Nik Stanbridge Psychic TV, Riverside. 1982. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0BY-NC-ND 2.0 / cropped)

Groupthink and Other Painful Reflections on ​Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth

TOPY and Genesis P-Orridge’s knowing adoption of cult iconography quickly slid from satiric emulation to full embrace — and we all went along with it.

Throughout the past several years, call-outs publicizing abuse in the music industries have reverberated far and wide. Activists of all stripes, inspired in part by the #MeToo movement, are broadcasting behavior by eminent artists ranging from the deeply unsavory to the gravely criminal. When put forward, these claims (some contritely acknowledged, others vehemently denied) often confirm the rumors and whisper campaigns that long lingered around the accused: from the respective “kings” of pop and R&B, to demigod conductors of Western art music, and from jazz’s modern heroes, to idols of niche rock circles, such as Ryan Adams, Michael Gira of Swans, Ethan Kath of Crystal Castles, Jesse Lacey of Brand New, Twiggy Ramirez of Marilyn Manson, and Mark E. Smith of the Fall.

Many artists and fans are now forcefully demanding a creative playing field free from quid pro quos, coercion, and violence. But while public attention is primarily focused on the alleged abusers (and enablers) at the height of their stardom, other figures nearing the twilight of their careers are also undergoing re-appraisal, thanks in part to shifting societal norms that today reconsider the misdeeds that were previously written off. Music communities, and the industry writ large, are being asked to grapple with documented instances of past abuse, but this is especially challenging when the usual approach—a drive to “cancel” the prosperous career of an actively offending artist—is impossible. Furthermore, the misty-eyed nostalgia of fans, and years (sometimes even decades) of mythologizing often play a decisive role in blocking the renewal of meaningful scrutiny.

For those of us who venerate dark and extreme music scenes, perhaps no sacred cow is more deserving of such re-examination than Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (TOPY), Genesis Breyer P-Orridge‘s counterculture project spanning the decade after Throbbing Gristle‘s (1975-1981) dissolution. TOPY was an artistic collective and occult lifestyle network that sought to mimic militant, cult-like dynamics in the public eye, borrowing from other infamous convergences of psychedelic culture such as The People’s Temple at Jonestown, The Process Church of the Final Judgement, and the Manson Family.

With their home base in Brighton, UK, and a professed international membership of 10,000 followers at their height in the late ’80s-early ’90s, TOPY fashioned themselves as a youth resistance bloc that deployed chaos magick against the myriad forces of societal control and conformity prophesied by Williams S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. In 1991, Thee Temple splintered following internal protests against the organization’s elite circle, which had accumulated outsized power and prestige, and for an ensuing quarter-century, TOPY’s legacy was consigned to the historical dustbin as an oddity that came and went.

But recently, Thee Temple—alongside their mouthpiece band, Psychic TV—have been re-discovered and even deified in the communal conversations of scenes such as coldwave, darkwave, goth, industrial, metal, noise, and neofolk. In particular, the “occult curious” artists and fans of these subcultures have amplified the standing of TOPY and Psychic TV by exclaiming them the precursors of their own creative visions. Thee Temple conglomerate is actively being lauded as a modern fountainhead of the arcane and anti-rational.

Seductive aspects of TOPY’s legend—such as their ironic stylization, or anti-normative intrigues, for which we celebrate their bête noire status—conceal Thee Temple’s very real injustices.

TOPY’s imprint—and P-Orridge’s magnetic yet fraught leadership—are also now lionized by a wide gamut of tastemakers, primarily music journalists but also academics. Examples of recent, adulatory coverage include museum exhibitions, edited volumes, documentaries, as well as dozens of web and print pieces. Music genres (
witch house) and labels (Sacred Bones, Dais) inspired by Thee Temple and Psychic TV’s occultized aesthetics show the far-reaching influence of their mystique.

The current conversation, a slow-burn hagiography through and through, frames TOPY as a tongue-in-cheek, self-aware “anti-cult”—half esoteric art project, half culture-jamming prankster pagans who struck fear in the hearts of the Thatcher and Reagan regimes through parody of a radical youth crusade. But the primary sources—many long available for those willing to look, and others just now surfacing—reveal Thee Temple to have been far from puckish liberators. TOPY and P-Orridge’s knowing adoption of cult iconography and organizing principles quickly slid from satiric emulation to full embrace, and many Temple apostates describe years of escalating exploitation: a guru with a sycophantic following; the systematic breakdown of individuality and autonomy; rigid hierarchies, disciplinary regimens, and incessant bullying; preying on the suggestible and vulnerable; explosive, tyrannical outbursts; and the appropriation of others’ creative voices and ideas.

This essay publicizes the accounts of TOPY’s victims and dissenters. But by doing so, I aim to explore larger issues surrounding Thee Temple’s canonization in the present day, and the ways in which P-Orridge and h/er inner circle carefully immunized themselves against any lasting consequences for their abusive behaviors. Using firsthand chronicles of wrongdoing as evidence, I tease out three distinct explanations for how the apologetic (and often bewitching) narrative surrounding P-Orridge and TOPY has thrived for so long, despite insider knowledge of grave harms.

First, to distract from rumors of misconduct, they have been conning music journalists into laying the groundwork for Thee Temple’s exaltation, and showcasing “Satanic Panic” child abuse allegations as a strawman. Second, to dodge accountability, they have been masquerading as consummate scene mouthpieces and sentinels, while practicing a style of control based on hijacking our aspirational subculture politics. And third, to deflect accusations, they have been utilizing TOPY’s ironic visage so modern fandom conflates their past violations with the same empty grandstanding of today’s digital-age iconoclasts.

Collectively, these tactics have been remarkably successful, and they placed TOPY on the pedestal of counterculture notoriety while shielding its leadership from voluminous proof of domination, coercion, and brainwashing. Indeed, P-Orridge and h/er coterie are now portrayed as lodestars for a mystical, artistic resistance to mainstream banality. Yet these same seductive aspects of TOPY’s legend—such as their ironic stylization, or anti-normative intrigues, for which we celebrate their bête noire status—conceal Thee Temple’s very real injustices.

deepskyobjectPsychic TV @ Club Zal, SPb, Russia, 30.10.2016 (CC BY-SA 2.0 / cropped)

My un-packaging of how P-Orridge and h/er ilk insulated themselves from repercussions also tugs at more abstract, but equally valid concerns surrounding the status quo’s inevitability and routes for future reform. How might we cope with, and possibly repair, this apparent frailty of collective memory in our counterculture? Or, how can fan communities navigate these implied limits of accountability, particularly when up against a scene or genre’s romanticized hype? Clearly, the tropes of subculture and scene were deliberately co-opted by TOPY and P-Orridge to provide cover for abusive behaviors. And this presents a thorny dilemma—because while subculture exists as a necessary outlet for healthy transgression, these same spaces have always been fertile ground for “cultish” mindsets to take root among the vulnerable. P-Orridge simply carried these existing tendencies to their logical extremes.

So, another concern also looms: what is necessary to preserve these alternative spaces while prioritizing our critical appraisals of them? Here, the intrinsic tension between underground scenes and mainstream culture impeded the work required to keep these zones of opposition safe. The forthcoming discussion does not definitively answer these concerns head on, but frames the conversation around their implications.

Although this story is predominantly about the politics of art in the present, in order to arrive, we must first reach back—not only to the heyday of TOPY’s flourishing in the 1980s, but further still, to the public start of P-Orridge’s career in the late 1960s and early ’70s. There, the seeds of Thee Temple’s design, and its authoritarian stylings, were first sown.

Through-Lines to Thee Temple

A March 2019 article in Paper Magazine neatly epitomizes the TOPY and P-Orridge zeitgeist of the past several years. P-Orridge is characterized as “someone who has seen and done it all”, “an absolute legend in their lifetime”, “prolific and transcendent”, as well as “[a person] who created 300 albums of genreless, but no less influential, music and art”—and that’s only the first two sentences of the profile. Furthermore, the feature declares, “s/he co-founded in the ’80s a radical group, Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (TOPY), for those seeking individual liberation through community-building and magic. Unlike the cult it was publicly accused of being, the group consisted of ‘only leaders, and not followers,’ according to P-Orridge.” Indeed, “s/he found a sacred calling, and the ability to express … a type of love both selfless and, ultimately, unconditional”; “voices like P-Orridge’s have staked their reputations and legacies on promoting unity, as afforded by love of one another ….”

One might be surprised to learn that the very same P-Orridge is the headliner of a December 2018 Guardian article that nuances this portrait, zeroing in on allegations of sustained, and in several instances, life-threatening abuse against Cosey Fanni Tutti, P-Orridge’s former romantic partner, long-time collaborator, and an acclaimed performance/musical artist in her own right. Both Fanni Tutti and P-Orridge came to public infamy as members of Throbbing Gristle, but their entanglements date back to 1969, when they co-founded the performance art collective COUM Transmissions (1969-1976) in pursuit of subversive explorations.

These charges against P-Orridge, detailed throughout Fanni Tutti’s recent memoir Art Sex Music (Faber & Faber, 2018) are now embedded as online public record in a variety of book reviews and promotional interviews. But so far, only the Guardian article by Lottie Brazier addresses the elephant in the room: ” … it seem[s] strange that the New York Times [among other fawning P-Orridge profiles] didn’t [seriously] consider … Fanni Tutti’s [public] allegations.”

And these allegations are grave, including but not limited to: coercing Fanni Tutti into unprotected sex, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy; pressuring her to join orgies orchestrated by P-Orridge; wielding a knife, and repeatedly beating her during attempts to end their relationship; and most horrifically, nearly murdering her by hurling a cinder block that narrowly missed her head while she sunbathed. Other sundry episodes of casual brutality and calculated subjugation are also named, such as smashing her typewriters, hurling pet cats against walls, and clandestinely opening and replying to her fan mail.

Fanni Tutti is breezily mentioned in this obsequious New York Times article as “an old bandmate and girlfriend” [subtext: with an axe to grind]. This is despite the publication of her memoir six months prior, with its sordid accounts of abuse easily accessed both in print and online. However, the outrage coup de grâce may be P-Orridge’s unchallenged rejoinder to the New York Times when lightly prodded about the allegations: “whatever sells a book, sells a book.” By casually invoking the vile yet timeless counter-claim of cashing in through false accusations, P-Orridge closes the moral distance between h/erself and other alleged abusers who frequently wield this cudgel, such as R. Kelly. In another recent interview, h/er non-rebuttal to Art Sex Music‘s accusations is a more glib, but still inexcusable, “we haven’t read it.”

Other COUM Transmissions collaborators also observed P-Orridge’s appetite for mastery over others. Ian Evetts, a.k.a. Spydeee Gasmantell, recounts how their self-anointed ringleader “just wanted followers, not people to contribute,” while Greg “Foxtrot Echo” Taylor surmises that P-Orridge’s talent lay not so much in creative invention, but in h/er capacity to charm and coerce those in h/er orbit. And as Fanni Tutti elaborates in Art Sex Music: “he [P-Orridge] placed himself in a guru-like position … If anyone questioned him on things he said or did … he’d recite a COUM slogan to counter the criticism—or make up a new one … he could never be wrong …” (Fanni Tutti 2017: 82). But these reports from former COUM and Throbbing Gristle colleagues are only the most recent installments of a long paper trail revealing P-Orridge’s compulsions to control the wills and bodies of others. They also set the stage for the next decade of P-Orridge’s career, which spans the joint TOPY and Psychic TV project, h/er most critically under-examined venture to date.