Arts: From genesis to revelation
Sick. Exhibitionist. Wrecker of civilisation. Genesis P-Orridge was so vilified that he left the country. But the founder of the cult band Throbbing Gristle is back and performing at the Royal Festival Hall, of all places. What's he up to?
Tuesday 27 April 1999
P-Orridge could be talking about himself, the arch-exhibitionist, a subcultural Widow Twankey who has been saying the unsayable and frightening the nation's youth with his music and performance art for 30 years. On 1 May, the grande dame returns with his new group, Thee Majesty, in a pantomime pageant of transgressive troubadours, Time's Up, at the Royal Festival Hall.
From the performance art group Coum Transmissions through to Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, P-Orridge's most enduring and distinctive achievement has been his refusal to accept the boundaries between art and everyday life. "Certain individuals," he says, "seem to be prepared to take greater risks for the psychic hygiene of the species."
Though he thrives on the exposure, any critical perspective of his work has been distorted by the negative reaction to his personality. Few musicians can go through so many stylistic transformations as P-Orridge and emerge with reputations intact. "A British fatwa," is how the Royal Festival Hall's events organiser, David Sefton describes the media onslaught that prompted P-Orridge to leave the country for America in 1990. Though they pioneered a new paradigm in art, music and fashion, little has been written about the legacy of Throbbing Gristle. "TG's place in the whole scheme of things has taken a while to be fully estimated," says Sefton, "but it's a good time to be talking about Genesis."
The Genesis who fondly recalls how he "used to do things like stick severed chickens' heads over my penis, and then try to masturbate them, whilst pouring maggots all over it", seems far removed from the softly spoken 49-year-old who has just finished watering the plants and feeding his fish. What he misses most about England, he says, are, "Quickbrew teabags and Aero chocolate". But does England miss Genesis P-Orridge?
With Throbbing Gristle the subject of Simon Ford's new book, Wreckers of Civilisation, the re-release of the entire TG back catalogue, and now Time's Up, P-Orridge has never been so popular. TG disbanded 19 years ago, but their cult status continues to flourish.
"They never really went out of fashion," says Ford. "They always just found a new audience in each generation that comes along, and I think it's because they're not really specific to a particular style and period." Perhaps with the passing of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary, our homegrown subcultural gurus are gaining a grudging respect.
Back in 1976 it was a different matter. "These people are the wreckers of civilisation," exclaimed Nicholas Fairbairn, the Tory MP, in the Daily Mail following Coum Transmission's infamous Prostitution show at London's ICA. Throbbing Gristle - Chris Carter, Peter Christopherson, Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti - played at the opening party, with the punk band Chelsea performing under the name LSD. A raucous affair during which huge amounts of alcohol and psychedelic drugs were consumed, it caused a scandal chiefly because it featured photos of Cosey taken from porn magazines. Not to mention the used tampons in a sculpture called Tampax Romana.
Though Prostitution marked the end of the performance art, TG assimilated the same sense of transgression. "Rather than translate popular cultural forms into high art," says Ford, "as Warhol and the pop artists had done, TG transformed high art into popular culture."
Four guys thrashing their punk guitars was not enough for P-Orridge and TG instigated a whole new epidemic of electronic music, an aural assault of infrasound, ear-bleeding feedback, tape loops and white noise. P-Orridge described TG gigs as "the reduction down to the critical moment between being dead and alive".
TG assimilated Fluxus-inspired mail art and punk's Xeroxed DIY dynamic to form Industrial Records. This gave the band full control over marketing and production, but also laid the foundations for a new aesthetic, a new audience, and a new musical archetype. The sound they self-mockingly labelled Tesco Disco, their logo was a picture of the chimneys at Auschwitz, and the company slogan was "Industrial Music for Industrial People".
Pioneering the use of different media, they released every TG "disconcert" on cassette, as well as work by Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, Clock DVA and other exponents of what became known as industrial music, releasing the first music videocassettes and generally lavishing care and attention on the material. Critic Jon Savage calls the TG tape box set "an obsessional fetish of considerable power". Industrial News, their own fanzine, gave advice on everything from clothing to weapons. They used camouflage chic as packaging and clothing long before it hit the High Street, having an entire TG camouflage outfit made as part of Lawrence Dupre's Avant Guerre clothing range.
"Within TG we liberated the use of the lyric forever," says P-Orridge. "There was no longer a taboo on what could be discussed in the conceptual format of a song. The Velvet Underground took it to one level, and I think TG completed that task and forever democratised the lyric." Songs such as Slug Bait and Hamburger Lady - about a burns victim - became anthems to the converted while confirming some people's impression of TG as nothing but sick controversialists.
"Some people simplified what we thought was the message," recalls P-Orridge, unprepared for the unwholesome interest in pathology of some fans who couldn't get enough of songs such as "Hamburger Lady". They neglected to listen to the clean analog synthpop of "Hot on the Heels of Love" that co-existed alongside the haunting "Beachy Head" and "After Cease To Exist" - ambient music a decade before its time.
Today, TG continues to be name-checked. DJ Andrew Weatherall, at the forefront of a new breed of electronic experimentalists, says: "It's only when I started getting into the studio myself that I realised how innovative they were. Back in the late-Seventies, you couldn't lay your hands on a drum machine that easily unless you built one. There were no samplers. I get the same gut feeling from the new Pansonic album as I do from a really early TG live album."
P-Orridge's concern now is "how to bring radical information back to everybody and share it without appearing to be brutal or cynical". He is busy on a novel, The Howler: An English Breakfast, which he describes as "Hogarth on acid", while Thee Majesty sees him join forces with Psychic TV associate, Larry Thrasher, and Bachir and Mohammed Attar from the Master Musicians of Jajouka.
Born out of "the need to respect and recognise old traditions and synthesise them into the present in order to make a future", Thee Majesty continues P-Orridge's obsession with control, especially the issue of sovereignty over your own body. He admits to experimenting with cross-dressing but the rumours of his proposed sex change are untrue.
"You know how some people will say, `I always felt that I was a man trapped in a woman's body', and then other people might say `I always felt I was a woman trapped in a man's body'. I always just felt trapped in a body." Maybe P-Orridge has an afterlife.
Time's Up: Psychic TV/Thee Majesty & The Mysterions/Scanner/Quentin Crisp - Royal Festival Hall, Saturday, 0171-960 4242 for details. Genesis P-Orridge on the web at www.next-new-way-on.com from May. `Wreckers of Civilisation' by Simon Ford, Black Dog Publishing, pounds 19.95
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