School assembly guests are usually a pretty dry bunch: ex-pupils who’ve climbed up the greasy pole of their career, policemen with lectures about avoiding deep water or men with sweets, vicars. You might think that at Oundle School in Northamptonshire – one of England's top boarding schools, founded by Sir William Laxton in 1556 and with an alumni of Tory MPs and Victoria Cross recipients – things would be even more straight-laced. But on 16th March 1980, the assembly hall was shaken by one of the weirdest gigs in music history.
By 1980, Throbbing Gristle were notorious. They’d emerged from COUM Transmissions, a radical art collective founded in Hull in 1969 by Cosey Fanni Tutti and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, who passed away this weekend after a two-and-a half year battle with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia. The collective's playful hippyish roots developed into actions involving explicit nudity and bloodletting, which culminated in 1976's Prostitution – an ICA exhibition featuring Cosey’s work in pornographic magazines. Throbbing Gristle, which saw Genesis and Cosey joined by Chris Carter and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson, were the musical entertainment. Prostitution saw the group hounded by the tabloids and branded “wreckers of civilisation” in Parliament by Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn.
Like most private schools of the era, Oundle could be a brutal place – corporal punishment was common, for example – but there was an enlightened programme that allowed students to put on their own gigs. In an age long before being able to @ your favourite musician asking them to stand on you, Throbbing Gristle were pioneers of communicating with their fans by telephone and letter. Then 17-years-old, Nigel Jacklin (who now describes his experience at Oundle as “really awful”), wrote to the band asking if they'd be interested in coming to the school to play. He convinced his teachers this was a good idea by comparing them to the post-war avant-garde composer John Cage.
Throbbing Gristle said yes to a fee of £200, and stipulated that they would like to be shown around the school and eat with the pupils beforehand. "Our preparation was to try and get into the mindset of the boys that we'd be playing to,” says Cosey Fanni Tutti. “We'd enter their day, and have a meal with them, go round the building so we knew what their environment was like, and then go and play for them on the stage, so then the two worlds met, and clashed, but in a good way.”
Tickets were 50p in advance, 70p on the door. Nigel estimates that, after sitting down for a roast dinner with Throbbing Gristle, over 400 pupils aged between 11 and 18 trooped into the assembly hall with little idea of what was about to happen. "I think their expectation was heightened because they'd seen us around the school all day,” says Chris Carter, “It's pre-internet. They couldn't go online and Google Throbbing Gristle', could they?"
"I've always loved school dinners," adds Cosey, “but I've always hated private schools as institutions. You can do a lot of damage to children when you farm them out at such an early age. It was surreal. It was an all-boys school and I was thinking 'oh god, this is where it happens’, the bullying and all that.”
It was equally surreal for the boys, whose only contact with women was the somewhat dour matron who ran the domestic side of the school, or the dinner ladies. "I think they found me to be a bit of a novelty,” says Cosey. “I never thought me being a woman would make a difference to anything. It was only when they started shouting 'show us your tits' that I thought 'oh fuck, here we go'. It was just like stripping in a pub, but with young boys shouting it at me.”
As well as her work in porn mags, Cosey used to strip at a boozer near the Houses Of Parliament, watched by grey-suited MPs and civil servants. "I had that kind of audience at Oundle,” she adds, “and later on I got the grown-up version watching me in the Westminster Arms."
There’s a recording of the gig at Oundle School, which sounds like nothing else you’ll ever hear. At the start, electronic noise murmurs and boys shouting. Genesis P-Orridge introduces the evening’s entertainment, saying “as it’s Mother’s Day we’d like to dedicate this to all the absent mothers of the young boys here tonight. I’m sure if they were here watching you they’d wonder whether it was worth all the money. A little church music to begin with…” The boys whistle. “Strip!” yells a young voice from the audience, instantly drowned out by a howling blast from Cosey Fanni Tutti’s cornet.
Over the next hour, it just gets odder. The band play “Something Came Over Me”, an ode to masturbation that sees P-Orridge singing, "Was it white and sticky? Well I don't know what it was / But I rather like it / So I'm doing it again". It’s hard to think of something more apt for a room of teenagers.
"It's a celebration that captures the fact that it's enjoyable because you've just discovered it – let's do it time and time again, because it's great!" says Cosey. Chris Carter points out that "when it's really loud it has quite a different impact on people, it's less jokey and quirky when it's going through a PA, it hits you in the face". Cosey agrees. "It's like it’s telling you off. All you needed was Genesis onstage and it was, 'you've been wanking, you naughty boys'!"
This was obviously going to be provocative stuff to a room full of hormonal lads. Throbbing Gristle always fed off their audience's energy, but the atmosphere they encountered at Oundle School was like nothing they’d ever experienced before. "It was a very different kind of confrontation,” Cosey explains. “It wasn't aggressive in a violent way. It was playful and confused.”
Then came the moment that encapsulated the evening, and one that sends shivers down my spine every time I listen to it. As the languid menace of “The World Is A War Film” fades, the pupils start singing “Jerusalem”, William Blake’s poem that imagines Jesus Christ walking through England. It was Oundle School’s official hymn, and the easy interpretation of 400 pupils suddenly breaking into song in the middle of an industrial art performance is of a bunch of uptight posh boys trying to drown out the horrible racket with something British and proper, but according to Nigel the truth is far more complicated.
On the last day of every term, “Jerusalem” would be sung at the school assembly. "The words of Jerusalem have no meaning to me other than it means I'm finally going to be released from this hell," he explains, his voice cracking with emotion. “Also the bit about 'dark Satanic mills' – one of our teachers was called Mills, so when we got to that bit, everyone pronounced 'millssssss'."
Nick Vivian, another pupil present at the gig, adds that the original meaning of the words wasn't lost on them. "It's a fabulous outlay of Blake’s visionary spirit that’s been hijacked by the establishment, but is actually a deeply anti-establishment piece," he offers. Throbbing Gristle, then, inadvertently whipped up in many of the boys not an innate private school conservatism, but a subversive moment of rebellion.
"The social experiment aspect to the evening is that most people would not normally hear that noise, but they may actually be ok with it," Nigel reflects on what his schoolmates thought of the strange evening of entertainment he’d put on for them. "The reaction is a mixture of positive, negative, transfixed, bemused. I'd been to a couple of Throbbing Gristle gigs and they were all preaching to the converted. To me, the interesting thing in life is going out there into the unconverted zone." Nick adds that "it was incredible to see the core of the school abominated in front of your eyes. Looking back, it makes me smile. It was just so absurd."
So many forces collided on that Sunday evening in 1980: Throbbing Gristle's twisted sense of humour and sonic radicalism, the fascination with power structures, the way their music and aesthetic is so undeniably English yet held up a mirror to the hypocrisy and cynicism of the British establishment and tabloid media during a time of civil unrest, rampant racism, and early-years Thatcherism.
History has vindicated Throbbing Gristle. Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, who famously called them “wreckers of civilisation” was later revealed to be a rampant misogynist, serial adulterer, homophobe, rapist and paedophile. (In a grim irony, it later emerged that during this period Genesis was subjecting Cosey to abusive behaviour.) According to Cosey, in terms of their artistic mission to push the dynamic between artist and audience, the gig at Oundle School was their greatest achievement.
"It wasn't about confrontation or feeling superior to younger people, it was about us embracing being together with them in their school,” she says. “We always sailed away on the response of the audience. We invaded their comfort zone and shook it up like hell."
All photos courtesy of Throbbing Gristle.
Luke Turner is one of the co-founders and editors of award-winning online arts magazine The Quietus. His latest book, Out of the Woods, is out now.