(Photo: Paul Heartfield)
Where to even start with this one? Throbbing Gristle is a band/art collective started in mid-’70s London by a couple of troublemakers who called themselves Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti. The band evolved as an offshoot of a performance art group called COUM Transmissions, led by Genesis and Cosey, who achieved a certain level of notoriety when they presented an art show in 1976 called “Prostitution” that included pornographic images, bloody tampons and dirty diapers. After that show, an outraged member of parliament called Genesis and Cosey “wreckers of civilisation,” a description they and their fans happily embraced.
Early Throbbing Gristle performances were often experiments in what some observers have called “the metabolic effects of music,” using intensely loud and/or abrasive sounds to induce visceral responses in their audiences. You weren’t really meant to enjoy a Throbbing Gristle show; you were meant to be shocked and even a little traumatized by it. Sounds would be played at unbearably loud volumes; blindingly bright lights would be blasted at the audience; horrifying imagery would be projected on screens, which often obscured the performers. You wouldn’t think any of this would translate very well to live recordings, and yet many TG fans covet recordings of the band’s live shows almost more than their studio output; you can actually buy (if you can find it) a 25-CD box set containing 26 TG live performances, recorded from 1976 to 1980. (Blinding strobe lights not included.)
The band started its own record label in 1976, called Industrial Records; the name eventually became synonymous with the style of music played by Throbbing Gristle and their peers like Clock DVA and Cabaret Voltaire. So yeah, bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Throbbing Gristle.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that not everything the group produced was unlistenable noise. Their 1979 studio album, the ironically titled 20 Jazz Funk Greats, is a still-weird-but-surprisingly-accessible foray into early synth-pop, and influenced a lot of the so-called “darkwave” and “EBM” (short for “Electronic Body Music”—one of our favorite sub-genre names ever, we have to say) that surfaced over the next decade or so.
Throbbing Gristle broke up in 1981, its various members continuing their bizarre sonic experiments in groups like Psychic TV (started by Genesis and TG’s resident tape manipulation expert, Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson), Chris and Cosey (started by, duh, Cosey, along with ex-TG member Chris Carter) and Coil (started by Christopherson and another weirdo named John Balance). They surprised everyone by reuniting in 2004 and even releasing a new studio album, Part Two: The Endless Not, in 2007. By that time, Genesis P-Orridge had become Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, a pandrogynous entity (I believe the common term now is “nonbinary”) who uses s/he as h/er pronouns of choice.
It’s hard to choose just one video that sums up everything that’s weird about Throbbing Gristle, but I think this one comes pretty close. It’s from one of the group’s first 2004 reunion shows and it’s available on a seven-DVD concert box set available through Mute Records. Enjoy, and remember—turn up the volume until it hurts!
[Note: Portions of this article were changed after publication to describe Genesis P-Orridge’s pandrogyny in a more accurate and respectful way. We meant no offense, Genesis!]
- Throbbing Gristle official site
- Throbbing Gristle on Mute Records
- Throbbing Gristle on MySpace
- Genesis P-Orridge official site
- Cosey Fanni Tutti official site
- Threshold House (Sleazy/Coil official site)
- Chris Carter official site