Throbbing Gristle

Rattling on about whatever the heck he likes these days, our freshly-plucked free-range columnist recalls his first encounter, 40 years ago, with a new band called Throbbing Gristle

“Throbbing Gristle’s Hackney HQ was a fun-packed romp”

With 1978 being held as the pivotal year in British electronic music, this month’s column (and several to come during 2018, no doubt) will inevitably brush on events transpiring 40 years ago. By then, I was settled in the frontline as the Editor of the music monthly Zigzag and, with punk becoming a pantomime joke, we welcomed the electronic uprising that often found its first press exposure in our pages.

Of course, Bowie had already earmarked this new style with his two 1977 masterpieces, ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’. I considered revisiting an interview I did with Brian Eno in late 1977 as a way of marking this month’s second anniversary of Bowie’s passing, but Eno had been such miserable company and at the time he’d just turned down playing his friend’s ‘Stage’ tour, so I thought better of it.

In complete contrast, January 1978’s visit to Throbbing Gristle’s Hackney HQ was a fun-packed romp, laughter filling the room as Gen, Cosey and Chris recounted the assorted outrages they’d perpetrated or encountered in their 18-month existence. Apart from Sounds’ Sandy Robertson, this was TG’s first UK music press interview. So much has since been expounded and regurgitated, but 40 years ago this was virgin turf.

TG’s Death Factory HQ/studio was a few minutes from Gen and Cosey’s terraced house on Beck Road with the black-painted door. In those pre-gentrification times, the area was a right hole; all boarded-up buildings with a convenient hospice on the corner. But, being here through the efforts of Alternative TV guitarist and sometime collaborator Alex Fergusson, who accompanied me that afternoon, their domestic lair carried an unexpectedly positive ambience, despite Gen’s well-placed atrocity photos.

“TG were rising as extreme outlaw art terrorists”

In January 1978, Throbbing Gristle were the most dangerously subversive band in the UK, more like an underground resistance movement. Standing in their kitchen, Gen pointed out their lightning flash logo painted on the backyard wall near the inevitable NF daubing. With the Sex Pistols imploding and punk fast deflating, TG were rising as extreme outlaw art terrorists whose mission so far had recently been displayed on ‘The Second Annual Report’, along with the soundtrack of ‘After Cease To Exist’.

The way it was then, New York had Suicide, whose game-changing first album had just appeared, and we had TG, who would soon show they could uncork a snappy synthpop single with ‘United’, thanks to proud ABBA fan club member Chris Carter’s rapidly-evolving key electronic battle-weapons (then only awaiting Gen’s vocals).

While Gen perched next to me expounding in his soft Yorkshire burr, sporting green army jumper, combats and steely-eyed charisma, Cosey and Chris sank into the couch besieged by three cats and a dog. You’ll have to read Cosey’s book to get the backstory, but tangible chemistry sparked between them like the TG lightning bolt as they let Gen go full steam ahead.

Gen explained that the first pressing of 800 copies of ‘The Second Annual Report’ had sold out through specialist shops and mail order, and wouldn’t be repressed unless bootlegging forced it. Which would be a setback as this first pressing was earmarked to pay for ‘United’, which in turn would pay for the next release from their own blossoming Industrial Records cottage industry.

“Other reactions included nausea, tears, terror, anger, irritation, delight or boredom”

According to Gen, TG’s stage events involved “lots of blood, guts and sex”. So far, he said, they had done about 16 gigs with a different set/presentation each time, including beaming dazzling white light at the crowd or using seven-foot mirrors so the audience only see themselves.

“Every time we do a gig we try and alter the way it looks to fit the place,” he said. “There’s no reason why it should be the same all the time. So we do what appeals to us. If we can we try and make it special for each place. That’s the point of doing it live; it’s something you can’t get off the record. If it’s just like the record there’s no point in going. If you know what it’s going to look like why bother? People are just lazy now. A lot of it is games we play with the idea of audience and group, like reflecting them. They can’t pretend they’re not there. It makes you focus on the music more. We’ve got less interested in pushing any kind of image at all.”

Sometimes people went to see TG expecting a punk band and some even liked it “because we’re so mad”; others “think it’s the introduction until we’ve been doing it for 25 minutes”. Other reactions included nausea, tears, terror, anger, irritation, delight or boredom, resulting in abuse, fast-emptying rooms, rapt euphoria or blood-letting catharsis.

“People can see the attitude we’ve got even if they don’t like the music,” said Gen. “It’s not meant to be limited to records. TG is like a collection of people who are individualistic.

Individualism’s really what it stands for, but positive. That’s why it’s got the high-voltage electric thing as a symbol. There’s a huge untapped market of people feeling really left out. There is a complete void that commercial-minded people don’t see.”

When Chris pointed out the recent resurgence of interest in krautrock, Gen added how TG differ in their approach to Kraftwerk.

“They’re saying they like machines in themselves,” he offered. “We are saying machines are there and they’re both dangerous and fun. We’re kind of ambivalent about it. We see it as both threatening and exciting as well, whereas a lot of them take it as a thing they can manipulate to get nice orchestral sounds.”

“The TG I met that day now seems so oddly innocent and optimistic”

Before all the convoluted internal frissons and approaching nightmares recounted in Cosey’s book, the TG I met that day now seems so oddly innocent and optimistic (I had a great time at their upcoming YMCA show too). Their future path would continue through its next stage of ‘DOA: The Third & Final Report’ and 1979’s ‘20 Jazz Funk Greats’.

Now, with news coming through of Gen’s fight against leukemia, the controversies and shocking revelations melt away as s/he faces the biggest challenge yet. I’ll always remember that little bundle of self-belief nearly burning a hole through the couch with intensity 40 years ago, and we all wish Gen lots of love over the coming year.

Reissues of ‘The Second Annual Report of Throbbing Gristle’, ‘20 Jazz Funk Greats’ and ‘The Taste Of TG’ are out on Mute.

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