen. A big fan of Ministry, Wax Trax!, and Nine Inch Nails at the time, I was in the market for pretty much everything labeled “industrial” in BMG’s monthly catalogues. However, having heard Coil on some NIN remixes, and a synthpop tune called “I.C. Water” by Psychic TV on the Black Box compilation, as well as reading of Throbbing Gristle’s influence in several music magazines, I was curious to hear what the group that had founded the entire genre sounded like.
I felt underwhelmed, if not more than a little perplexed by what I heard. I’d imagine my reaction to the record was not unlike what many of those who attended the band’s early shows in the late 1970s heard. The sound of tracks like “Hit By a Rock”, “Blood on the Floor”, and “We Hate You (Little Girls)” was abysmal- muddy, shrieking, atonal, and utterly amateur. None of the guitars on the rest of the record…you know… rocked out. There were no riffs. The mechanical loops were incessant to the point of being bothersome. The accents on “Valley of the Shadow of Death” and “Death Threats” were too colloquial and too thick for my tin American ears to decipher. And foremost, where were the beats?
Had I approached this same music in the instant feedback loop of today’s music market, perhaps I would have given up right there, but for some reason I kept returning to D.O.A and its unique sonics implanted themselves in my mind. Even by the time I started college though, it was too weird an album for me to consider it a part of my permanent collection. As I packed away 99% of my CDs, tapes, and records to lug away in the back of my car on the trek off to university, I left D.O.A at my parents’ house. It wasn’t until I returned from my freshman year and put D.O.A on for what I thought would be a final spin before exchanging it for some kind of lamentable lo-fi indie piffle at the local used CD shop that I realized it was one of the greatest albums that I owned.
Throbbing Gristle is that kind of act, the kind that gets under your skin and infects you with its disease. And marvelously enough, that was their mission statement right from the start. Weaned on a diet of Burroughs, Gysin, Crowley, Viennese Aktionism, De Sade, Pasolini, Bataille, and others, the group’s intention was to liberate art, music, and their audiences from the vice grip of control by whatever means necessary. They set out to do this by a strategy of “entertainment through pain”, pushing against the sensibility of taste in the domain of both the eye and the ear, not to mention the mind, like it was a matter of self-preservation.
As a reflexive tool against an increasingly postmodern world, TG were one of the first to challenge the restrictions of relativism by incorporating the gruesome brutality of the 20th century into their work and by both questioning and exploring the limits of art, teetering a thin line between staged frenzy and delusional psychosis. Unlike their legions of followers in noise and power electronics, Throbbing Gristle did not seek to fetishize violence or fascism, but instead invited these grisly tendencies into their music as aural extremities that might jolt a passive public out of its waking sleep.
The liberating angle of their vision would seem to set the band adrift with the hippies of the psychedelic era, while the conceptual framework and the art world background seems to align them with prog rock (the band opened for Hawkwind and lived down the road from Third Ear Band). Further, they released their own DIY records, hung with Crass, and took pride in not being able to play their instruments, making a good case for Throbbing Gristle as “Punk” (post-punk makes little sense since they preceded punk). Yet Throbbing Gristle were something that truly broke with tradition and existed independent of any larger scene.
Though they built their own community and released albums by near-minded peers like SPK, Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA, and Leather Nun under the Industrial Records banner, Throbbing Gristle were a unique voice that acted singularly as a unit and surrogate from any wider demands throughout society. sThe group self-proclaimed themselves “Zen Anarchists” and it wasn’t just their own rockist egos that they were trying to destroy, but the collective ego too—the ego of nation-states, religions, corporations, and other institutional hierarchies.
“Industrial music was closest to journalism,” Genesis P. Orridge once said, “a documentary in black and white of the savage realities of fading capitalism.” Throbbing Gristle was trying to refocus the collective gaze, ever averted by its own fantastical image, back to the shit it had swept out sight.
Excretion and waste played a big part in Throbbing Gristle’s original campaign as COUM Transmissions. COUM emerged at a moment when performance art was becoming even more relentless, decadent, and dangerous (as Chris Burden’s ill-fated Shoot piece demonstrated). Primarily the activities of the disturbed couple Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanny Tutti, COUM sought to be the most extreme of all of the renegade performance troupes. Their performances involved all levels of questionable acts like blood, urine, and milk enemas, severed chicken heads mounted on penises, eating human vomit, Tutti cutting her vagina and breasts with a razorblade, live intercourse, and hanging P-Orridge on a cross (ah, young love). However, what truly made COUM transgressive was that it had revolutionary aspirations. Like Masha said of Videodrome in film of the same title, COUM’s greatest threat was that it had “a philosophy”.
COUM understood that performance art straddled a very thin line between art and pornography and that many of their acts would be considered illegal if only the control society had thought to outlaw them. “Annihilating Reality”, a COUM document penned by P-Orridge and future TG member Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson questions whether it is “only legality that prevents the artist from the slaughter of human beings as performance” and whether “crime [is] just unsophisticated or ‘naïve performance art’”. The pamphlet declared that “For every interesting performance artist there [is] a psychopath, fetishist or intense street individual who created more powerful and socially direct imagery”, a notion which assumes an extra gravity given Throbbing Gristle’s subsequent fascination with serial killers like Ian Brady, Dean Corll, and Charles Manson. Here, 30 years beforehand, is Stockhausen’s pronunciation of the September 11th acts as “the biggest work of art there has ever been”, the idea that repressive societies create their own forms of artists whether these societies desire their work or not.
Throbbing Gristle in 1978
Combine all this with flyers that contained phrases like “We love your British policemen, especially the dead ones” and the fact that COUM were ever allowed near government money can only be seen as a gross oversight. Nevertheless, it was one of COUM’s tamer pieces, a retrospective exhibition entitled “Prostitution” held at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, that would prove their most controversial- its tampons sculptures, clippings of Tutti’s pornographic poses, and strippers writhing in blood before a live audience setting off a national debate about arts funding in a time of spending cuts and earning the group the proud tag of “wreckers of Western civilization” by Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn.
By that point though, COUM had nearly exhausted its potential in the art world. By reaching the precipice of power via the ICA, the locus of the art establishment, and the Queen (partial funder of ICA), the group proved that the cleansing lens of society was not immune to having its filth dredged back up in its face, and that capitalism carried within it the means to purchase the noose that would hang itself. Enlisting sometime COUM collaborators Sleazy (who did slick work for Hipgnosis, the foremost record design firm of the time) and Chris Carter (a sound designer for UK TV and architect of big visual spectacles for groups like Yes and ELO), COUM debuted Throbbing Gristle at their final show in 1976 for the soundtrack to the film After Cease to Exist, the entirety of which appears on The Second Annual Report of Throbbing Gristle.
Carter and Sleazy’s work in the culture industry presented the group with one possible door into the world of mass media, which could plausibly net a far greater impact than localized happenings. But rather than latch on to a major record label and erode the system from within (like, say, fellow conceptual artists Devo from Akron, OH), Throbbing Gristle decided to embody the entrepreneurial spirit and form their own label. Dedicated to “Industrial Music for Industrial People”, the rubric of Industrial Records allowed the group to critique the music and art industries not only through sonics, performance, and song lyrics, but also through the framework underlying the entire project, demystifying the means of production. Later, Granada TV host Tony Wilson (a native Mancunian like P-Orridge) would pilfer the idea for his Factory Records label. Throbbing Gristle too claimed to make factory records, but theirs was “Music from the Death Factory”.
Industrialization had disturbed the quiet pastoralism of the English countryside, shoved farmers into menial, denigrating work, and had begun to pave over the natural topography to make way for the dominance of manufactured landscapes, artificial food, noise pollution, and chemical air. As the hippies tried to recommune with nature, nature itself continued to become more and more sparse, as industry began coagulating the available mental and physical space to the point of near-strangulation. The factories weren’t just death camps because workers were stuck there until they died or because the factories were quite literally carcinogenic, but also because they crushed spirit and originality, making workers zombies. “We created cars to fight for space to be in,” P-Orridge declares on “Weeping” off of D.O.A. “We created work to waste our time/ We created love, so one can be the victim”.
Being an “industrial” group meant churning out music as if on a timed assembly line. The group exhaustively documented and released every single show they ever did, setting the precedent for the noise community’s society of overabundance (TG’s 24 tape 24 Hours predated Merzbow’s infamous 50 disc Merzbox by 20 years). Live performances went on for precisely 60 minutes. Though the group’s major releases (the ones that have just been reissued by the reformed Industrial Records) saw distribution on vinyl, TG’s preferred method of output was the more economical cassette tape. Lastly, their album sleeves were streamlined into dull functional designs that made their music products look more like paint thinner than albums, an aesthetic that often betrayed the subversive content hidden within the art itself.
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.
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