TIDAL Primer: Throbbing Gristle’s Industrial Legacy
Throbbing Gristle, whose central member Genesis Breyer P-Orridge died on March 14, 2020, at the age of 70, had an outsize impact on alternative culture compared with their sales and mainstream media profile. As with the similarly modest-selling Velvet Underground, it can sometimes seem like everyone who heard TG’s records at the time of their original late-’70s release immediately formed a group. Rooted equally in performance-art provocation and psychedelia’s mind-bending sensory overload, TG were infamous for the sheer audiovisual assault of their live shows (which they called “disconcerts”), and for songs that explored the extremes of human psychology: genocidal fascism, serial killers, horrific accidents and occult mysticism.
Where punk was rooted in Chuck Berry and the Who, Throbbing Gristle jettisoned rock ’n’ roll altogether, experimenting with electronics, tape loops and found sounds, and using self-built contraptions to distort and mutate their sound. Paralleling the formation of postpunk labels like Rough Trade and Factory, TG pioneered the do-it-yourself, release-it-yourself ethos, starting their own imprint, Industrial Records, which rapidly became an outlet not just for their music but for likeminded artists like Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA and Monte Cazazza as well.
The group and the label became the hub for an international network of “anti-music” weirdos who would eventually be dubbed “industrial.” As the approaches and obsessions pioneered by TG proliferated, industrial branched out into offshoot directions such as power electronics, dark ambient, Electronic Body Music (EBM) and more, each taking an aspect of the Gristlevision and pushing it further. But you can find traces of TG’s DNA all over the alternative-music landscape, from crossover industrialists like Nine Inch Nails, Ministry and Marilyn Manson, to electronic cult figures like Matmos, Boards of Canada and the Black Dog, to underground noise exponents like Merzbow and Wolf Eyes.
Although P-Orridge’s reputation has taken a hit in recent years with revelations about abusive actions and cult-leader-like conduct, there’s no denying the scale and significance of Throbbing Gristle’s legacy. This roundup is a small sampling of the unforgiving creative language that TG patented.
20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979)
On their third album, Throbbing Gristle surprised fans and foes alike with an unexpectedly palatable and inviting LP. While earlier peaks like “Hamburger Lady” had hurled the listener into horror, here ethereal drifts of glistening texture, such as “Tanith” and “Exotica,” induce a vague disquiet. “Hot on the Heels of Love” is almost disco-friendly: TG co-founder Cosey Fanni Tutti comes across like industrial music’s very own Donna Summer over synthesist Chris Carter’s chittering pulses, previewing the icily erotic electronic dance music the pair would later make as Chris & Cosey. A seasick lurch of chronic ennui, “What a Day” is Genesis P-Orridge’s own high point on an album whose variety and subtlety opened up half a dozen directions for the industrial genre to explore.
This Canadian outfit aimed to confront humanity’s bottomless capacity for, well, inhumanity, through immersing us in soundscapes that simulate carnage and cruelty. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work, in theory; in practice, the battery of grueling beats and gruesome electronics feels like it could appeal to sadistic or masochistic impulses as much as activate empathy and compassion. VIVIsectVI, a protest against animal testing, is Skinny Puppy at their most uncompromising and punitive. cEvin Key’s bludgeoning sludge of distorted synths and samples is laced with mangled vocals from Nivek Ogre that resemble splashes of caustic fluid more than singing.
During the ’80s, one industrial sector moved toward the dancefloor, with groups like Die Krupps and Nitzer Ebb embracing a muscular “work aesthetic” of machine rhythm and metal-pounding percussion. Another strand, which included outfits like Zoviet France, Lustmord and Nocturnal Emissions, developed the side of Throbbing Gristle that was interested in mood music that subtly unsettles the listener rather than obliterating them. The dark drones and ambient amorphousness of Spiritflesh evoke empty landscapes humming with eerie energy, strange places that might once have been a pagan shrine or a ritual site.
Stolen & Contaminated Songs (1992)
Formed by TG founding member Peter Christopherson and John Balance, Coil was a vehicle for the exploration of esoteric magical knowledge, adventures in chemically altered states and transgressive sexuality. A huge and varied sprawl, Coil’s discography ranges from creepy ambience woven out of skewed samples to dancefloor-oriented material informed by the duo’s brief but intense immersion in British techno-rave. Pulled together out of tracks that didn’t fit 1991’s Love’s Secret Domain, this is a great entry point for the uninitiated, precisely because it’s so motley.
Formed in early ’80s Slovenia, back when it was still part of Communist Yugoslavia, Laibach have devoted almost four decades now to just one element of Throbbing Gristle’s work: the parodic if disconcertingly poker-faced use of totalitarian imagery seen in TG songs like “Discipline.” In tandem with the art collective Neue Slowenische Kunst, Laibach created an imaginary state with its own military uniforms, flag and national anthem (as heard on 2004’s Anthems). The group’s most famous move is recording ridiculously portentous covers of rock anthems (like “Sympathy for the Devil”), intended to bring out and satirize the mass-rally atmosphere of stadium shows. That joke wore thin fairly quickly. And so it’s the cover-free Kapital that is Laibach’s most listenable album, inventively weaving somber vocal samples through a dense web of rhythm that is, for once, very nearly groovy.
Simon Reynolds is the author of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984.
Image: Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle performs in London in August 1979. Photo: David Corio/Redferns.
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