I feel like I’ve read a lot about Throbbing Gristle (TG) over the last few years, but I’d never had the opportunity to pick up any of their music. Now to be honest, it’s not like I looked real hard, because if I’d really wanted to hear them I could have certainly found a used CD somewhere or listened online. But ANYWAY… a lot of books on punk and post-punk include references to these pioneers of industrial music (♠), most notably Simon Reynolds’ brilliant Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, which devotes an entire chapter to TG, so I felt like I had a basic understanding of their philosophy and sound. Admittedly I gave up on my attempts to read TG founder Genesis P-Orridge’s Thee Psychick Bible because I never felt like it was going anywhere, so I was curious to see how I’d react to TG’s music.
Fortunately for me my friend and owner of Vortex Music & Movies, Daren, posted the other day on Facebook that he was headed back to the shop with a truck full of vinyl he bought from a local DJ who was way into jazz, avant-garde, and assorted electronic weirdness, so I dropped everything and headed over, and was probably the first person to get my grubby paws on them. There wasn’t a lot there for me, but I did come away with a Grace Jones record and three, count ’em, three original TG pressings in great shape, which felt like hitting the motherlode.
Music writers and fans have covered the TG story extensively, so I’m not going to rehash the band’s story here because I don’t have any original insights or new facts to share. So with that, let’s play some records!
D.o.A The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle
Trying to order the TG discography is an exercise in futility given the sheer volume of live releases and the difficulty in categorizing some of their work. That being said, 1978s D.o.A. The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle is generally considered to be either the band’s second or third album, arguably with TG at it’s artistic and innovative peak because iit was after this release that the fuse was lit on the collective’s ultimate dissolution when members P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti split up, with Tutti then entering a relationship with another band member, Chris Carter. Not many bands are going to survive something like that (♦), and Throbbing Gristle certainly did not.
I have the “DJ Confusion” version of D.o.A., which was a limited re-press put out in 1979 and intentionally cut in a way to look like there are eight equal length tracks on side A, and 7 equal length tracks plus a short 8th track on side B… even though side A has six songs and side B seven. It appears to be an uncommon variation, limited to 1,000 copies, so I lucked out that this is the one I stumbled upon (though the fact that it came from the collection of a disc jockey is probably not a coincidence).
Side A is flat out bizarre, opening with a “song” comprised of computer tape noises (“I.B.M.”, and yes kids, back in the day, computers used various types of tapes to store data in the pre-floppy disc era…) and including a sped-up 16-second version of TG’s popular four-minute single “United,” showing us that when something started to gain some traction (like “United”) in the musical world at large, that was the sign to TG to not give it to the people. Since I have the DJ Confusion version of D.o.A. it’s difficult for me to tell you anything about specific tracks since I can’t tell where they start and stop, and frankly I’m feeling too lazy to go online and try to figure it out. Rest assured that side A is an intentionally discordant piece of work, industrial in the truest sense of the word with combinations of jarring sounds and generally lacking much of anything that resembles structure, with the exception of what I believe to be “Dead on Arrival,” which does have an underlying consistency that can be construed as a beat. The side ends with “Weeping,” the only song on the side that involves singing, a desperately sad and minimalist track in part about P-Orridge’s November 1978 suicide attempt. It’s a raw way to pull the listener back into the album with something that sounds familiar by being way closer to a “normal” song than anything else up to this point.
Side B takes D.o.A. in a different direction – more traditionally avant-garde (if there is such a thing) and at least one downright approachable electronic song. Sampling and tape loops still reign supreme, but this side feels like it’s coming from a completely different band that what I heard earlier. It’s still weird, but less jarring than side A, feeling a bit more familiar in it’s industrialness.
I’m not going to lie – I doubt I’ll play D.o.A. a lot; it’s not that kind of record. But it is a mind-expander and an important foundational piece of work for the industrial sound, and as such it certain retains status as a “classic.”
20 Jazz Funk Greats
TG followed D.o.A. with 20 Jazz Funk Greats in 1979, and their “piss take” at the mainstream is visible right on the front jacket. Not only is the title intentionally deceptive, so is the entire look of the jacket with the band dressed in the best easy listening fashions in a seemingly benign pastoral setting – the whole thing in fact exactly what you’d expect a jazz-funk album to look like. But the cover also gives you your first hint as to what’s going on, as the photo was taken at Beachy Head, a notorious suicide spot in England. In a 2012 interview Cosey noted, “We had this idea in mind that someone quite innocently would come along to a record store and see [the record] and think they would be getting 20 really good jazz/funk greats, and then they would put it on at home and they would just get decimated.”
To be fair, I think D.o.A. would have been much more decimating to an unsuspecting buyer, with it’s brutal, jarring, and at times completely non-musical sounds. 20 Jazz Funk Greats is an entirely different animal, very rhythmic, recognizably musical. In fact, it’s both quite listenable and enjoyable, it’s spacey, liquidy compositions a far cry from TG’s previous work. It has a sic-fi soundtrack quality to it, though probably for a more experimental or avant-garde movie, something like the original Russian version of Solaris. This feels like a more musically competent version of TG, one more comfortable with how to use technology in more intricate ways. “Hot On the Heels of Love” is a fantastically moody and synthy dance track, and even the more esoteric songs like “Persuasion” have their own type of beauty.
20 Jazz Funk Greats is widely considered to be TG’s most approachable album, and I’d certainly agree based on what I’ve heard from them. It’s also often noted as their best. That concept is a bit tricky with a band like TG, though, so while it’s the one I’ll be most likely to listen to repeatedly, that’s not necessarily the ultimate decider of an album’s quality or importance. But I will say this – I like it. I like it a lot.
TG released a lot of live material for a band of its era. Most of it was put out on cassette, but some made it to vinyl as well, including Discipline, a two “song” 12″ drawn from a pair of 1980 shows and put out in 1981.
The music is throbbing, almost tribal in its percussion that drives the tracks relentlessly forward, the structure to an otherwise seemingly free-form trip-fest. But that beat… you can’t escape it, consistent, constant, pounding, unstopping, while P-Orridege loses his mind on the microphone. The B side is almost as intense, though I found the other musical elements made the percussion slightly less oppressive… though not by much.
Sonically the recordings are a bit flat, lacking some of the high end and feeling a bit sludgy. These shows came from a period when TG was in a quasi-militaristic phase, and that comes through in the music, which has a totalitarian quality to it; side B in particular gives the emotional feel of some kind of 1930s National Socialist rally with he vocals coming across like a dictator’s impassioned speech. Definitely the most industrial of the three records.
Overall I’m happy to get the opportunity to pick up some of these TG classics to experience them for myself. I doubt I’ll be on the hunt for much more of their stuff, but I’ll certainly keep my eyes open should the right opportunity come my way.
(♠) TG used the slogan “Industrial music for industrial people” on their 1977 release The Second Annual Report, which may be the first reference to industrial music as such.
(♦) Except Fleetwood Mac