Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Throbbing Gristle - Brooklyn Masonic Temple (4/16/09)

I don't know who reads this blog on a regular basis. But there is one person who I know reads every entry, and that's my father. So it is with him in mind that I write this entry about Throbbing Gristle.

I would describe my father as an above-average, yet casual music lover. He grew up mostly on classical music, opera - stuff like that. He also liked some folk - there are plenty of Kingston Trio and Seekers records floating around my parents' house.

He was never much of a "rock" guy....yet - he (and my mother too) was always accepting of my heavier tastes. Heck - there's even a metal or punk song here and there that he actually likes. He's open minded like that. I never once remember being told I wasn't allowed to listen to a certain type of music or told to "stop playing that noise!!!"....never. Oh - maybe I had the music on a bit too loud and was told to turn it down a bit.....but it was never a reflection of the music itself.

When I write something and refer to "metal" or "punk" or whatever....my father has a basic idea of what sound I'm talking about. He may not be able to differentiate between Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel or between Black Flag and Minor Threat....but he gets the basic idea.

Throbbing Gristle, however, is different.

My father doesn't know what Throbbing Gristle sounds like and without actually playing it for him - I really have no idea where to even begin describing them.

To me - it is as difficult to describe the music of Throbbing Gristle to the uninitiated as it would be to describe the Grand Canyon to someone who has never seen it.

It is alien.

Imagine some planet that exists light-years away. On that planet is some form of intelligent life who uses sound in order to create an artistic statement and/or for entertainment purposes. Potentially - it might sound like what Throbbing Gristle sounds like.

The music that TG creates is so far removed from what we as humans normally regard as "music". In some ways, the sound lacks a humanity. Even when we hear a human voice, it sounds distant and very much non-human.

Probably by their own admission, TG were "sound artists" more than "musicians". If a needed sound did not already exist in some way - they would create it.

My blog is called "12 Notes is Enough" (did anybody notice that I completely fucked up the grammar there? - I just did...ah well...) - 12 notes being the standard amount of different tones that are used in Western music. TG really needed zero notes. Transcribing a TG song onto your standard musical staff would be punishment in hell...in fact, an impossibility.

In the end, though, TG are human beings and their music - underneath the strangeness - is very much a commentary on human existence.

To experience TG - it's important to listen not as a "musical" experience, necessarily - but more like experiencing an artwork that is made up of sound rather than paint, clay, etc.

TG is not a band of which I can share a whole lot of personal experiences with. I'm really not even sure when they entered my consciousness. I think I had heard of TG long before I had ever actually heard them.

The members who would become TG started working together back in the late-60s as a British avant-garde performance art group called COUM (pronounced however you see fit). As the members started working with sound and music more than performance and visual art, they found that their work could reach a wider audience and the focus shifted. The musical "department" of COUM became known as Throbbing Gristle and shortly thereafter, COUM dissolved completely, leaving only Throbbing Gristle.

There are very few genres of music that can be traced back to a single entity. However, industrial is one of those....and it all starts with TG (not that TG themselves weren't influenced, for surely the roots of industrial music arose from the avant-garde, the experimentalists, electronic music, musique concrete, the dadaists, etc.)....but "Industrial" as a pure musical form sprang from Throbbing Gristle and really - no one else (I suppose an argument could be made for Cabaret Voltaire).

They were the first to use the term (i.e. "Industrial Music for Industrial People") and their own record label is called Industrial Records.

In the early 1980s, TG broke up, with each band member going on to various solo works and band projects (i.e, Psychic TV, Coil, Chris & Cosey, among some others).

On April 16, 2009, Throbbing Gristle played their first show in the United States in about 25 years and their first show in New York ever. While I'm not a diehard fan of the band - if only for historical purposes - I had to be there.

The Brooklyn Masonic Temple is located in Fort Greene and is a beautiful building that has been having live music for a couple of years now and I have to say - it's quite the impressive venue. Aside from the venue itself being quite grand - the auditorium where the shows take place is spacious. There is a general admission ground level and an upper level balcony which has seating for the lazy. Sound was excellent as well.

I arrived just before the advertised "doors open" time and there was already a line around the block.

After milling about for a bit - recognizing no one (until spotting Mr. Dean Rispler a bit later on) - I bought a commemorative t-shirt as well as a copy of a brand new TG release - only available at their U.S. shows - 'The Third Mind Movements'. As of this writing, I have yet to give it a spin.

The first "demonstation" of the night (TG would refer to their live shows as "demonstrations") was a live accompaniment to the 54-minute 1980 Derek Jarman "fantasy" film, 'In the Shadow of the Sun'. TG had originally done an improvised score for the film which was released in 1984. I've never heard the original soundtrack, but my understanding is that this was a new version of the soundtrack, which seemed to me to be, in large part, also improvised.

After the film concluded, there was about an hour-long break during which the members of TG sat a table signing stuff. I had brought along my copy of 20 Jazz Funk Greats (probably the best known and most accessible of all of TG's albums although, believe me, it ain't all that accessible). Of course, this readily available CD paled in comparison to some of the truly diehard TG fans who brought along some unbelievable memorabilia - old singles, posters....some guy even had a huge piece of wood....no idea what that was.

The next part of the show was a visual/sound performance by someone named Peter (?) McClure. I have no idea who that is. It was essentially 45-minutes of staring at a screen which flashed lights in different patterns to a steady throbbing beat. Fairly minimalist in nature, interesting at times, but at some point, was very much looking forward to the conclusion.

Finally, the portion of the show that everyone was waiting for. Throbbing Gristle took back the stage and performed about 90 minutes worth of their older material.

It was a captivating performance. In some respects, the show was fairly boring. After all, most of what you're hearing is being generated by computers and synthesizers. It may not sound too exciting - essentially watching four people at desks with computers....but what you realize is that, behind the strange alien sounds - does lie four flesh & blood human beings....interacting....jamming.....being very human and very responsive - to each other & their surroundings. In a very warped way - it almost reminded me of a jazz performance....just without what we interpret as being traditional instruments.

The setlist: Very Friendly, Five Knuckle Shuffle, then an unknown song, Endless Not, Hamburger Lady (probably the highlight - a truly scary aural experience), What A Day and Discipline.

I walked away from the show in somewhat of a trance. To experience the live creation of these sounds within the live context - and full volume - in a room full of so many others - I couldn't help but be a bit mesmerized. When I do listen to TG, it is always a solitary experience....me and a pair of headphones....so to have experienced a band I generally enjoy in isolation with so many others was interesting. Although, as I went to the show alone and was by myself for pretty much the entire performance - I guess it was, in a sense, it's own form of isolation.

For those interested in learning more about this totally unique group of artists and would like to read further, there is a textbook-like biography of COUM and TG which I can't recommend highly enough if you're interested in the history:

Wreckers of Civilization by Simon Ford

There is also a book in the excellent 33 1/3 series of books about the previously mentioned 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Drew Daniel, which can be found here.

I leave you with a song from 20 Jazz Funk Greats....

"Still Walking"


  1. I once had a Cabaret Voltaire pin. I lost it.

  2. I'm jealous. Even though I am not a diehard TG fan, I do find them interesting as hell. Has anybody ever made a movie about them?