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Throbbing Gristle by Federico Nessi

Throbbing Gristle Logo


A few years ago a close friend made me a mix cd titled “I Am A Shit-faced Bitch. Feed Me Drugs”. The cd consisted of what I later came to realize was a who’s who of the post-punk and no wave music scenes of the late seventies. For the first time I heard bands like A Certain Ratio, The Slits & Bush Tetras, bands that took the punk D.I.Y. attitude and induced it with a dose of experimentation. All the songs were very classifiable, however, falling under a specific musical style. All the songs except one. Track 2 was titled UNITED by a band called Throbbing Gristle. In it a frail voice mutters unconvincing words of affection “You and I, You and I, Living together, Loving forever… United, United”. What most stood out to me about UNITED was the unconventional instrumentation supporting this alleged love song; the melody being made by what seems like machines getting sawed to bits. It took me a few years to do more research on this so-called Throbbing Gristle, but now that I have I realize they are the most important band of the last century.

Throbbing Gristle started off as COUM Transmission, an art collective formed in 1969 in Great Britain. Taking inspiration from the 20th century avant-gardists, such as the Dadaists and the Fluxists, COUM believed in chance, intuition and improvisation as techniques for creating ‘pure’ art. They thrived on being considered indefinable. Ambiguity was key (i.e the word COUM means nothing or can mean anything). They stressed concept over technique. Ranging from 6–11 members depending on the project, COUM experimented with a wide range of medium, from mail art (popular at the time within the Fluxists), collage, sculpture, painting, performance art and improvised and sometimes humoristic musical performances. COUM’s first gig was opening for space-rockers, Hawkwind. As a response to the increasing scale of the drum sets being used by the rock bands of the time, COUM’s performance consisted of roadies slowly bringing drum kits onstage until they completely covered the space, not even leaving room on the stage for the band. Another early performance (1974) was ‘Marcel Duchamp’s Next Work’ in which the group replicated 12 of Duchamp’s readymade ‘Bicycle Wheel’ (1913). Arranged in a circle, volunteers were invited to play the wheels as musical instruments, following specific written instructions and a score of colored slides projected by the group. This piece served as homage to, and a negation of, Duchamp’s selection and presentation of an everyday object as a work of art. Where Duchamp rendered a mass-produced object useless by transforming it into art, COUM transformed the same art object into a totalitarian object, a musical instrument.

Marcel Duchamp’s Next Work, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium, 1974.

Around that time (1974) COUM began to steer away from their more Fluxus influences (i.e their folksy, bohemian humor). They were loosing interest in making work that commented on art itself. Instead they began focusing on stripping down taboos and traditional social behaviors, a topic being dealt with at the time by the Viennese Actionists (a group responsible for some of the most extreme performance art of the last century). COUM started incorporating ‘shock tactics’ as a way to challenge repression. Their work began to serve as a search for emotional release through cathartic public rituals, and they vigorously challenged sexual behavior. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WAS SACRED. As the moral climate in Great Britain became progressively more conservative, COUM performances became more and more controversial. They aimed to work out personal taboos as part of their performances. The body served as a bearer of pain and mutilation. They were interested in the public presentation of private acts as a tool for psychological deconditioning. They approached their performances as ways to work out their inhibitions, confronting the audience with actions as ritual purification. Bloodletting, defecation and urinary acts were regular and often times too much for onlookers to handle (Artists Chris Burden and john Baldessari apparently left their show at the LAICA in Los Angeles claiming “it’s sickening and disgusting and it’s not art”).

Cosey Fanni Tutti and Genesis P-Orridge in Cease to Exist no. 4, LAICA, USA, 1976.

“Our story begins with an attempt to erase security. If you decide to clutch at a straw you must expect COUM to try and tear it away. COUM are not trying to produce “good art” as collectively agreed by critics and dealers.

1.) Genesis stands holding a bottle of half milk half piss. He dinks it as fast as he can without breathing, if it runs through his clothes [it] does not matter. He tries hard to keep his muscles so tense that they hurt.

2.) Cosey begins naked. She has open wounds on her breasts. She also has a raw flash from her fanny to her navel. It is coagulating, about an hour old. She takes a needle and thread and sows up her breast cuts very neatly, just as if she was sowing a pair of trousers.

3.) Small pools of blood thee floor amongst thee yellow polenta shadows of arrows. Cosey takes a syringe and pushed thee needle into her sown breast, filling it with blood. She injects thee blood into thee top of thee cut from her fanny to her navel. It runs through thee cut into her cunt and onto thee floor. She sticks a second hypodermic right into her cunt filling it with a mixture of blood and milk.

4.) Genesis removes his blood and milk soaked clothes. Under them he wears a saran-wrap jock strap over his testicle area. He takes a hypodermic syringe and stabs it into a testicle, fills it with blood, picks a black egg off thee floor, stabs thee syringe into it, empties thee syringe.

5.) Cosey takes a rusty razor blade and cuts a rectangle into thee skin of her forearm. Carefully slicing under one edge she lifts up thee flap of skin and places a passport photograph of Genesis under thee flap, licking off excess blood.

6.) Genesis takes another syringe of blood from his testicles and injects it back into his forearm. He does this repeatedly, also injecting a total of seven black eggs with own blood. He is stood on a square of bark black nails and ice.

7.) Cosey opens thee lips of her cunt wide and pushes in her fingers, masturbating.

8.) Genesis fills a spinal syringe with milk, another with blood. He takes each in turn and injects all their contents in turn up his anus. He pisses into a large glass. As he squeezes out the last drop he farts and blood mingled with milk shoots out of his arse.

9.) Cosey slithers through al thee liquid toward him, lapping it up, rubbing it into her cunt.

10.) Genesis vomits trying to swallow a 10 inch steel nail.

11.) They meet in a pool of vomit and join together cunt to cock, legs entwined, on thee wet floor.”

– Genesis P-Orridges’ direct account of the performance to Cease to Exist no. 4, LAICA, USA, 1976.

Press Release, Prostitution, ICA, London, 1976.

In 1976, COUM presented ‘Prostitution’ at the I.C.A. in London, by far their most publicized and controversial exhibition. It was the subject of at least 100 newspapers and magazine articles, questions were asked in Parliament and leading members Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Faney Tutti become household names in Great Britain. The show caused a scandal as it featured pages of pornographic magazines with Cosey in the role of the model. It also incorporated used, bloody tampons (meant. to demystify and affirm key elements of the female experience). According to COUM the exhibition aimed to comment on methods of economic survival for artists and it meant to reveal how ‘presentation’ had become and end in itself, how the pages from a porn mag can function as art when presented in the context of an art institution. Prostitution provided evidence of the lack of understanding between contemporary artists and the general British public. COUM immediately became identified as a threat to British social values and interests. All this attention and notoriety placed COUM at the forefront of the avant-garde performance art scene in Europe, now being asked to participate in festivals and exhibitions all over the world. By this point, a growing battle with the British Arts Council (who had decided to withhold their financial support of the group due to the controversy attached to Prostitution) and an overall loss of interest in the hypocrisy and elitist nature of the art world, led to the creation of Throbbing Gristle.

Throbbing Gristle, Beck Road, Hackney, 1980.

Genesis P-Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Peter Christopherson & Chris Carter had grown tired of the out-of-touch state of the art’s establishments. They wanted to reach a wider audience, a demographic that would relate to and be challenged by their work. They considered the music industry a better outlet for reaching the masses. Their aim was to challenge the archetype of popular culture. While still approaching music as an artistic medium of experimentation, the band felt the desire to stop over-explaining themselves and start presenting their audience with pure experience. They believed in the metabolic effect of music – how, depending on frequencies and intensity, the body can have a physical reaction to infrasound. Eluding all forms of existing classification, TG made stomach-churning music with no commitment to musical technique whatsoever, jolting the audience out of its ritualized role as a passive consumer of the rock spectacle:

“Imagine walking down blurred streets of havoc, post-civilization, stray dogs eating refuse, wind creeping across tendrils. It’s 1984. The only reality is waiting. Mortal. It’s the death factory society, hypnotic mechanical grinding, music of hopelessness. Film music to cover the holocaust…” – Genesis P-Orridge (1976)

Poster, 1976.

During this time, punk was merging into new wave and new wave was slowly becoming the antithesis of punk, reaching out to the masses with synthy bubblegum bands such as The Human League and OMD. Throbbing Gristle had no desire to entertain. With themes ranging from sexual violence and murder to pedophilia and the holocaust, Genesis P-Orridge and company continued using shock-tactics as a means of communicating the horrors of their apocalyptic and post-industrial society, leaving most audiences appalled and disoriented. The band devised a strategy, developing an attitude and look that enforced an authoritarian image. With this they aimed to eliminate the possibility of getting pigeonholed and thus affirming their goal was purely the communication of information. Their live shows were presented as ‘Psychic Rallies’ (referring to the connection between the band members and between the band and the audience). The tone and mood of each show was completely affected by circumstance, making each Psychic Rally an entirely different experience. TG aimed to defy conventions, making sure the audience never new what to expect. Either by using powerful, blinding halogen lamps pointed straight at the crowd or performing within a blocked-off space, leaving the audience to listen through the walls, TG felt the only way to keep their audience alert was to always keep them guessing.

Throbbing Gristle, at SO 36 Club, Germany 1980.

In order to have full control of their message, TG founded Britain’s first independent record label, Industrial Records. Between 1976 and 1981, Industrial Records represented the search for a sound and an identity that suited the social and economic conditions found in a modernized late-capitalist Western society. It was about de-romanticizing the music industry, presenting music as files and research documents, a library of information. Industrial music (coined by TG) was closest to journalism in that it aimed to capture the savage realities of fading capitalism. Based entirely on an anti-commercial ethic, IR relied mainly on controversy as a form of promotion. For example, the IR logo derived from a photograph of the first gas chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz. Using records as propaganda, corresponding regularly with over sixteen hundred fans and producing a news magazine titled Industrial News, IR experimented with the lure and potency of power. Fans received advice on everything from clothing to weapons and information on military tactics of control. Readers were asked, “Do you want to be a fully equipped Terror Guard? Ready for action? Assume Power Focus. NOTHING SHORT OF A TOTAL WAR. NUCLEAR WAR NOW!” As a form of defiance to people who considered they had figured out the “Industrial Records sound”, IR released the single “Stormy Weather” by Elisabeth Welch, a song featured in Derek Jarman’s ‘Tempest’ and by far the most incongruous release on the label . Also released on IR was William Burroughs’ “Nothing Here Now But The Recordings”, tapes which experimented with the cut-up method developed by Burroughs and Brion Gysin in the 1950’s.

Throbbing Gristle: The Mission is Terminated postcard, 1981 (recto).

In 1981, after much internal conflict and an increasing disenchantment with commercial acceptability, Throbbing Gristle terminated its mission.

Since then the term ‘Industrial Music’ has become increasingly popular with bands that adopted the imagery and/or sound of the original IR artists. Bands like Nine Inch Nails and KMFDM have reached wide commercial success in the last twenty years. What industrial music has become, however, has nothing to do with Throbbing Gristle’s original classification of the term.

Fortunately for those of us not around when Throbbing Gristle was attempting to take over the world, each individual band member went on to develop incredibly powerful projects, such as Psychic TV, Coil and Chris & Cosey. In 2004, Throbbing Gristle reunited and has been touring and recording new material ever since, still aggressively challenging social standards. They are currently recording a new album based on their interpretation of Nico’s album Desertshore.


- Federico Nessi (Psychic Youth)


Works Cited: WRECKERS OF CIVILIZATION: The Story of COUM Transmissions & Throbbing Gristle by Simon Ford.



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Throbbing Gristle by Federico Nessi