A Beginner's Guide to Throbbing Gristle
From a performance art project from Hull to wreckers of civilisation: this is the story of one of Britian's most important musical acts.
In 1969, the northern English city of Hull was still under the throes of a post-war —that is, post-Second World War— economic and infrastructural reconstruction not unlike those of other places in England and Europe at large. It has also slumped into cultural malaise symptomatic of any developed, industrialized, capitalist society ravaged by war. Hull had seemingly fallen victim to the expectations of the unstoppable progress and development of modernity, its noticeably decaying infrastructure suggested this at the same time it belied a social, cultural, and economic over-ripeness.
It was to this environment, which was locally specific while also mirroring what may have been going on elsewhere, anywhere, that a trio of artists, including a young couple, Neil Megson and Christine Newby, responded by channeling their interests in music and performance art into a multi-media project called COUM Transmissions (Sound on Sound). In due time, Megson and Newby's performances under this name earned a them reputation for 'transgression,' what with their affinity for exposing themselves publicly, live sex, self-mutilation, and playing with dead animals and bodily fluids, among other things. Like many of the other 'transgressive' creative endeavors of that period, COUM Transmissions were actually inspired by some philosophy or other, if not a fully fledged anti-ideology. However one of the more notably apparent ideas espoused by the project that survived —and flourished— after it was the emancipation of sound and music from each other.
Three years after moving to London in 1973 to broaden their horizons, COUM Transmissions gave its final performance at an ICA retrospective. Joined by Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson and Chris Carter, a designer and a sound engineer respectively, they launched Throbbing Gristle, an evolution of sorts that would distill its predecessor's practice both in thought and execution. Together, the four members of Throbbing Gristle —Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti (Megson and Newby's adopted names), and Christopherson and Carter—proceeded in attempting to explode traditional concepts and understandings of music, breaching not only song structures, but textures as well. Their debut album, The Second Annual Report followed in 1977, just as punk had established a presence in music, and soon-to-be film classics such as Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Eraserhead, and That Obscure Object of Desire made sci-fi, horror, surrealist, and anarchist impressions on moviegoers that year.
Now largely thought of as pioneers of 'industrial' music, sometimes with pals Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle were originally associated with the newly prominent genre of punk, although in retrospect they augured the approaching wild experimentation and diverse sounds of post-punk and then New Wave, with their preferred repertoire of tapes, synthesizers, effects, and production. Moreover, The Second Annual Report may have borne the characteristics of sound art as a medium, or figured into a genealogy of noise music, but perhaps more than anything, it was the work of a fully-realized rock electronic music band, the likes of which were still a relative rarity or simply too under-the-radar at the time.
Not surprisingly, and quite unfortunately, so much was made of the dark, unsettling, and lurid contents of Throbbing Gristle's Second Annual Report —mainly centering around the dialogue or 'lyrics' of Genesis' graphically gruesome spoken-word incantations, which the recordings of a child murderer confessing to his crime, and a calm newscaster seemingly reporting some catastrophe— that one of the most important and distinctive aspects that set their music apart was overlooked. That is, their interest and direct engagement with the peculiarities, absurdities, and plain mundane-ness of everyday modern life – warts and all. This would be further explored on 1978's sophomore follow-up D.o.A: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle where, for example, the pathos of inane lads' chatter on "Valley of the Shadow of Death" and timeless children's babble on "Hometime" was heightened by atmospheric noise and eerie ambient swashes. Much as COUM Transmissions did, Genesis and co absorbed whatever was around them digested/processed it, and then spewed it back out into the world through the raw medium of sound.
Infamous as they've become, Throbbing Gristle's original run was short-lived. In 1979, they issued 20 Jazz Funk Greats their third and final proper album for another two decades (unreleased material was released throughout the 80s); recorded entirely in a studio for the first time, it also found TG engaging with the strictures of music and genre(s), with fascinating results. After playing their last performance in May of 1981 in San Francisco, all four members moved on to other projects that continued to influence their peers and the major currents of music as much as they were influenced themselves in turn. Genesis co-founded Psychic TV with Christopherson, who later co-founded Coil, the former a psychedelic rock-turned-acid house collective, the latter an ambient and post-industrial outfit; meanwhile, Tutti and Carter spanned the spectrum of possibilities of synthpop as Chris & Cosey.
Throbbing Gristle re-united in 2004, going on to release three more albums between then and 2009 also embarking on several tours, only to dis-band again in 2010 when Genesis dropped out of the touring schedule that year, and Christopherson passed away soon after. Seemingly unaffected by time, however, or by the trickiness and uncertainty involved with re-uniting in an era of reunions, or even that last publicly acrimonious split, Throbbing Gristle's place and reputation in the world of music remains as important and influential as ever, which is why this is as good a time as any to run a guide to TG and their legacy.
Now, no guide to anything is perfect, but that's the fun in it. The selections prepared here are meant to correspond to either individual releases, or periods of songwriting, that most reflect the essence, both ideologically and aesthetically, of what the Throbbing Gristle project was and continues to be about (as its surviving members continue to make music). So which albums or releases made the cut? See for yourself, if you're new to all this, take it as a primer, and if you're one of those old-school fans that knows everything about them already, well, you're going to read it all anyway. Dim the lights, sit in the most uncomfortable chair you can find and enjoy.
1. Throbbing Gristle - The First Annual Report (1975)/Best of Throbbing Gristle Volumes 1 & 2 (1976-1977)
Ever wondered why Throbbing Gristle's debut album was titled the second annual report? There actually was a first, but it was recorded in 1975 when COUM Transmissions was still in existence; long available as a bootleg since the late 80s, it finally got an official release in 2001. Pair it with the Best of Throbbing Gristle Volumes 1 & 2 tapes, put out in 1976 and 1977, respectively for a perfect taste of what the group were all about before they became fully fledged wreckers of civilisation. The three releases sound and feel like some kind of noise jazz filtered through the medium of electronic music, rudimentary, naively un-structured and improvised, and nakedly collage-oriented. It's like hearing an especially, or more-often-than-not, fascinating work-in-progress.
2. Throbbing Gristle - 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979)
The most 'musical' of Throbbing Gristle's first three authoritative albums, 20 Jazz Funk Greats was also their first entirely recorded in a studio. It sounded off a departure from prior material in its engagement with familiar song structures and melody, and in its borrowing from genres – pop, ambient, electro, synthpop, all of which were influenced in turn. What you've got here, roughly, is 'Anti-musicians' taking on music. Also features sleazy club classic "Hot on the Heels of Love" which still sounds otherworldly today.
3. Psychic TV's Acid House Phase (1988-1990)
After putting out an anthology compilation, Genesis must've been in some kind of introspective mood, contemplating Psychic TV's next move, in fact, the collective went on to embark upon one of the best-loved and most interesting periods of their career in 1988, releasing fake compilations of songs by acid house artists who in truth were actually the Psychic TV posse and their friends, many of whom were in with the electronic dance music scene. Quite a few 'compilations' were released in quick succession until 1990, notable albums included Jack the Tab – Acid Tablets Volume One, Tekno Acid Beat and Towards Thee Infinite Beat.
4. Chris & Cosey - Trance (1982)/Songs of Love and Lust (1984)
It's hard to believe Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti were able to put out something as divergent from what Throbbing Gristle still sounded like in 1981 as Heartbeat, their first album as Chris & Cosey. A masterwork in its own right of [freezing] cold, machine-like aesthetics so bereft of any 'organic' inspiration it achieved a kind of sublime beauty in its very in-humanity. The formula was nevertheless improved upon, and enriched by the introduction of some element of humanity on follow-ups Trance and Songs of Love and Lust — the latter is quite possibly Chris & Cosey's masterpiece.
5. Coil - Love's Secret Domain (1991)
Nevermind accessibility, Coil's sound benefited and was enriched by engaging with elements of more, ahem, palatable modes of music-making (pop, acid house, etc.) without sacrificing their integrity, much as Throbbing Gristle did so on 20 Jazz Funk Greats. This is post-industrial music at it's very best.
Honorable Mention: Throbbing Gristle - Mission of Dead Souls (1981)
This is a recording of Throbbing Gristle's last-ever performance, that is, until their reunion in 2004. While it isn't normally cited as their best live album (that honor usually goes to Heathen Earth), it does document where Throbbing Gristle and its four members were at creatively and otherwise, before the whole thing went under, and for that reason alone, it should be required listening for anyone interested in the trajectory of TG's sound.
Arthur Ivan Bravo is a freelance writer. Check out more of his work here.