The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, November 25, 2002

I wonder whether anyone actually listens to Throbbing Gristle any more. Oh, we continue to cite them – often lazily – as an influence on everything from Industrial to Techno, but how much of this is due to the fact of their past existence, as opposed to what they in fact produced when they existed?

Perhaps their most apparent influence was their presentation – the concept of a self-reliant group, capable of its own ideologies, manifestos and marketing; an “image” which inverted, examined and subverted capitalist models. This strand of theirs soon became diluted and commercialised for real by intelligent New Pop operatives like Heaven 17/BEF and Scritti Politti; not to mention its indirect influence on the Factory operation (Genesis P-Orridge was another son of Manchester, though subsequently brought up in Solihull). They came to prominence as supposed art terrorists; in particular with their ICA “COUM” exhibition of clippings from porno mags, used tampons, etc., in the autumn of 1976 which so scandalised the ertswhile surrealist and then ICA chairman Roland Penrose. So the concept of outrage has become more important now than the content.

What of TG’s music? As with Erwartung, Finnegan’s Wake and Spiritual Unity, it continues to stand as a border post of its particular aesthetic field. There is a very real argument for saying that we have progressed no further since. For concrete proof of this argument, I must direct you to Twenty Four Hours of Throbbing Gristle. This was originally a 24-cassette box set released in 1981 after TG had split, and consisted of the majority of their live performances – 24 concerts, one hour each; a day’s worth. To mark TG’s 25th anniversary, Chris Carter has remastered the tapes, and the package is to be reissued next month as a strictly limited edition 24-CD box set with deluxe packaging and a file sealed in wax (what a touch!) containing unspecified miscellaneous material from all four members (P-Orridge, Carter, Cosey Fanni Tutti and Peter Christopherson).

The construction of the box is not yet complete, so I only have the CDs themselves on which to base my assessment. They cover the period 1976-80 and, even on one concentrated listening, may well turn out to be the most powerful music ever to be discussed on this website.

It is shockingly contemporary in its sound, never more so than on the first track of the first CD, recorded at the ICA in October 1976, an electronic squall of a ballad, “Very Friendly,” which concerns itself with Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, and describes in gruesomely minute detail one of their murders (remember that P-Orridge was a potential victim). G P-O’s strangely childlike wail-meets-sneer of a voice is particularly suited to TG’s methodology; it can throw tantrums and yet be as cold as a tombstone. This was already as far away from punk as you could imagine, yet truer to punk than much else of what was being produced at the time. It was already ahead of the game. The as yet barely regulated counterpoint between electronic noise and primitive electrobeats with occasional violin interjections (by Chris and Cosey) set TG in a limboland somewhere between Cale’s Velvets and AMM, the latter influence being especially noticeable in Peter Christopherson’s barrage of TV/film/radio cut-up samples which, throughout TG’s career, acted as a second voice to harmonise with/argue against P-Orridge’s polemics.

P-Orridge was certainly determined to rub the consumer’s face in the degradation of humanity, to say the then unsayable. The next song on CD1, “Dead Heads,” hardly offers any succour; a Hammer horror scenario where the progenitor breaks into a married couple’s house, cuts the husband’s balls off with a carving knife and forces him to eat them, and then slices up the pregnant wife, cutting her womb open, extracting the baby and eating its head. Although fairly par for the course 300 years previously (check your Webster, Marlowe and Jonson for similar bloodletting), the seemingly a-passionate delivery and relentlessness of the musical backing still makes this a shocking listen; not to mention of course the multiple metaphors which P-Orridge brings into the narrative (emasculation, abortion, etc.). Only Eminem at his most nihilist even begins to approach the horror of this performance.

It is, I have to say, the most shocking thing here; thereafter TG’s world develops organically. On some gigs (CD2, CD5) vocals are absent altogether, in favour of AMM-esque electro-improv explorations. On other gigs, notably the Nag’s Head, High Wycombe (CD3) and Brighton Polytechnic (CD4), the audiences are hostile, wanting the Pistols, wanting “music,” and P-Orridge seems to relish baiting them, rubbishing “punk” though still wanting to go on TOTP. CD3 in particular is a tense document of audience hatred, though unlike Metallic KO the singer doesn’t get bottled into unconsciousness, and unlike 23 Minutes Over Brussels the microphone doesn’t get nicked and the threat of riot remains only a threat.

But there was no need to prolong this primary-level confrontation; TG opted to concentrate on developing their sound, refining it, opening up more to the world, incorporating greater proportions of cut-up material, almost enjoying the crassness of what they are recycling (Christopherson was at the time still working at his day job as an advertising exec). As we progress through 1977-8, the rhythms gradually become more tactile, the songs more approachable (though it’s all relative; this was hardly the Ramones). The audience reaction becomes almost irrelevant, and for the most part inaudible, as if there were no one there, or they had all been stunned into an astonished silence. Their best-known song “United” makes its first appearance on a return visit to Brighton Polytechnic in February 1978 (CD10), indeed takes up most of the gig. Note almost throwaway touches like the backward strings which conclude CD9, which in their brief appearance presage trip hop.

After this, P-Orridge’s voice becomes more processed and electronically modified, less “clear”; the middle-ground of the music was more important, but the extremities also became more pronounced. The gig at the Filmmakers’ Co-Op in London commemorated on CD14 is a dervish dance of fevered yells, plaintive wails and unrelenting industry. There are hostile crowd sounds, but it’s now impossible to tell what is audience and what is recorded; they have been absorbed into their own spectacle. The April 1979 performance at the Ajanta Cinema in Derby (CD17) (for which P-Orridge apologies to the audience for the projector not working) presents TG at their most approachable; here we finally have what can fairly be described as proto-Techno – there is definitely the space and purpose which evolved further (if deliberately depoliticised) in Detroit in the ‘80s, but here used to quite different ends.

By the time we reach Northampton Guild Hall one month later (CD20) the audience are now cheering and shouting “More!” They have fulfilled their potential; they were now well-known through their rather stealthy albums like 20 Jazz-Funk Greats, and similarly-motivated operatives like Cabaret Voltaire were now making themselves known. By now the trumpets and tribal beats have made their entrance, sounding absolutely like a prelude to Jon Hassell’s Fourth World adventures from the ’80s onwards, not to mention a presage of the strange nocturnal rites of TG’s final album, 1981’s Heathen Earth, and a clear passage towards the dualities of Psychic TV, Coil and Chris & Cosey into which the components of TG subsequently de-merged.

But there is one final ace in the pack, CD22, recorded at London’s Butler’s Wharf (pre-yuppiefication, when it still was disused industrial wasteland) at Christmas 1979. Its 60 minutes are powerful enough to make an aesthetic mockery of all other “pop” and “rock” music, yet it could not exist without either. It begins with a full-length tape of an American ‘phone sex chat-up line (Bill Hicks’ “Girl Of My Dreams” – someone else whose life depended on challenging his audience) with a idyllic Love Unlimited Orchestra-style backing track. It ends and TG’s music gradually escalates with a terrible and inevitable beauty, as if to sum up everything they were ever about; the deregulated orgasm taken to its logical artistic conclusion. It cumulates in the awful grandeur of what (along with the climax of Mike Westbrook’s Marching Song) is likely to be the most violent and uncompromising music ever to be discussed in these pages; so much more astonishing because the musicians appear to know exactly what they are doing. You think Unknown Pleasures and Metal Box are pushing the envelope, they are saying to the audience of 1979, well try this, suckers. And they have the architectural knowhow to take the music back down to a dignified murmur, and then silence. P-Orridge announces that there’s a special TG gift for everyone in the audience to collect on their way out (we don’t learn what this is) and then, from the PA, the parallel pop of 1979 starts to play; Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” (a clean-up job on the gig’s first seven minutes), Chic’s “Le Freak.” TG were always working parallel to pop, and never forgot the existence of the latter.

So what have I learned about TG, having spent most of the last week absorbing this music? Really I ought to have listened to it all in one go, taken a day out of my life to enter their world fully. Instead I listened in a variety of environments; on the bus, in the kitchen, in bed, in an outpatient clinic waiting room. It may well be that Camus’ theory of art as rebellion against nature applies here – but also the instinctive awareness that even this is a romantic notion as it places a false frame upon infinity. Is Twenty Four Hours Of Throbbing Gristle “real”? Again, Camus reminds us that there is no such thing as realism in art; in other words, the description of a character in a novel, in order to be real, would have to be endless. Similarly, the documentarian recording an arrested moment (even 24 of them) is false insofar as, in “reality,” this is only part of another, greater movement. “Reality” would show us everything, every breath, every chip eaten, every piss taken, not just a fragment which is completely dependent upon the bias of the selector. So you would have to be Throbbing Gristle to understand them properly. But this is not concomitant with Benjamin’s argument that great art should never be viewed. So an expensive luxury it may be, but this collection needs to be heard – heard and listened to; it might come nearer to showing us a mirror of our own consumption of art than anything else I can think of at present.

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