Throbbing Gristle’s highly individualist approach to music extended as far as making their own instruments and, ultimately, their own genre.
Very few bands can claim to have invented an entire genre, but with their coining of the term ‘industrial music’ in 1977, art–noise experimentalists Throbbing Gristle did just that. While in some ways the phrase has come to define a certain kind of grinding electro–rock, for the Hull/London quartet — Genesis P–Orridge, Chris Carter, Cosey Fanni Tutti and the late Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson — industrial derived from their highly original blend of avant–garde electronics, musique concrete and abstract sound.
“It was all of those, yeah,” says TG founder Chris Carter. “And it was a way of life, the way that we worked. Everything that we did was industrial to us. It was more of a concept rather than a sound. I mean, nowadays, it’s taken very literally as being industrial–sounding. The industrial sound that we had was only part of the whole industrial movement that we had going then. It didn’t have to be industrial–sounding as such.”
“On a personal level,” says Cosey Fanni Tutti, “it was about working with yourself and others... and life, rather than being passive. We wanted to make people more active in their approach to life and experimenting and exploring and the music that we did was part of that. So that you don’t have to follow and just access things that are delivered onto the table for you. You can actually create something yourself or go in a different direction. That’s what we meant by industrial. It was about working. Working to create something new and something that would inspire everybody.”
“Maybe,” Chris points out, “we should’ve called it industrious.”
The groundbreaking sound collages that Throbbing Gristle would create during their initial period together from 1977 to 1981 were very much informed by the background noise of the factories surrounding their studio in Hackney, east London, which they darkly named — because of its close proximity to the one–time plague pits of London Fields — The Death Factory.
“It was also under a railway arch,” Chris recalls, “so we had all these heavy sort of sounds rumbling above us, and around us from trucks. That whole area was very industrial.”
“There was a lot of the rag trade around there,” says Cosey. “Handbag makers and shoe makers in the arches along the way. So there was a lot of to–ing and fro–ing of deliveries and hammering and so on.”
“Across the road,” says Chris, “there was also this incredible club that played a lot of dub and reggae and stuff and you could hear that as well.”
“I think it was just that it was our world that we inhabited and those sounds became synonymous with how we felt and how the world appeared to us at the time,” Cosey states. “We were amongst it, getting down and dirty literally all the time [laughs]. Those sounds were a soundtrack to that really. That’s what inspired us to do the music we did. It was just very literal.”
The roots of Throbbing Gristle were in COUM Transmissions, a music and performance art group founded by Genesis P–Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti in Hull in 1969. “Performance art was always a term that I personally struggled with,” says Cosey, “because of the word ‘performance’. They were ‘actions’ really, they weren’t performances as such, ‘cause they were all improvised.”
The musical side of COUM Transmissions was similarly improvisation and based around P–Orridge’s ethos that “the future of musicians lies in non–musicians”. “They were quite anti orthodox ways of playing music,” says Cosey. “It was just expressing yourself with sound, which you couldn’t do via a structured kind of formula. That was somebody else’s idea of how to create sound. We did performance pieces with all kinds of things like cutlery and contact mics and we contact-miked the floor that we were walking on.”
Gaining notoriety in Hull, leading to the unwanted attentions of the press and police (not least because of their illustrated logo of a semi–erect penis), COUM Transmissions relocated south to London in 1973. “It seemed logical for us to move,” Cosey says, “because it was getting very uncomfortable for us to operate in Hull. And a lot of the people that we were in contact with and working with by that time were London–based.”
In the capital, the pair hooked up with Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson and Chris Carter, the latter at the time working as a sound engineer for TV. “I had numerous jobs for different TV companies working as an assistant sound recordist,” he says. “It was hard work ‘cause the hours are terrible, especially when you’re working on films and stuff. But I did a learn quite a lot about the technical side of sound engineering.”
At the same time, Carter was also doing light shows for live bands, including Hawkwind and Yes, and experimenting with building his own synths, electronics being a subject which had absorbed him since the age of 14 as an avid reader of Practical Electronics magazine. “I’d build circuits from that,” he says. “And I’d been building my own little synth circuits for a number of years. That sort of accumulated into a modular system that I had when I met Genesis and Cosey.”
Together, the four began working in The Death Factory, an almost dilapidated studio environment with no natural light and floors being eaten away by dry rot. By no means a conventional musical outfit, Throbbing Gristle were interested in artfully pushing the boundaries of sound. A friend had built a PA for them and they began experimenting with the physical effects of tones at different frequencies played at ear–bleeding volume.
“We bought some really high–powered amps to go with the PA,” says Chris, “and we got some bass bins and then we just started experimenting. I had a couple of tone generators and an oscillator and we put just this pure sound through them. Originally just to test how loud we could get it. Then we started realising that it was having a physical effect. Our trouser legs were flapping and we had all these weird visual disturbances when we got really close to the speakers.
“This went on for weeks. We had to have someone stood next to the kill switch because we were just really cranking it up louder and louder. It’s irresponsible really, I guess. But it was good fun. We took those experiments out on the road with us when we did live shows. [Laughs] Nowadays, health and safety, you couldn’t get away with that.”
The first time Throbbing Gristle aired their sonic experiments live was at the Air Gallery in London in the summer of 1976, though it’s the opening of COUM Transmissions’ Prostitution art exhibition on 18th October of that year which is remembered as their debut gig. Not least because the exhibition displayed pornographic images of Tutti and the performance which Throbbing Gristle staged that night was wild and chaotic. “It was a really, really crazy night,” Cosey remembers. “It was absolutely packed out. There were fights involving all of us and the audience.”
In the aftermath, Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn publicly denounced COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle as “wreckers of civilisation”. “It must have seemed like we were wrecking civilisation that night,” laughs Cosey. “We just thought he was a bit of an idiot. The exhibition was supposed to be saying goodbye to the art world and now we’re going onto Throbbing Gristle. We just regarded it like that.”
The performance of one track, ‘Slug Bait’, from the ICA show was to make it onto the first Throbbing Gristle album, The Second Annual Report in 1977, which comprised various live and studio recordings. “We used to record everything,” Chris remembers. “Jam sessions, live things in front of an audience, in the studio. We had hundreds of hours of stuff. We just thought, Well let’s give people a taste of what we do live and in the studio.”
The woozy qualities of the avant–garde ‘Slug Bait’ were further enhanced by the fact that it was recorded onto two separate cassette machines, the recordings then matched together later. “We didn’t have a stereo copy,” says Carter. “We had two mono machines, one coming off the mixing desk and one just from a mic, so on that album, the live bits are two different recordings playing side by side. We had two varispeed cassette decks and that’s why sometimes the sound is sort of wavering because it’s us controlling the speed trying to match up the two channels. It was all very seat of your pants stuff then. But it wasn’t a big deal, we just thought, ‘Let’s just put a record out’.”
As an independent outfit on a limited budget, Throbbing Gristle first issued The Second Annual Report as 750 vinyl copies in a white sleeve stickered by the band themselves. “We couldn’t even afford to have a cover printed,” says Chris. “We took them out to the shops and delivered them ourselves and we just did the best we could. We thought, OK we’ve done an album. And then it all kicked off again.”
Released in the year that punk broke, Throbbing Gristle’s industrial noise was something else entirely. “The response took us by surprise,” says Cosey. “Everything in those days took us by surprise,” adds Chris.
For their second album, 1978’s DOA: The Third & Final Report — featuring the creepy and disquieting ‘Hamburger Lady’, set to become one of their best–known tracks — Throbbing Gristle began to up their production values. “We started getting multitracks, renting them,” Chris recalls. “We had a Tascam four–track, but when we realised that four–track wasn’t enough, we started renting in eight–track and 16–track machines.”
Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson was at the time working for Hipgnosis, the design company responsible for many iconic ’70s album covers, most famously those of Pink Floyd. As a result, he managed to get good deals on renting tape machines from the band’s Britannia Row Studios. “It was Studers, two inch, the really early sort of builds,” Chris says. “They came with a massive meter bridge in a flight case, and the base unit with the tape heads on and we’d get a mixer with it sometimes.”
Over the years, TG used a variety of mixers, ranging from Soundcraft to Tascam to Seck. “The first few that we had, they were live sound desks and they were quite noisy,” says Chris. “Sleazy bought one of [the Seck] mixers and I bought two and we used to chain them together, then we’d go through that either onto four-track or eight-track or 16-track.”
Mic–wise, the four were working with a very limited range. “We mostly had [Shure] SM58-type mics,” Chris says. “We had a couple of Beyerdynamic mics, but they weren’t so good and Gen used to throw them around and so we got through quite a few of those. He liked that mic just for singing into. But for almost everything else, for miking up combos and amps and Gen’s studio vocals, we’d just use an SM58.”
Throbbing Gristle’s secret weapon was a processor built by Carter, which he named the Gristleizer. Based on a design for a guitar effects pedal which appeared in Practical Electronics in 1975, it was to colour virtually every element of their collective sound. “I built quite a few of the circuits and then put them in a small box with controls on the front,” he explains. “I showed it to the band and they liked it so I ended up making one for each of us. Actually, Gen had two and I had two, Cosey had one and Sleazy had one. And then that sort of became the signature sound for TG for a while.
“The basic unit was a voltage-controlled filter and voltage-controlled amp with an LFO. But you could only switch between one or the other, it had to be either a VCF or a VCA and then it had various waveforms for the LFO. Whatever you put through it at line level, it would modulate the sound to the speed of the LFO. You could overdrive it quite easily, so it had that sort of fizzy distortion sound along with this modulation.”
In basic band terms, P–Orridge was TG’s singer and bassist, Tutti the guitarist and Carter the keyboardist, while Christopherson manipulated tapes. But, processed through various Gristleizers, the group’s sound became highly individual. “Each one of us used it in a different mode,” says Chris. “Gen had one on his voice and one on his guitar, Cosey had one on her guitar and I had one on my synth and one on my drum machine and Sleazy had one on his tapes. But we didn’t all have them on all at the same time. Well, not often anyway. We became quite well known for that chugging sort of modulated sound which was basically the Gristleizer.”
In addition, TG used an array of other effects pedals to warp their sounds. “Gen had a fuzz and a phaser and a flanger,” Chris explains. “Cosey had all those and a wah–wah. Then we had a couple of [Roland] RE201 Space Echos and I had a WEM Copicat. We used to rent in the Eventide Harmonizer and when they brought out the Baby Harmonizer, the HM80, we bought four of those [laughs]. We had the Gristleizer going into a Harmonizer and then that going into a Space Echo or a Copicat or something. We used to change the effects a lot. Every year we’d go on a shopping spree and buy new effects and try out new ideas.”
More ingenious than even the Gristleizer was the proto sampler that Carter and Christopherson built, using a keyboard to trigger various Sony cassette machines. “Sleazy used to travel a lot with Hipgnosis, on locations and stuff,” says Chris, “and he went to New York when they introduced the Sony Walkman. He bought four and we sat down and figured out a way that we could trigger the tape from a keyboard. I had a small one-octave keyboard and I put relays on it, so by playing the keyboard he could switch them on and off with his fingers.”
The “found sounds” element of TG’s sound was made up of Carter’s recordings from TV and radio and Christopherson’s field recordings of people’s conversations, often captured surreptitiously. “Most of the stuff you hear that’s actual dialogue was from Sleazy,” says Chris, “‘cause he had this thing about recording everything. He had some really interesting recordings of people. And then sometimes I had rhythms on tape as well because a lot of the rhythms we did were done on my modular system, so I recorded them as loops onto a cassette. We used quite a lot of tape on stage.”
Throbbing Gristle had decided not to have a drummer, considering it too traditional, and instead used various treated drum machines, starting off with a Bentley Rhythm Ace before settling on a Roland CompuRhythm CR78. “That was mainly our go–to drum machine,” Chris says. “I’d modified it but it wasn’t such a good mod, and then I had someone at Roland modify it for me. I had a Roland System 100 sequencer and we sync’ed it up to that and to Sleazy’s sampler and that was probably the core of what we did for a long time. Although it often didn’t sound like a CR78 because it was going through so many effects.”
On the road, Carter’s self–built modular synth took many knocks, not least from bottles thrown at the stage by punk audiences. “Although we weren’t a punk band,” he says, “we played at very sort of punk–orientated venues. People came along, probably expecting a punk band and they got experimental electronic music, y’know. Getting things thrown at us happened quite a lot. When we’d get back after doing a few gigs, I’d have to spend days repairing things and getting them working again.”
An intimidating presence on stage, one of the most unusual — and dangerous — elements of Throbbing Gristle’s live setup was their use of an ‘Ion Generator’ that they’d had built for them. “It had very, very high voltage levels and some sort of coil inside it and a fan behind it,” says Chris. “The fan would blow through these high-voltage coils into the audience and it would arc and spark and make all these mad noises. It was supposed to improve the atmosphere [both laugh]. It became just this massive crackling effects unit that we had no control over.”
“We used to say to the audience, ‘Don’t stand too close,’” Cosey remembers. “They’d sort of ignore you and then they’d get a bit close and it would just arc and I’d say, ‘I told you!’”
The spoken-word lyric of ‘Hamburger Lady’ was written by an American friend of the band, Al Ackerman, who was a doctor and mail artist (sending specially created letters and artworks through the postal system). Its disturbing narrative described him treating a female patient whose flesh was so horribly burned that she’d earned the black nickname of the title. “He sent this letter because it really had a huge effect on him,” says Cosey. “This long description of this woman that was in such a terrible state with burns. It impacted on us quite a lot, and that’s when Gen put down his letter to the track itself. And the sounds with it were to give a kind of feeling of being in a semi–conscious state like she would be, on the verge of the pain relief going away, which is what he was saying to us about it.”
One of the key features of ‘Hamburger Lady’ used to create this disorientating effect was Fanni Tutti’s guitar, bought from Woolworths for £15 and sawn to a stick by Carter when she complained it was too heavy. Playing it with a slide through the Gristleizer produced an industrial drone. “I’d crash and bang it and all kinds of stuff,” she says.
Meanwhile the eerie high–pitched tone which repeats throughout ‘Hamburger Lady’ was created by P–Orridge playing a duck-call whistle through a Gristleizer and Roland Space Echo. “There’s a drone, the duck horn, the vocal and a heartbeat as well, which was the modular,” says Chris. “It’s pretty basic. But it is quite unsettling, I guess. It’s got this feeling of menace about it.”
Elsewhere on DOA: The Third & Final Report, each band member was given space for a solo track. Carter’s ‘AB/7A’ was an hypnotic synth creation more in line musically with Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk. “I had the Roland System 100 sequencer,” he explains. “I didn’t have the rest of the system, except the sequencer and that was triggering a Roland SH3 and my modular system and it was multitracked. I put a sync track down on one of the eight-tracks and sync’ed the tape up and then I was transposing on a keyboard in real time.”
It was arguably this track which was to inform the making of Throbbing Gristle’s next album, 1979’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats, which was similarly dark in places, while also taking its cues from US lounge exotica composer Martin Denny and featuring the likes of the Giorgio Moroder–inspired electro of ‘Hot On The Heels Of Love’. The record’s cover featured the playful album title alongside a photograph of the four standing on a cliff top, which was later revealed to be Beachy Head, a notorious suicide spot.
“It looks like we’re about to start making daisy chains,” Cosey laughs.
“Yeah or have a picnic,” says Chris. “It was like the third album was gonna be more difficult than a second album because people were expecting so much more. So we thought, ‘Well let’s just do what we wanna do’. And we wanted to do this whole kitsch thing where you could find that in a bargain bin at Woolies or something. It would confuse people.”
Two years later, on 29th May 1981, after a pair of shows at the Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco, Throbbing Gristle broke up, issuing a statement saying “the mission is terminated”. “It had run its course at that point because there were a lot of personal things going on in the band,” Chris explains. “It was gonna implode anyway. There were things that we were going to do that we didn’t do. It just ground to a halt.”
Carter and Tutti, now a couple, continued working together, trading simply as Chris & Cosey, while P–Orridge and Christopherson went on to operate as Psychic TV. In 2004, though, the quartet regrouped as Throbbing Gristle and would regularly perform ‘Hamburger Lady’, this time armed with laptops and layering new sounds into the track.
“It wasn’t drastically different,” says Chris, “but we liked to update what we were doing. We didn’t want to wallow in the past too much. What me and Sleazy were doing, it was easier for us to work with laptops, although we still had a lot of hardware on stage. On the original ‘Hamburger Lady’ there’s very little that Sleazy did. So obviously he wanted to be included in the track.
“We’ve used Ableton Live for our live stuff. It’s always been pretty stable for us. It was very easy to get stuff we wanted into that very quickly and manipulate it on stage. We had a set list but each track could go in a different direction. That’s part of the TG thing is that we improvise and it’s very easy to do that in Live.”
Throbbing Gristle fell apart once again in 2010 when P–Orridge quit partway through a tour. Less than a month later Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson died in his sleep at the age of 55 at his home in Thailand. In 2014, a reissue programme of the Throbbing Gristle albums was completed, the original tapes having been remastered digitally by Chris Carter. “When we did that we were still with EMI,” he says. “They had the entire archive which was dozens and dozens of tapes. They sent it all off to this facility that baked the tapes and then transferred them digitally, 24–bit 96k. They did the whole catalogue and they sent us just these dozens of drives with all this material on. So we were really lucky ‘cause we couldn’t have afforded to do that if we hadn’t have been with them.
“The remastering was very lightweight. I was using iZotope [Ozone]. We didn’t do a lot to it because the essence of TG is in those tapes and they were originally released just from tape to disc basically. We went through and took out some clicks and dodgy edits. We did a little bit of noise reduction but it was very minimal. We didn’t muck with the EQ hardly at all. They’re iconic albums, so we didn’t want to mess with them.”
Down the years, the pioneering sounds of Throbbing Gristle have echoed through such diverse artists as Nine Inch Nails, Swans, Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine and Blanck Mass. “I think it’s something different to different people,” says Cosey of TG’s catalogue. “But as I reflect back it’s nice to know that something we did all those years ago has a place in its own right.
“It was a totally new genre and I don’t know if anything’s happened since then really. Because everything else was taken from a previous type of music and just upped the ante a bit. Y’know, you go back to Kraftwerk and rave culture takes from that. But there’s never been a new kind of sound like there was with industrial.”
Track: ‘Hamburger Lady’
Label: Industrial Records
Producer: Throbbing Gristle