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Industrial Punk: Here’s a Finger, Now Form a Band!

For Throbbing Gristle's Genesis P-Orridge, punk's sonic harshness was welcome but it did not go far enough.

Post-modernism is often perceived as cultural expression that has broken from modernism while simultaneously reflecting upon it. As such, it represents a new epoch that will always be defined, recognized, and evaluated in comparison and contrast to the past from which it has broken free. A similar relationship exists between industrial music and punk. Both are rooted in the same (modernist and post-modernist) artistic traditions, and while their histories intersect, they have traveled paths that also periodically diverge or run parallel. It is difficult to understand the past 40-plus years of industrial music without also recognizing its un-identical twin sibling of punk over that same period. Like most twins, their relations and interactions have not always been cordial.

In the early 1980s, as punk’s first wave was on the wane and industrial was establishing itself in the rock consciousness, critic Jon Savage argued that this burgeoning movement displayed five common traits: organizational autonomy; the use of synthesizers and non-musical sounds; interest in the workings of the information society; multi-media approaches; and a desire to shock audiences (Jennifer Shryane, Blixa Bargeld and Einstürzende Neubauten: German Experimental Music, Ashgate, 2011, p.56). Notable in this list are those characteristics most associated with punk (the first and the last) and those somewhat distinct from that genre tradition (the other three). One might add to the comparisons, too, urban fixations, futurism, primitivism, cultural and political commentary, musical disruption, and (sado-)masochism, all features of punk expression to varying degrees.

With so much in common it is not surprising that early industrial acts found themselves on punk stages. Indeed, in the late 1970s Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and SPK were just as likely to be called punk or post-punk as industrial. In the fog of that era’s musical upheavals, nuances and peculiarities were not always easy to gauge. If the music was loud, the band provocative, and the performance in a renowned punk club, the common assumption was that one was in the midst of a punk show.

If punk described an apocalyptic state, industrial was that state.

Within the inner circles of early industrial, however, the trailblazers saw themselves as having little in common with Ramones-Pistols-Clash punk. For the likes of Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge, punk’s sonic harshness was welcome but it did not go far enough. Whereas punk commented upon a decaying society, using its music as a backdrop for frustration and anger, industrial sought to embody that condition, to sonically inhabit it. If punk described an apocalyptic state, industrial was that state. To capture this, industrial didn’t harden or tamper with existing rock structures as punk did; it discarded them and started anew. Even when conventional instruments were incorporated into the sound, they were treated with the same principles of de(con)struction. Thus, guitars might be used, but maybe as percussion; vocals might be used, too, but maybe treated and processed beyond recognition. Arguably, early industrial bands were more punk than punk, daring to enter experimental zones the likes of Johnny Rotten had dreamed of but had to wait until forming Public Image Limited to explore.


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As corporations began to siphon off the more commercial exponents of punk, re-positioning them as new wave, traditional rock formats were re-established. Simultaneous to this development was the rise of industrial and post-punk, both of which became symbolic counter-forces not only to rock normalcy but to punk rock/new wave normalcy, too. Their common reactive impulse made them kindred spirits in the underground music world at the end of the ’70s, as each prompted the other towards more esoteric, idiosyncratic, and experimental gestures.

With new wave, oi!, and hardcore striking punk poses and acting out their angst, it was in the cross-pollinating zones of industrial and post-punk where the spirit of punk—its desire to shock, dislocate, and experiment—most flourished. Factory Records, post-punk’s flagship indie label, was home to Joy Division and Durutti Column, but also to industrial trailblazers Cabaret Voltaire and electro-pop Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark in their infancy. Few historians would regard Factory as an industrial label (despite its name), but its bands reflected the tenor of those times. “The new mood was remote, yet as confrontatory and chilling as anything in punk,” explains Jon Savage (England’s Dreaming‘s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, St. Martin’s, 2002, p.422). In what he called “New Motorick” or “New Musick”, Throbbing Gristle, Kraftwerk, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Joy Division all shared the same psychic space.

Although once a punk band in the Pistols-meets-Buzzcocks mold, Joy Division were transformed—with the help of producer Martin Hannett—into a post-punk industrial act. Manchester’s post-industrial city-scape of abandoned warehouses, decaying Victorian houses, and alienating high-rise slums were given a musical correlative in the band’s digitally delayed drums, bass-heavy motifs, and keyboard mood enhancers. Punks might have raged and protested about the tragic psycho-geography of modern Manchester, but Joy Division—like their industrial cohorts—musically described the malaise; no commentary was necessary.

Pathos has always been the core appeal of punk, but with post-punk and industrial, emotions hardened. While still maintaining the finger-pointing rage of punk—as well as the twitchy anxieties of new wave—industrial punk introduced darker, more personalized feelings into the sensory sphere. Industrial sites were felt through blunt repetitious rhythms, and living in those environments was felt through a vocal venting of anger, ominous brooding, and/or self-loathing. If punk wore its feelings on its sleeve, industrial wore them beneath its skin until—like in a grotesque horror film—they burst forth in uncontainable emissions. “Atmosphere” was not only one of Joy Division’s better known songs, it was a marker for what united post-punk with industrial punk.

Unlike post-punk, industrial’s emotional expression often reflected a toxic masculinity that oscillated between sublimated and unrestrained fury; this relates to the genre’s gender exclusivity, too. Much is made of how punk opened the doors to female participation in rock culture, and as much as this is a valid assertion, those who lived through the ’70s and ’80s still recall sexism and misogyny as pervasive—even within punk circles. However, at least punk’s mood smorgasbord of anger, empathy, cynicism, and frustration were amenable to women participants.

Industrialists, on the other hand, rarely went beyond aggression, violence, and hatred (of self and others) in articulating their grievances. Asocial and insecure, and often psychotic in persona, industrialists provided the soundtrack for a distinctly male alienation. As with much punk, there is an absence of sex in industrial music, as though such life forces have no place in a dystopia of control, emasculation, and cultural castration. Only in the more goth outliers of the genre, like Skinny Puppy, does one see glimmers of the feminine or a relaxation of uptight masculine rigidity. And unlike in punk and post-punk, rarely does one find female participants in the creation of the music, and not that many in the subculture, either.

In its dogged refusal to be inclusive, industrial not only resigned itself to the margins of the music world, but it positioned itself accordingly. Few rock genres have had fewer major labels sniffing around them than industrial. This speaks not only to how inaccessible much of the music has been, but also to the autonomy and dogged independence Savage spoke of. Indie labels like Industrial Records, Some Bizzare, Mute, and Wax Trax! have, as a result, become legendary institutions within the genre, regarded as sanctified spawning grounds and keepers of the flame rather than as just minor companies.

This reverence for independence is rooted in industrial’s thematic concerns, so often addressing corporatism, systemic control, and the erasure of the individual. Its rejection of the official, of institutional expectations, of common sense itself, are attitudes imbued into the music-making, where the rules and expectations of song structures, instruments, and production are constantly subverted and reinvented. Punk may have stripped prog’s pomp out of the rock song, but Throbbing Gristle and Einstürzende Neubauten felt no obligation to the rock song at all, and thus bypassed what was presumed of it.

The much heralded DIY aesthetic of punk reached new heights with industrial trailblazers like Throbbing Gristle. Genesis P. Orridge thought that punk’s adage that one only need learn three guitar chords to form a band was far too demanding. Why learn any chords? Why even learn to play the guitar? And why must a guitar be used, and if so, why in certain prescribed ways? For Gristle and others on the more avant-garde playing fields of industrial, anything could be music and anyone could be a musician.

Backlash against industrial music was pervasive during the late ’70s and not only because so much of the music was all but un-listenable. Synthesizers were the sticking point in most punk circles, particularly when in the hands of more pop-oriented acts like The Human League, Gary Numan, and Depeche Mode. “We’re coming up to the ’80s and somebody’s got to save rock ‘n’ roll from all those prats with synthesizers and a university education,” said punk veteran and Nips/Pogues frontman Shane McGowan in 1979 (Steven Wells. Punk: Young, Loud & Snotty. Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004. p.95). One does not have to dig too deep to excavate the rockism, classism, and homophobia in this comment. Such prejudices are more light-heartedly echoed by the Undertones, whose 1980 single “My Perfect Cousin” offers a similar profile of synth-playing, effete techno-nerds. Suffering the same fate as punk vis-à-vis new wave, the dilution of industrial into electro-pop signaled “sell out”—of autonomy, of masculinity, and of street authenticity. From 1979 on, “hard” industrial and “soft” electro-pop would travel parallel paths that would periodically—if uneasily—intersect.

In the former camp, as their name might suggest, Throbbing Gristle—a northern slang term for an erection—were alarming audiences long before the Ramones and Sex Pistols came along. As the performance art troupe COUM Transmissions, P-Orridge et al terrorized London in the early ’70s with Fluxus-inspired shows that put an X-rating in extremism. Most notorious was their “Prostitution” show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1976, which provoked outrage over its graphic violence, but garnered the group some well-earned newspaper coverage, setting a punk precedent Malcolm McLaren no doubt took note of. Seeing that the contemporaneous punk rock revolt was providing more shock effects than the art world was, and that rock clubs were more combustible environments than art galleries, P-Orridge introduced an additional vanguard to the ongoing underground revolution.

Gristle immediately started asking questions punks were not addressing: if punk wants to destroy, why is it still playing variations of standard rock styles? “You can’t have anarchy and have music,” P-Orridge once shouted at the punks jeering a Throbbing Gristle show in 1977 (Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, Penguin, 2005, p.129). Chaos was more than a slogan for him; it was his philosophy and raison d’être.

Hunkered down in the inner-city London borough of Hackney, Gristle rehearsed in a warehouse they called the “Death Factory” to the sounds emanating from the saw mill and railway lines within earshot. The result, says Reynolds, was “music [that] simulated the soul-destroying rhythms of Fordist mass production” (p.130). They named their label Industrial Records, punning on the idea of information society reports but also on the rock myth notion that bands should be “industrious” and pay their dues on the road to success. With its strap line, “Industrial Music for Industrial People”, the label tipped off media and record stores to a new category of music. While codifying the genre, Industrial Records soon became home to kindred spirits Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, and Clock DVA. “The remarkable thing about Throbbing Gristle’s legacy,” Reynolds notes, “is that they almost single-handedly created one of the most enduring and densely populated fields of post-punk music” (p.135). With songs about serial killers, pedophilia, fascism, mind control, and militarism, Gristle also laid out the thematic obsessions industrial acts are still engaging today.

Throbbing Gristle were not the only innovators of industrial on the block in the late ’70s, though. In the post-industrial wastelands of Sheffield, where the steel industry once flourished, a whole movement was stirring. Growing up, members of what would become Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA, the Human League, and Heaven 17 could hear the crunching forges of the steel mills echo around the hills and valleys of the Peak District. But this industry was in decline, leaving abandoned factories, warehouses, and derelict houses where budding young groups could live in squats and/or rehearse.

Many of these youths served apprenticeships in short-lived generic punk bands like the Underpants, Meatwhistle, Musical Vomit, and the Studs before developing more regionally distinct industrial bands. Synthesizers and drum machines soon dominated their sounds, with guitars, bass, and drums employed mostly to harden the overall atmospherics. Cabaret Voltaire manipulated factory noises through tape loops. Their vocals, too, were put through muddy distortion, such that titles like “Sluggin’ for Jesus” and “Eastern Mantra” had to speak for themselves on their breakthrough 1979 album, Red Mecca. Frontman Stephen Malinder speaks of being inspired by Sheffield’s “industrial atrophy” and by “readily available technology, postpunk ideology, a vibrant DIY ethos, burgeoning Reaganomics, and a whiff of insurrection in the air” (“Foreword” [2012], S. Alexander Reed, Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music, Oxford University Press, 2013, p.x). His band’s “sonic belligerence”, like so much early industrial punk, was too jarring for the ears of the uninitiated, such that at their debut appearance at London’s Lyceum Ballroom they were received with a hail of bottles by the punk attendees (p.xi).

By the close of the ’70s it become routine for the term “post-industrial” to be used interchangeably with “industrial” regarding the burgeoning genre. The former was perhaps a more accurate moniker considering how cities like Manchester and Sheffield had suffered such industrial decimation over prior decades. It was apparent that the golden age of industry for these cities was over by the ’80s. The same could be said for Chicago, Cleveland, and Akron in the US Midwest. These “rust belt” cities had indeed rusted due to the inactivity of their traditional industries: steel, automobiles, freight trains, and rubber. As had happened in Sheffield, bands occupied the abandoned zones, creating underground art sanctuaries out of run-down river-side districts like “The Flats” in Cleveland. This is where Pere Ubu crafted their “industrial folk” sound around “raw…avant-garage” synthesizer noises (Reynolds, p.72). Songs like “Chinese Radiation” and “Datapanic in the Year Zero” had punk’s urgency and austerity, but also sounded mechanistic yet off-kilter, as though filtered through the city’s faltering factory production lines.

Forty years later, in steampunk literature, the Matrix movies, and various filmic renditions of the novels of William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard, we see renewed fascination with the root methods and themes of industrial punk. Within the music world today, too, both retro radio and contemporary pop regularly partake from the same electronic and industrial legacy. (Post-)industrial production methods and manufactured sounds have become ubiquitous to modern music making, with mechanistic drum beats, affected vocals, and cut-up samples featuring as sonic norms in our contemporary musical landscape, rather than as the aberrant exceptions to the rock rules they once were.