The Gospel According to Presents…A Look at Throbbing Gristle
Jonathan Brodsky sez:
Culture Fusion contributor Sean Hebner posed a question to me recently: ‘What are your feelings on industrial music?’.
My answer was complicated, but not because of any particularly inarticulable feelings; rather, it was because of society’s lack of historical understanding of the true nature of industrial music.
The designation of ‘industrial music’ has been subject to perversion over the years; like many other genres, the applications of pre-existing music classifications and sub-classifications have been unnecessarily and grossly stretched by people in the hopes of simplifying the relation of new and unfamiliar sounds to others via conversation. As such, the pertinent elements of the various genres simplified as ‘industrial’ – a mild-to-heavy degree of electronic instrumentation and a focus on dark textures and subject matter – have given way to an over-inclusive definition that completely skims over the distinguishing elements that keeps the original (and truly ‘original’) industrial music sonically and ideologically demarcated from what most people consider to be industrial but is, in truth, usually just bad metal with gothic and pop-electronic overtones.
Much like ’emo’ and ”country’, ‘industrial’ has become one of those genre terms that has lost any hope of being respected as an art due to being co-opted by generations of derivative and tasteless crap.
So, what are my feelings on industrial music? Well, I like industrial music, but when I say that, I’m not talking about Rammstein, nor am I thinking of Static-X; I especially don’t mean to say I like Coal Chamber or Skinny Puppy, either. Heck, I’m not even talking about some bands I’ve heard referred to as industrial whose music I think is okay, like Nitzer Ebb (who are electronic body music, or EBM for short), Depeche Mode (gothic darkwave/new romantic/pop) or Marilyn Manson’s first few records (I’m tempted to say ‘industrial metal’, but that’s just the indoctrination talking).
No, when I say I like industrial music, I primarily think of one band: the band who started the independent Industrial Records label; the band who coined the term ‘industrial’ itself as an adjective for a new kind of music that relied heavily on the textures of machination and a bleak, factory-like atmosphere. When I say I like industrial music, I mean to say that I like Throbbing Gristle.
Throbbing Gristle came into existence in 1976, formed from the ashes of COUM Transmissions, a faction of English performance artists who toed the line between vaudeville and pornography without any distracting choreography or burlesque camp. Genesis P-Orridge (born Neil Megson) and Cosey Fanni Tutti (née Christine Newby), along with a rotating cast of others, would partake in self-immolation, body-mutilation, sexual intercourse, bondage, urination, defecation, urophagia, coprophagia, and – occasionally – musical performance, beating punk prophet GG Allin at his own game a good decade before his first onstage dump.
By comparison, Throbbing Gristle – the aforementioned P-Orridge and Tutti supplemented by Chris Carter and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson (d. 2010), were a lot tamer than their antecedent ensemble. While the band’s name was a crude euphemism for male genitalia and the Industrial Records logo was a black-and-white photograph depicting the exterior of one of the crematoriums at a Nazi concentration camp, they otherwise confined their predilections for the taboo and uncomfortable to their lyrics and music, with Genesis P-Orridge focusing on fronting his new outfit with a relatively more traditional approach than he did with COUM.
However, from the perspective of high society – who would have been ignorant to the existence of the underground performance art circles P-Orridge and co. ran in, never mind the extreme exhibition that COUM were party to – Gristle were still pushing the envelope of good taste in a manner that offended in manners both aural and conceptual: TG’s third concert performance (and first cassette release) was at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London as part of an exhibit called ‘Prostitution’ (apropos, given Tutti’s history as a sex-industry worker) and featured the performance of a suite they entitled ‘Music From The Death Factory’, which was comprised of pieces entitled Very Friendly – a rumination on the sadistic ‘Moors murders’ committed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in the 1960s-, We Hate You (Little Girls), Slug Bait, Dead Ed, and Zyklon B Zombie. A lot of these titles would appear on later releases, but the lion’s share of these ‘compositions’ existed more as lyrics delivered over a sonic backdrop rather than as notated figures given identity through repetition and structural adherence.
Unlike a lot of later industrial groups who were primarily studio outfits that utilized the recording facility as a musical instrument to tool and sculpt their already-precise and heavily-contemplated visions, TG were a highly-improvisatory live act – a good portion of their early ‘studio’ releases were comprised of material sourced from their various performances that were edited and further compiled into collagist, musique-concrète pieces – a representation of a greater whole based on explorations of similar terrain and concept (this nod to the Burroughsian method was likely something they were cognizant of, given Industrial Records’ eventual signing of the controversial author to their stable of recording artists.)
As Throbbing Gristle were both a strong live act and iconoclastic pioneers who carved out previously uncharted musical territory with every performance, a lot of the technology that their successors would come to rely on – samplers, digital synthesizers, loop pedals, etc. – did not yet exist, and as such, the band would further isolate themselves into a class all their own by being exceptionally organic and ‘human’ for industrial music: while many second-wave industrial acts were mired up with expensive and custom-order gear so as to replicate their studio material, Gristle were very ascetic, low-key, and surprisingly traditional in their early approach: at the ICA, there is some tape playback of pre-recorded samples (Christopherson’s main contribution), but compared to later forays, it was kept to a relative minimum, and P-Orridge and Tutti even embraced traditional instrumentation, playing bass and guitar respectively, although more often than not using the instruments to produce textural content as opposed to anything of strong periodic value. The most immediate instrumental element that one perceives on this (and other) early TG affairs is Chris Carter’s home-built synthesizer, which produces a lot of anti-ambient droning and sci-fi resonant-filter sweeps. All in all, it isn’t too far-fetched to imagine these sounds as the result of any number of Mute Records’ artists captured ‘jamming’ or in otherwise candid or seemingly-unobserved moments.
But it is P-Orridge that sets this beast apart: bellowing at the audience with the fury of a general, stalking the stage like a spastic asylum inmate, and spinning lurid yarns with the mercilessness and empathic void of de Sade, he speaks of child murders ad indecent sex with the same intensity and apparent lack of moral or ethical affect that makes songs like Slayer’s ‘Angel Of Death’ so chilling: it is one thing to be presented with someone revelling in horrors or empathizing with those who fall prey to natural selection, but it is the cold neutrality and lack of polemic proselytizing in Gristle’s message that makes them all the more chilling. Reducing events to that of binary ‘fact’ gives a reality to the situation without co-opting it for the causes of heroism or villainy. The opposite of love is not hate, but rather, indifference, and to come across as impartial to true horror – like the Moors murders – is to present the supposition that the individuals here are beyond fear, and thusly, it can be reasoned that there is much inside them that is worth fearing.
And this is why, to me, when I think of true (and truly) industrial music, I think of a marriage between our extremes: the catharsis that we get from screaming to the world that which we choose to conceal about ourselves in our daily, mild-mannered lives… and the cold near-sociopathy with which we must adapt to survive while others beneath our stations struggle and starve. I also think of the true direct descendents of the industrial genre – power electronics and noise – which would not have been the same (if even possible) without Throbbing Gristle’s vanguard demonstrations of abrasive audio terrorism paving the way and establishing the precedent that audiences did exist for such left-field and avant-garde productions.
Like they themselves quoted, Throbbing Gristle produced industrial music for industrial people: in tackling the difficult, the ugly, and the formless, they painted a more accurate portrait of humanity than any brainwashed capitalist in a suit would like to admit to. Throbbing Gristle were not a mere commentary on a hypothetical, unfair society: they were the logical product of a very real dystopia that only continues to the present day.