Over the past ten years, an arcane impulse has slowly re-emerged in underground music. Formerly content to survive on the fringes of various dark subcultures (and mostly in the basements of self-anointed purists), the occult and its signifiers—spanning design, text, and sonic elements—are now crawling out of the depths of the musical imagination, and reclaiming territory once ceded. This stygian urge, both ideological and artistic, is subtler than just love of the abject, and more purposeful than the mere hailing of Satan: through creative practice, its acolytes draw on millennia of esoteric belief and technique to intentionally re-sculpt reality via ritual, an approach known as functional magick.
Such aural “occulture” is, in part, a repudiation of the late ’90s and early-to-mid ’00s, when so-called subversive music allowed itself to be defanged in the public eye: when (nu) metal’s A-list wailed about Rust Belt angst on the Family Values Tour; pop personalities forgot how to wink at their own overblown pageantry; rock’s apotheosis became a hollow, ironic detachment; and electronica relinquished the menace of the beat’s irrationality, to name a few. Functional magick in art also now competes against a resurgence of cloy, playacting magic (sans k) found in shop windows and merchandizing. These glib gestures in the epoch of Twitter are in fact more exo– than eso-teric, and gaining steam: casual astrological musings while in line for pour-over coffee; tarot with living-room rosé on a Friday night; self-declared covens of creative class yuppies (“Yuccies”) in gentrifying neighborhoods; and the casting of public hexes to thwart right-wing politics, to name a few.
I think the spark for this mystic shift in music arrives through the folk canonization of the band Psychic TV, the ersatz cult Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, the larger-than-life counterculture impresario who jumpstarted both. A quarter-century since Temple ov Psychick Youth disbanded, and the musical careers of Psychic TV and P-Orridge withered, all three are now being lionized by a wide gamut of tastemakers: academics and journalists foremost, but also artists and fans who travel in eldritch music circles, including many who celebrate Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s occulture as direct inspiration (Partridge 2013: 113-115). Adulatory coverage spans museum exhibitions, edited volumes, documentaries, and dozens of web and print articles, as well as entire genres (like witch house) and record labels (Sacred Bones, Dais) entranced by their aura. However, stepping back for a second, this moment feels rather arbitrary. Why here, and why now? How can we make sense of the modern resurrection of Psychic TV, Temple ov Psychick Youth, and P-Orridge? With their return to prominence in cultural memory, the “ley lines” for occulture seem to have been unearthed (or remembered?) again, and now summon the old forces anew in our shared imagination.
Let me suggest that this zeitgeist be traced to Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s calculated, occult-fueled tactics of “cultural engineering”, which first unfolded from 1981-1991 and still resonate, I think, into the present. This essay uses one such cultural engineering campaign to provide a vivid case study: Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s propagandizing to appropriate the origin story of UK acid house, and surreptitiously insert themselves as the genre’s innovators in the public eye. Primary sources show how this was accomplished—Psychic TV deliberately left a trail of breadcrumbs for fans to uncover during their interviews with journalists and other public commentaries, toying with elements of acid house’s narrative that were equivocal and open to exploitation. Here, Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth catalyzed cultural engineering by weaving myths and seeding beliefs within the acid house community’s collective consciousness that implied their prestige.
Most of the relevant mythology revolves around Psychic TV’s four studio albums of electronic dance music released during this era, three of which were fabricated “compilations” that presented the Psychic TV band members as pseudonymous acid house artists beholden to Temple ov Psychick Youth’s magickal influence: Jack the Tab (1988), Tekno Acid Beat (1988), Towards Thee Infinite Beat (1990), and Ultrahouse: The L.A. Connection (1991). Ultimately, this essay will show how Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s mythmaking is linked back to a specific ritual of functional magick known as invocation, integral to both the curation of these albums and successful cultural engineering. I focus on myths that connect to Jack the Tab in particular, since this record laid the groundwork for all their subsequent forays into acid house. But for now, an examination of cultural engineering’s ambitions, and its magickal underpinning, will establish the through-line that Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth pursued during their appropriation of the acid house counterculture.
Chaos Magick as Cultural Engineering
From where did cultural engineering emerge? The story commences with the breakup of first-wave Industrial band Throbbing Gristle, memorialized by many as the genre’s founders. Throbbing Gristle’s art was intended not to delight, but to fulfill their socio-cultural program known as “the Mission.” Its objective? “To create [an] anti-muzak” capable of jamming the transmissions sent by civilization’s institutions of brainwashing and submission—church, state, and above all, corporatized media (Louv 2006: 23). This “Mission”, largely inspired by the paranoiac postmodernist William S. Burroughs, aimed at unwinding our calcified systems of control and conformity through sensory shock and awe. To that end, Throbbing Gristle melded a grating sonic profile with prurient lyrical subjects. Of course, this original plan of attack fell short. But in the aftermath of Throbbing Gristle, two former members, P-Orridge and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, decided to evolve “the Mission” as the impetus for their next act.
Christened Psychic TV, this subsequent endeavor pivoted away from the sound and scene of Industrial culture, and towards occultism: a toolkit for social change more powerful, they wagered, than auditory assault alone. Here was Psychic TV (and Temple ov Psychick Youth’s) foundational premise: to operate as the latest metamorphosis of an intellectual project first ignited a decade earlier, testing the ability of art to move through and manipulate our social fabric as an invisible hand. Launched in performance art collectives like The Exploding Galaxy/Transmedia Explorations and COUM Transmissions—and carried into Throbbing Gristle—the cultural engineering of Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth became the state-of-the-art iteration.
Contributors to Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth saw themselves as the latest scions of the Western esoteric heritage, spanning a thousand years from the self-proclaimed alchemists and sorcerers of the middle ages, through the fin de siècle spiritual sects, and into the advent of chaos magick during the late ’70s. Indeed, cultural engineering is, at its core, Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s savvy re-branding of the nascent chaos magick mindset, only now pointed specifically at molding the narratives of popular culture through ritual. Proper acknowledgment of Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s “meta” agenda—to also paint themselves as the vanguard of functional magick’s cutting-edge doctrines—will underscore how many past writings about P-Orridge and h/er confederates mistakenly regard them as historical curios, innocently unaware of their own posturing to curate occult narratives as well. But credit should be given where it’s due: tapping into chaos magick as a compelling new mysticism during the early ’80s, Psychic TV and its splinter bands (e.g., Coil, Current 93) were among the first artists to inject this approach into the artistry of Western counterculture. They laid the groundwork in music for chaos magick’s adoption by both individual artists (such as Nurse with Wound, The KLF, Tool, and John Zorn) and subgenres (including black metal, neo-folk, and yes, even witch house).
Unlike earlier occult schools, such as the hidebound Victorians, chaos magick is premised on the fluidity of one’s chosen methods; for rituals, each user cobbles together their own collection of favored techniques and themes, the more idiosyncratic, the better. Chaos magick’s raw materials are near-infinite, ranging from the old esoteric conventions to the natural sciences, and from academia to pop literature, music, and art. (Hine 1995: 15). This amounts to occultism with both a Do-It-Yourself flair and an important undertone: that personal belief, no matter the context, is entirely mutable and useful only in the moment. Chaos magick prioritizes the “programming” of novel beliefs as a way to tease out latent desires hovering just below the surface of one’s personality (Hine 1995: 17 and Temple ov Psychick Youth 2010: 218). In fact, practitioners often purposefully coax the implantation of contradictory beliefs and behaviors to destabilize a firm sense of self: “beliefs are not seen as ends in themselves, but as tools for creating desired effects” (Carroll 1992: 75-7).
The ritual known as invocation is one tool of chaos magick modeled on this concept. Invocation is undertaken by the magician to harvest either single behavioral attributes or, out of whole cloth, an entirely new character. For external viewers, this resembles roleplaying—the magician first idealizes a real or imagined archetype (a “godform”), and then imitates its desired disposition(s) with such fervor that they turn the corner from merely mimicking affectations to directly channeling the persona; one’s body and mind are opened up as invited vessels for possession by an outside entity. Indeed, ‘”[one] purpose of chaos rituals is to create beliefs by acting as though such beliefs were true. … you fake it till you make it, to obtain the power that a belief can provide”, but in the midst of invocation, the magician performs as though they already possess the fullness of the desired role (Carroll 1992: 75-6). The shift from pageantry to welcome subjugation by an interloping spirit is one approach by which ingrained selfhood is disrupted through the conscious selection and installation of new beliefs.
Though invocation itself is an intimate, solitary act, public-facing “aftercare” is often pursued as well. Here, the magician concocts external conditions that reflect back and inflate the veracity and power of the persona they chose to absorb. This even reaches back beyond the toolkit of chaos magick. For example, the infamous occult “thought leader” Aleister Crowley—whose influence crested during the Victorian mystic awakening—conjured the widespread impression that he commanded several rapidly-expanding esoteric sects (and a small army of followers) by writing copiously under more than a dozen different aliases, curating newsletters and other texts with commentaries and inscriptions implying his prestige.
It’s unsurprising that legions of occultists, marching under the banner of a single figurehead, would strike dread in the hearts of the UK’s patriotic Christians, whereas lone magicians inspire only mockery from the common folk. But while chaos magicians and Victorian magicians employ the same aftercare tactics for their invocation rituals, their self-regard differs greatly: the former would openly bluster about this strategy’s puissance and clout, whereas the latter would cringe, embarrassed by being debunked. Through invocation, Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick YouthY first sought to excavate and re-sculpt their own personalities to the task at hand, and then, project their power of belief outward to shape the public imagination. Now, glimpsing into P-Orridge’s magickal/musical hybrid sect will set the stage for invocation’s usurpation of the UK acid house narrative.
Psychic TV and Temple ov Psychick Youth Up Close
Looking back, the link is evident between Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s establishment in 1981 and the release of chaos magick’s foundational grimoires (Peter Carroll’s Liber Null & Psychonaut and Ray Sherwin’s The Book of Results) only three years earlier in 1978. Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s internal design and public deployment reflected the larger chaos magick ethos—rather than directly disrupt the “control machines”, as Throbbing Gristle might, they operated through subterfuge. Psychic TV embodied the conspicuous, creative voice of P-Orridge and h/er lieutenants, but this functioned merely as an aural smokescreen for h/er much more ambitious gambit, the ritual collective Temple ov Psychick Youth (c. 1981-1991). Temple ov Psychick Youth’s international youth network presented to outsiders as a cult with militant aspirations, though in actuality, their unifying feature was less any revolutionary fervor than a wide-eyed affinity for P-Orridge’s hodgepodge of esoteric ideas and tactics strung together from chaos magick (Abrahamsson 2010: 11-5). Temple ov Psychick Youth also dissembled as a music subculture, doubling in the public eye as the Psychic TV fan club whose members espoused fanatical devotion to the band. Of course, behind the scenes, the reverse held true: Temple ov Psychick Youth’s machinations were prioritized, while Psychic TV provided media-facing agitprop and a hype machine in support of the Temple’s objective: to weaponize the techniques of chaos magick, and experiment with them in the test tube of the ’80s subculture landscape (P-Orridge 2004: 312).
P-Orridge possessed a messianic streak in both h/er cult organizing and creative ventures, alternating between a preening charisma and an unpredictable, explosive temper—often in equal measure. As a result, Psychic TV’s band membership turned into a revolving door for much of its 35 years of (intermittent) activity. This constant shuffle of artistic personnel led, in turn, to a mélange of different genres being probed (often at the same time). Psychic TV toyed with facets of psych-rock, the English ballad tradition, musique concrete, and the Burroughsian cut-up method, among others. Though often hit-or-miss, this synthesis reflected Psychic TV’s stated goal to forge a new “hyperdelic” subgenre of rock, one whose psychedelic vibes were deliberately injected with occult intrigues (Neal 2001: 227-37). The hyperdelic (and for their dance phase, “sampledelic”) music of Psychic TV played a specific organizing role: as practical background tracks for converting curious outsiders into loyal Temple ov Psychick Youth disciples, and usher them into the Temple’s superstructure. Psychic TV became the real-world application of Temple ov Psychick Youth’s prime credo: to harness pop culture as an “alchemical jar” for experimentation, and build an occult movement based in abstract philosophy rather than the common dogmas of organized religion (Kinney 1992: 327 and P-Orridge 1982: 30-1).
By 1991, Temple ov Psychick Youth professed to have 10,000 followers in its ranks, expanding from an original home base in Brighton, England to bastions across the Western world. To accommodate this surge, a larger governing structure came about—”Access Points” as small redoubts for disciples to disseminate radical Temple ov Psychick Youth literature and art among the unsuspecting public, and “Stations” that oversaw entire territories of acolytes, such as Australia (TOPYCHAOS) and North America (TOPYNA) in North America (Kali Four Zero 2010: 85-6). Contrary to other youth “movements” which instilled fear and loathing in the Thatcher/Reagan managerial class, for Temple ov Psychick Youth the construction of myth was the whole point. Akin to Aleister Crowley and other occultists of yore, they summoned for onlookers (and foremost, the media) the appearance of an insurgent faction using viral branding that encompassed hairstyle, fashion, and a striking design profile. Temple ov Psychick Youth drew beguiling parallels with other fearsome outsider factions already in the public imaginary, including Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, Charles Manson’s “family”, and most pointedly, Robert de Grimston’s The Process Church (of the Final Judgement). From 1981-1987, Temple ov Psychick Youth’s partisans sported coordinated signifiers, ranging from military combat dress and priestly garb to elongated rat tails—but above all, the network’s identifying icon, the Psychick Cross. Derived from the papal cross with new pagan affectations, P-Orridge mused how “from The Process [Church] we saw the need for a logo, a symbol. I designed the Psychick Cross … a symbol that seems really familiar … so that people could find it easy to adopt into their personal mythology” (P-Orridge 2008: 406).
But in retrospect, all of Temple ov Psychick Youth’s early pageantry feels like just a prelude for cultural engineering’s concerted deployment circa 1988-91, in service to Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s joint acid house annexation. According to occultist Jason Louv, “Psychic TV (thanks, in large part, to regular consumption of MDMA), moved from an early focus on tribal, wolfpack-style declarations of war on man’s sleepwalking state and into a fully psychedelic (or rather, hyperdelic), Merry Prankster-esque cheerleader squad for sex, drugs, and magick” (Louv 2006: 21). Louv characterizes this direct action as the zenith of Temple ov Psychick Youth’s organizing, in which their devotees were already primed for the budding (but brave) new world of raving: the acid sound, MDMA, and other enchanted encounters with psychedelia’s atavism. In this moment, he insists, Temple ov Psychick Youth emerged as the tip of a countercultural spear, and briefly, the frenzy and rapture of acid house lifted the veil and exposed society’s inner logics of obedience and orthodoxy (Louv 2006: 22-3). This fawning narrative is standard for contemporary Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youthdefenders, selling the sect and its band both as acid house’s portent and evangelist—a worthy inheritance for their prior indoctrination. But a larger question presses: precisely what tempted P-Orridge to pursue acid house as a target of cultural engineering, since this subculture was one of a plethora open to exploitation?
Why Acid House?
Books about acid house—like The Story of Acid House: Britain’s Last Youth Culture Revolution by Luke Bainbridge, or Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture by Simon Reynolds—help establish broad strokes regarding the scene’s emergence and development. But texts like these all concur that, in the public eye, acid house’s collective ownership was fragmented at best. Crafted by queer artists of color in mid-’80s Chicago, acid’s original authorship was soon uprooted in fan storytelling by its transference and explosive success in hotspots such as the UK, Ibiza, and Goa. Economics alone are revealing: for example, Chicago’s black artists like Lil Louis, Phuture, Adonis, and Mr. Fingers sold exponentially fewer records than “second generation” white artists in the UK such as The KLF, 808 State, and Bomb the Bass (Shapiro 2000: 34). Chicago house DJ Derrick Carter recalled how “things started changing … in 1988. Because of the ‘summer of love’ in the UK, they were exporting acid house back to us. Everybody here has a local focus, so we were like, ‘Really? They make acid music in London?’ … I was the buyer at Importes, Etc. [Carter’s record store day job] and I’d read these sheets that came with imports from the UK. They’d say things like, ‘this has hard, driving acid.’ I didn’t understand how it could be acid.”
Acid’s incessant framing as a transitional style—a chrysalis for the global, mainstream youth phenomenon of ’90s EDM and rave culture, rather than a self-sufficient genre—is another contributing factor, opening further avenues for appropriation. And Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth were far from the only forces of their generation to glom onto acid house. Simon Reynolds notes how “in British and European rave culture [one finds] … a surprising number of postpunk and synth-pop veterans rubbing shoulders with Ecstasy-gobbling teenagers and born-again clubbers. Dormant careers were instantly revitalized by the new context … (crazed collective hedonism) and … emotion (euphoria with a mystic tinge) … ” (Reynolds 2006: 530-1). But the sound world of acid, and the conditions of the subculture proved especially irresistible for Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s cultural engineering project, above and beyond artists just looking to bootstrap new career paths. Three specific dimensions prove this point.
First, of course, is the iconic psychedelia in acid’s sonic and visual elements, particularly the TB-303 synth manufactured by Roland. Its trademark harmonic filters slowly shift up and down the frequency spectrum, imbuing a hallucinatory gloss to the repetitive bass sequences that rapidly cycle. This effect, coupled with other modulations and acid’s maddening rhythms, conjure a deranged sort of phasing echo chamber analogous to Psychic TV’s “hyperdelic” rock. The design components of acid are equally unhinged—most recognizable is the signature happy face with its dilated eyes and blank gaze, appropriated from hippie culture by Danny Rampling for London’s Shoom club in 1987. This blissed-out face resonates, to an uncanny degree, with Temple ov Psychick Youth’s own Psychick Cross logo, juxtaposing mystery, foreboding, and immediacy while playing off whichever seductive associations an individual assigns.
Second, to come together and dance, acid house developed a web of clandestine backchannels for coordination and abandoned venues for usurpation. The community re-purposed derelict structures ranging from airplane hangars to barns, and cinema studios to highway underpasses—circa 1988-1990, hundreds and hundreds of such “raves” took place (Hill 2003: 222-3). This extensive, underground planning (and the ecstatic gatherings that resulted) seemed eerily akin to Temple ov Psychick Youth’s furtive communications networks to spread their gospels through hierarchical hideaways such as Access Points and Stations. Indeed, the scene’s diffuse nature made the government’s punitive oversight much more onerous, and in a guerilla fashion, acid aficionados were able to commune and then melt away again, back into the fissures of mundane civilization (Hill 2003: 222).
Third, I believe, is acid house’s refusal to play along with the UK’s reactionary institutions of power and authority. With their relentlessly rhizomatic, communitarian agenda, acid’s adherents pierced Thatcherism’s political master plan for a prudish social and libertarian economic system. Here, they joined with both Temple ov Psychick Youth and other modern occultists as kindred spirits, pushing back against the neoliberal conventions that privileged “rugged” individualism and well-disciplined, one-dimensional selfhood. Instead, the acid family sought “jouissance“, “the Dionysiac”, “loss of self” and the use of far-out digital, design, and pharmaceutical tools to deliberately select a more perfect version of reality (Hill 2002: 93-4 and Rushkoff 1994: 19). But perhaps most alluring was the anti-acid retaliation from UK politicians and law enforcement. Examples span constabulary task forces like the Pay Party Unit in 1989 and regulations designed to curtail acid parties like the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act in 1990. Crackdowns like these provided further enticement for Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth to hitch their wagons to acid house and leverage the danger it embodied for polite society (Hill 2003: 221).
These three elements of acid house—the surreal, dissociative music and imagery; the whisper campaigns required to plan and execute their rebellious conclaves; and the impish peril (real or imagined) that menaced God and country—collectively lent a ritual aura to the subculture. Academics commenting on acid house have likened “raves and clubs as ritual events”, and DJs as shamans who glue together participants’ shared sense of belonging (Gerard 2004: 170). In fact, I think much synergy is evident between the key features of acid house and the Victorian magickal orders on which Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth premised their own organizing. P-Orridge likely grasped these vapors of the occult when s/he first encountered acid house, and realized an opportunity to deploy and test the principles of cultural engineering. S/he stumbled upon, in essence, a countercultural factory with its machines already primed—but absent any public leadership setting the agenda.
By implicating Psychic TV and Temple ov Psychick Youth as masterminds of the acid house insurgency, P-Orridge supplied a mystical underpinning that affirmed percolating suspicions of some motive apart from straightforward debauchery and the spirit of saturnalia—as if to say, “here is the ritual purpose you surmised all along.” S/he simply conjured the necessary beliefs through invocation’s posturing, selling narrative purpose against an unsettled explanatory vacuum. Chaos magick’s shrewd maneuvering here syncs perfectly with the old showbusiness truism: give the crowd what they want. Now, examining the precise fictions generated by Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth will elucidate just how they were interpolated as the antecedents of UK acid house.
Popular culture is saturated with narratives about acid house that center Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth. But these were intentionally propagated, spread through externalized tactics of masquerade—such as artist interviews, public statements, and other published writings—that acquire occult dimensions in their service to P-Orridge (and others’) invocation ritual(s). Most link to Psychic TV’s initial “acid” album Jack the Tab, with three key myths persisting to this day—evidence of their magickal efficacy.
Myth One: Inventing Acid House
The first, and most comprehensive myth, is that Jack the Tab became the UK’s debut acid record, which in turn, ignited the subculture’s craze across the British Isles. Explaining Jack the Tab‘s premise, P-Orridge asserts: “we pretended that it was early tapes that we’d found like those compilations on Rhino or Bam Caruso, Pebbles, Nuggets, and we’ll make up names for these different bands, so we’ll see what happens.” But P-Orridge and h/er collaborators penned the album with no inkling about the original Chicago sound—instead, they dreamt up a preferred iconography and sonic world from the name “acid”. For example, in lieu of riding the resonance filter of the TB-303 to create the trademark “squelch”, Psychic TV replaced the 303 synth on Jack the Tab with samples of live electric bass, an ironic misuse since the 303 was itself a failed attempt to imitate funk-style bass. Just as bizarre was Jack the Tab‘s percussion. Rather than mimic the acid drum machine kick/hi-hat syncopated sparseness, the record relies instead on mushy samples of acoustic drums with a booming, on-beat snare—an aesthetic more (again, ironically) industrial than late ’80s queer dance.
Veering off course, Psychic TV’s concept for acid employed the dense, unsettled layering of samples with psychedelic connotations in popular culture—spoken word, television, and film clips ranging from The Trip (Roger Corman, 1967) and The Wild Angels (ibid, 1966) to hippie figurehead Ken Kesey. Indeed, for Psychic TV, sampling imbued with external connotations from ’60s counterculture (and occulture) served as the paragon of psychedelic affect, as opposed to specific musical techniques or themes. The handling (and subtexts of) the samples themselves are another point of contrast. Whereas Chicago acid’s samples were predominantly the voices of the black DJs—then chopped up and turned into granular, textural elements via pitch shifting and stretching—the Psychic TV acid tracks featured almost only white voices from media clips, re-triggered over and over in a collage with practically no other sonic treatments to progressively mask or distort the original version beyond post-production effects. The result lacks the minute and incremental variation of textures found in Chicago acid.
First-hand accounts confirm what the music implies. In a candid confession, Jack the Tab‘s producer Richard Norris detailed how P-Orridge and the gang got wind of the “acid house” moniker and decided to run with it. He goes on to recall how, while interviewing P-Orridge in 1987, s/he asked whether Norris had listened to acid house before. But after expounding about acid house for some time, the fact that P-Orridge hadn’t heard it either become patently obvious. Yet despite the blind leading the blind, the concept of an innovative dance music with expressly psychedelic vibes became their lodestar. Per Norris: “P-Orridge had already done a lot of that ‘found’ sound … so it didn’t seem that much of a leap to purely sample-based music.” After assembling a motley crew of comrades sold on the idea, they all turned up to a nearby studio with their personal collections of media comprising tapes, records, and films from back catalogs of psychedelic culture. Clips were then programmed into a rudimentary sampler, and drum patterns were layered on for the requisite accompaniments. Evidence of their work ethic, each track was arranged and compiled within about an hour. Apparently, once when Dave Ball [of Soft Cell] and Norris pushed the envelope by spending 90 minutes on a single track, P-Orridge chastised them for lollygagging about” (Bainbridge 2014: 101-2).
There is some marginal evidence of a guilty conscience at the time: Norris also related that, in between Jack the Tab‘s two-day assembly and its final release, P-Orridge and the team actually encountered real Chicago acid house, and as a band-aid, slipped in a sample of Chicago acid artist Adonis (Bainbridge 2014: 210). But as the old saying goes, all things fade. In a recent interview (that showcases invocation’s staying power), P-Orridge gushed when handed a copy of Jack the Tab for autographing, proclaiming the miracle of its birth during a time when acid house was nonexistent (check out also DeLong 2017 and Reveron 2016). A particularly galling version of this myth flips the script entirely, and claims that Psychic TV brought the trailblazing UK acid sound to America for the first time.
Psychic TV worked along parallel fault lines of the acid house origin narrative as well. For example, Psychic TV purportedly initiated (in 1987) the very first dusk-till-dawn blowouts at Shoom, the London dance hall widely known for catalyzing acid house’s popularity in the UK. According to this yarn, these Psychic TV parties soon morphed into full-blown raves which, in effect, birthed the dance craze in the UK as we know it. Shoom’s indispensable part in propagating the acid sound is well-sourced, but Psychic TV’s participation is unverifiable. Here is a prime example of ritual “aftercare” weaving fabrications into the historical record, often so seamlessly that even adroit fans are challenged to pull apart where the one ends and the other begins. But fortunately, public swagger reveals this claim’s ancestry. In a 2006 interview, P-Orridge boasted how Psychic TV’s 1987-88 shows were, fortuitously, bestowed the novel title “rave” and introduced MDMA to the dance community by proffering free tabs of ecstasy to all comers.
Practically every aspect of acid’s idiosyncrasy is touched by these fables, such as P-Orridge anointing h/erself the co-innovator of disc jockey dexterity. S/he insisted that, in lieu of broadcast interviews, radio appearances would become impromptu sets during which P-Orridge would commandeer six tape players and beat-match over the course of a live, seamless mix. When s/he performed this feat in Detroit, Derrick Carter and his crew rushed the radio studio and demanded to meet whoever exhibited such rare tape deck finesse. P-Orridge then became Carter’s guest of honor, bringing h/er to Importes, Etc. and introducing her to other house music happenings around Detroit and Chicago. Yet again, this bogus claim is intentionally difficult to unwind, even for those who follow the bread crumbs. Carter does affirm, around 1988, time was spent with P-Orridge while s/he visited Importes, Etc. and suggested checking out the nascent acid scene’s few grassroots releases, but P-Orridge’s visionary DJing was noticeably absent from the discussion. Even the acclaimed Amoeba record store in San Francisco states, in their Psychic TV biography section, that “[Jack the Tab] anticipated and contributed to the sound of the subsequent Madchester craze and the emerging rave culture.”
Myth Two: Naming Acid House
Myth two ascribes acid’s naming rights to P-Orridge. In apocryphal fashion, s/he supposedly spotted a crate of otherwise nondescript records in Chicago’s Importes, Etc. which displayed the mysterious sticker “acid”. With h/er interest piqued, she demoed a few, and was astounded to discover this homespun psychedelic dance music just sitting there. Though the bin’s label was intended only as someone’s inside joke (transferred from a nearby cleaning solvent container), acid house was nonetheless christened that very day (Rushkoff 1994: 154). Of course, here, Derrick Carter is conspicuously expunged as P-Orridge’s guide.
This fantasy has proved resilient, even making its way into the first (and third) definitions for acid house in the streetwise compendium Urban Dictionary: “Gained its name by Genesis P-Orridge of the famous Psychic TV/Throbbing Gristle industrial groups.” This story was later amended by P-Orridge, pivoting to focus on Psychic TV’s 1988 track “Tune In (Turn on the Acid House)” as the inaugural song to employ this trendy new moniker. Staking such claims proves dubious, however, since compilations featuring first-generation acid artists (with names like The House Sound of Chicago – Vol. III – Acid Tracks) were being disseminated only one year prior in 1987. Even some academic accounts repeat this trope—that though Psychic TV’s acid music was neither groundbreaking nor memorable, P-Orridge’s shrewd branding and marketing of the term became a formidable contribution towards the scene’s vitality (Reed 2013: 245-6. See also Opstrup 2017: 173 and Lee 2017: 8). But concessions like these merely bolster this particular myth while on the path to disavowing others. Indeed, according to Vice, P-Orridge’s celebrity at this late stage is stratospheric enough that any claim they made to have popularized the term “acid house” is beyond reproach.
Myth Three: Fixing Acid House
The final myth cites P-Orridge as revitalizing acid house, contributing a previously absent psychedelic affect. The story goes: after departing from Importes, Etc. with a bundle of Chicago acid records in tow, P-Orridge became sorely disappointed upon listening—these releases were utterly devoid of the authentic “acid” signifiers that s/he expected to discover, lacking any (traditional, white, 1960s) psychedelia implied by its namesake except for a sprightly, upbeat tempo (Sfetcu 2014: 190-1 and DeRogatis 2003: 436). To amend this injustice, Jack the Tab was cooked up, rectifying all of Chicago acid’s glaring deficiencies. This particularly outlandish tale is pitched, retroactively, as a sort of Grail quest that spans the length of P-Orridge’s music career—how might one blend “garage psychedelic music” (Psychic TV’s standard repertoire) with the so-called ethnic musics which were, in h/er outlook, more purely functional than artistic—”a hyperdelic form of dance music?” See this recent Huffington Post interview with P-Orridge for a particularly whimsical rendition (as well as Halligan 2013: 49-50 and Reynolds 1990: 181).
In another variant, further evolved, P-Orridge takes leave of Importes, Etc. and flies straight to Ibiza, to fulfill their (completely fabricated) DJing residency in the midst of Ecstasy-fueled dance music enthusiasts on vacation from the UK. Here, the argument is two-fold. First, that by exposing Chicago acid house to “psychedelic circumstances”, P-Orridge drew explicit cultural connections between the two for the first time and flipped a switch. Second, of course, is that P-Orridge h/erself is “patient zero” for bringing acid house beyond America, thus spreading the contagion to Britain. This tale, once again, thrives in the liminal zone of credibility, inserting P-Orridge (after the fact) into a widely accepted stream of the folk narrative about acid house’s transmission. This third myth finds sympathetic echoes from a wide variety of commentators. One apologetic account argues that, while “wide of the mark,” Jack the Tab “[evokes] a psychedelic continuum” spanning from the jazz fusion era of Miles Davis to proto-shoegaze—not exactly high praise for electronic house music (Halligan 2013: 49-50). Even the authoritative AllMusic.com delivers a version of this strand.
These three myths are not entirely uncontested. For example, Simon Reynolds calls P-Orridge a “peripheral figure in the UK’s acid house scene”, with any testaments otherwise “a total myth-take” (Reynolds 2012: 287). But I think that participant-sourced texts that breathe nary a word about Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth—even dismissive references—are most damning, such as Class of ’88: The True Acid House Experience by Wayne Anthony and Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House by Matthew Collin. Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth never captivated UK acid house through songwriting acumen or relentless touring, yet via targeted interviews and pure swagger, they nourished a terrarium of cultural engineering in the public mind five, ten, even twenty years in the aftermath of acid’s downturn when history-writing began.
Cultural Engineering’s Complexities
This cultural engineering campaign—spanning 1988 to the present—deployed three competing myths about acid house: that Psychic TV fabricated the style writ large; that Genesis P-Orridge bestowed the name; and that P-Orridge injected a revolutionary, psychedelic affect. Yet why promote so many variants at once, rather than agree to one narrative? Multiple tales, spread to many different fans or investigators, may be useful to Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth by disrupting corroboration or persuading skeptics. The true rationale, I think, is that a profusion of alibis guides the personal implantation of belief in the ritual context of invocation for P-Orridge and h/er cadre as well. Former Psychic TV member Fred Giannelli, since embittered by his tenure, confirms this spectacle’s power:
What you will read in any interviews or history books [about P-Orridge and acid house] … are all bullshit hype and self-promoting fluff. … I would like to take this opportunity to publicly refute Genesis P-Orridge’s claims of “inventing” acid house. Since when did a short [white] Englishman look like a black guy from Chicago? Gen has made this claim so many times in interviews that he actually believes his own bullshit … interviewed backstage by … gullible rock journalists all those years ago. The more press he did, the more grandiose and absurd the claims.
Invocation’s “sleight of mind” first convinces eager viewers, but with time, genuinely seduces the actor too (Carroll 1992: 94). As chaos magick evangelist Peter Carroll attests “we have a greater propensity to believe what we do, than to do what we believe,” or conversely—”beliefs are largely formed by what we find ourselves doing”, thus establishing a vicious (or virtuous) cycle in which “beliefs tend to lead to activities which … reconfirm belief” (Carroll 1992: 96, 76-7). And all the better if these beliefs are in conflict with each other, fracturing one’s stability of self and opening the gates for invocation to take hold. Indeed, to realize an ambition, behave as though its conquest were already undisputed—by crafting the façade and committing with abandon, the magician grows into and merges with the character. After P-Orridge and h/er confederates performed the invocation ritual, they then tried to live out this new reality, partially through conscious deceit—but by convincing enough outsiders, in time, they also convinced themselves. Perhaps 30 years were actually required for the invocation ritual and the “fake it till you make it” campaign to come to fruition.
Knowing deceptions are extra potent when tucked inside some scaffolding of veracity, adjacent to existing cultural memory such as starting “raves” at Shoom, introducing MDMA to club culture, or bringing the Chicago sound to Ibiza. Even backpedaling strengthens this dynamic, re-introducing a lesser claim with greater warrants to keep investigators, and invocators, unbalanced. For example, instead of naming the entire genre, P-Orridge concedes being first to title an album “acid house”; s/he wins this negotiation of belief after having h/er initial bluff called. Doing so opens liminal spaces for others to hedge and embolden cultural engineering—as one analysis of Jack the Tab argues, rather than concoct outright falsehoods about acid house, Psychic TV merely “proactively anticipate[s]” and “pseudo-curate[s]” the movement (Halligan 2013: 49-50).
There is also a moral frame to cultural engineering in acid house. Chaos magick, and the ritual context of Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s behavior, provide a backdrop for explaining how this occult sect and their band justified myth-weaving and cultural appropriation. If there were no esoteric explanation girding their designs, then Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s collective actions circa 1988-1991 amounted to little more than Elvis stealing Chuck Berry’s songs all over again. To be frank, P-Orridge and h/er followers were erasing the contributions and artistic identity of queer people of color in Chicago — an ignoble legacy indeed. But working through the lens of a ritual experiment being performed, the idea of occult trickery takes on a different moral charge—more “Merry Prankster,” less exploitative colonialism.
This dovetails with another “raced” element of the acid house story, and its place in the cultural imagination. Typically, when both high and low culture narratives lay claim to a multiracial (or “race contested”?) art form, the critical consensus—from erudite academics and journalists—emphasizes contributions of white participants who successfully monetize the art. On the other hand, those “in the know” as artists and fans champion the work of the people of color who first germinated the style. For acid house, the opposite holds true. Here, the well-credentialed writers and commentators tend to stress the inventive work of diverse, marginalized artists in Chicago and neighboring outposts, whereas lay audiences are increasingly enticed by the folk narratives that center P-Orridge and h/er (predominantly white) acolytes as the authoritative voices of the scene.
Why exactly did Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s dalliance with the acid house subculture conclude? After four studio albums of varied material, one might think that P-Orridge and h/er coterie were whetted to the dance world for the long haul. But with invocation’s braggadocio in full effect, P-Orridge let slip an amusing bit of projection—blaming their disengagement on, of all things, co-option and the collapse of the scene’s authenticity:
I was really disappointed with the way … [acid house] … unfolded, it became very conservative, formularized, the DJs became stars just like the singers in bands … the raves weren’t these secret parties anymore, 20,000 people paying thirty dollars to get in … it’s not what we were thinking at all. … We miscalculated, in a way we were elitist, we were thinking conceptually, it didn’t cross our minds that it would just be like going to the pub and getting drunk. … But certainly, I very quickly lost interest in it and moved on … I think our culture is so corrupted by commerce and so homogenized at this point that it’s going to be very hard for anything except small, autonomous, private groups, clans, and tribes having their own little scenes.
Of course, P-Orridge tells the story as if acid house were h/er own pet experiment gone awry. But the reality is less flattering. After 1991, Temple ov Psychick Youth’s notoriety and cultural capital plummeted when P-Orridge formally disowned and departed the collective in a flurry of copyright lawsuits and cease-and-desist orders. Temple ov Psychick Youth soldiered on after this schism, particularly their North American chapters (TOPYNA), though never again struck terror in the heart of polite society. P-Orridge h/erself founded lesser collectives in the mold of Temple ov Psychick Youth, such as “The Process” (1991) and “One True TOPI Tribe” (2010), but none acquired anywhere near the same vitality as Temple ov Psychick Youth.
There are still four lingering aspects of this strange saga worth mentioning. First, I think that the current discourse surrounding Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth should suspend the normal rules of engagement and tread carefully when pulling apart the Temple’s weft of history and lore, or risk being complicit in superficial rehabilitation. As a collective dedicated to propagandizing via music, fashion, manifesto, and media art, the Temple’s investments in self-mythology are keenly felt during our present wave of revisionism, which lauds P-Orridge and h/er lieutenants while excluding apostates—many who portray the Temple leadership as preying on the vulnerable and naïve to construct the same sort of controlling hierarchy that Temple ov Psychick Youth claimed to thwart.
Second, there are the innate challenges to accurate documenting esoteric history at all. As occult investigator Mitch Horowitz (2017) argues, most earnest writers on outsider spiritual topics “tend to either develop [an overt] contempt or … [outsized] affection for their subjects,” while other blatant critics marginalize them as “curios belonging to another era, oddball figures occupying a fringe of religious life”—their contemporary influence on mainstream culture, when conceded with sarcastic tone, is nearly always “regrettable”. So dispassionate writing is a tightrope that few can walk. But the subjects themselves are often confounding, pursuing outright con artistry (e.g., Madame Blavatsky) or the knowing erasure of competitors from the historical ledger. Even luminaries who appear trustworthy fabricate details, and much so-called “common knowledge” within occult communities is un-sourced or un-sourceable, and therefore daunting to verify. Writers may try to probe every bewitching story’s minutiae, but this spurs exhaustion, and slowly, the temptation to cut-and-paste from existing chronicles overwhelms lay and academic circles alike. Yet more importantly, we simply want to believe these stories—they’re colorful, bombastic, and represent a history too compelling to reject. P-Orridge likely recognized these enduring traits of esoteric history, hedging on their continuity throughout Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s maneuvers to sow the unsteady ground separating earnest narrative and deliberate myth.
Third, there is the danger of anachronism when we look back at the acid house era. Since contemporary music fans readily cross-reference claims made by artists, the press, and their peers, the success of Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s occult agenda strains credulity. But the late ’10s feature a wealth of editorial and crowd-sourced online resources (e.g. Discogs.com, the Wikimedia suites) which dwarf the investigative tools available circa 1988-1991. During Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s heyday, artist backstories, creative ownership, and stylistic borrowing were far more arduous to corroborate via broadcast media, print magazines, record company backlogs, or word of mouth. First-hand scene engagement may debunk some claims, but casual fans were left in the dark, forced to rely on interviews and music criticism—realms of authority already subverted by Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth via invocation. More curious? That their career rehabilitation, and claims of acid house primacy, still flourish amidst myriad pipelines for grassroots artist research. Clearly, the information glut of the modern Internet propagates useful rumors for artists like P-Orridge just as well as SPIN magazine did a generation earlier. This, I think, makes the case for restraint against impulses to harshly appraise this earlier epoch as gullible.
Finally, I offer an alternative reading of Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s acid house misadventures: what if P-Orridge’s fascination with the genre came not from magickal profiteering, but rather, brinksmanship to counter an existential threat? Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth’s aesthetic synergy and logistic congruency with this peer youth movement is evident, but a fear of irrelevance, rather than straightforward annexation, may have been the overriding motivation. Both movements refused consensus reality, plumbed the depths of psychedelia to re-structure their minds, and seized derelict gaps of civic fabric to exchange suppressed ideas and artifacts, but by 1988, acid house may have been beating Psychic TV/Temple ov Psychick Youth at their own game. Indeed, Temple ov Psychick Youth’s founding directive sought to project occult unrest, and cast phantasms of martial youth revolt throughout Thatcherite Britain. While they did surface in the public eye as bit players of the larger ’80s-’90s “Satanic Panic”, their exploits received nowhere near the reactionary backlash as acid house, cast by establishment forces as a hedonist swarm dismantling post-war norms and values—in the process, stealing the spotlight from Temple ov Psychick Youth and fulfilling in months what the Temple had fixated on for seven years. Per Simon Reynolds:
[early 1990s] rave culture represented an … epidemic of self-organizing activity. Teenagers made their own records on computers in their bedrooms, self-released them as white labels, and self-distributed them … to specialist record stores. The hard-core rave underground was the ultimate expression of the do-it-yourself principle (Reynolds 2006: 530-1).
These spontaneous pathways made formal bureaucracy, such as Temple ov Psychick Youth’s Stations and Access Points, further irrelevant for tapping into kindred spirits and exchanging taboo art. If P-Orridge sensed Temple ov Psychick Youth’s market share plummeting against competitor counterculture networks, then s/he would be remiss not to strike back with every magickal tool available to execute a clandestine takeover.
Many thanks to Michael Willems and Stephanie Monohan for the conversations and encouragements which inspired this article.