There was this hallucinatory summer at the end of the ’70s when the band Throbbing Gristle served as the soundtrack to my teenage friends’ and my descent into self-destruction. Punk had begun to fade, and there was a palpable hunger for something new and equally dangerous. The memories now seem like a cheap Italian horror film: girls in party dresses, a hunchback fetus in a laboratory jar, bloody syringes, my friend Dee in bikini briefs and a bone necklace selling drugs to bewildered Van Halen types. And for that entire crazy summer, the ominous electronic music of Throbbing Gristle played on cheap stereos and portable tape players, so frightening, new and seductive it sounded like, well, the future.
The founder and architect of Throbbing Gristle, Genesis ?P-Orridge, will perform in Los Angeles next week with his band Psychic TV. He is now in his 50s, though he looks dramatically younger, and has acquired breast implants as an artistic statement about the need to transcend DNA, which he believes prevents man’s much-needed evolution. “I’m not a man trapped in a woman’s body,” he explains over the phone from New York. “I’m a brain trapped in a human body.” And throughout a stunningly prolific career (Psychic TV once released 23 records in a single year), ?P-Orridge’s brain has managed to effectively alter the evolution of music. While you may not be familiar with his name or his bands, if you listened to modern radio for more than a few hours in the last 20 years, you have experienced his influence.
P-Orridge has a surprisingly learned musical background for someone known primarily as a creator of noisy experimental music. He grew up in Manchester under the sway of his father’s American jazz records, played drums at 3, piano at 7, and sang in the school choir as well as at the local cathedral, where he learned to sing in Latin and sight-read music. “I think there’s a misconception about the music I’ve made, and Throbbing Gristle in particular,” P-Orridge says. “That it’s all just screaming, mass murderers, noise and cynicism. But that was always in the context of all these other symphonic structures, textures and dynamics. A large percent is very rooted in melodics and more jazzlike.”
As a teenager, P-Orridge immersed himself in the thriving ’60s counterculture, living in a London art commune called Exploding Galaxy before forming the performance-art group COUM Transmissions with future Throbbing Gristle bandmates Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson. It was during this time that he also began a friendship and correspondence with Beat writer William Burroughs that would last until the author’s death in 1997. From Burroughs and his friend Brion Gyson, a fellow writer, P-Orridge would learn of the “cut-up technique,” a literary device whereby existing text is cut up and rearranged to create an entirely new narrative. It was a concept that would influence P-Orridge’s work from that point on, and a method he would eventually transpose from literature to music with Throbbing Gristle, editing found sounds into existing musical compositions. The technique would eventually emerge into the mainstream as “sampling.”
Throbbing Gristle made its formal debut in 1977 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. The band served beer and decorated the gallery with naked pictures of female member Fanni Tutti, who also worked as a porn model, and invited strippers and prostitutes to mingle with the crowd. The opening act was a teen punk band called LSD that would later rename itself Generation X, its singer adopting the moniker Billy Idol.
“People thought they were pretty wild,” P-Orridge recalls. “And then Throbbing Gristle came on. Cosey was sitting with her guitar and leather jacket and nothing on underneath. I had long hair but had shaved off the middle and put a fake scar that was bleeding on the top of my head. And people had just never conceived of anything like that at all. There was nothing to hold on to in terms of a link, it was so fresh.”
The night’s festivities caused no shortage of controversy; a member of Parliament publicly denounced the proceedings as “a sickening outrage, public money is being wasted to destroy the morality of our society!” P-Orridge, on the other hand, remembers it as a heady juncture in pop culture. “A lot of the punk rockers that would later become famous, like Siouxsie Sioux, were all there that night. So it was one of those wonderful moments, the first wave of punk bands were ready, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and Throbbing Gristle was ready with industrial music, going in a different direction but with a very similar attitude.”
Perhaps the most obvious aspect of ?P-Orridge’s legacy is his role in defining industrial music, a genre of initially electronic music that has grown to include everything from experimental artists like Einstürzende Neubauten to mainstream bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. “I don’t know if we invented a movement,” P-Orridge says. “But we certainly invented the phrase industrial music. We started a label and called it Industrial Records — industrial music for industrial people. I was walking with [performance artist] Monte Cazazza and said, ‘We’ve got everything in place, the ideas, the logo, the camouflage clothing, the music. But we’ve got to have a name for it. And he said, ‘You keep using this word industrial when you try to describe it. That must be what it is.’ And a light bulb went off and I thought, ‘That’s it.’ ”
And while Throbbing Gristle and early compatriots Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA remained entrenched within a thriving underground, it was P-Orridge’s connection to another musician that would ensure the genre’s further dissemination into the mainstream. “I was very good friends with Ian Curtis from Joy Division,” P-Orridge says. “In fact, I was the last person he spoke with before he died. We used to talk about Frank Sinatra’s early records and how they influenced our phrasing. That crooning style we both had was knowingly done. And the two of us had a plan. Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle were going to play together in Paris, and at the end, Ian and I would announce that we were both quitting our bands to start one together. It was not to be, though.”
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But anyone expecting the current incarnation of Psychic TV to offer a night of moody electronic music is in for a surprise. The band have evolved considerably over the years. They began as something akin to Throbbing Gristle, took time in the late ’80s to help introduce acid house to English rave culture, before emerging in the last few years as a modern interpretation of ’60s psychedelic music. Their latest album, Hell Is Invisible . . . Hell Is Here, offers an intriguing mix of fuzzed-out guitar rock and futuristic gender politics merged with the more exploratory aspects in P-Orridge’s audio arsenal.
“When I re-formed Psychic TV, I asked myself, ‘What’s your favorite music that you’ve made, what gives you sheer pleasure?’ ” he says. “And it was the psychedelic-pop aspect. I’ve always felt that all the music I’ve made is psychedelic, including Throbbing Gristle. And because I began recording in the ’60s, in a sense I’m a ’60s band that’s still going. I really feel that I’ve been unjustly exorcised from the story of psychedelic music.”
Accordingly, P-Orridge promises a live show worthy of his mind-expanding roots, featuring projected videos, a light show, dancing and lots of interplay between musicians. “There’s very much an early Pink Floyd feel to it,” he says. “I would say that’s the closest parallel I can think of, having actually seen Floyd in the ’60s. People also remark how everyone in the band is smiling and having a real good time. We’re not shoegazers.”
Psychic TV at the Henry Fonda Theater, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd., Sat., Aug. 25.