Violence, abstract
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Throbbing Gristle: Nothing Short of Total War

Throbbing Gristle’s dedication to nothing short of total war was not so much a declaration of war but a warning that endless war could become a state of being.

Throbbing Gristle: An Endless Discontent
Ian Trowell
December 2023

Throbbing Gristle set out to gnaw at your attention and curiosity with their partly ironic and partly confrontational use of slogans drawn from the world of 1970s consumer processes. They branded their product under catchphrases and missives: “Tesco Disco”, “Industrial Music for Industrial People” and “Entertainment Through Pain”. A shock-horror press headline following their inaugural performance at the ICA offered a further bestowal as “the Wreckers of Civilization”.

More mission statement than descriptive rejoinder, Throbbing Gristle’s proposal to undertake “Nothing Short of Total War” had a longer-lasting resonance with the provocateur artist-musicians. The theme of war was woven through Throbbing Gristle performances, sometimes melding with band member Genesis P-Orridge’s more personal obsessions with nuclear destruction and survivalist strategies. In the late 1970s age of comedy tee-shirts that proclaimed “Kill ’em all” and “I Survived Butlitz” (a portmanteau of the German POW camp and the British holiday camp), P-Orridge went a step further by wearing a tee-shirt that incorporated a cut-up of the “Nuclear Power, No Thanks” symbol rebranded with “Nuclear War Now”.

On arrival in Sheffield for Throbbing Gristle’s June 1980 performance at the University, P-Orridge was interviewed by local fanzine NMX. His eschatological imaginings were in overdrive as he waxed lyrical about the potential deployment of a neutron bomb. A few months later, towards the end of the band’s first period of operation, he was in Manchester for a gig at Rafters adorned with knives, pepper sprays, and telescopic coshes – an extension of his time cooped up with Monte Cazazza as they hatched out a survivalist strategy and associated persona.

A more workaday referencing of war – past and ongoing – informed the band’s wider communal output. Their fanzine newspaper Industrial News included references to modern war techniques through sonics, torture, and beyond, whilst the track “IBM” from their 1978 album D.o.A: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle doubled as a reference to intercontinental ballistic missiles. As Throbbing Gristle continued their strategic assault through 1979, audiences were suddenly confronted with the track “Weapon Training” as the opening sequence to their evening’s entertainment. It’s not so much a declaration of war but a wake-up call to alert us to an endless war as a state of being.

We can backtrack slightly to plot the arrival of this compositional invective. Throughout 1977 and 1978, Throbbing Gristle were setting out their industrial blueprint, poking and prodding the implicit strictures of punk – what they identified as hollow stances and ideological contradictions. The latter half of 1978 proved to be a more tumultuous period, with Tutti calling time on her toxic relationship with the controlling P-Orridge and the band closing out the year with a winter gig at London’s Crypt Club, during which P-Orridge took an overdose.

In their 2021 autobiography NonBinary, P-Orridge declares that after 1978 there was no structure or commitment within Throbbing Gristle, a typically self-centred comment that tries to set out (or retain) a certain narrative. An opposite view is presented in Tutti’s 2017 autobiography Art Sex Music, where she remarks that the band were “on fire with new ideas”. The archived documents and record releases in these years support this energy flash of creativity. “Weapon Training”, emerging in the first months of 1979, would be part of this.

The new year commences for Throbbing Gristle with a January gig at the anarchist Centro Iberico on Harrow Road. The Winter of Discontent is in full swing, and the band performs in the afternoon with smoke drifting from stomped-out bonfires. This gig would introduce important new experiments such as “Persuasion” and “What a Day” that would blossom towards structuring an often underplayed motorik element to their autumn 1979 release 20 Jazz Funk Greats. They open their set with a barrage of live sound grabs from television and radio, a snatch of The Big Match (Chelsea winning 3-2 away at Maine Road, the home of Manchester City), before an unrelenting noise that resembles a mechanical lung starts up and stretches on for seven long minutes. This is the “musical” basis for “Weapon Training”, but the full track is not yet ready.

Following a number of cancelled events, their next live appearance is part of a short run of one-off events in the north of England. They perform at Derby Ajanta Theatre in early April, at Sheffield University under the banner of the Now Society two weeks later, and at Manchester’s Factory in mid-May. Whereas the band had previously avoided a recognisable set or repertoire, a bunch of new signatures and compacted rhythms (developed by Chris Carter) began to gather shape, and were performed as short and intense songs within an approximate set across all three gigs. “Weapon Training” would open proceedings and receive its debut airing at Derby.

In many ways, Derby Ajanta Theatre was an archetypical punk venue – a once-grand landmark of expired entertainment. At one time, it was an ornate building to synergise the art of structure with the art of performance within, but over time features were bricked up and painted over, layer after layer of weatherproof industrial paint. Put bluntly, it looked like it had been abandoned in a war zone. In this respect, Derby’s Ajanta bore a striking similarity to the Manchester Electric Circus, a building that similarly stood isolated amongst rubble and open spaces, held intact by the exterior paint that had been applied without care or attention to the pre-existing nuances of the structure. A new synergy, a perfect home for punk in the provinces.

Derby-born artist and performance maker Tim Etchells was attending the gig as a young teenager with a group of friends and has a vivid memory of the feeling of the place: “The Ajanta always did feel like it was in a parallel universe – deregulated, not quite subject to the kind of organisation or law that events elsewhere might have been – a law unto itself.” Local musician and historian Johnny Vincent recalls how the venue looked like a “mouth with teeth missing” from the stage as musicians stared down at the destitute theatre space with rows of plush seats long since ripped out and hurled around.

Taking the stage, P-Orridge makes a short speech apologising for the inability of the film After Cease to Exist to be shown (the projector is broken) and mentioning that the local newspaper advertised the band as T.G. rather than giving them their full name. With it being a Thursday night, a touch of light humour is added as he apologises for making people forgo Top of the Pops. The band then open with “Weapon Training”, instantly destabilising the small crowd consisting of provincial punks and a handful of post-punk cognoscenti.

The track initially runs as a pure sample; a stentorian American voice introduces a series of weapons one by one with a sample of their sound. The soundtrack is drawn from the album The Sound of Combat Training, a resource to familiarise new recruits with the noises of modern warfare. In the hands of Throbbing Gristle, this takes on a disturbing sonic presence, the litany of missiles, guns, and other killing devices seemingly being projected into the crowd as if engaging them in battle.

A high-pitched synth noise lingers, and as a flamethrower roar takes over the sonic foreground, the sound of Throbbing Gristle with Tutti’s guitar fed through the “Gristle-iser” and the sound of weapons blend into one, indiscernible. A plethora of machine guns adds rhythmic noise and the reproduction of the helicopter-mounted missile powers in a double noise of pure force and destruction from the helicopter blades and missile propulsion system. This ushers in the three-note squashed loop from the Iberico gig – the mechanical lung – and the rising tones.

The weapons of war are now entirely in the hands of the band. As writer Matthew Cheeseman suggests in his research into the subsequent gig at Sheffield when describing “Weapon Training”, “there was a sense that they were training their audience, forming a cadre of disciples dedicated to unlearning, forgetting social rules, deprogramming via a confrontation with the extreme.”

War was at the heart of popular culture for the adolescent and teenage demographic, and as Alex Ogg meticulously documents in a 2013 paper, the residues of war had a persistent vestigial presence that markedly seeped into the punk subculture. Aural theorist Louise Wilson examines the wider sphere of cultural links to assert: “Lives were touched in profound ways, not least with the prolonged persistence of fear”. The playgrounds were full of mock wars with children mimicking the rat-a-tat of machine guns, the fizz-and-thud of grenades, and the dramatic enacting of theatrical heroic deaths. Bloodthirsty Sven Hassel World War II fantasy books were surreptitiously passed around the classroom. Toys and games were themed on war, with break-time or between-lesson games such as Top Trumps offering fetishisation of tanks, armoured vehicles, and weapons as children devoured the taxonomies of power, speed, and killing capability in a bid to outdo their opponents and win cards.

Action Man figures came with a vast array of uniforms, specialist outfits (for snow or underwater scenarios), weapons, and vehicles. The comic Battle Action, costing ten pence, was published every Thursday, and on the day of Throbbing Gristle’s appearance in Derby, it bore a masthead stating “For All Out War”. Stories included “Charlie’s War”, “The Sarge”, “Glory Rider”, “Johnny Red” and “Crazy Keller”. The theme was past wars extended into the present, but in a parallel world, Throbbing Gristle conjured up imaginary comic strips based upon real wars in the here and now – imagine “H-Block”, “SPG”, “Active Cell”, “Hunger Strike”, “The Torturer”, and “Nail Bomb” as alternative weekly instalments. 

War, art, and entertainment were also implicated in a messy flux. Sonic precursors include Marinetti’s onomatopoeia poems and the famous Futurist work Zang Tumb Tumb (1912), which re-imagined machine gun fire as poetry, updated by Bill Viola’s Street Music (1976) as he recorded himself firing bullets into the air whilst stood in the Wall Street District. Global political tension escalated as the ’70s played out, with over 500 NATO Cruise and Pershing missiles stationed in Europe.

Away from war, the potential for total destruction through nuclear capability was brought to the fore in the previous week with the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station. “Weapon Training” tapped into a residual fear on many levels as a precursor to the continued conflicts and threat of annihilation that the 1980s would shortly bring – brutally emphasised a few years later with the harrowing 1984 BBC drama, Threads.

As previously stated, the track is aired as an opener for the subsequent gigs at Sheffield and Manchester, and then it is side-lined as Throbbing Gristle move towards their next phase, with the suite of music that would become Heathen Earth. We hear the backing composition one more time with “Mask of Sarnath” performed as part of Throbbing Gristle’s set at the four-day post-punk festival held at Tottenham Court Road YMCA – effectively a walk-through of 20 Jazz Funk Greats. But “Weapon Training” has been decommissioned and disarmed, with the training sample now removed.

Throbbing Gristle are moving toward their next sonic incarnation at the same time that 20 Jazz Funk Greats is met by perplexed reviews in the latter half of 1979 as post-punk reaches peak inception. Like an undocumented scrap of information between two film stills, a Christmas gig at Butler’s Wharf introduces new material that would form the basis for Heathen Earth, recorded as an invite-only live studio take in February 1980. The original release of Heathen Earth came without track titles, though these have been added with later re-releases. It is the track “The World Is a War Film” – aired at Butler’s Wharf as a six-minute composition listed as “Anal Sex” on the Industrial Records cassette – that continues their theme of war.

The track is a sublime example of Carter’s advanced programming rhythms that consume themselves ouroboros-like, with added intonations by P-Orridge. It is an example of Throbbing Gristle working at their best, bringing contrasting elements into a single space. The military metaphor is both fatalistic and entrenched at a wider misanthropic level, and this comes through on the track. The lyrics are centred on the futility of going on as a race of people on a poisoned planet and about how our eagerness for war films and documentary footage had started to outstrip reality and push it into a looped cinematised conflict. The track coincides with the release of the iconic film Apocalypse Now (1979) and the seemingly endless repeating of BBC’s The World at War series on Sunday afternoons. The relentless drudge of Carter’s synths works perfectly, giving the impression of being stuck in the trenches, penned in, under fire, without hope of salvation.

For the subsequent video release of 1980’s Heathen Earth, the live footage of the audience and studio recording was intercut and overlaid with pieces of film, with the war film section suitably augmented with harrowing footage of war atrocities (such as NBC studios’ film of the brutal headshot execution of a Viet Cong prisoner by Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan). On top of this, we have intercuts of a film of Throbbing Gristle playing soldiers, a cast adrift unit in the urban wastelands (Hackney, actually), dressed approximately as soldiers but also a little like a militarised Village People in British Army fatigues. P-Orridge briefly pouts in a pair of Colonel Kilgore aviator sunglasses, Peter Christopherson (back in the studio) wears a military sweater and channels Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart from Doctor Who, whilst Carter apparently misses the memo and turns up in his leather bomber jacket and jeans like an escapee Robin Askwith from a Confessions film.

This war film is not a battle as such, more a sequence of survivalist manoeuvres such as cooking carrion-esque meat over a makeshift fire, P-Orridge brandishing his knife with attempted menace, various smoke flares, and the members of the band crawling on all fours across piles of debris. A long way from the disciplined and ruthless cut and thrust of the SAS storming of the Iranian Embassy in May 1980 (footage of this is inserted into the film), the vibe is more akin to an army mentality that rises to the surface in television programmes such as the BBC series Survivors (1975-77) or the final Quatermass series (1979) set in a near-future where society has collapsed to be replaced by battling quasi-religious cults.

Throbbing Gristle had taken towards wearing camouflage and military clothing, at times all sharing a unified, uniformed look. This look served a number of purposes. It suited P-Orridge who was also entering his militaristic or survivalist relationship with the external world. It was also something that transferred to the fans, though the band would deny that they were fostering some kind of subculture that had been voided of a critical capacity. Instead, they offered military-style regimental patches to sew on clothes, allowing fans to recognise each other semi-discreetly.

Additionally, their 7-inch singles from 1980 came out in specially designed camouflage bags. Their military uniform predilections took a significant haute-couture turn in the autumn of 1980, after the video shoot, as the Parisian designer Laurence Dupré completed a commission for the band with an incredible suite of clothing incorporating an artistic interpretation of camouflage for the industrial environment. Dupré met the band through their one-off Sordide Sentimental release in 1979, with sleeve designer Loulou Picasso as her brother.

Military clothing and British music subcultures have a long history, with anti-military (and anti-national service) sentiments lingering in the post-war mod and beatnik scenes, whilst dandy hippies often dressed in vintage military garb as a mocking of old imperialist standards. Punk and post-punk accelerated a critical relation to militarism, exemplified through tracks such as Gang of Four’s Marxist-infused single “I Love a Man in Uniform“, UK Decay’s gothic 1980 poem “For My Country“, to ex-squaddie Wattie Buchan and the Exploited’s opening shot in 1980 entitled “Army Life“. The anarcho-punk subculture, coming in to focus during the latter part of Throbbing Gristle’s time, initially had a resolute pacifist and anti-war strand as part of its wider ethical carapace, culminating with the 1983 Crass album Yes Sir, I Will, drawing its title from the discomfiting hospital exchange between HRH Prince Charles and Simon Weston, a soldier who had suffered substantial burns in the Falklands conflict.

This anti-war, anti-army, and even anti-uniform trope of the various punk and post-punk subcultures did not always translate into the various looks that punk bands and fans adopted. Many fans wanted to show allegiance and be part of something. This was understandable, as the subset of punk musicians and punk fans who saw the subculture as either politicised or in some sense oppositional (against society or just against other subcultures) adopted an “us against them” mentality and an associated need to express a tribal loyalty of struggle against oppression.

The Clash’s 1982 album Combat Rock, whilst being a statement about Vietnam and American society, encouraged a military punk look with cut-off sleeves – the band having a bespoke military-themed wardrobe designed by Alex Michon. Even the anarcho-punk and peace-loving figureheads Crass, with their martial drum beat-driven songs, adopted a look of dyed-black army clothes, making fashionable the capacious combat trousers. This ad-hoc military surplus look of anarcho-punk worked with a mixture of denotations and connotations: a stance of anti-designer-label consumerism and sumptuousness, a streak of survivalist mentality, and a readiness for the battle against the totalizing injustices of wider society. 

The anarcho-punk ethos and marked sense of belonging had significant ideological and aesthetic parallels with P-Orridge’s vision of fostering a military-style cult, something that came to the forefront in his post-Throbbing Gristle project Psychic TV. On a wider scale and somewhat less ideologically inclined, an assortment of individuals from post-punk bands invested in military garb as part of the spiraling image culture of the early 1’0s as every band scrambled for a unique look. A post-punk military moment occurred when Echo and the Bunnymen were kitted out from head-to-toe in advance of their special concert at Buxton Pavilion Gardens in January 1981. Perhaps they were the unseen opponents routed back to the north in Throbbing Gristle’s battle of Hackney film?

Works Cited

Ford, Simon, Wreckers of Civilisation: The Story of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle. Black Dog. 1999.

Ogg, Alex. “For you, Tommy, the war is never over”. Punk & Post-Punk. 2013.

P-Orridge, Genesis. Nonbinary: A Memoir. Abrams Press. 2021.

Tutti, Cosey Fanni, Art Sex Music. Faber & Faber. 2017.

Vincent, Johnny. An Alternative Derby. Lulu Publishing. 2008.

Wilson, Louise K. “Sounds from the bunker: Aural culture and the remainder of the Cold War”. Journal of War & Culture Studies. 2020.