Throbbing Gristle at Coachella. To your average citizen, there’s probably nothing particularly strange about that phrase. But for fans of TG — the experimental post-punk band that spearheaded the so-called Industrial movement in the late ’70s — it’s something of an oxymoron. When the band takes the stage at Coachella Sunday night (and at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre on Tuesday), it will be with a distinct whiff of cognitive dissonance. Where many of their peers struck conspicuously anticorporate poses while raking in the green with radio-friendly new-wave jingles (a.k.a. “changing the system from within”), Throbbing Gristle positively dripped integrity … among less palatable substances.
Emerging out of band members Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti’s lurid and confrontational performance art as COUM Transmissions — augmented by the primal electronica of Chris Carter and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson — TG was also firmly rooted in the fiercely DIY early-’70s subculture of Mail Art, an underrecognized international movement that actively circumvented establishment channels of art distribution and recognition, prefiguring the grass-roots networks that nurtured the punk, hardcore and indie scenes. TG recorded their first LP on a secondhand cassette at a cost of £15 ($27 in 1977) and used all their cash to print 785 copies on vinyl, which they figured would take three years to unload through their mock-corporate Industrial Records label.
Like many of their immediate punk predecessors, TG booked their own gigs, produced, manufactured and distributed their own product, and invented their own distinctive and original graphic design and promotional copy. Unlike the punks, TG produced audio that most would be hard-pressed to identify as pop music — or music at all. Their grinding, echo-laden mélange of found-sound tape loops, homemade synthesizers and electronic treatments, unskilled live instrumentation (“Why not start with no chords?”) topped off with appropriated medical forensic reports or P-Orridge’s screams and nasal, deadpan recitations of war crimes and serial killings, sounded vaguely like a nightmarish version of the most outré psychedelic music of the previous decade, and slightly like the experimental noise of avant-garde classicists like Cage, Stockhausen and Kagel. But “Rock the Casbah” it was not.
In spite of the aural difficulty of their early output, it struck a nerve among critics and a small, adventurous listening public who wanted to see the antiauthoritarianism of punk actually applied to the sonic conventions of recorded popular music. The album — Second Annual Report — sold out in six weeks. Committed to defying expectations, they released the minimalist “disco” single “United” to further acclaim and actual airplay. More albums and singles followed, with electronics whiz Chris Carter’s more populist Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream affinities becoming increasingly evident. Industrial Records began releasing recordings by kindred spirits, including Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA and William Burroughs. Internal dissent increased — due in no small part to the incompatibility of TG’s success with their avowed outsider status. Their singles began surfacing as underground club hits, and it became clear that TG’s days were numbered, even as their signature conceptual mash-up of Martin Denny and Charles Manson foretold the template for “cutting-edge” mainstream culture for the next three decades.
Throbbing Gristle’s ties to California are deep. The last time they played L.A. was May 1981 — their first-ever gig in the U.S. and their penultimate gig before dissolving the band for more than two decades. But they had, in fact, made quite a “splash” in the L.A. art community several years earlier. In fall 1976 Cosey and P-Orridge appeared as COUM at the experimentally minded artist-run space LAICA, just weeks after having caused a media frenzy in the U.K. tabloids with a state-sponsored gallery exhibit, including used tampons and framed porn-magazine spreads featuring Cosey — a feminist Situationist intervention and welcome source of income.
Their L.A. performance of “Cease to Exist No. 4” (named after a Charles Manson composition recorded by roommate Dennis Wilson’s band, the Beach Boys) is local legend. As P-Orridge later recounted, the event was dripping with integrity — as in the sequence where he “takes a hypodermic and stabs it into a testicle, fills it with blood, picks a black egg off thee floor, stabs thee syringe into it … injecting a total of seven black eggs with his own blood.” P-Orridge later “pisses into a large glass. As he squeezes out the last drop, he farts, and blood mingled with milk shoots out of his arse.”
From this unholy exchange of fluids (and we’re only scratching the surface here, people) were birthed the persona of Marilyn Manson and the cinema of David Lynch, among other important cultural treasures — not to mention electronica, acid house, Survivalist Chic, the Lounge Revival and about three-quarters of the inventory at Hot Topic. Thanks, Throbbing Gristle! Seriously, though, David Lynch rules. I often think of Lynch as an artist who has managed to deal convincingly and creatively with the exigencies of commercial success. Like TG.
After their “termination of mission” in San Francisco (a week after their ’81 L.A. gig), Throbbing Gristle split and evolved into Psychic TV, prime movers on the early ’90s global neopsychedelic rave scene and pagan revivalist circuit; Chris & Cosey, pioneers of rhythm-centered experimental electronica; and Coil, Original Goths, seeping Occult Music for Occult People, for reals. By the turn of the millennium, TG had somehow mutated into an archetype in the history of rock music. PTV had a Top 10 U.K. hit with a cover of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” and were then persecuted there as satanic cultists.
In 2004, Throbbing Gristle reunited for some tentative gigs, then recorded the new studio album The Endless Not, demonstrating that, bad reputations and mythological career arcs notwithstanding, their commitment to radical creativity has remained a living thing. There probably won’t be any black-egg inoculations on the Jumbotron at Coachella, or bottles thrown at the screening of Derek Jarman’s feature-length Super-8 montage In the Shadow of the Sun (originally scheduled for UCLALive at Royce Hall; currently slated for the Ricardo Montalban Theatre on April 21). Regardless of any ideological transformations, TG’s ongoing commitment to the disruption of the status quo guarantees a profitable signal-to-noise ratio.
Throbbing Gristle perform at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Sunday, April 19, and at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre on Tuesday, April 21.