After Cease to Exist: The Far-from-Final Report of Throbbing Gristle
After a British government official declared them "Wreckers of Civilization", Throbbing Gristle understood their mission -- to destroy the Control society.
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.