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Music Review: Throbbing Gristle – Heathen Earth

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There have been literally hundreds of groups and solo artists over the years who have been described as having a “cult following” such as Captain Beefheart, Nick Drake, Eric Dolphy, The Incredible String Band, The Residents…the list could go on forever. I even remember reading a serious piece about Pink Floyd around the time of the Wish You Were Here album, calling them the biggest cult band in the world. But I do not think anyone holds a candle to Throbbing Gristle in this department. From the moment Genesis P-Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, and Chris Carter got together, Throbbing Gristle was as exclusive a concern as ever existed.

This obsessiveness is exemplified by the arguments over their recorded legacy. Most of us consider the three albums released by them on their own Industrial Records label to be their main body of work. These were The Second Annual Report of Throbbing Gristle (1977), D.O.A.: The Third And Final Report (1978), and Throbbing Gristle Bring You 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979). Some claim that the 50 copy run of the cassette-only, ironically titled The Best Of Throbbing Gristle Volume 2 is the group‘s true first album, as it was technically an Industrial Records release. Then there is the case of The Best Of Throbbing Gristle Volume 1, limited to 12 cassettes, and not credited to any record label at all. One thing is certain: the idea of exclusivity was there from the very beginning.

In the case of 1980’s Heathen Earth, the only question is whether it should be considered their fourth studio album, or one of their many live albums. It was recorded live in the studio in front of a group of invited guests, followed by some “minimal re-recording,” according to the liner notes. So it is both, really. I guess in the end the distinction is unimportant, although it does give the cult something to argue about.

What is important is the music and just how well this group played together after three short years. Those who are familiar with T.G. should recognize the line “three short years” as an intended joke. The amount of turmoil, both personal and professional, that this band were going through was unbelievable. Those three years for them were probably more like three decades. P-Orridge’s attempted on-stage suicide is just one example of the insanity that life in T.G. was all about.

But I digress. T.G.’s lives and music were so deeply intertwined that it is nearly impossible to separate the two. For all that was going on around them, the tracks they laid down that Saturday evening in February 1980 were incredible. The difference between this material, and what was released on Second Annual Report is hard to believe.

The set opens with a trippy instrumental titled “Cornet.” It works as a perfect introduction, with long spacey lines sharpened with a cleanly metallic sheen. “The Old Man Smiled” is much more traditionally structured with an actual riff, and P-Orridge’s always disconcerting voice relays an unrelentingly dark tale.

The haunting, vaguely disconnected yet perfectly controlled musical atmosphere continues to anchor P-Orridge’s vocals during “Improvisation.” For me, this is the track that conclusively proves just how good the band had become. For T.G., improvisation had previously meant nothing but pure noise. With “Improvisation” they display an ability to control the freedom such playing demands, and actually take the tune somewhere.

“Something Came Over Me” shows their appreciation for the mechanized beats of Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk. This is a side of T.G. that has always existed, but had been kept in the closet for the most part. The first flowering was the single “United,” but they really got into it on 20 Jazz Funk Greats with “Hot On The Heels Of Love.”

There is a marvelous diversity to this set. We go from the tape-delay spoken word bit “Still Talking” to the 1:38 of fascinating feedback titled “Bass,” to the straight-up electro boogie encounter of “Don’t Do As You’re Told, Do As You Think.” I guess you could call this last one P-Orridge’s manifesto–kind of his take on Aleister Crowley’s “Do what thou will shall be the whole of the law.” The disc ends with a hypnotist’s wake-up command:“You may open your eyes now, you are feeling very good.“

Feeling very good, indeed. In fact, Heathen Earth is the most coherent album Throbbing Gristle ever made. Whether it is their “best” or not is up to the listener. I prefer 20 Jazz Funk Greats, while others swear by Second Annual Report or D.O.A. The one overriding prerogative for Throbbing Gristle was their commitment to never repeat themselves.

Although T.G. were initially considered part of the punk crowd, that was never actually the case. In fact, P-Orridge often referred to himself as “an old hippie.” They did believe in the D.I.Y. ethic however, and started the Industrial Records label to release their albums. When the label became too successful for them to easily deal with, it was shut down. The music was licensed out to Mute Records for distribution.

The arrangement worked for many years, but the members of T.G. recently decided to reactivate Industrial, and re-release the original Throbbing Gristle albums in deluxe two-disc packages. All of the original artwork and liner notes have been preserved, plus some rare pictures from the collection of Cosey Fanni Tutti.

The bonus discs feature live material and non-LP tracks from the year each record was released. For the second Heathen Earth CD, there are a total of eleven tracks, nine of which were recorded live in 1980. It is especially illuminating to listen to these live cuts next to those that comprise Heathen Earth. For one thing, the difference in sound quality is pretty noticeable. But it is the energy that really strikes me. The vibe is menacing, as if the crowd are just a tick away from tearing the band apart. And the music just seems to turn the dial up notch by notch. There is an undeniable thrill in the tactile danger that comes through, but “fun” is definitely not a word I would use to describe it.

Rounding out the bonus CD are two non-LP singles released in 1980, “Subhuman,” and “Adrenalin.” The songs could not be more dissimilar. According to Simon Ford’s detailed account in his book Wreckers Of Civilization, “Subhuman” is P-Orridge’s evocation of the drug-dealing low-lifes who had taken up residence in the vacant lot behind T.G’s studio in the hardscrabble London borough of Hackney. It is a viscerally angry, ugly rant.

“Adrenalin” is something else entirely, and offers an intriguing “might have been” for a future T.G. After the release of Heathen Earth, Carter and Tutti formed Chris And Cosey. The music they have recorded over the past 30 years has been wide ranging, but what I have often noticed is a much “calmer” sensibility to much of it. P-Orridge and Sleazy formed Psychic TV, although Christopherson left to form the influential Coil early on. What “Adrenalin” suggests to me is just how would these late-seventies anarchists have fared (had they stayed together) in the “Greed is good” eighties?

They probably would have been as marginalized together as they were individually. Or maybe they would have scored a hit with something like “Throbbing Gristle Goes To Hollywood.” By 1989 and the success of Nine Inch Nails and some of the Wax Trax bands, they may have even been recognized as pioneers of industrial music. Who knows, maybe the opening slot on a Ministry tour may have come up.

Or maybe they could have jumped on the house music bandwagon. Oh wait, P-Orridge did that with “Towards Thee Infinite Beat.“ Another possibility could have been Throbbing Gristle holding court for 50 people on the second stage at Lollapalooza, while the rest of the crowd rushed the main stage for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

No, they broke up just in time. While I still think Psychic TV’s 1982 album Force The Hand Of Chance is in many ways a continuation of the best that T.G. had to offer,P-Orridge Genesis ultimately believed his own hype. He made the fatal mistake of thinking that the rest of us gave a shit. Carter, Tutti, and Christopherson did not – and because of that, the legacy of Throbbing Gristle has never been sullied. Yes, Gristle-Heads, I know that activity has occurred with the group since 1980, but that isn‘t the point.

What the rest of us consider the true legacy of T.G. ended with Heathen Earth, and it is a fantastic record, made even better by the loving care that was taken in this reissue. And the dignity of the group has never been better expressed than by their decision to dedicate this, and all four of the other T.G. reissues to the memory of the departed Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson.

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