Thursday, 1 May 2014

Throbbing Gristle - Part Two: The Endless Not (2007)

I discovered Throbbing Gristle when Graham and I - Graham being my best friend at school - would sneak into his older brother's room to gaze with great wonderment upon the punk rock records therein, the ones with all the swearing and the street credibility words; and even better was that it wasn't all punk rock either - Alternative TV, Here & Now, The Residents, Faust, Wreckless Eric, All Skrewed Up by Skrewdriver from before they took to experimenting with racism as a medium, and Throbbing Gristle who had the most entertainingly disgusting band name in the world. We listened to a bit of his brother's Best of Throbbing Gristle Volume II tape, and I was immediately fascinated by this music which sounded like a factory assembly line chugging away whilst some guy whined on about Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. I'd probably been primed to enjoy this sort of thing by the grating electronic soundtrack of certain 1970s Doctor Who episodes, although that didn't occur to me at the time.

I quickly became a Throbbing Gristle convert, buying up every bit of vinyl or tape I could get my hands on, reading whatever material was out there, the interviews in Sounds or Re/Search magazine. Genesis P. Orridge, the singer - or at least vocalist - of the group, seemed to articulate all that good anti-establishment stuff I already recognised from punk rock, but with greater wit, and a more developed sense of art; and I couldn't get enough of it, which worked out well because as it turned out P. Orridge was barely able to do so much as spend a penny without declaring it a subversive and playful challenge to some convention or other. The man never shut up, and being fifteen, I found it immensely entertaining, even inspiring. It was fascinating, just waiting to see what he would come out with next.

One version of the story has it that Throbbing Gristle split in 1981 precisely because P. Orridge just couldn't shut up, and at least two of the others were beginning to resent his presuming to speak for the entire group, and at having apparently become his backing band. Whatever the case may have been, so far as P. Orridge was concerned, once the first couple of Psychic TV albums appeared it became obvious that the jig was up as he revealed himself to be a man whose work was only ever as interesting as whoever he was stood next to at the time - Alex Ferguson, Dave Ball, Fred Giannelli or whoever. The supposedly revolutionary insight which had so impressed me when I was at school turned out to be nothing more profound than a sort of postmodern Tourette syndrome, an endless fountain of pseudo-Situationist word salad for which there was no off button, all content secondary to the myth of Genesis P. Orridge, controversial author of A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to William Burroughs' House. I had imagined him as some great bringer of wisdom, the one to truly see through the bullshit veil of societal conditioning, but it turned out that he really just wanted to be Lou Reed, stood in one room feigning indifference to the knowledge of everyone in the next room discussing his genius.

Well, that's how it has looked to me since about 1981, and the testimony of at least Fiona Russell Powell seems to support the impression I picked up from a number of mutual acquaintances whose lives have intersected with that of himself, not least various members of the more interesting, supposedly unauthorised and later incarnation of TOPY. The acronym stood for the Temple of Psychic Youth, which was ostensibly an international network of like-minded persons with an interest in challenging art, the occult, philosophy and the like. In practice it turned out to be more or less a fan club for P. Orridge, its founder. I ignored TOPY on the grounds that by 1985 I was already bored shitless of the number 23 and its attendant pseudo-mystical bollocks, paying attention only when the organisation began to evolve into something more interesting in the early 1990s under the guidance of a group who had taken it upon themselves to rescue TOPY from its absentee father figure; at which juncture P. Orridge, the voice of playful subversion and unrestricted artistic liberty turned into Phil Collins getting testy over uncleared samples and intellectual copyright. He wasn't about to let anyone get their mitts on his fan club, even though it wasn't a fan club, obviously.

So, to condense all of the above to a single, simple point: I've never felt quite so let down, even so betrayed by a famous person whom I've never met turning out to be just some hat-wearing self-involved bozo as with P. Orridge; so there may be a certain embittered fervour to my poor regard of the man, and perhaps even some bias; so I'm just letting you know.

I found most Psychic TV dull to the point of being unlistenable, lacking imagination, and musically pedestrian - a well-meaning but definitively past-it youth club leader speeding his tits off and trying too hard to appear mysterious. I never really warmed to Coil either. Their music just wasn't that exciting, and it seemed like they might have done better just releasing lists of whatever droning occult tedium they had been researching that week. Of all former members of Throbbing Gristle, Chris and Cosey at least managed to make some decent records, although personally I began to find it all sounding a little samey by the time of 1991's, Pagan Tango. It just didn't give the impression that they were enjoying themselves.

Anyway, Throbbing Gristle always struck me as the most unlikely of reunions. Even in the studio, their music seemed so firmly of the moment that a twenty-first century revival would surely be pointless - playing Persuasion once again like Showaddywaddy invoking the flaccid spirit of Carl Perkins and Elvis; or worse - a Chris and Cosey record with P. Orridge crooning about having a wank over the top. I bought Part Two expecting it to be shite, nevertheless overpowered by my own curiosity...

...and as I suppose we all know by now, against all odds, it actually sort of worked; thanks to no effort made in tribute to the past, excepting perhaps in the cover photograph of Mount Kailash, a sacred Tibetan site to which people of all faiths make their spiritual pilgrimages, if that isn't too wild or wacky a metaphor. The technology is all new and generally far beyond the toys used last time these four were all together in the same room, but the spirit remains roughly what the fuck, let's see what happens when I press this, and so we have something technologically resembling Nine Inch Nails whilst sounding exactly like the record Throbbing Gristle made after Journey Through A Body, and most importantly it sounds mostly just as strange and powerful and as full of surprises as they ever did, with not so much as a whiff of Mick and Keith chugging through a geriatric Satisfaction for the ten millionth time.

That said, P. Orridge, formerly the weird and slightly disturbing pixie who somehow made it all work has ended up the weakest link, having since submitted fully to his own outsider celebrity status. He could never really sing, but it was easier to forgive him back when he was at least aware of this and didn't bother trying. As such, the better tracks here seem to be those on which the P. Orridge voice is reduced to a sound source; less so songs like Almost A Kiss wherein everyone is obliged to accommodate our kid's belief in himself as Marlene Dietrich, and which sounds like some old dosser howling away outside a pub in Huddersfield at two in the morning; but I suppose it's preferable to crooning requests for stamped addressed envelopes full of manly sex tadpoles.

On reflection, it's probably for the best that this wasn't going to go much further - referring here to the split prior to Peter Christopherson's tragic and untimely passing - given that good things tend not to endure. There was always something magical about the combination of these four people, and it seems a minor miracle that it should come around a second time without falling on its arse; and given Chris and Cosey being the two with the actual ideas, I really should have a look at what they've been doing these past few decades, shouldn't I?

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