After the metal machine clang of Second Annual Report, and the dissolute extremities of D.O.A., Throbbing Gristle presented the world with their third and final album 20 Jazz Funk Greats. It is a nearly perfect perversion of everything they had come to stand for. From the smiling faces on the cover, to the deceptively “accessible” songs inside, the record proved that the only constant for T.G. was change. At the time, even the few people who considered themselves fans hated it. Of course now, 20 Jazz Funk Greats is hailed as a masterpiece. ‘Twas ever thus.
The signs that something is different in T.G.-land are there immediately. Just look at the cover. First of all, who the hell are those four nattily-dressed people smiling back at the camera? And what are they doing looking so happy at a post-card perfect spot on the cliffs? And what is that they arrived in, a Range Rover? Wealthy little buggers too! A little investigation reveals some interesting details however. The site they chose for the cover is called Beachy Head, a favored spot in England for suicides. In fact, in the alternate cover printed inside of the CD reissue, we find the four (still smiling) members of T.G. standing around a dead body that sunny afternoon.
But they wisely chose to go with an image of simple, effortless affluence – which must have pissed off their camo-clad followers to no end. The conceptual idea of going from extremely avant-garde music, to radio-friendly pop in one fell swoop is a great one. But it wasn’t something T.G. could ever fully embrace I guess. They just couldn’t help themselves, and 20 Jazz Funk Greats wound up with the most varied music of their short, fascinating career.
The K-Tel Records-inspired title track opens things up, and it is as unexpectedly alien to the usual T.G. sound as one could imagine. Actually, a precedent was set back in 1977 with their non-LP single “United,” but they had released nothing as commercial as that song since. “20 Jazz Funk Greats” is not a tune that one would expect to hear on the radio, except maybe in an alternate universe of mutant disco-oids. The primitive drum machine and effects coupled with the repeated moans of “Tonight,” and “Yes,” add up to a Throbbing Gristle night at Studio 54–and it is as weird as one could ever hope it to be.
Having established their “urban-contemporary” bona-fides, TG head back to more familiar territory with “Beachy Head.” Both Genesis P-Orridge and Chris Carter have spoken of transcendent experiences at early Pink Floyd shows, so it is not surprising that elements of their music appear throughout TG’s oeuvre. “I Hate” T-shirts or not, there was some serious weirdness in that band, even after Syd Barrett left.
The (possibly apocryphal) story of T.G. emerging from their studio into the bleak industrial wasteland of London‘s Hackney borough, realizing that they had not recorded anything new, only imitating the sounds around them is a perfect description of what “industrial” music originally meant. I can think of no better example of the sound of machinery than the opening segment of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome To The Machine.” Roger Waters’ “Pity the poor rock star” lyrics deserved punk scorn, but the glorious noise of that factory equipment was superb.
With “Beachy Head,” T.G. create a sound-sculpture of machinery to evoke a strangely serene din. There is calm at the eye of the storm, and the sampled–or the 1979 equivalent of samples–seagulls are perfect.
There are three major components to this album. The (somewhat tentative) excursions into a more beat-driven direction such as the title track, “Still Walking,” and the hilarious “Hot On The Heels Of Love” are one. Then there are the experimental, though not necessarily off-putting cuts such as “Beachy Head,” “Tanith,” and “What A Day.” The third is the wild-eyed and clearly insane Genesis P-Orridge, and where he was headed.