|Images, from top: Victor Burgin, Poster (Today is the Tomorrow You Were |
Promised Yesterday), 1976 // Throbbing Gristle, gatefold for 2011 reissue of
Heathen Earth // Industrial Records studio, circa 1980
Drew Daniels, in his 33 1/3 guide to 20 Jazz Funk Greats, writing about Throbbing Gristle in the final stretch of their first incarnation:
"The aesthetic deathgrip of such Grand Guignol fare initially helped to cast a suitably threatening media shadow, amplifying the already plentiful notoriety of Coum's alumni as nihilistic perverts and 'wreckers of civilization.' But it ultimately proved stifling and tedious to the members of the band, who had to watch as their antihumanist gestures were photocopied and distorted endlessly by arrivistes who brought plenty of iron-stomached bloodlust but forgot to pack the critical savoir faire. ...The effects of such associations proved more damaging and longlasting than the band predicted."
Damaging and stifling perhaps, but the crucial term in this context might be when Daniels reaches for the word tedious. Because I'll admit, my own affinity for TG had always been almost entirely sonic in its orientation. As far as most of the content and subject matter was concerned -- all the invocations of Nazi atrocities, lustmord, psychopathy and whatnot -- from the very start it had always struck me as by far the least interesting thing about them.
But what of it? Genesis P-Orridge had said of the group's original formation: "'Let's not learn how to play music. Let's put in a lot of content... Let's refuse to look like or play like anything that's acceptable as a band and see what happens." In abhorrence to the popular music of the time, the members of TG devised their music as an attack upon the all of rock's shopworn conventions and formulae. Fair enough, but it echoes a not-uncommon idea that was being kicked around in the punk and post-punk years, an "anti-rock" sentiment given lip-service by the likes of John Lydon, Vic Godard, et al.
But as Simon Reynolds pointed out in his footnotes to Rip It Up and Start Again, TG were deeply "rockist" in certain crucial respects: "If you define rockism (as I do) an approach that privileges content, context, and intent, then Throbbing Gristle -- despite their contempt for rock-as-music -- were the ultimate rockists. Also totally rockist was their belief in authenticity, edge, rebellion, the outsider, épater le bourgeois/shock the square etc.". What's more, it could be argued that while TG's "shocking" and "confrontational" modus might be viewed as be polemically opposite that of a certain hedonistic/escapist tendency in late '70s rock, but it hardly places them outside the category; rather it's just the obverse of the same coin. That being the case, one could view the music of TG as being only slightly removed from the heavy and plodding "doom" or "downer rock" that Black Sabbath had pioneered earlier in the decade; complete with the motive of social critique -- if not moral protest -- lurking at the core of its content, albeit refracted through a different prism of strategic irony.
Punk had already seen to it that loud, distorted guitars were a primary staple of my musical diet during adolescence, But loud, distorted electronics -- that was another matter, and still very much a novelty/anomaly at the time.1 And of course, with TG and Cabaret Voltaire's abuse and misuse of cheap technology, the first-gen of industrial music earned itself a distinction of being the e-music equivalent of punk. What, after all, was the Cabaret Voltaire's "Nag Nag Nag" but a slightly retooled cover of "Pushin' Too Hard"?
Writing about a collection of Cabaret Voltiare's early home recordings some years ago, Reynolds offered that the early music of the Cabs and their first-wave industrial associates like Throbbing Gristle represented a non-nostalgic continuation of psychedelia's experiments in sonic manipulation, an aesthetic that that aimed "to blow minds through multimedia sensory overload" and adhered to a leave-no-sound-unaltered process that "adulterated rock's 'naturalistic' recording conventions with FX, tape splices, and dirty electronic noise." Listening to the contents of the first two discs of the set in question, the listener is inundated with dense washes of heavily-treated guitar, surges of shortwave radio noise, a pastiche of excepts from news and entertainment broadcasts, occasional chromatic smears of clarinet or soprano sax, and sporadic hints of a rhythmic pulse. While the Cabs were reputedly inspired to start making music in the first place by a mutual love for Roxy Music, from the sound of it their inspirational sources instead fell more squarely in the camp of Stockhausen, krautrock, musique concrete, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H. Kirk, writing in the liner notes for Methodology'74/'78: Attic Tapes, recalling the group's early days...
"I remember the 70s as a time of austerity, a crackdown after the so-called liberal times of the 60s. Racism, repressive policing, hijackings, Baadher-Meinhof, the Angry Brigade, Operation Julie, cheap sulphate, boredom, industrial unrest, but a feeling that something was on the boil within an alienated and disaffected 'youth culture'. I suppose we took our cue (and also our name) from the Dada movement and maybe in retrospect from the Situationist movement. ...Trying to be a thorn in the side of Authority. From run-of-the-mill war-obsessed jobsworths, constables, in fact anybody who wore a badge, to politicians. All considered fair game for baiting and satirisation. In some ways though it was just an innocent reflection of the times, not different than the Beach Boys singing about surfing and the good times in California. But there was no surf to ride in Sheffield, just post-war desolation, unemployment and ugly urban landscapes."
Like Throbbing Gristle, the Cabs predated punk. Originally coming together in 1973, the trio of Stephen Mallinder, Richard H. Kirk, and Chris Watson didn't harbor any big aspirations of being a commercially viable act. For the first several years of their existence, they operated as little more than non-performing, off-hours jam unit -- noisily experimenting with various instruments, electronics, effects units and tape collages in Watson's attic space. When punk arrived on the scene a few years later, the three decided that perhaps the environment was right to try and make something out of their efforts. By nudging their material towards a slightly more structured form, they decided to give it a whirl as a proper "band," and found themselves picked as one of the Rough Trade label's flagship acts shortly thereafter.
Perhaps it was best that TG had declared "mission terminated" and ceased operations when they did, because one can't help but wonder how long their program of willful primitivism and quasi-Luddistic would've remained relevant as the 1980s -- with all its po-mo flashiness and more nuanced sense of irony -- set in. By 1981, the members of Cabaret Voltaire were reputedly facing a similar creative impasse -- feeling that their own formula might've fully run its course. Chris Watson would leave the group in 1981 to immerse himself in more abstract aural experimentation as a member of the Hafler Trio, after which point the Cabs' sound took a swerve -- becoming slightly more "clean" and spacious, and much more firmly wound around a percussive "groove." Admittedly, there had long been sporadic funk underpinnings to their material, but it was at this point that they drifted more squarely into the domain of the cross-pollination between British post-punk and the NYC dance scene. They were some approached by New York dance producer John Robie, who wanted to do a remix of their track "Yashar." Upon hearing the results of Robie's reworking of the track, Mallinder and Kirk decided they'd found the direction they wanted to steer their music.
It was at this time that I first heard the Cabs, "Yashar" having been the first record of theirs that I have able to get ahold of -- my introduction coming as they were on the cusp of what would arguably become (for better or for worse) the most "influential" phase of their career. Shortly thereafter, I caught the video clip for "The Crackdown" during a late-night airing of The Some Bizarre Show...
Damn, if it wasn't as if Michel Foucault had cut a dystopic dance record for Tommy Boy records. Likewise with much of what followed, with all the signature "urban" soundmarks of electrofunk & hip-hop -- digital claptrap, sequencers, beatboxes doling out a punishing 808 punch, sampling -- compressed into a streamlined, state-of-the-art production. And as far as club music went, the dancefloor might as well have been lit by the searchbeam of a police helicopter; what with all the music's dark and paranoid invocations of surveillance, coercion, moral panics, manufactured and desublimated desires, police state machinations and various methods of social control.
The material that the Cabs released during the "Virgin years" phase of their career prompted a number of critics and listeners to hail them as one of the edgiest, innovative acts of the day.2 But one era's innovators are quickly rendered obsolete by the next turn of events, and by the late 1980s former "cutting edge" artists like Cabaret Voltaire or New Order were quickly left behind with the arrival of Acid House and rave culture. With the change in the music came an zeitgeist-defining attitudinal shift. "All of a sudden these people were nice and passive," Richard H. Kirk would remark in an interview a little over a decade later, "They weren't going out and smashing windows and protesting about things anymore. They just wanted to party, and things have been going downhill ever since."
That's one side of the story, anyway; because that was only one part of the late '80s musicscape, and zeitgeists are usually too multifaceted to be reduced to a single essentializing either/or. As far as industrial's first wave was concerned, by mid-decade much of it had driven itself into a narrow trough of cliches -- much of it involving "neo-tribal" return-of-the-primitive schtickery, heavy-handed martial rhythms and half-baked ironic flirtation with fascist imagery, and/or the numbing Teutonic brutalisms of "power electronics." Shortly on their heels came the second-gen of industrial artists; almost the entirety of whom took the sound of the Cabs' "Virgin years" material as their primary boilerplate, albeit augmented with the anti-funky rhythmic rigidity of EBM, and often retooled with a few rock-friendly mannerisms borrowed from Killing Joke.
At the time, a lot of the Cabs' Virgin material sounded -- if you'll pardon the expression -- dope as fuck. And yeah, there was the matter of its influenciality in the years that followed. But doubling back to revisit some bygone favorites like Drinking Gasoline and The Covenant, The Sword and the Arm of the Lord some five years ago, I found myself unsure about how well most of it had aged. I guess that's an inherent problem of being on the experimental "cutting edge" of a particular age, is that it ultimately and invariably invokes – in some way or another – some sensibility of that age that simply won't translate into later times, or what just ends up sounding a but peculiar or quaint or clichéd in some respect or another.
As far as such stuff goes, the enigmatic usually fosters a stronger legacy. If there's any portion of the Cabs' output that I feel has held up best over the years, it's that stretch leading up to immediately following Chris Watson's exit from the group -- the point about which they decided they'd reached a terminus -- had taken their sound "as far as it could go." It's here that you hear them starting to rein it some of the clutter, taking gradual steps towards a tighter and more austere sound. Somewhere in those years around 1980-1982 – spread across the releases Johnny Yesno, Eight Crepescule Tracks, Three Matras, Red Mecca,2x45 and various singles and EPs -- a different sonic atmosphere coalesces, a different sense of space enters the music.
Yet that being the case, the music of this period still exudes the same impression of claustrophobia and paranoia. An array of voices sporadically drifting in and out of the mix -- newscasts and acontextual fragments of information randomly seeping in from the outside world. The voices bleeding through the walls, as it were, via modern methods of communication -- the transmitted chatter of the various social and political institutions, and the intimations of ideologies underlying their rhetoric. Reports of geopolitical shifts taking place in the world at large, sundry assertions and realignments of power that accompany shadowy Cold War maneuvers and post-colonial sovereignty. It's on this latter count that the pre-Muslimgauze orientalist excursions like "Eastern Mantra" and "Yashar" factor in, a pair of tunes that the group claimed were each inspired by "the clash of cultures" arising from events in the Middle East -- particularly those following in the wake of the Iranian revolution. In a way, the music often evokes a different sort of claustrophobia, one related to the matter of empire that Nic Rombes mentioned in the bit I cited earlier. That being the political claustrophobia of a shrunken, former empire; one that had earlier in the century had a major hand in carving up other former empires, now reducing to accepting certain events and developments as being beyond the sphere of its influence.3
But returning to the matter of context, about how one hears or processes something at a certain time, I have a few more thoughts. So, more about all that in the third and last post on the topic.
1. One could argue that there'd already been the likes of Suicide and Chrome by that point, which indeed there had been. But such stuff was mostly "esoteric knowledge" at the time; completely dwarfed by more standard stylized "electronic" music by the likes of Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre, Mannheim Steamroller, as well as Kraftwerk and the emergent synth-pop set.
2. If anything, this move solved a number of musical problems that plagued the Cabs throughout their Rough Trade tenure -- their utter inability (or simple disinterest) in incorporating anything that might vaguely resemble a melody or hook, and their tendency to let songs sometimes stretch well beyond the point of tedium.
3. There's also the way in which music reflected the social climate of the U.K. at the time, of what was transpiring in the streets. I recall one of the British music mags weighing in with a review of Red Mecca at the time of its release, describing it epitomizing an attitude of "not so much 'dance don't riot,' but riot-as-dance."