BY MIN CHEN
On July 6th, 1976, the newly opened AIR Gallery on London’s Shaftsbury Avenue hosted a difficult birth. Throbbing Gristle were playing their first-ever live show or “disconcert,” delivering wholly improvised, relentlessly ominous drones, stormy with electronically treated violin and guitar, and sonorous with bass and synth echoes. The audience was positioned not in front of the band, but in the next room, where they were invited to listen through the walls. The evening’s forbidding sonic atmosphere had been heralded in a press release, crafted by lead singer Genesis P-Orridge, which advertised “MUSIC FROM THE DEATH FACTORY.” It went on,
Imagine walking down blurred streets of havoc, post-civilization, stray dogs eating refuse, wind creeping across tendrils. It’s 1984. The only reality is waiting. Mortal. It’s the death factory society, hypnotic mechanical grinding, music of hopelessness. Film music to cover the holocaust. Tantra of the subliminal, word falling, photo falling. In a nostalgia for feeling totally sterile endless tribal music. Thee tribe of mutations, street gangs lobotomized in the Death Factory. It never ends. TV Children trying to prepare themselves, meditating on, cease to exist.
With that, TG brought a grim dystopia to life. And they’d had a lot of practice: the band grew out of performance art collective COUM Transmissions, whose pieces were provocative, often bloody meditations on sex, gender, and art itself. Emerging from that experimental daring, TG sought to forge a path and cut an edge beyond the limitations of the art world. Said Peter Christopherson, aka Sleazy, “My take on it was that it was meaningless if we were not making a statement to people of our own age, people whose lives might actually be affected by what we were doing, rather than the arts establishment, who were not really interested.” If a band could also reach an audience larger than COUM did, then, TG reasoned, they would be a band.
From the outset, TG’s assignment was as much about making music as it was about finding new ways to be a band. “It was very literally an experiment,” recalled P-Orridge. “Let’s set up a band. Let’s give it a really inappropriate name [Throbbing Gristle is Yorkshire slang for an erection]. Let’s not have a drummer because rock bands have drummers. Let’s not learn how to play music.” The aim here was to flout and explode every parameter that came with being a band—in look, sound, and delivery. “We want to keep people guessing,” wrote P-Orridge in 1978, “unsure where we fit in.”
Where bands released albums and did promotion, TG would issue annual reports and press releases, and function under a corporate identity, complete with logo and the commanding slogan, “Industrial Music For Industrial People.” P-Orridge explained in 2017, “There’s a difference between information and product. We weren’t making product. We were making information.”
To that end, TG’s members toyed with constructions. For one, they began by dressing themselves in T-shirts, jeans, and leather jackets, conforming to the established image of a rock band. “It was so people would recognize certain things as familiar whereas the music we were playing wasn’t familiar at all,” said Sleazy. They eventually toned that down for something “even more ordinary.” TG associate John Balance would later characterize TG’s image as an “English domestic look that you wouldn’t expect to be associated with the type of heavy music they were producing.”
And it was heavy. As TG’s first press release revealed, the band was given to art and music that reflected on the dark and heinous elements of the humanity. It’s why Industrial Records, founded by the group, adopted as its logo, an image of Auschwitz—“one of the ultimate symbols of human stupidity,” P-Orridge told NME in 1978, as in, “Humanity as a whole is stupid to allow anything like that to begin to occur.” And it’s why TG’s oeuvre sounds as uneasy, furious, and despairing as it does. As guitarist Cosey Fanni Tutti explained in 2010,
I am interested in what society, culture and human beings are capable of doing to one another, good and bad. And the bad has to be spoken about. There has to be discussion, there has to be assimilation, and sound is a fantastic medium for that because it tweaks little nerve endings in you that bypass any kind of conditioning you have had. A lot of music we do is more about sounds triggering those kinds of emotions than about the lyrics or the chord changes or the choruses.
Or as P-Orridge, in 1977, sneered to an audience, “You can’t have anarchy and have music.”
By 1979, the TG aesthetic had arrived: the raw edges, harsh resonance, disorienting found noise, and panic-inducing tempos marinated in a mood equally morbid and menacing. Industrial music was thus inaugurated. After several live shows and two albums of such viscerally and psychologically pummeling work, it had become for the band’s cult audience—alas!—an expectation. “We had started to get a following of people that seemed to think they knew what we were going to do,” said Tutti. “We never wanted that.” So they set about putting together an expansive record that from its title onwards, would fulfill TG’s mission to counteract and contradict.
P-Orridge, in any case, had apparently been receiving grief from his mother for his work with TG. “Why can’t you do something nice?” she’d scolded him when he was home for Christmas in 1978. Which led him to consider, “It’s probably about the time to do that, but not for the reason that my mom thinks! But is there a subtle way we can wind people up, confuse them, make them angry, and play with stereotypes?”
20 Jazz Funk Greats was the answer. On first listen, the record was almost conventional and even nice by TG standards. With the band’s patented metal machine music dialed back, it involved some manner of singing, offered a diverse range of musical textures, and contained tracks of digestible lengths. Except, the album did not arrive untouched by a nihilism that brewed a perverse and transgressive air. It turned ostensibly disco, electronic, and ambient forays—from “20 Jazz Funk Greats” to “Exotica”—into arch, offbeat parodies that spun sensuality into kitsch, passion into cloying claustrophobia.
Then the masterstroke: the album’s cover, photographed by Clay Holden, capturing the band standing breezily amid a serene pastoral scene—flowers in the foreground, a shore by the edge, a car parked in the background. Very English domestic. The catch? The location was Beachy Head in East Sussex, the highest chalk headland in England and by 1979, the site of 124 deaths, at least 115 of them suicides. As P-Orridge once said of the band’s use of concentration camp imagery, “I’m fascinated with images that seem innocuous, unless you’re given additional information.”
And like the album’s contents, the packaging was all spoof. “We did the cover so it was a pastiche of something you would find in Woolworth’s bargain bin,” said Tutti. “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.” That is, if they weren’t thrown off by the record’s reverse cover, featuring Tutti herself mooning the camera and informing the viewer exactly whom the joke is on.
Nothing in TG’s discography comes close to representing the band’s conceptual impetus than 20 Jazz Funk Greats. From cover to content, the record is revelatory (in addition to the surprising fact, for the casual listener, that it consisted of zero jazz funk greats). But not least, it typified a subversive, intransigent outfit. P-Orridge claimed, “Our main goal was: ‘Whatever we did last time, we have to do the opposite this time.’” And as shown here, TG were not opposed to controverting themselves either. Sure, the sleeve of 20 Jazz Funk Greats was purposefully misleading, but the point was never to fool record buyers. Instead, it effectively advanced a picture of a band being—ever-agitating and in constant flux. It was, said Tutti, “just to let [listeners] understand that this is a work in progress. Please come with us and enjoy.”