I debated whether I even wanted to write about the recent re-emergence of and new records by Psychic TV and its precursor Throbbing Gristle for two main reasons:
1) You, the reader, either know nothing about either group and don't care, or know everything about both groups and care too much, and
2) All reports so far have been from folks like me whose lives were in some way altered by these groups, and the results were not good. What fun is nostalgia if it fulfills that nagging suspicion that it was all a bunch of hype to begin with?
But I was convinced to do so by here main reasons:
1) I randomly ran into someone from college this morning who mentioned the another long lost mutual friend who turned me on to Throbbing Gristle in the first place
2) I was milling around in my office looking for one of those needle things you use to inflate a soccer ball, and knocked over a pile of loose CD's and one of the ones peeking out from the pile was Throbbing Gristle's still-powerful DOA: Third and Final Report
3) Today is the 23rd, and the number 23 features prominently in thee psychick magick propaganda that surrounds these groups
And just now, 2 vs. 3 . 2. 3. 23. The numbers don't lie. It's on.
My first year Latin teacher in college turned me on to Throbbing Gristle. She had amazing connections: her brother was and is a prominent drag queen in big drag queen circles, and she moved wide-eyed to NYC in the 70s and was RuPaul's roommate for a while and met Warhol at a party at the Factory and did all that shit. She saw Einsturzende Neubauten destroy a club floor with a jackhammer (and was a linguistics PHD, so it sounded precise and sexy when she said their name), and witnessed Psychic TV's subsonic throb that she was pretty sure the band was utilizing to kill the audience.
I was deep in the William S. Burroughs phase that all college students should go through, and she spied my library copy of The Western Lands poking out of my backpack, so we talked Burroughs. I was thrilled. This is what I came to college for. The next day, she brought in a worn copy of Re/Search #4/5 - the Burroughs/Throbbing Gristle/Brion Gysin issue and an even more worn c-90 of Throbbing Gristle's DOA/20 Jazz Funk Greats. These two documents were the sextant for my intellectual ship of fools, spending the better part of a year obsessing over all things Throbbing, all things Gristly. I started making my own Industrial Coffee Table Book out of a grey binder stolen from my student job and photocopies of TG manifestoes and pics of William Burroughs holding shotguns. Pretension befits no one better than a college sophomore.
I became a DJ at the college radio station initially because someone told me that you can tape anything in their gargantuan collection, and the first round of tapes I made were all the Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle I could find. When this radio station went computerized back around 2000, when I wasn't living here, I heard the albums were unceremoniously dumpstered, at least the ones that hadn't already been stolen by savvy DJ's and my heart sank a little. Those two impossibly rare Psychic TV live records (two in a series of 23) were undoubtedly sent the way of the banana peels. I hadn't listened to any of that for over a decade, didn't even have a working turntable by then, but I would have driven across country to get that red and black Live in Gottingen, only because they represented a sophomoric but very real conduit of liberation for me.
So here I am almost twenty years away from that first moment when my Industrial Third Eye was opened by a shortish, tuneless git named Genesis p-Orridge, yammering about burn victims that looked like hamburger, moaning the tale of serial killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in the post-apocalypse murder ballad "Very Friendly." I've mellowed but apparently Genesis' crazy train was just leaving the station. After polishing off all rational thought, becoming the Second Leary of acid house, and popping up in random documentaries looking weirder and weirder each time, he targeted gender for the next temple needing destruction. He and his wife Lady Jaye Breyer p-Orridge have been over the years pursuing a pandrogeny project, where he's been getting breast and cheek implants, getting matching tattoos and they are both altering their shapes to slowly become one another. I say good on you, Gen, keep fighting the weird fight. The results may not be all that pretty, since Gen looks not dissimilar to a dumpy tranny, but the impact is there. So, if Genesis p-Orridge can still be the biggest freak I've ever heard of, maybe his latest music will open the doors of transgression for me all over again
Hell is Invisible...eaven is Her/e
One thing about hindsight - it casts a harsh unforgiving light on the past. Those Psychic TV records that I treasured were, well.not really all that good. Dreams Less Sweet being a majestic exception, they mostly sounded like less inspired variants of the pop that they set out to destroy, and this record follows that trajectory. The slap bass, histrionic singing from a weathered Genesis and the aggro-synth on "Higher and Higher" sounds like an outtake form the early Peter Murphy records. "In Thee Body" fares a little better, staring with a spooky chant for which his weird voice is peculiarly suited, over a faux tribal drumbeat, but there is a Halloween sound effects wolf-howl that comes in and ruins the moment at each turn.
But, like those very records I just callously and without sentimentality maligned, there is something special in there. PTV's "Godstar" was no New Order's "Blue Monday" but somehow its corny evocations of Brian Jones over that blown-out electropop rattle held its own. I find this new record similarly, inexplicably appealing even though I'm not sure I actually like it at all. Maybe I still buy into the cult of personality and am a willing agent in Gen's plan for immortality. I can accept that. Beats being in the Kiss Army at my age.
"Lies, and Then" has a foghorn of guitar like the Fall in 1985 and circus organ like ? and the Mysterians in 1965 coursing through it, which also sits just fine with me. But it's the dated disco-nightmare of "Maximum Swing" featuring Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes woo-hooing in the background and Yeah Yeah Yeah's Nick Zinner's deft guitar that really brings this record around for me. Genesis growls and prowls around like a gravel-throated insect. Its reminds me of Gene Loves Jezebel, except it's Gen Hates Jezebel and Wants to Wear Her Flesh as a Costume.
"New York Story" sounds like the Lou Reed rip off I thought it might be from the title alone, but in the best possible way. Lou Reed doesn't harvest his old material this well. "I Don't Think So" is a sweet icy number that reminds me of the crystalline songcraft on Dreams Less Sweet, Gen doing what Gen does best - chanting a simple line over and over. And I don't mean that sarcastically - he really does know how to chant a line up to the next level.
I fear a song called "Hookah Chalice" coming from a record with such a retro style cover, but it starts off with a clever pulse morphing into an ambulance siren, and the kicks out the electro jams with unabashed fervor. Supposedly he came up with this industrial thing, so it be fitting that he still drags it out. It even has a droney, let's-run-it-all-through-the-tape-delay passage in the middle which brings back fond memories. "Just Because" is a less successful run at Brian Jonestown Massacre burnout rock (maybe they should back him up, for at least an EP... and "BB" is a mess of low-boil reggae beats and haunted Mansion keyboards. So the only logical way to take us out is a dallying sunset gazer based around a sitar, for obviousness' sake, and weirdly "Milk Baba" succeeds in doing it. I'm not sure why, perhaps I'm being reprogrammed right now as a member in the Psychic TV zombie army and will be seen a year from now in ill-fitting goth attire, selling pangender merch at their St Louis appearance - Noooooo there are no men's shirts and no women's shirts, see, just shirts ok? - , but I maintain that this flawed corny track, like this flawed corny album and this flawed corny band even, totally works.
Part Two: The Endless Not
Now I have higher expectations for a TG reunion. Psychic TV was cool and all, but the Gristle was the missile, hitting me where I lived. I don't think anyone saw a TG reunion coming, since they were pretty clear in the message of "The mission is terminated" after their San Francisco show in 1981, emblazoned on the album Mission of Dead Souls that documented that show. Come 2004 (or should that be COUM 2004) the old gang got together and rattled the rafters of London's Astoria theatre, and civilization was doomed all over again.
TG live and TG albums have always been disparate things. Their studio albums were often clever if haphazardly crafted pieces that spanned between pop glisten and cathartic disintegration, while their live shows were often cavernous noise rituals, with punishment meted out in sheets of white hot pain. Both of these benefited, I think, from the relative musical inexperience on the part of the group members.
After that sunny day in 1981, factions of TG went their separate ways. Chris Carter and Cossi Fanni Tutti founded the often exquisite electro act Chris and Cosey, and Peter Christopherson hitched his sleazy wagon to Coil, giving him ample room to stretch out his deep spooky sense of sound. And Genesis was off being fabulous.
This new album, and the live material I've heard sound like an amalgam of that experience, in curious contrast to the earlier albums' amalgam of inexperience, and the results are not bad. "Vow of Silence" gets things started on the right webbed foot, yelps and bleeps echoing through a sludgy digital pulse. Its cleaner, less feral than say "What a Day" or "Discipline" but I think it would be a fiction for people with 25 years of sonic production under their belts to yelp like the red-line adrenaline Neanderthals they were.
"Rabbit Snare" is a curveball, basically taking on the guise of a fucked jazz ballad. Somebody on Jazz 101 piano and Cossi's cornet actually swing slowly over the brushed drums, and Genesis does his best Nina Simone, warbling "Dare you love me... in an uptown remake of their old quicksand moan. The warped sound effects build and swoon around the middle, reminding one of Coil's more majestic moments. "Separated" is barely there, a low pulse with some slight landscape. Honestly, the first thing I thought was they should have brought in Bryan Ferry to croon about decapitation over this, but nope, the only vocals are processed beyond sentience. It only goes south on "Almost a Kiss" where Genesis pushes his voice through five minutes of innocuous lite noir.
"Greasy Spoon" and "Lyre Liar" are more like it, with that guitar swarming like locusts over burbling swamp. "Above the Below" sounds a lot like a submarine, navigating that very swamp, slowly morphing into a spooky Coil backing track. The epic length titlte track and its Ministry-before-metal evil is too be skipped in favor of "The Work Waits its Turn" a more subtle turn on the ProTools. Gen sounds like a zombie storyteller, and deliciously so, going on and one about Lord knows...ts reminds me of those tracks William Burroughs did with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphocracy, except the backing track is actually runs with the text instead of against it. It's a travelogue of all TG's greatest bits: echo babble noise, subterranean disco and a fog of dread coming out your speakers. "After the Fall" that closes out the record is a rather event-free slab of off-white noise until Gen begins to rise out of the sea like Godzilla in the last minute. This new TG may not hold a black occultist's candle to the TG of DOA, but this was less a vehicle to trot out Gen's new rack than the PTV3 record and in that way was rather successful. I don't know if these records will bring in any new converts, but it momentarily firms the resolve of this old altar boy.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com