Throbbing Gristle: A taste of P-Orridge

Throbbing Gristle, and their transgender front person, have reunited for a last bizarre hurrah. Emma Field braces herself
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The Independent Culture

The reappearance of Throbbing Gristle in 2004, 23 years after they split up, is something of a curiosity to many who remember their notorious presence in the late Seventies. Breaking from their separate music and art projects, the four-piece regrouped this year for a short performance in London for ticket holders of a cancelled gig at Camber Sands in June. They then reorganised that show, playing at last weekend's All Tomorrow's Parties Nightmare Before Christmas festival, curated by Jake and Dinos Chapman. That was officially TG's last ever performance, and all four members appeared for their last interview as TG at the festival before playing the show.

It was strange to find them lounging, resolutely calm, in a Camber Sands chalet, especially as their presence was anything but intimidating. The formidable Genesis P-Orridge is now a woman with a blonde bob and breasts, but that's hardly a shocking transformation for such a character. With all four members - P-Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson - in one room, the conversation was slightly slippery. They have a chequered history, of which there have been many misinterpretations, so they were steering the conversation around the big cliffs.

It was during the Seventies that two young misfits from Hull, then named Christine Newby and Neil Megson, embarked on a journey along the boundaries of art and performance that would eventually send the UK press into uproar, see them banned from art galleries, and eventually lead to the expulsion of Megson from the UK. Amidst a trail of confusion, myth, offence and awe, Newby and Megson, along with Carter and Christopherson, created a new set of sounds to form the beginnings of industrial music (Megson is credited with having coined the term with Monte Cazazza in 1975) and had a significant influence on punk and acid house music. It was only when they had split up in 1981 that TG's "sick" performances were reappraisedas art.

Christopherson says that rather than being a comeback, the decision to regroup for the gigs was a response to the current music scene. "It was much more to do with the fact that the English culture at the moment - of music, and the way that music is used by people - has a tendency to go through periods of crisis. TG was started in a period of crisis when contemporary music was not doing any useful motion in the direction of getting people to think or getting people to analyse what they were doing."

Discussions between the former members of the band after a retrospective exhibition of TG ephemera in 2001 had led them to realise that they were again motivated by similar concerns. Tutti explains: "There was a lot of interest in TG, a lot of bootlegs of TG, a lot of flak directed at us because of the bootlegs, and a lot of misinterpretation of what we did and why we did it, how we did it, and so on. We've always been with Mute since we ended and we suggested a few years back on the 20th anniversary that we do the box set. The whole thing really was to take control of the legacy that was TG because it was in danger of being trashed. We hadn't decided then what we were going to do, other than the box set until someone approached us and said would you do an exhibition and the exhibition was pinned around the box set."

P-Orridge says: "Through the exhibition and through communicating with each other about details of that we found that we were drawn to experiment with seeing each other again - not for sentimental reasons - but because the cultural environment is decaying and at the same time becoming polarised. And it is very much like Reagan and Thatcher's era."

Performing one last gig was later suggested by Mute and was a conclusion to this process of setting the record straight and responding to the present.

The members of Throbbing Gristle have a complex and interwoven history. In 1969, Megson and Newby formed COUM Transmissions with Carter, who was from London, and was also to become a member of TG. Gradually, COUM's "street music" and acoustic improvisations developed into more involved and grotesque performances. Megson changed his name to Genesis P-Orridge in a self-originating gesture that also hinted humorously to a deconstruction of religion. In a similar vein, Newby changed her name to Cosmosis and then to Cosi. The two were a couple until around 1978. According to Simon Ford's biography of the band, Wreckers of Civilisation (Black Dog, 1999), Cosey Fanni Tutti, the name Newby took permanently in 1973, was a burlesque send-up of the title of Mozart's opera (it has been translated as "They are all the same," "Thus do our women" or "All the women are at it"). Cosi has worked as a striptease artist, and appeared in erotic films and magazines from 1974. Much of COUM Transmissions and TG's work was to challenge preconceptions of proper or pleasurable sexual behaviour. Their work sometimes involved themes of explicit nudity and pornographic sex, violence and coercion and subtly evoking such taboo subjects as serial murder.

Clarifying what he sees was a misinterpretation of TG's motives P-Orridge explains: "Shock was never a primary concern of what we do - it was an accidental by product of one or two songs but..." Tutti rejoins, "What we did, we never thought it was shocking... If you go for a reaction you can be disappointed."

COUM's infamous retrospective exhibition at London's ICA in October 1976, entitled "Prostitution," is generally acknowledged as a formative moment for Throbbing Gristle. The press were outraged at the nude magazines, the erotic pictures of Cosey, and the used tampons on display, while discussions of the event in Parliament described the group as "wreckers of civilisation". The controversy led to P-Orridge and Fanni Tutti's Art Council grant being terminated and they were banned from exhibiting in the UK. Self-consciously pursuing an idea of "unpopular music" and given some useful publicity by the outrage, Throbbing Gristle then fully launched themselves as a musical outfit with P-Orridge on violin, vocals and bass, Fanni Tutti on guitar, cornet and effects, Carter on synthesiser and rhythms, and Christopherson on tapes, processors and trumpet. They formed their own label, Industrial Records, and recorded most of their jams, rehearsals and performances. After self-releasing their work on cassette, the group hit number 37 in the UK independent charts with a club hit single "United" in spring of 1978. Sporting army style black garb and having designed their own swastika-like insignia, they were accused of being a neo-nazi cult. In response they launched their most accessible album, in 1979, the ironically named Twenty Jazz Funk Greats, and began wearing all white.

"I think with TG in our own ways," explains P-Orridge, "We have been committed to the idea of evolution on some level, and change on some level - that human behaviour may not be changeable but one has to try and be optimistic and work towards content that might signify change." Tutti adds: "What is important is that it is an individual responsibility to do that. It's not done en masse. When we formed TG we never wanted people to follow as TG followers but as themselves, but with a like mind. As soon as people started wearing a TG-type uniform we stopped wearing it - we wore white."

While only the first track of Twenty Jazz Funk Greats had a funk feel, the album reached number six on the UK Independent charts. Soon afterwards David Bowie told US radio that TG was the most important thing happening in the UK. The band lasted another two years before they decided the project had run its course. "We were already, in 1981, bemoaning the fact that people were using certain accessorised ideas and images that they connected with us - sort of strange buildings and neo-fascist regimes and the 'dark side' of human culture," says P-Orridge. "We'd touched upon it at times, it's true, but people grasped on that and thought 'well if I mention this, this, this and this, then that must innately make me intelligent and creative' - which, of course, isn't true and isn't the point. That was depressing for all of us and it was one of the reasons we stopped because it became this supermarket of ideas."

A romance between Carter and Tutti had crystallised by the time TG disbanded; P-Orridge married his then girlfriend, Paula, two months before. (Incidentally, and revealing that their uncanny nerve was never simply a public performance, a song TG released in 1978, after P-Orridge and Tutti had split, called "Death Threats", is said to be comprised of phone messages left by Carter's wife who suspected his involvement with Tutti.) Carter and Tutti went on to form the Creative Technology Institute (CTI) and Chris and Cosi, whilst working on their own individual art and music projects, while P-Orridge, Christopherson and Paula went on to form the acid house innovators Psychic TV. The late Jhonn Balance (aka Geoff Rushton), who died this year, also became a member of Psychic TV and went on to form the industrial band Coil with Christopherson. Both P-Orridge and Tutti collaborated with the film-maker Derek Jarman, and P-Orridge also collaborated with William S Burroughs and Timothy Leary. In 1999 P-Orridge formed Thee Majesty, a spoken word and ambient music performance group. P-Orridge and Paula were later exiled from the UK after being dubiously accused of child abuse amongst other allegations surrounding his Temple of Psychic Youth order that was responsible for organising rave parties and supporting squats while championing the use of psychedelics and sexual freedom.

Reflecting upon today's music and culture, Tutti suggests that it is gratuitous for all the wrong reasons. "When you look at the culture now with people going into excess with sex and everything else, people think it's liberated and over the top, but it's not at all because, again, you've got this very safe thing going on and there are certain boundaries there."

This is almost a matter of commitment or concentration. Tutti adds: "People never remain long enough with one thing to understand and savour it. Its almost like 'tick that box: what's next' which is a real shame. Because ultimately if you don't spend time on something that area is never allowed to develop... so it's a homogeneous thing our culture."

P-Orridge muses that in relation to the extremities of TG's behaviour in the past, as far as today is concerned, less is more. "We are in a moment where intelligent subtlety is the more shocking strategy than gratuitous actions because the media have already trumped everything you could do as a performance with so-called reality. The potency has gone from certain strategies."

He later observes that, "The status quo is presented as something to aspire to, whereas for us the status quo was something we wanted to shatter in order to create the space for people to choose for themselves."

Music remains a uniquely powerful social force for P-Orridge. "The fact that we've all played in literally dozens of countries and cultures and had a very positive response means that there is some other language - a non verbal language. Sometimes it's as simple as helping people to feel less isolated. If somebody's in the middle of Ohio or Cornwall and there is no local shop and finally they hear some kind of music they think 'That's like me' and they feel that bit less isolated." Tutti then elaborates: "That works on a popular culture level anyway when people get really into the most mundane love songs going, its like desperation you know. They are so empty but they want someone else to say it for them. They want to put on a CD and stand next to it - it's our quick-fix culture. They would feel much better if they found some way to express themselves."

A fan of a live performance he saw of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, P-Orridge would like to see a more open-minded and flexible live scene. "Bands should try to create a temporary situation where the audience feel relaxed enough to let go of whether they look cool or whether they know the correct response and for a while, whether it be an hour or two, they feel liberated enough to surrender to the experience of the sound rather than analyse it or critique it or want it to be exactly like it was before."

Their simple word of advice to aspiring artists is to be honest - something very few people actually manage to achieve. "And I think one of the gorgeous things about TG is that we will go from something amazingly serious and important and significant in terms of the world and life, and then do something ludicrous and absurd," adds P-Orridge.

"We take every aspect of our lives and then magnify them because it's interesting and puzzling and baffling all at once to go through each day."

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