Peter Christopherson: Musician and designer who worked with Throbbing Gristle and the Hipgnosis agency
Monday 29 November 2010
The Industrial music genre beloved of angsty teenagers and "edgy" American filmmakers has its roots in the experiments of the British agent provocateurs Throbbing Gristle in the mid-to-late 1970s.
Comprising Peter Christopherson – affectionately known as "Sleazy" – Genesis P-Orridge, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, and named after a Hull slang expression for an erection, Throbbing Gristle made disturbing, uncompromising, electronic music – the "evil" flip side to Brian Eno's "nice" ambient – and were dubbed "wreckers of civilisation" by Sir Nicholas Fairbairn.
The Conservative MP was incensed by the fact that their live debut, billed as an event called Prostitution and held at London's ICA in October 1976, was partly funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain, yet featured strippers and an exhibition containing naked images of Tutti – who had a parallel career as a model – as well as used tampons and sexual paraphernalia. "Public money is being wasted here to destroy the morality of our society," he thundered in the Daily Mail as questions were asked in Parliament.
Newspaper coverage briefly made Throbbing Gristle infamous though they are now rightly hailed as pioneers of the Industrial genre for the recordings they released on Industrial, their independent label, between 1977 and 1981 – its motto was "Industrial Music For Industrial People". These proved a lasting influence on groups such as Joy Division, Depeche Mode, Einstürzende Neubauten, Nine Inch Nails and Ministry. Christopherson subsequently joined P-Orridge in the equally provocative Psychic TV and formed the even more musically challenging Coil with his partner Jhonn Balance, who died in 2004. Most famously, in 1995, Coil remixed "Closer", the Nine Inch Nails track used over the opening credits of David Fincher's horror noir movie Se7en.
Throughout the '70s and into the early '80s, Christopherson had a parallel career with Hipgnosis, the design agency started by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey "Po" Powell, and helped create some of their most celebrated albums covers for Pink Floyd, Genesis, Led Zeppelin, and Peter Gabriel.
"This young man walked in and he had the most extraordinary portfolio, black and white photographs that were beautifully lit, so we employed him on the spot," Powell recalled. "Peter became an absolutely integral part of Hipgnosis, not only because of his lighting abilities but also because of his ideas. He was younger than Storm and I by about 10 years, very much in touch with the younger scene in London. This is pre-punk, about '72. His ideas were invaluable. He was gay but you would never have known it in a million years – he was tall, quite a butch guy. He brought a sort of sensuality, a sexuality to our work. It shows in some of our album covers. Typically where Storm and I might design a surreal-looking image, Peter would add something that would set your mind racing in a different direction. Presence for Led Zeppelin, is a perfect example: a black object set against 1950s National Geographic images of people in very mundane situations, Peter certainly would light it and make suggestions to make the black object more interesting, more phallic or dark or more moody. What he added to things was the suspense."
Between 1986 and 2001, Christopherson directed dozens of pop videos, most effectively when collaborating with artists he had something in common with – Marc Almond, Erasure, Gavin Friday, Front 242, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against The Machine, Henry Rollins, Sepultura, The The. Again, he courted controversy when Nine Inch Nails mainman Trent Reznor encouraged him to do his worst and he came up with a "snuff" movie treatment for the Broken video. It was shelved, but bootlegged copies gave people the wrong idea. "Basically the video was intended to be a comment on the existence of snuff movies and people's obsession with them," Christopherson said. "Kids started to believe that it was a real snuff movie."
Born in Leeds and brought up in Durham, he said he was lucky not to be sent to Gordonstoun. He attended Ackworth, a Quaker progressive boarding school in West Yorkshire, where he played Stockhausen and Messiaen to fellow pupils before discovering left-field acts like Captain Beefheart and the Krautrock of Can and Amon Düül. After a year at Uni he dropped out and DJed for a while, and began experimenting with tape recorders.
In 1974, he fell in with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, and created a controversial window display for SEX, their fetish-themed clothing shop in London's King's Road. He also took the first photographs of the Sex Pistols. By 1976, he had joined forces with Throbbing Gristle as they experimented with tape loops and began their assault on civilisation with eerie, distordant singles like "United" and "Subhuman" and the groundbreaking albums The Second Annual Report, D.o.A: The Third and Final Report, 20 Jazz Funk Greats and Heathen Earth.
By 1981, their mission "terminated", they broke up. Christopherson contributed to the first two Psychic TV albums, but subsequently concentrated on the more challenging, some would say self-indulgent, output of Coil. Having attended several Coil performances I remain on the fence, though the white furry outfits they wore were no doubt entertaining. "They stank," Christopherson commented.
Following Balance's death and the re-emergence of Throbbing Gristle in 2004, Christopherson moved to Bangkok and continued to push boundaries under the guise of The Threshold HouseBoys Choir and SoiSong, a collaboration with the Russian-born sound artist CoH.
He periodically returned to Europe or travelled to the US to perform with Throbbing Gristle, including the prestigious Coachella Festival last year. In October, the original group played its last concert, at the London Underground venue . Christopherson had also been assembling Throbbing Gristle's next project: a cover version of Nico's Desertshore album.
"I'm pleased when lots of peopletell me 'you changed my life', or 'Ihad the courage to become an artist' or 'live with my HIV status' or whatever, because of my records," Christopherson recently told The Quietus website. "If I can die knowing I've helped put a few of us outsiders in touch, helping one another, particularly helping pass on what we know to other new people, and encouraging each other to be more proud of who they are, I will be a happy man."
Peter Martin Christopherson, aka "Sleazy", composer, musician, music video director, designer: born Leeds 27 February 1955; died Bangkok 24 November 2010.
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