Throbbing Gristle at Butler’s Wharf (December, 1979)

Writer and zine-machine David Elliott reflects on the immersive and life-changing experience of seeing Throbbing Gristle play live at Butler’s Wharf in December 1979

Just before Christmas 1979, I found myself attending two concerts in London – This Heat at the Scala on Friday 21st and Throbbing Gristle at Butler’s Wharf on Sunday 23rd December. Both were promoted by Final Solution, known for their left-field choice of venue and surreal flyers. This Heat were great, but it was TG’s performance that remains lodged in my memory, partly because of the unorthodox, confrontational music they played, but also for the location. 

Intriguingly, the flyer announced the concert would be “somewhere in central London” at 3pm. I paid £1.50 for a ticket which revealed the address, and off I went to Shad Thames, in the shadow of Tower Bridge – a dark, Dickensian, cobbled street flanked by an uninterrupted series of Victorian wharfs and warehouses, many linked by criss-crossing gangways at some height. They may now have been derelict, but they weren’t empty. 

As industry had moved out, artists had moved in, among them Derek Jarman, brothers Andrew and Peter Logan, Howard Hodgkin, Maurice Agis, Malcolm Poynter and others. The Sex Pistols had played a private party there and X-Ray Spex shot their ‘Identity’ video on one of the rooftops. As a naive 18-year-old out-of-towner, this was like an epiphany for me. There was something incredibly exciting, edgy – even illicit – about these vestiges of London’s industrial past. 

About halfway down on the left, Butler’s Wharf loomed large. There was an entranceway that took you through the building to the Thameside wharf on the other side and we queued here for a while before ascending a staircase to the third floor. 

At one end of a low-ceilinged room were TG – Genesis P-Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter and Peter “Sleazy” Chistopherson – incongruously dressed in white sweatshirts with a group photo on the front, their largely customised equipment placed directly on the floor – no stage, low ceiling, “health and safety” a pipe dream. Each member of the audience – and there were less than 100 of us – was given a pocket diary, stamped “TGHQGB time fix 23-12-79 Control Agents Only”, and a lollipop.

“We got there about midday and it was bloody freezing inside, almost as cold as it was outside,” remembers Chris Carter. “After two or three hours, I’d set everything up and we started soundchecking. Of course, we had the usual issues with bits of gear misbehaving and the perennial issue of feedback. I remember the atmosphere being a little subdued but once the space began filling up it took a positive turn.”

Following a tape of porn star Gloria Leonard sex-talking over a lo-fi disco beat, Cosey and Sleazy coaxed long, raspy sounds from cornets, after which the former switched to guitar and the latter to his customised cassette machines and were soon joined by Genesis on bass and Chris on synthesiser. Together it morphed into a distorted, nihilistic dirge of sound, held together by forge-and-hammer rhythms and punctuated by Gen’s occasional vocals. 

Absent were the short, rhythmic, somewhat more “accessible” pieces that had appeared on ‘DOA’, or ‘20 Jazz Funk Greats’ which had been released earlier that same month. A dirge, yes, but with structure, clearly identifiable sections and a collective sense of knowing when to change things, practised over some 20 or so previous public outings. This was not rock music, nor anything abstractly academic – you might, if pushed, find references to bits of Faust.

And then, as if awakening from meditation gone slightly askew, the music stopped and was replaced by a soothing voice, counting from “One, you are feeling so good” through to “Five, open your eyes, take a deep breath, feeling very good and alert”. This would also conclude their ‘Heathen Earth’ album, recorded live eight weeks later. Like all TG live shows, the Butler’s Wharf set was recorded and ended up in the TG ‘24 Hours’ boxset of cassettes released in 1980. 

“The lingering feeling I have of the gig is how good it felt,” says Cosey. “The atmosphere was warm and friendly, upbeat – which was most unusual for TG gigs of the time – almost festive by the time we had finished playing! I remember feeling happy as we talked to some of the people there. It was a good start to Christmas”.

The whole experience inspired me to explore similar parts of London’s Docklands – the Isle of Dogs, Limehouse Basin, Victoria and Albert Docks, Bekton Gasworks – all of which were about to undergo huge redevelopment and gentrification, but for a few more years they remained a clandestine playground, a muse even, for artists and filmmakers. Shad Thames alone, has been the setting for scores of pop videos, films and television programmes.

Ian Trowell’s book, ‘Throbbing Gristle: An Endless Discontent’, published at the tail-end of 2023, prompted these reminiscences. It documents roughly six years of the band’s activity from the infamous first outing at the ICA in 1976 to the first splintering of the group in 1981. The tone is academic, but it’s a lucid read – scholarly but accessible. The front cover showing the queue outside Butler’s Wharf in glorious monochrome brought it all back to me – the pipes, pulleys and cranes of a bygone age.

Something the book is very good at is highlighting the importance of TG as a live act. Sure, they could shock via their recorded output, but these were self-contained, necessarily distanced statements, usually listened to in comfort at home.

Live, they were in your face, sometimes right next to you, in unusual surroundings, at punishing volumes, often with the threat of violence, all senses assaulted. And there was the camaraderie of being with a crowd of like-minded people who were interested in the shared experience of something genuinely alternative. For those drawn to the DIY ethos of punk, but bored by its instrumentation and the arc of rock ’n’ roll which it still effectively stuck to, TG performances were a revelation.

I haven’t been back to Shad Thames in 10 years, not since the Design Museum moved out. Of course, it’s changed almost beyond recognition. Currently, there’s a nice three-bedroom apartment roughly where TG’s performance took place, which is yours for £7.5 million.

‘Throbbing Gristle: An Endless Discontent’ is published by Intellect Books

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