Throbbing Gristle by Fred Macpherson
Illustration by Elena Durey.
Fred Macpherson is the front-man of the band Spector and one of the funniest men on Twitter. He's the conscience and brain of the noughties indie scene.
Despite my glasses’ perma-rose tinted lenses when it comes to the three and a half minute indie scene of the last decade, it’s not a world that still permeates my subconscious. The Libertines, Coral and Arctic Monkeys may have romanticised something to an audience who couldn’t work out whether they wanted to dress like The Strokes or sleep with them, but it was a surprisingly straight era for British music. Even with very mixed gender audiences and openly gay, outspoken musicians in bands like Bloc Party and The Others, brit pop’s lad-shadow continued to hang heavy. While these groups were the cement that held a lot of my friendships together, their music couldn’t soundtrack the full spectrum of questions and doubts that plagued me along with every teenager since the first stone age wet dream. I needed something that made as little sense to me as growing up did.
At school a leftfield taste in music meant a copy of Slipknot’s Iowa or The Marshall Mathers LP but rarely both. I’d started picking up more left field tips by asking second room indie club DJ’s what they were playing (pre Shazam and fake ID crackdown) or recording MTV2’s late night 120 Minutes and fast forwarding to the weird bits. I’ve never told him but my older brother’s more esoteric tastes were also a life saver. We’d sit together during holidays, him reading The Wire with Merzbow on the cover, me poring over The Vines on every page of the NME. He introduced me to so much, from techno to post-rock and noise, all of which I told him I hated but was secretly fascinated by. At some point I made the connection between a disturbing track called Hamburger Lady he kept tormenting our cousin with and a large poster emblazoned with the slogan Music From the Death Factory on one of the walls at Rough Trade Talbot Road. “Have you got anything by them?” I enquired, pointing at what I didn’t know was an A2 photograph of Auschwitz.
Smiling up at me from the cliffs of Beachy Head, dressed like one of my parents’ old holiday photographs, I knew Throbbing Gristle would be unlike any band I’d heard before or since. Even the name was uncomfortably ugly and erotic. What I didn’t know at the time was that the £14.99 CD copy of 20 Jazz Funk Greats would be the the beginning of a long journey. The irony of the artwork was probably lost on me at the time, but I soon learned that it wasn’t twenty tracks and it certainly wasn’t jazz or funk. At least not as I knew it. To say I understood the record initially (or perhaps even now) would be an overstatement, but that thrilled me and I knew this was the real deal - the ‘other’ music I’d been looking for: Siren songs from below the surface. It was the first album I owned that could actually upset people. I’d always been told that punk was the great destroyer of everything, so bringing home Clash and Sham 69 albums only to have my parents sing along left me feeling about as rebellious as an episode of Heartbeat. TG on the other hand could really change a mood, even getting me shouted at in the sixth form common room on the days I felt bold enough to commandeer the Argos stereo.
Throbbing Gristle were a gateway drug to so much more than music and a first step towards understanding that the official BBC history of culture was just one (government funded) version of events. With internet still a one person on the computer at a time privilege (and over a decade before Cosey Fanny Tutti’s recent autobiography) I had to feast on any Gristle info I could find from disparate google searches and sites like Brainwashed.com, labours of love in the pre-youtube age. Trying to piece together their five year career from their relatively limited number of recordings was thrilling, as was reading accounts of their gigs, especially by those who’d hated it. As individuals, the four members who made up TG were a treasure trove of creativity and life lived to the Nth degree. I felt like the more I learned about them the less I knew. From Genesis P. Orridge’s gender transitioning and Crowley-lite theorising to Cosey’s pornography as art and unconscious front line feminism there was a lot for a relatively sheltered teenager to take in. But they taught me more than FHM ever did, and whether downloading Chris Carter’s circuit designs for home made pedals and synths or looking through Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson’s photography and design work for Hipgnosis they were a constant source of new information.
What I was most thankful to TG for was leading me to Christopherson’s later band Coil with his partner, antagonist and lover John Balance (after they’d met in Genesis’ Psychic TV) whose music I fell for even harder. The arcane and homoerotic tragicomedy that underpinned their discography (and relationship) propelled me into new states, years before any first hand knowledge of the drug experiences they managed to intertwineso artfully with their music. Records like ‘Scatology’ and ‘Horse Rotorvator’ sexualised the male body for me for the first time - an awakening that’s hard not to find some amusement in when soundtracked by a romp called The Anal Staircase. From afar it seemed like their intense, exploration of electronic music as ritual was only possible as a result of the depth of the duo’s personal relationship and how it manifested spiritually, chemically and physically. The posture and machismo of the modern guitar music I listened to (and performed) with my friends could be tiring. The sound of Coil became a safe space in which to fantasise about manhood and Englishness and what it really meant, helping dismantle clichés I’d come to accept as reality. From medieval hymns to acid-house their music was unafraid and total. Though hard to define with any particular release I often play people their funereal takes on Tainted Love (of which all profits went to the Terrence Higgins Trust - a musical first in 1985 while AIDS was still very much taboo) and the Are You Being Served? theme tune, the basis of their transformative final track Going Up, completed by Christopherson after Balance’s death.
Along with queer icons like William Burroughs, Derek Jarman and Clive Barker, TG and Coil’s work and collaborations led me to underground English eccentrics like Steven Stapleton aka Nurse with Would and the wonderful David Tibet. His constantly evolving project Current 93’s apocalyptic, almost cartoon-like take on Christianity provided solace after I’d drifted from the church youth group that once gave my mum the pleasure of a home visit to discuss my views on homosexuality. I feel lucky that one of their most ambitious records to date - 2006’s ’Black Ships Ate the Sky’ - was released the year I left school (twenty years into a career still going strong) and became yet another psychic road map. Its cast of guests touched on the past, introducing me to the awe-inspiring Shirley Collins and joining the dots backwards via Marc Almond and Cosey Fanny Tutti, while also highlighting present and future greats like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billie, Antony Hegarty and Baby Dee - both of which Tibet had helped introduce to the world after releasing on his Durto label.
Post-industrial music (so called after TG’s own label Industrial Records was ‘terminated’ in 1981) and its protagonists’ intersecting lives and works have created a new British folklore of sorts - what David Keenan calls ‘England’s Hidden Reverse’ in his recently (finally) reprinted, excellent book of the same name - outsider art for its own sake, never pre-occupied with any sense of commercial value. ‘Underground’ is an overused word, but these were artists who released everything on their own labels without radio, television or press support; creating international postal networks with fans and heroes alike; experimenting in the most playful, human ways wherein pain, fear and alienation sit naturally alongside humour, friendship, love and sex. With every generation that unearths and celebrates esoteric legacies like these, we move further from any plotted history (or future) of pop music, and closer to its infinite, all inclusive possibilities.
Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.