The death of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge from leukemia in March of 2020 prompted painful mixed emotions, a surge of loss and a counter surge of shame. Ambivalence is a given here. Gen’s lifelong experiments in sound and music, performance and sociality—including the breaking open of the couple form in his pandrogynous fusion with Lady Jaye: this legacy is worthy of analysis and reflection, as it blazed a trail for radical gender expression and musical experimentation that is a key reference point for an expanding cohort of younger artists and nonconformists. But Gen is not someone who can be uncritically celebrated. The power of what Gen made and inspired others to make is compelling. But power can be abused, and, in the wake of his former life partner and bandmate Cosey Fanni Tutti’s memoir, there is simply no way to honor and reflect upon Gen’s positives without also reckoning with the substantial negatives. The harm and personal damage that Cosey brings to light permanently complicates an already tricky proposition, even as the insight into the frustrating and bitter interpersonal band dynamics of Throbbing Gristle’s long and contentious revival further the intricacy of assessing who they were. No discussion of TG and their legacy can take place outside of that reckoning, but it doesn’t exhaust the meaning of what they achieved.
My title grabs the groanworthy, low-hanging fruit of an obvious pun: what would it mean to examine Throbbing Gristle in 2020, but also, what would we have to focus on in order to see Throbbing Gristle with “20/20”? In evoking 20/20 vision, I take a certain whimsical pretext from the phrase “Assume Power Focus,” an evocative mini slogan that was carved into the runout groove of a TG record. But, it must be said that the possibility of “20/20” critical vision, as a focus upon the object that reveals its precise status, seems doomed from the start in this instance. Shadowy, dingy, often lo-fidelity, encrusted with homages like this one, watered down by appropriations, and receding into the past. Can we look back and know with all that much security what some recordings and performances and surrounding subcultures from the late ’70s and early ’80s meant in their moment, let alone amount to now? Situating TG historically and aesthetically asks us to examine both the poetics of power within the work and the critical and reception history that will let us assess what power that work might generate, inspire, or offer today. Something like the radioactive decay of an isotope is thus traced by the rate at which a radical gesture continues to give off energy and the point at which it starts to flicker and die.
I don’t have the space to do all of that, so what follows are remarks that move from a consideration of TG to a consideration of genre, trying out the possibility that we reconsider industrial music as a specifically 20th-century—and potentially 21st-century—form of “folk music.” Insofar as generic labels do not name “natural kinds” but baggy categories that are subject to drift and evolution, such a suggestion might not seem necessarily implausible, but it begs the question of what it would mean to re-describe industrial music in such terms. Where does industrial music end and folk begin? I am hoping in pursuing this line of thinking—
admittedly provisional—to flag something about scale, accessibility, and community. Not to force a beloved, but decidedly past, object to fit a sociological hope about the present, but simply to indicate the unfinished business of genre, and ways that connecting generic territory might allow us to sift the past in order to find common cause.
Typically, folk is understood in diachronic terms as a historical tradition. It is about the endurance of forms that are passed across generations through oral transmission and first-hand instruction, and it assumes that a key source of the form’s vitality and power is a certain layered relationship to ancestrality. Folk reaches back across time. And, in listening to folk we hear the implied bardic and folkloric ancestors whose instruction reach from the past towards us through the medium of the performer into the present. Thus, as we listen to Shirley Collins we might imagine that we don’t only hear Shirley’s voice and her decisions as an artist in the present time, but that we might listen several generations backwards to the Suffolk Downs region and the singers who taught the singers who taught her as she did research with Alan Lomax in the rural American South.
But what would it mean if we took a synchronic slice across “folk” and tried to rethink what “folk” names without this presumption of pastness? With regards to Throbbing Gristle’s approach, “folk” names an autodidact practice of working class music-making, a social music that emerges in domestic settings, home-recording, performances in pubs and clubs and taverns, performances for and with friends, autonomy or independence from formalized training and conservatory expertise, the absence of pretentions to high culture, and the presence of a hands-on approach by self-taught musicians who sometimes design and build their own instruments. That might sound like a big stretch. Given their presentations in art galleries and at venues like the ICA, the allegation of “the absence of pretention” might seem, to some, like a non-starter.
Let’s stick with this supposition for a moment. Making instruments, making up songs from snatches of overheard remarks in the public markets, making up culture and circulating it back to one’s friends: that, too, is “folk music.” With regards to class dynamics and the politics of self-presentation, Throbbing Gristle’s name, famously glossed by the band as “Yorkshire slang for an erection,” is rooted in the lexicon of the North rather than the media and power center of London. Cosey’s memoirs of working in a factory establish a certain power analysis that runs like a thread throughout the group’s works, as a small “a” anarchist refusal of both Labour party establishment and Tory backlash.
To call your music “industrial” in the late ’70s was to index the surrounding climate of “industrial actions” (the dominant term in the UK for strikes). The Throbbing Gristle song “What a Day” was born when Gen heard old ladies in a market complaining to each other about everyday boredom and suffering; the result is a chant, a repetitive insistence upon the drabness of survival that finds a weird and portable energy from working class complaint. To me, its process of composition models the transpersonal and communal nature of folk music. It is artful in the choices that frame it, and it is typical of TG in its ability to mingle sympathy with critique, humor with hostility. But what makes it count as folk music, for me, is its directness. Anyone can hear and sing this song. Anyone could cover this song.
Take another TG song, “Very Friendly” in which Gen narrates the grisly slaying of Edward Evans by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley over a chugging bassline and seasick synth stabs. A long “true crime” relay of circumstances and contingencies leading to violent death, it begins with “it was just an ordinary day in Manchester, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, drinking German wine . . .” and rattles on across a long-limbed narrative. Attuned to power and detail, it takes its time as it pauses the story occasionally for a chorus and then resumes its fatal forward march. “Very Friendly” is, in essence, a distorted industrial update of a familiar folk form: the murder ballad. Ian Brady is Reynardine in blue suede shoes: the smooth-talking dissembler who seduces and kills, and the ten-
minute long trawl across tragedy serves up a cautionary sermon on the risks of putting one’s self in circulation, the high stakes of getting picked up. The body-count is lower than “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” but the implied contract with the listener is morally equivalent: gather around the campfire of the stereo and listen to a sad tale of death and suffering.
It is also possible to pose the “industrial + folk = ?” question and come up with an additive response: when people move from projects that texturally sound like “industrial” to projects that already sound like the pre-established parameters of “folk,” the results vary, to put it mildly. The worst-case scenario is a bad reification of racialized kitsch that “folk” conjures up and reinforces: white people with acoustic instruments dreaming of a rural utopian volkisch ethnostate. Industrial music’s cross-over into “folk” has birthed powerfully inspired work in the example of the Blakean, incantatory heights of Current 93, but it has unfortunately also generated a great deal of works that are both formally conservative at the level of their arrangement and execution and crypto-fascist and racist in their veiled, or not-so-veiled, ideological bearings. Too often, “industrial folk” means: acoustic guitars scything through a few chords as pompous white male edgelords invoke the ancient wisdom of the forests or slink suggestively around ecofascist dreams of extinction, cloaking nostalgia for the Third Reich behind a thin scrim of Viking metaphors or misanthropic/cosmic pessimist generality (offenders include: Death In June, Sol Invictus, Blood Axis). Some of these people used to like and collaborate with each other, but time has a way of winnowing the racist chaff from the grain.
A curious index of the circulation of industrial as folk might be indicated by the flowering of Christian noise music projects on the far fringes of the American DIY underground. Two examples that come to mind are Klang Quartet and Amps for Christ. Though formally not similar in how they sound, these projects might be a case in point of the elastic capacity of a social milieu to be repurposed towards ideological ends, (ends that TG never envisaged).
Klang Quartet is the project of Joseph “Scotty” Irving III and involves a striking combination of Christian allegory and harsh noise. In performance, a “noise cross” is elevated and a kind of
mystery-play presentation of Christian homily is enacted. The drama of sin, temptation, and redemption is signaled through the attachment of allegorically labeled objects to the cross, with noise standing in sonically for the suffering of Christ during the Passion and crucifixion. Sincere in its presentation and frequently baffling to its audiences, Klang Quartet constitutes a genuinely jarring live experience of what a genre can hold.
By contrast, Amps for Christ are formally more promiscuous, if equally disorienting by way of the bandwidth of their textural range. In recordings that swing between bacon-frying harsh noise and more or less straight interpretations of “Love Is Teasing,” “Sweet William and Lady Margaret,” and “Scotland the Brave,” Amps for Christ’s recorded catalogue cross-multiplies acoustic guitar music and earsplitting circuit-bent electronics (examine their split record with Bastard Noise for evidence of both).
These projects do not sound like each other: Klang Quartet is unabashedly power electronics, while Amps for Christ in their most conventional form simply sound like countless other psychedelic folk projects. But in each case, they contain some of the same characteristics we used to name Throbbing Gristle as “folk”: we have self-taught musicians, building instruments, self-releasing recordings, and performing in small, intimate settings. Tunings, forms, and overall effect are idiolects that show the influence of previous models but also a certain doggedly independent frame of reference. I am not claiming that Klang Quartet and Amps for Christ acknowledge TG’s precedent for what they do, but rather, suggesting that these projects offer some striking examples of what the melting point of “industrial” and “folk” as categories might stretch to include. To see the points at which industrial and folk might touch, we have to move across the explanatory terrain that each term indicates and search for their rough edges. And, as geographer and prison abolitionist Ruth Gilmore reminds us: “Edges are interfaces.”