Banned on the run: The extreme world of Throbbing Gristle
“I don’t think there’s any point in doing anything unless you push yourself. When in doubt – be extreme” (Genesis P-Orridge)
“[We] were interested in taboos. What the boundaries were, where sound became noise and where noise became music and where entertainment became pain, and where pain became entertainment. All the contradictions of culture” (Genesis P-Orridge)
Today’s blog is a little leftfield and as I write this, I’m not quite sure where it’s going to end up. Regular readers will know from some of my previous blogs that I am a bit of a music obsessive and that music is one of the most important things in my life. Given that one of the things I like to examine in my blog is extreme behaviour, I thought I would have a brief look at one of the most extreme bands of all time – Throbbing Gristle (TG) – who coincidentally happen to be one of my all-time favourite groups. (In fact, I have surreptitiously snuck in TG references in previous blogs, the most blatant example being my blog on sexual sadism that I entitled Entertainment Through Pain – the name of TG’s most recent ‘best of’ album).
I have no idea how much any of you reading this knows about TG, and if you do know about them, you will no doubt be aware that listening to them is an experience (to say the least) and they were the first (and best) group to make ‘industrial music’ (in fact they coined the term and formed their own record label Industrial Records). TG’s live shows (which incidentally were all recorded and all made commercially available to buy albeit in limited editions) were notorious and highly confrontational. They featured highly provocative and disturbing imagery including hard-core pornography and scenes from Nazi concentration camps. TG continually said that that their mission was “to challenge and explore the darker and obsessive sides of the human condition rather than to make attractive music”. This they did to great effect!
I’ll start with a brief history. TG grew out of the ‘performance art’ group COUM Transmissions in the mid-1970s. COUM Transmissions comprised Genesis P-Orridge (born Neil Megson in 1950) and Cosey Fanni Tutti (born Christine Newby in 1951), and both took a great interest in radical counter-culture. TG officially formed in 1975 when Chris Carter (born 1953) and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson (1955-2010) joined Genesis and Cosey. The final performance by COUM Transmissions was the highly controversial show Prostitution at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts Gallery in September 1976. The final show featured transvestite guards, a female stripper, and used tampons in glass. In the print media, Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Fairburn famously called the group “wreckers of civilisation” (which eventually became the title of their 1999 biography by Simon Ford). Even their name is subversive – ‘Throbbing Gristle’ is actually Yorkshire slang for a penile erection. Roni Sarig in the 1998 book The Secret History of Rock: The Most Influential Bands You’ve Never Heard, notes that in relation to their propensity to shock audiences:
“[Throbbing Gristle] spent a number of years shocking and provoking even the most open-minded members of the avant-garde art world with shows featuring body fluids, dead animal parts, and nude photos of Cosey (a part-time stripper), that pushed the limits of obscenity and taboo. By the mid-‘70s, the group…determined that the best avenue for continuing their cultural assault was music. [They used] an array of instruments (most of which they couldn’t play), as well as tape machines and various electronic effects”.
There are dozens of TG recordings available but the most well known LPs are arguably The Second Annual Report, D.o.A. – The Third and Final Report, 20 Jazz Funk Greats, and Heathen Earth (and if you want to just dip in and see what all the fuss is about try The Taste of TG featuring on the front cover a manipulation of a still from the Pasolini film adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom). They broke up in 1981 and reformed again in 2004 (until 2010).
Their musical performances were often improvised but there were certainly sonic soundscapes that could be described as actual ‘songs’. Most of the fans’ favourites covered extreme, controversial and/or provocative subjects and lyrics including (but not limited to): sado–masochism (Discipline), masturbation (Five Knuckle Shuffle), ejaculation (Something Came Over Me), sexual manipulation (Persuasion), the Moors murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady (Very Friendly), the gassing of Jews in Nazi Germany (Zyklon B Zombie), Nazism (National Affront), misogyny (We Hate You Little Girls), school bullying (Blood On The Floor), burns victims (Hamburger Lady), ultra-violence (Subhuman, Dead Ed, and Hit By A Rock), castration and foetus eating (Slug Bait), and suicide (Weeping). A really good paper written by Dr. Danielle Kirby in a 2011 issue of Literature and Aesthetics highlighted the cultural space that TG’s music inhabited:
“[Throbbing Gristle] both musically and magically, constitute an integral element of what Christopher Partridge calls ‘occulture’. Occulture, a neologism attributed to Genesis P-Orridge, has come to express a socio-spiritual milieu encompassing ‘those often hidden, rejected and oppositional beliefs and practices associated with esotericism, Theosophy, mysticism, New Age, [and] Paganism’ amongst other subcultural ideas and lifestyles”.
Psychologically they are simply one of the most interesting groups I have ever come across. They lived life on the fringes, and much of their performance whether it was art, drama and/or music was extreme and morally provocative. In one interview, Genesis P-Orridge revealed perhaps one of his most depraved artistic improvisations:
“I used to do things like stick severed chicken’s heads over my penis, and then try to masturbate them, whilst pouring maggots all over it…At the ICA I did a performance where I was naked, I drank a bottle of whiskey and stood on a lot of tacks. And then I gave myself enemas with blood, milk and urine, and then broke wind so a jet of blood, milk and urine combined shot [out and] then [I] licked it off the not-clean concrete floor. Then I got a 10-inch nail and tried to swallow it, which made me vomit. Then Cosey helped me lick the vomit off the floor. And she was naked and trying to sever her vagina to her navel with a razor blade and she injected blood into her vagina which then trickled out, and we sucked the blood from her vagina into a syringe and injected it into eggs painted black, which we then tried to eat. And we vomited again, which we then used for enemas. Then I urinated into a large glass bottle and drank it all while it was still warm. This was all improvised. And then we gradually crawled to each other, licking the floor clean. ‘Cause we don’t like to leave a mess, y’know; after all, it’s not fair to insult an art gallery. Chris Burden, who’s known for being outrageous, walked out with his girlfriend, saying, ‘This is not art, this is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen, and these people are sick’.”
I have no idea if my brief look into the world of Throbbing Gristle has totally put you off exploring their art and music, but as a group, their artistic mission and philosophy complements much of the more extreme academic material that I have featured in my blog.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Cooper, D. (2012). Sypha presents … Music from the Death Factory: A Throbbing Gristle primer. Located at: http://denniscooper-theweaklings.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/sypha-presents-music-from-death-factory.html?zx=c19a3a826c3170a7
Ford, S. (1999). Wreckers of Civilization: The Story of Coum Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle. London: Black Dog Publishing.
Kirby, D. (2011). Transgressive representations: Satanic ritual abuse, Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, and First Transmission. Literature and Aesthetics, 21, 134-149.
Kromhout, M. (2007). ‘The Impossible Real Transpires’ – The Concept of Noise in the Twentieth Century: a Kittlerian Analysis. Located at: http://www.mellekromhout.nl/wp-content/uploads/The-Impossible-Real-Transpires.pdf
Sarig, R. (1998). The Secret History of Rock: The Most Influential Bands You’ve Never Heard Of. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications.
Walker, J.A. (2009). Cosey Fanni Tutti & Genesis P-Orridge in 1976: Media frenzy, Prostitution-style, Art Design Café, August 10. Located at: http://www.artdesigncafe.com/cosey-fanni-tutti-genesis-p-orridge-1-2009
Wells, S. (2007). A Throbbing Gristle primer. The Guardian, May 27. Located at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2007/may/29/athrobbinggristleprimer