On Throbbing Gristle

In loving memory of Genesis P-Orridge

“The Music was done on the premise that everybody is capable of making music…A musical instrument is just something that makes a noise. Therefore anything that makes a noise is an instrument, and anyone who can make it make a noise is a musician. They don’t need to know the right way to do it, or the correct skillful way to do it…You cant make mistakes, you can only make things that appeal or don’t appeal to certain people.” 

-Genesis P-Orridge. 

Genesis P-Orridge, founder of projects such as Throbbing Gristle, Coum Transmissions, and Psychic TV, died earlier this week at the age of 70. Many have accredited Genesis P Orridge as being a pioneer and one of the primary inventors of the experimental music genre known as “Industrial” music.

Today, just about anyone, anywhere, can throw together some drum machine samples with synths or guitar feedback and call it “industrial” Like many other so-called, music genres, the term has been bastardized and hackneyed to the point where today, it has become utterly meaningless. Once upon a time, however, the term actually carried meaning. In the early 70’s, while the UK slums were teeming with impoverished, disenfranchised, and artistically inclined youths amidst the urban wasteland, Throbbing Gristle was born. Throbbing Gristle invented their own instrumentation, including but not limited to, electronic sampling and drum machines which later became staples amongst other industrial outfits. Genesis P-Orridge and other members from the band originally founded COUM Transmissions, a performance art group in the UK who had been touted by Tory MP at the time, Nicolais Fairbairn, as being “Wreckers of civilization.” Fuelled from a dadaist philosophy, an obsession with William Burroughs and their roots in shocking performance art, Throbbing Gristle began as an innocuous experiment which escalated into something much greater .Through their dismantling the very foundations of music and rock and roll, Throbbing Gristle solidified themselves in music history. Their innovation and provocative tendencies helped to pave the way for later commercially successful ‘industrial’ bands like Nine Inch Nails, Marylin Manson and also less widely known but influential bands like Ministry, Skinny Puppy, and Whitehouse. Although it is often debated whether they were the sole inventors of industrial music, for any legitimate conversation about industrial music and where it began, Throbbing Gristle must be mentioned among the founding fathers (and mothers). They did coin the term, “industrial” after all, with the naming of their own original label “Industrial records” , the initial platform for the dawn  of industrial music in the UK. On the first release from Industrial Records, Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Second Annual Report’  there is a slogan that reads: “Industrial music for Industrial people”. 

Throbbing Gristle is a bad psychedelic trip you oddly enjoy.  A glitching arcade game which immediately switches to the game-over screen before you’ve even begun playing. You’re so drawn into their hypnotic spell, you find yourself feeding more quarters into the mad machine against your own volition, until it explodes in your face. They’re the weird and kinky secret pleasure you don’t tell anyone about because you’re afraid everyone will find out how sick and perverted you really are.  The first time I heard Throbbing Gristle, I thought, “Ah, so this is what a serial killer’s brain must sound like.” There was a feeling I got where something was wrong with it, deeply wrong, and It impelled me to turn it off immediately. “If anyone hears me listening to this….” I thought to myself. “They’ll have me in a strait jacket by tomorrow.”  But for whatever reason, I couldn’t shut them off.  The sounds were too addicting. They were too stimulating to my greedy and sensuous penchant for bizarre and horrifying murder ballads sounding like they’re made by extraterrestrials. 

The Monotonous drum machines thumping like angry pistons playing in a constant loop with a depraved screaming heard overtop “I Want. DISCIPLINE.” Over and over, without ceasing, from start to finish, like two factory machines fucking. Screams coming from what sound like rape victims. Never ending interludes with synthesizers and amplifier feedback like razor blades and then the sudden shimmering dream pop melody which always sounds  off-putting, out-of-whack and menacing. Electronic signal tones and high pitched frequencies that sound like a super computer’s total meltdown, or like the soundtrack to the machines taking over society apocalypse-type scenario.  Infiltrating vocal delay, repeating cryptic refrains about drugs, deadly viruses, murder and genocide and burn victims.  In short, when heard together in all the havoc, honey sweet melodies, and all the hellish cacophonous, destruction and glory, Throbbing gristle’s abrasive sounds may induce anxiety attacks, twisted erotic fantasies and inner-ear ruptures. On the other hand, you may experience feelings of divination, deliverance and love. You could be taken by the rapture, the gradual, inching, psychic meltdown produced on tracks like ‘Dead on Arrival “ or “hamburger lady” and the next moment be swooning to the melodious trances on songs like “Hot on The Heels Of Love”  There are the energetic, almost punk, amphetaminic songs like “Zyklon B Zombie”, and “Something Came Over me” and “Discipline” and the next moment hallucinatory, opium dream lullaby’s like “Distant Dreams”  or “Walkabout”  There is an element of sheer lunacy in the ambience they are orchestrating and its consistently erratic nature. Their funky bass rhythms , drum samples, and often melodic synthesizers, contrasting with the thick walls of machine noise and relentless guitar feedback, brain melting signal tones, and Genesis’s ear splitting screams which echo eternally through the vocal delay; together it all conjures an ill devised, yet somehow delicious buffet of dread and disarray. While on one hand they sound like some twisted Dr Frankenstein equivalent of a rock band overdosed on narcotics,  on the other hand, the sound they emit may illustrate a stark dimension of reality. A world people may prefer to turn away from. A vision often repressed by society.  A vision capturing society’s underbelly and the human psyche in its most degraded state. And while many artists may try to ignore this unpleasantness, playing it ‘safe’ attempting to  merely ‘entertain’ and maintain marketability for mass audiences,  their final product often suffers by becoming flat, one dimensional and uninspiring. Rather than cower away into the safety of standard pop melodies and love songs, Throbbing Gristle injects the vileness from within the human psyche into their music. 

Like many teens in the industrial, factory lined parts of England in the 70’s this cruel, disturbing vision was embedded in the reality they saw every day. Along with the many other experimental and punk acts being born around the time, Genesis and Throbbing Gristle made their artistic statement one too riveting, too disturbing, too desperate, to be ignored. Unlike many rock bands for whom, expressing their angst equated to turning up the volume knobs on their amplifiers, Throbbing Gristle was more experimental in their approach. Their music was emotive on a spectrum. At times atmospheric, almost like some ambient background score to your nightmares after an evening filled with pizza and satanic blood orgies.  What makes them so memorable is how unnerving they are. It’s how they manage to create a dimension of sound that verges on the brink of insanity. It seems almost too deranged to be made by humans. Gradual crescendos of pitch modulation rivalling Mozart in their climactic tension. Frequencies high enough to shatter glass. Vocal arrangements which are haunting enough to be coming from beyond the grave, as though a poltergeist is looming inside the stereo. Synthesizers making sounds and melodies completely foreign to any musical tradition, rendering them to a satanic degree. Distasteful noises evocative of a fly buzzing in your ear, or a rusted needle on a record being played upside down. Throbbing Gristle would be an ideal soundtrack to a slaughterhouse, or perhaps a schizophrenic, mass-murdering, heroin-addict bedroom apartment shin-dig. There is something uncanny in their music. As though this music actually does contain some real disturbed presence. A presence which is almost  beyond the realm of ordinary reality, one that only Throbbing Gristle can successfully ‘tap into’ and then unleash upon the world. But, why on earth would anyone enjoy this?  Throbbing Gristle’s music contains sounds at times so distasteful, perhaps it seems best to ignore them altogether. After all, maybe it would better instead to  think happier more pleasant things, to hum and dance to more melodic, more radio friendly songs. Even so, Throbbing Gristle would still be laying dormant, waiting to come out.   The world they formulate in their unutterable, unthinkable sound is too real to be ignored. It is not simply noise. It is not simply chaos. There is method to the madness. There is something beneath the haunting melodies.  Beneath the anguish, there is an element of truth resounding through the music and lyricism. They are downright ugly. They are dissonant, discordant and dissident. But they are real, and they are unapologetic about it. They take ugliness and bring it to the forefront of their art. They sublimate brute negativity into artistic beauty. They provide truth in a culture so fuelled by delusion.

Throbbing Gristle has taught me to push my boundaries and to question  experiment with ideas well past the point I ever thought imaginable. I’ve often wondered why “Hamburger Lady”— a  song about a woman in a burn ward, would come to be one of my all time favourite songs. (I can still remember my first time hearing it– in the middle of the night, lights off, blankets pulled over my head and listening through my headphones. I still get chills whenever it plays.) My answer may also be shared among the many people out there with a strange affinity for Throbbing Gristle.  Good art should affect us; for better or worse. What sort of effect the art should evoke is wholly subject to interpretation. Nevertheless, the more the art can affect us, the more it can impress itself upon our souls, I say the better.  Anytime I listen to this band, my soul is stirred by the sounds they create. The robotic, static waves of noise stimulate a charge through my entire being. Sometimes it is haunting.  Sometimes hallucinatory. Sometimes terrifying. Sometimes emotional. Sometimes comical. Sometimes sexual. Mostly though, it’s all of the above, at the same time. A tour de force, Throbbing Gristle is one terrifying and exhilarating musical ejaculation. 

Rest in peace, Genesis.

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