At the desert shore

Pub date April 21, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features


At some point between the group’s termination in 1981 and re-formation in 2004, Throbbing Gristle entered the canon. The more Throbbing Gristle music you’ve heard, and the more you’ve read about it, the less likely that conversion will seem. Matmos’ Drew Daniels acknowledged as much in his contribution to Continuum’s 33 1/3 series on classic albums, an exegesis of the band’s most accessible statement, the puzzling 20 Jazz Funk Greats (Industrial Records, 1979). The group’s relationship with music-as-such was perverse enough to make contemporaries like the Sex Pistols look like Chuck Berry revivalists. Back in the saddle after nearly a quarter-century, Throbbing Gristle mark two has less in common with the noise pranksters of old than the divergent, innovative projects the group has splintered into: spokes(wo)man and singer Genesis P-Orridge’s Burroughsian reengineering of rock’s DNA with Psychic TV; synth whiz Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson’s protean electronic voyages with Coil; and the rain-slick, dark disco of Cosey Fanni Tutti and Chris Carter’s Carter Tutti project all figure in the group’s latest recording, the appropriately bizarre Part Two: The Endless Not (Mute, 2007).

P-Orridge, the most visible and outspoken member, is seductively articulate about the band’s intentions: they have little to do with making music that plays into the pleasure of listening, and much to do with music’s mainline connection to culture. For all of Throbbing Gristle’s touted firsts, its music often verges on indecipherable. None of the group’s gritty, lo-fi recordings evoke emotions beyond a vague, lingering unease. But, the achievements: Throbbing Gristle literally invented modern industrial music with the founding of its so-named label, members Carter and Sleazy are credited with developing an early keyboard-triggered sampler, Tutti’s "Hot on the Heels of Love" was a prime inspiration for first-wave Detroit techno, and "(We Hate You) Little Girls" predates Whitehouse’s power electronics and the whole harsh-noise underground long since percoutf8g in the U.S. and Japan. And so on.

The weird thing about such innovations is that those committed to establishing Throbbing Gristle’s major authorship risk freezing and trapping these self-appointed culture-creeps within one historical moment or another. Despite all the collateral riding on Throbbing Gristle’s "seminal" place in the last half-decade of musical and cultural history, the band’s deliberate failure to be just that — a band — in any conventional sense needs to be acknowledged, partly as a tactical gambit. If Throbbing Gristle is a band more talked about than listened to, it seems inconsequential. Individually and collectively, they were prescient enough to choose culture as their medium, and music as a tool for scrambling it. It’s a foresight that has been borne out by MTV and then the Internet, but the tricky thing is that Throbbing Gristle’s actual accomplishment — the meaning behind what it does — isn’t in music itself, but in culture. That’s a zone where significance tends to be more protean; we can’t simply rely on albums as self-contained, coherent statements that we can either identify with or reject. There’s something trickier going on here, as if Throbbing Gristle’s music is meant to be heard at the second or third degree, when everything’s been attenuated.

The Throbbing Gristle project grew out of COUM Transmissions, a sort of umbrella term for performances and art projects that had strong affinities with the extreme performance artists known as the Vienna Aktionists, William Burroughs, and occultist Aleister Crowley. Their best-known installation, "Pornography," in a gallery within spitting distance of Buckingham Palace, most notably exhibited images of Cosey from various British porn magazines. It was a publicly-funded blight whose purpose was, in part, to convert sensationalist press into a feedback loop worth contemputf8g: the group framed and mounted outraged press clippings, and when newspapers published articles about this détournement, framed those as well. This press-driven mise-en-abyme probably offers the best example of how to listen to TG. The band plumbed new depths with feedback and delay, but their raison d’être was, beyond electronic trickery, setting up circular cultural patterns that explode hypocrisy. In doing so, the creative forces within Throbbing Gristle afford themselves the freedom to play any villainous or anti-heroic role handed to them.


Thurs/23, 8 p.m., sold out

Grand Ballroom, Regency Center

1290 Sutter, SF


Thurs/23–Sun/26, various venues