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.
After Cosey Fanni Tutti (the lone female member of T.G.) left him for fellow T.G.’er Carter during the recording of D.O.A., P-Orridge attempted suicide – onstage no less, via overdose. Beyond anything else, the real question about T.G. should be about how in the hell did these people manage to continue as a band through such wrenching personal drama?
P-Orridge had always been fascinated with mind control, especially that of cult leaders such as Charles Manson and Jim Jones. But his songwriting reflected this in earnest on two of this album’s most disconcerting cuts, “Persuasion” and “Convincing People.” This is meant-to-be ugly music, and his painful vocals certainly do nothing to convince one to drink the Kool-Aid. They do however point the way to the inevitable dissolution of the band, and to his next project, Psychic TV.
There is a very interesting detour mid-way through the album titled “Exotica.” In some ways this song explains just how deep the influence of T.G. upon the culture at large has been. “Exotica” is an explicit tribute to the then completely forgotten musician Martin Denny. His series of “space-age bachelor pad” albums such as Quiet Village, Forbidden Island, and the Exotica series were all the rage in the late fifties and early sixties.
RE/Search would publish a book celebrating Denny, and his many contemporaries titled Incredibly Strange Music in 1993. It would lead directly to the scouring of Goodwills across the nation for such discarded albums, for one thing. But the strangest of all was the huge late-nineties swing revival all of this inspired. I bring this up not to credit/blame T.G. for such monstrosities as Lou Bega’s “Mambo #9,” but to show how these subterranean artist’s quirks can manifest themselves much later in the mainstream, and nobody even knows where it really even originated.
20 Jazz Funk Greats signs off with “Six Six Sixties,” and it is a wonder. Like standing in the face of a jet’s exhaust, this short track is the closest the foursome came to sounding like a rock band, albeit a powered-up psychedelic garage group of the Blue Cheer stripe. The future would see zillions of live T.G. performances released, for it seems they recorded every single show, but 20 Jazz Funk Greats would be their last studio album proper. It was a fittingly convoluted farewell from a group who will never be duplicated.
As mentioned, P-Orridge formed Psychic TV after T.G. Carter and Tutti began recording as Chris And Cosey, and are still together today. The fourth member of T.G. was the late Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson. Christopherson was a co-founder of Psychic TV, but he left in 1982 to form Coil with John Balance. It is to the memory of Christopherson that the remastered two-CD editions of the original Industrial Records T.G. albums are dedicated.
The second disc of 20 Jazz Funk Greats contains live material recorded in 1979, along with the non-LP 12” single “Discipline.” In contrast to the other reissues, most of the live tracks here appear to have come from one source – a gig at The Factory in Manchester. The group have also moved on a bit from their previous, almost purely improvisational approach. From this album, recognizable live versions of “Convincing People” and “What A Day” are included. They also tackle “Five Knuckle Shuffle,” which was the non-LP single released between D.O.A. and 20 Jazz Funk Greats.
With just three studio albums to their name, Throbbing Gristle managed to defy convention at every turn. Befitting a group with such an unorthodox approach, the records will never sound dated aside from the primitive electronics perhaps. But what they had to say was timeless. It was simple really, but powerful–an artist stays true to themselves, no matter what.