Psychic TV has a a new album called Alienist out next month, but you wouldn’t have known that on Friday at the Teragram Ballroom, in the no-person’s-land Los Angeles area between downtown and the historic Westlake neighborhood.
The current incarnation of Psychic TV — fronted, of course, by the ever-magnetic Genesis P-Orridge and logistically and musically directed by drummer Edley ODowd — topped the Friday bill of the third edition of the Berserktown festival by doing something extremely special: They performed their 1982 debut album, Force the Hand of Chance, in its entirety.
The dubious trend of “such-and-such band performs such-and-such album front to back” has been dissected elsewhere since it emerged as a way to persuade fans (particularly older ones) to get out of the house for an experience both unique and familiar. The obvious problem with the “in its entirety” approach is that, while albums are usually sequenced for private listening, shows should be planned as a dialogue between performer and audience, with the ebb and flow of the energy of a mass ceremony factored into the equation.
Genesis P-Orridge tackled this contradiction with characteristic humor, not taking the task of re-creating a beloved 34-year-old masterpiece too seriously and not trying to hide a certain bemused resignation. The singer and band leader (who identifies as pandrogynous) kept smiling, protesting that s/he hadn’t thought the intricate 1982 recording could be pulled off live, and that ODowd was to blame for the band even trying.
Genesis looked a little more tired than at last year’s appearance at the Teragram, a show that mixed old and new material and in turn was noticeably darker than the triumphal 2012 shows when a ferocious Gen marshaled a tighter lineup into energetic, Hawkwind-inspired, shamanistic jams.
Friday’s show was much more subdued, paying homage to the sublime first Psychic TV LP, which back in 1982 had throughly confused hardcore fans of the industrial interventions of P-Orridge's previous project, Throbbing Gristle.
Long out of print, Force the Hand of Chance (which is finally being reissued on expensive vinyl) starts with the beautiful lullaby “Just Drifting,” patterned on a gorgeous melody much closer to The Kinks’ “Village Green” than to Throbbing Gristle’s “Hamburger Lady.”
(Incidentally, the only Hamburger on hand at the show was L.A.'s cringemaster general Neil Hamburger, who warmed up the crowd with his patented routine of outdated pop-skewering humor.)
A lush acoustic guitar opened the show, and the large crowd collectively swooned when Genesis started crooning the heartfelt lullaby s/he wrote for daughter Caresse. “I’ve been hearing that voice for decades,” beamed a usually cynical local scenester. Genesis seemed actually amused that they were pulling it off, as the rest of the instruments joined in.
The mood immediately changed with the lengthy second track, “Terminus,” a story-song with a repetitive motif that can best be described as White Light/White Heat–era John Cale arranging a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western soundtrack. This segued into Force the Hand’s other unabashed “pop song,” the sugary “Stolen Kisses,” with comedian Margaret Cho performing the backing vocals originated by Soft Cell’s Marc Almond on the album.
Cho (who recently taught Jerry Seinfeld about Genesis’ famous pandrogyny) was the first of three guest performers. Cult of Youth’s Sean Ragon (who looked elated to be performing the enormously influential material) added trumpet to the soundscapes of the album's second side, including the post-punk funk of “Ov Power.” Later in the 1980s and 1990s Psychic TV would mutate into a full-fledged acid-house band, but anyone who has dropped “Ov Power” into a DJ set knows that Genesis was doing h/er perverse dance act way before that. The track shows that PTV could have easily become a trendy, more Nietzschean James Chance & The Contortions if that’s what their leader wished.
But Genesis works in mysterious ways, and the last track of Force the Hand of Chance moves away from punk-funk into a straight-up spoken-word manifesto for their own self-improvement cult, Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (TOPY).
On the album, the “Message From the Temple” was recited by London’s best-known practitioner of BDSM and body modification, the magnificent Mr. Sebastian. The message is not all that different from the much later best-selling book The Secret: Imagine yourself in the situation you desire, then mold your soul and your will to get there. Except that the Psychic TV version smells of leather and fluids — it’s more like Aleister Crowley’s The Secret whispered to you (in novelty stereo) down in a rubbery Soho dungeon. (Put it on repeat on your headphones, though. It could change your life — really.)
Mr. Sebastian, alas, died long ago, misunderstood and harassed by moralistic U.K. busybodies. For the Teragram show, Genesis drafted his contemporary Los Angeles counterpart, legendary performance artist Ron Athey. And, shockingly, the man known for extreme body performances almost had stage fright when asked to recite the crystal-clear, life-affirming, timeless “Message From the Temple”:
“Clean out thee trappings and debris ov compromise, ov what you've been told is reasonable for a person in your circumstances. Be clear in admitting your real desires. Discard all irrelevancies. Ask yourself, who you want as friends, if you need or want to work, what you want to eat, what sexuality you really need to pursue. Check and re-check everything deeper and deeper, more and more precisely to get closer and closer to, and ultimately integrate with, your real self — your individual.”
After all these years, it's still a subversive message.