PRINT May 2003


Throbbing Gristle

WHILE MANY LIVE RECORDINGS are accompanied by disclaimers—invariably apologias for the sound quality—few come with warnings as to their possible side effects. Throbbing Gristle’s TG24, a limited-edition deluxe box set of twenty-four CDs of live Throbbing Gristle (TG) recordings made between 1976 and 1980, is prefaced with the following: “Industrial Records and Throbbing Gristle will not be held responsible in any way whatsoever for the results of any physical, mental or structural damage either inflicted or incurred by the owner of this collection or any third parties.” A coda further suggests that the collection is not recommended for listeners of a “nervous disposition” or, given the “adult nature” of its content, those “under 18 years of age.” As sales pitches go it is pretty enticing—despite the almost three-hundred-dollar asking price.

Named after a Yorkshire slang term for an erection, Throbbing Gristle was formed in 1976 by Chris Carter, Peter Christopherson, Genesis P-Orridge, and Cosey Fanni Tutti. The group sought to explore and expose the limits, and limitations, of popular music. Writing in the booklet that accompanies TG24, P-Orridge claims that punk merely sought “to change the nature of Rock & Roll,” whereas TG aspired “to change the nature of music” itself. If punk’s earliest philosophy was summed up by punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue’s editor Mark Perry (“This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band.”), P-Orridge’s retort was as scathing as it was uncompromising: “Why learn any chords?” Armed with such nihilistic credentials, TG set about demolishing popular music from within.

TG’s early history is entwined with the avant-garde art movements of the ’60s and early ’70s. P-Orridge and Fanni Tutti had been the instrumental forces behind Coum, a loose amalgam of artists, musicians, and performers influenced by Fluxus, Happenings, and Conceptual art. By the time Christopherson joined Coum in 1975, P-Orridge and Fanni Tutti’s interests were already focused on those activities or individuals deemed taboo: pornography, the Viennese Actionists, the Marquis de Sade, occultist Aleister Crowley, William S. Burroughs, Charles Manson, and the “Moors murderers” Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. As such, their interests were also startlingly at odds with those of the staid British art milieu of the mid-’70s.

Originally released on cassettes in 1979–80, TG24 charts twenty-five of TG’s public performances: from their October 1976 debut at London’s Air Gallery to their March 1980 Goldsmiths College gig. While many of TG’s earliest live performances were held at independent art spaces, the group would soon seek to distance themselves from the art world. The turning point was Coum’s notorious quasi-retrospective exhibition “Prostitution,” held at London’s ICA in October 1976. The exhibition, which included written and photographic documentation of Coum’s earlier activities and props from Coum’s “actions” (used tampons, an anal syringe, and so on), was augmented by images drawn from Fanni Tutti’s ongoing parallel career as a pornographic model and actress. In the inevitable press furor that followed, the group was famously denounced by the Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn as “the wreckers of civilization.” “Prostitution” would signal the eventual transition of Coum into TG. TG’s performance at the exhibition’s opening reception was announced by P-Orridge as being “basically about the post-breakdown of civilization.” What follows is typical of early live TG recordings: an often intentionally discordant series of electronically layered and conventionally played sonic interludes, loosely organized into recognizable themes or songs, over which P-Orridge intones the bleak lyrics to future TG classics such as “We Hate You (Little Girls)” or “Zyklon B Zombie.”

In 1977 TG released their debut LP, The Second Annual Report of Throbbing Gristle, on their own Industrial Records label. With little publicity, the record would sell its first pressing in six weeks. (According to P-Orridge, cited in Simon Ford’s excellent history of the group, The Wreckers of Civilization [Black Dog, 1999], even Elton John bought a copy.) Over the next four years—the lifetime of Industrial Records—TG would sell close to two hundred thousand records, an impressive amount for music so resolutely unyielding. By 1979–80 TG’s live sound had matured, evolving into something resembling, in P-Orridge’s terminology, the “autistic disco” of their later recordings. In early 1981 TG embarked on a two-date “tour” of California. Like the Beatles and the Sex Pistols before them, TG would make their final live appearance in San Francisco. On June 23, 1981, the band announced its self-determined demise via a postcard mailed to friends and supporters that simply stated, “The Mission is Terminated.”

TG sought—successfully—to infiltrate mainstream popular culture with their bleakly comic worldview. (TG’s sense of humor has tended to be neglected.) Without TG’s missionary lead it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine our contemporary musical landscape: Their influence is clearly present in the ambitions of musicians as different as the Aphex Twin, Marilyn Manson, and Fischerspooner. Sensitively remastered by Chris Carter, TG24 was reissued to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of Industrial Records and to make TG’s long-deleted—and highly collectible—live recordings available to new audiences. TG24 premiered at London’s Cabinet gallery in December, 2002, providing the sound track to a display of TG-related ephemera that included the band’s extensive mailing list, with Joy Division’s Ian Curtis notable among their correspondents. By turns exhilarating and infuriating, TG24 remains a blueprint for rock’s future and an aural testament to one of the most inscrutable musical forces of all time.

Matthew Higgs is curator at the CCAC Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco.