Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Art Of Yesterday's Crash, Pt 2.

Guy Debord, Ion magazine, 1952

"'Time is that which ends' culture, for better or worse, is that which does not. And thereby lies thee endless trick."
--Genesis P-Orridge, 1986

"When malaise is challenged, it shatters under the onslaught of a greater and denser malaise."
--Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution Of Everyday Life.

In an interview with Plan B, Wolf Eyes' John Olson said that "In the US there's a Nothern noise sound and an East Coast noise sound and a West Coast noise sound. ... I think the more you can isolate the characteristics of your environment, the more you can put into music." Throbbing Gristle's noise sound wasn't so much geographical: it was the distillation of the essence of industrial capitalism.

Hackney was the centre of the industrial revolution in London: the mass of mills and factories spewed and rattled throughout the day and night. By the end of the '70s, with de-industrialisation it was decimated; to this day it remains undeveloped, the shattered husk of post-industrial Britain, and recently voted the worst place to live in Britain. In the mid-70s, when Throbbing Gristle began, there was still some signs of life in the lowest and dankest end of industry; according to Genesis P-Orridge, upon leaving the Death Factory just after finishing recording The Second Annual Report, he heard the sound of a nearby metal mill: "We didn't invent any of it. We simply took it from around us."

Industrial capitalism is the will to death institutionalised and turned into a parody: the worker is offered the means to live, but only in return for brutalising himself, condemning himself to a state of un-life (commute, work, commute, meal, TV, sleep, repeat). The fact that the rate of suicide and mental illness increased so greatly in the 20th century and still further in the 21st is testament to this. That will-to-death is all too evident in Throbbing Gristle: in the music itself - the pounding, inhuman rhythms, the alien noise conjured up by Sleazy's damaged electronics, the splatter effect of distortion and media cut-ups; in the chillingly deadpan killing-a-pregnant-woman-and-eating-her-unborn-foetus scenario of 'Slug Bait' and the eery calm of the 20+ minutes of 'Cease To Exist'; the hoarse, Lovecraftian barks, on-stage self-debasement, tortured poetry and, in one instance, on-stage overdose, of Genesis P-Orridge. The Industrial Records logo - a black-and-white picture of the main ovens at Auschwitz, below 'INDUSTRIAL RECORDS' in banal bureaucratic type - and the scarily convincing Nazi flirtations of 'Subhuman' drew out the final, unacknowledged reality of Western late capitalism, and the link between mechanistication, genocide, and the mass-sleep of the West, populated by what Theodor Adorno called "the walking dead".

But Throbbing Gristle were only able to do and say what they did because of the time in which they existed. The Second Annual Report and its attendant singles were released in the midst of 1977, the very height of punk in terms of visibility. Throbbing Gristle, at first sight, would have had little to do with punk: they were descended from the fringes of the post-hippie underground, who, though they prized instinct as a tool of subversion, made the intellectual decision to do so. It's no coincidence that Gristle are so open to interpretation to "intellectual half-wits" (Mark E. Smith) like me - they made music rooted in an intellectual critique of Western society. Where punk was fast and exciting, the Gristle's music was slow, incoherent and painful, like a drawn-out murder scene.

But both punk and Throbbing Gristle were breaking boundaries at a time when this was suddenly possible. In Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Greil Marcus spoke about "the bands who leapt into the space the Sex Pistols had cleared": bands like The Adverts, The Mekons, The Clash, basically the entirety of the punk vanguard. The negation of values the Sex Pistols engendered - goodbye to government, history, work, God, family, life, future, love, money, health, beauty, consumerism, entertainment value - allowed bands who wanted to speak to do so. In a world where, suddenly, the old requirements - the ability to play, a 'commercial' message - had disappeared, the disenfranchised were given a voice. That very same negation - that critique - became the subject of the art that emerged, the energy that infused the air, the time, the bands and artists who came out at that time. And that included Throbbing Gristle. It's no coincidence that Prostitution, the art show consisting of Cosey's work for top shelf magazines, and, infamously, a tampon in a teacup, was held in the summer of '76 and was visited by the entirety of the punk vanguard; it's no coincidence that the show and the group were denounced and reviled publicly in much the same way as the Sex Pistols - one Tory MP famously calling them "wreckers of civilisation"; how right he was...; it's no coincidence that the independent label network that would carry much of the punk that sprang up in the wake of the Sex Pistols took its lead from Industrial Records; and it's no coincidence to note that both John Lydon and Genesis P-Orridge, were, consciously or unconsciously, 'shamanistic' performers, 'channeling' something unspecified.

I hate to simply repeat or resurrect other writers, but there's a further connection between the two strains, industrial and punk: the heretical tradition first investigated by Marcus in Lipstick Traces.


The Situationist International existed between 1957 and 1972. It was a group dedicated to creating revolution by means of "a critique of the idea of happiness in the West". Over the course of its lifetime, the SI published 12 issues of the journal Internationale Situationiste, two major books by the leader of the group, Guy Debord, and his 'second-in-command' Raoul Vaneigem, and a host of 'communiques' to revolutionary groups and the general public concerning issues of the day.

Punk, as a movement, was an enactment of this critique in the dark arena of 'everyday life': the SI attacked the commodification of life itself, the reification of human desire and its resale back to people, distorted, through the medium of the 'spectacle'. The conglomeration of images and impulses - the signals of media, "a separate pseudo-world" - forms a "social relation between people mediated by images." People measure the self against the images created by capital, which requires that people by more goods: their desire is redirected towards an imagined happiness present in goods, which will supposedly complete them, but always fall short. They allow themselves to be lead into a daily cycle of life that perpetuates the unhappiness driving capitalism - commute, work, commute, meal, TV, sleep. But where the SI delivered a purely formal critique, punk took it and ran: the values of late-capitalist Britain, reduced to a receptacle for American cultural product and values, a mess of rubble and slimy, sleeping people, so hypnotised by love, by money, crumbling by now into dust and the only thing keeping a veneer of civilisation, were inverted and annihilated. It rejected the constraints of society with such vehemence, demanded freedom so uncompromisingly, that it couldn't be ignored; it swept people along. The energy that filled the room - kids thrashing and pogoing, their rejection written in mutilations, clothing, dyed hair and adopted names, making themselves into living signs - in punk shows was precisely what Raoul Vaneigem called 'mass poetry'.

But nobody pogoed at Throbbing Gristle shows. Their transmissions were of a different kind. They formed a spectacle of their own. It's worth noting that they first formed in order to accompany COUM Transmissions performances, which were something to see in themselves: they usually involved some sort of fucking or other, usually between Genesis and Cosey; for example, he would fuck her with a lit candle, or inject his scrotum with the contents of a black egg. This theatrical element would continue into their performances as just a musical act: Genesis was interested in the idea of magickal ritual, in the mass participation of people in spells to achieve things, to cause the will of the audience to come to the fore. Will here is meant in the sense of Aleister Crowley's "Do what thou wilt shalt be the whole of the law" - Throbbing Gristle's aural and visual assault was an attempt at deconditioning through psychotropic exposure (an aspect pushed to the fore in the live shows of Genesis' post-Gristle band Psychic TV). In 'The Construction of Situations: An Introduction' from IS no. 1, 1958, we find: "What we consider to be a truly meaningful experiment lies in setting up, on the basis of desires which are already more or less clearly conscious, a temporary field of activity which is favourable to the further development of these desires." And again, in 'Report on the construction of situations': "The construction of situations can only begin to be effective as the concept of the spectacle begins to disintegrate." The disorientating nature of Throbbing Gristle's music on-stage was nothing short of a 'situation': the cutting-up of the media amidst the already terrifyingly chaotic fragments of already-overwhelming noise was about as powerful a disintegration of the spectacle as you could get. The terror of the times looked in the mirror, and was killed by it's reflection, like something out of a horror story. The shaking and barking from the stage was the "greater malaise" that assassinated, at least temporarily, Western civilisation. Within the four walls of the concert space, the world, the inescapable social facts everyone accepts as 'natural', constraint itself - pragmatism, morality, law, the prison of work, body, mind, the images that control our behaviour and thinking in a thousand subtle ways - disappears, is negated. "The situationist destruction of contemporary conditioning is simultaneously the construction of situations. It is the liberation of the boundless energy trapped under the surface of contemporary life. Contemporary town planning..." - though they may as well be talking about any aspect of the spectacle - "will... be replaced by means of defending an always precarious freedom" - the freedom to say and do exactly what you want, a freedom you can hear, parodoxically, in the oppressive strains of noise - "starting from the moment when individuals - who as such have yet to be born - will begin to construct, freely, their own lives and their own history."

Not so much cultural production as cultural explosion, it occurs to me that this is what the Situationists, and, before them, the Lettrist International, meant when they talked about finding the 'Northwest Passage' out of the world of the capitalist spectacle. But the noise bands of today are not Throbbing Gristle (unsurprisingly). There are traces of an older racket, that lives in both the Gristle and the current noise scene. Flayed corpses crawling out of the primordial ooze...


P.S. Next week's installment of this essay will be the last, don't worry.

P.P.S Cheers to Greil Marcus (even though he has no idea who I am) for letting me essentially rehash his work. Cheers for everything.


Blogger Alistair Livingston said...

Quote 'Nobody pogoed at Throbbing Gristle Gigs'... perhaps not, but I certainly used to dance at them... Ok, twice anyhow -at one at Goldsmiths College (date? 1979? 1980?) and one at the old Scala (Feb 29th 1980).

Love the SI to TG/ PTV links. Will have to steal for my Greengalloway - or at least put in a link.

Alistair Livingston

January 15, 2007 at 3:46 PM  
Blogger Dan Barrow said...

Nice to hear from someone who was there! I'vce always cursed that I was born 30 years too late for the '78-'81 thing. As for dancing, I still can't picture it: maybe to stuff like 'United', but things like 'Hit With A Rock' or 'Maggot Death'... Anyway, cheers for the linkage.

January 18, 2007 at 10:53 AM  
Blogger Will B said...

Wha? Sorry, what just happened?

-is confused-

Hurrah for sharing links and stuff.

January 18, 2007 at 1:00 PM  
Blogger St Anthony said...

Stuff like 'AB/7A' is eminently danceable ... and perhaps an ignored part of the TG legacy ... but I never danced to them much at gigs, I have to say ... always stood there looking serious.

As Gen sang, vis a vis punk - "you've got to be weird, but not too weird, to get a record contract."

Excellent post ...

January 19, 2007 at 6:49 AM  
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