One of the critical arguments against electronic music throughout the ages has been the idea that it is somehow “inhuman”. The lack of organic instruments, in some critics’ minds, implies a lack of organic feeling. This idea has been the primary obstacle that electronic music has dealt with in its quest to become a legitimate cultural force. However, Throbbing Gristle embraced this in their music.
Emphasis on themes
For the most part, electronic artists have attempted to combat the “inhumanity” of their medium by emphasizing positive human themes like “love.” For example, the classic “Tainted Love” single by Soft Cell was explicitly recorded for such a reason. Much of modern EDM follows this concept and the approach is successful. Therefore, it is no coincidence that The Chainsmokers have managed to secure such an intense following with songs that combine the modern energy of electronic music with the sentimental romanticism of pop music.
However, some artists choose a different approach to adding a human element to the field of electronica. These artists delve head-on into the “inhumanity” of the medium. To accomplish this, they inject dark and disturbing themes into their music. The purpose is to harness the inherent coldness of machine noise in order to turn the argument about electronic music on its head. Essentially, it is inhuman music made human by the visceral force of its own inhumanity.
About Throbbing Gristle
Perhaps there is no better example of this than the work of groundbreaking electronic outfit Throbbing Gristle. In the mid-1970’s, they pioneered a new type of electronica. It was a drastic departure from the utopian and whimsically psychedelic electronica of the 1960’s. This new music was replete with violent and shocking imagery, dissonant mechanical soundscapes, and occasional lapses into coldly hypnotic beauty. Many considered the music evocative of the dark urban landscape which spawned it, it was christened “industrial”.
Throbbing Gristle began as a radical performance art collective known as COUM Transmissions. COUM was the brainchild of Genesis P-Orridge, an eccentric Manchester native with a keen interest in subversive art. COUM Transmissions quickly became notorious for its often shocking live performances. Notably the 1976’s highly sexualized show “Prostitution” earned them the label “wreckers of civilization” from conservative members of the British government. In an era when lines were being drawn over what kind of content was acceptable in mainstream art, COUM pushed outwards and demanded through its work that people be exposed to unsavory, shocking, and intense spectacles.
After COUM Transmissions disbanded, four of its core members, Genesis P-Orridge, Cosey Fanni-Tutti, Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, and Chris Carter, decided to carry on its mission in through a more accessible, mainstream vehicle. Together, they formed a new musical project known as Throbbing Gristle. Later, in 1977 they released their first album The Second Annual Report. They released it on their independent label Industrial Records (namesake for the future music genre).
The Second Annual Report
The Second Annual Report is a line between music and noise. It alters between harsh distortion and dreamy, languid tones. Songs bear brutalist titles like “Slug Bait” and “Maggot Death.” However, the album itself is textured and subtle, though permeated with a seething darkness throughout. The Second Annual Report may not have much in the way of traditional songcraft, but its musical importance is significant. Furthermore, it serves as one of the first true examples of industrial music. Before Throbbing Gristle, most electronic music catered to a spacey, otherworldly aesthetic, with the major aim being to expand the mind. Industrial music, on the contrast, was an earthy form of electronica. It was a product of urban society and landscape. The primary goal appeared to be to expand the emotions. It usually accomplished this through a surreal aestheticizing of the taboo and the brutal.
DOA: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle
Although The Second Annual Report may have been the first formal exercise in industrial music, Throbbing Gristle had a follow-up. Titled DOA: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle, it was a more definitive statement. A dreamy, doomy exercise in a variety of bizarre new musical styles, DOA took the conceptual darkness of The Second Annual Report and infused it with true, albeit unusual, songcraft. “Hit by a Rock” blends punk rock with tinny synthetic noise. “Valley of the Shadow of Death” is an ambient by-way of musique concrete, and “Weeping.” It even is a dreamy, and also a pretty piece of pop ambient that sounds like early Grimes covered by an English ghost.
Most famous amongst Throbbing Gristle’s DOA songs is “Hamburger Lady.” This song is a terrifying electronic drone piece with half-decipherable lyrics. It was drawn from writer Blaster Al Ackerman’s story of a woman in a burn ward with injuries so severe that she is christened the “Hamburger Lady”. The track remains one of the dirtiest, grimmest pieces of music ever recorded. It is a morbid and fascinating exercise in brutal minimalism and the essential peak of pre-dance industrial electronica.
20 Jazz Funk Greats
Throbbing Gristle’s final essential album, 20 Jazz Funk Greats, is often considered their best work, and one of the greatest electronic albums ever produced. Hidden beneath the unassuming title and album cover is a record full of eerie, subtle, and often weirdly funky music. For instance, the cover depicts the smiling band members perched atop a peak in Beachy Head, a suicide hotspot in southern England. Probably the least traditionally “industrial” of Throbbing Gristle’s major works, 20 Jazz Funk Greats is something of a blend between the lite music genres of cabaret, disco, and exotica and Throbbing Gristle’s trademark confrontational darkness. Some tracks, like “Convincing People”, take the trance-scapes of DOA and reduce them down to funky skeletons while others like “Hot on the Heels of Love”, an album highlight sung with breathy intensity by Cosey Fanni-Tutti, verge on straight, accessible pop.
The album’s most remarkable track, “Persuasion”, finds Throbbing Gristle marrying their minimal electronic tendencies with their interest in performance art. The track features an entrancing, sinister vocal performance by Genesis P-Orridge. He hangs above a grimy two-note drone and sounds like the most disturbing musical theater number you could ever imagine. After having pioneered industrial music to such an intense degree, 20 Jazz Funk Greats finds Throbbing Gristle transcending their own sound. Additionally, they prove themselves as musicians with both a signature style and impressive versatility.
After Throbbing Gristle
After leaving Throbbing Gristle, the individual musicians who made up the band went on to have appropriately interesting and bizarre careers and lives. For example, Genesis P-Orridge became involved in experimental electronica and acid house. Meanwhile, Cosey Fanni-Tutti and Chris Carter became romantically and musically involved as Chris & Cosey. Furthermore, Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson formed the dark ambient outfit Coil. Each of these members then continued to have a lasting influence on the electronic music scene. They continued to produce strange, intense, and powerful works. Their legacy as Throbbing Gristle, however, remains unparalleled.
Impact on Electronic Music
Although electronic music contained dark elements before the advent of industrial music, it rarely strove to truly alienate or disturb. However, in the effort to integrate electronic music into mainstream culture, it often catered to gentler, spacier elements. It wasn’t until some intrepid radical musicians decided to fully exploit the disturbing potential of dirty electronic noise that an unseen dimension of machine music was revealed. At this time, an entirely new movement was born. Before the trance/punk stomp of Ministry, the angst-ridden electro-confessionalism of Nine Inch Nails, and also before the industrial music became a fixture on the dividing line between EDM and the dark subgenres of rock, there was the haunting, sometimes shocking, always beautiful music of Throbbing Gristle.
- Read “Roots of Electronica: Drum Machines” here.
- Check out “Roots of Electronica: Sampling As A Genre” here.
- Read “Roots of Electronica: Video Game Scores” here.
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