9/07/2004

"THE TAPE DECAYS" by Jon Savage, 1981 (article on Throbbing Gristle)

"...Cut-up incantations. Click. Machines hum. Silence clears. Slowly, the tape recorders start to spin: the vortex is set in motion. IBM computer tape: deprogram. Bass throb, guitar alert. Vocal incantations. The vortex, ever slowly, whirl faster; faster, faster. I awake from my dream and lazily concentrate on a group near the front of the audience. From my dream I see agitation, hatred, violence. The machines spin: the dream continues. In the past, it has encompassed boredom, fear, excitement: tonight it continues, incantations, even stronger than before, a perfect soundtrack.
I awake again. The group are scratching themselves, are rousing. Flexing their muscles. Their intent is focusing as the sound changes to a heartbeat. As they focus, so do I. I notice more things. Like whom they are, like how drunk they are. I start to sense trouble. The people on stage sing about limits, about horror, about extreme pain. The vortex winds up. Their power begins to infect the group near the front: the deprogramming takes effect. The vortex twists: the group takes shape as three/four women. They start to mutter: nothing yet coherent yet anger, disgust. I am now fully awake, being slowly drawn as the vortex extends.
They start to shout now. The noise takes shape uglier, as the vortex takes hold of the people on stage. Somewhere about this time, the vortex locks - I don't know when. Held on course, all events are now inevitable. Two of the women move towards the stage: I see that they are aggressive in their femininity, carefully disordered in their demeanor - contrasting with the control rigid on the people on the stage. Demons are waiting to be let out: the box is being pried open. The first move: the Security Guard - a callow youth - tries to usher the girls aside. This is the chance: he is surrounded, jostled. His youth, once stolid, now seems frail: the women confuse, and taunt him. Suddenly the people on the stage, their obsessive aura, become very fragile: their spell falters.
The vortex spins to suck me in: I place my body between the women and boy. Somehow, they back off. The vortex recoups. I hope that it's over. The people on the stage shriek. The women start to shout again, redoubled. Things now happen quickly: the vortex whirls in a dervish dance. The man at the front of the stage looks at the women: he throws their aggression back in their face. Purple, he fixes them with his eyes. His fist bangs his head with terrible force, in time. Whack, whack. Although the violence is self-directed; the message is clear. The women are past noticing. One of them finishes the whiskey bottle, hurls it at the stage. One of the performers' moves -- leaps instantly off the stage, floors one of the women. The vortex exults.
The noise screws up into a ball, a whorl of sound: the woman parody a tribal dance in their anger. Their naturalism masks hate, the same as the people on stage mask their explorations with terror. There is no sync. Guitars tear, voices scream. One of the women walks with childlike wonder to the very front of the stage and looks down. She picks up a bunch of wires, delicately, as though they were flowers. She looks at them. Time stops. The vortex is at its center. Careful modernity, art appreciation is stripped away -- animalism takes over. Chaotic, dangerous, real. A man screams 'You fucking wanker!' with incredible violence, to nobody in particular; a chair flies through the air, followed by shrieks, behind me. I want my dream I can't have it, feel like crying, stomach constricted. The rest dissolves into flotsam as the vortex fades, its' spell bound: hospitals, useless arguments, recriminations. A sleepless night....
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July 6th, 1978:
Three and a half years later, another era, I play a tape of the concert. There is no record of the anger, the violence, the hate. Directly, that is. Perhaps you can hear the vortex in the noise. Perhaps it never happened. When the tape decays, it never will have. Memories lie. The fragile set of circumstances and people that caused the events at the London Film Makers' Co-op have now gone. A few hours later, you could go over the same spot and not know that anything had happened. I know that it happened, but then it could have been my own mounting madness -- a month later, I was quite ill.

Certainly, that time was the last that I saw Throbbing Gristle receive a reaction that was in any way hostile. Sure, to admit to liking them was still a passport to an instant, vicious argument in most circles, but during the months that followed, Throbbing Gristle started to receive a reaction which was almost worse: acceptance, worship even. As soon as that happened, they were bound to stop. It was always one paradox close to TG that although they toyed openly with the pop process and pop language - with "United" in particular - they wouldn't, nor couldn't ever have had pop success or any fan mania. Instinct and deliberation kept them carefully confined by most on the lunatic fringe. A reference point, and a shudder.

Now that the dust has settled, I think of TG in terms of a laboratory. In this laboratory many matters were poured over, researched, put into practice, and lived out: that last is quite important. The laboratory, as all research institutes, needed funding: for various reasons support from institutional sources were not forthcoming, so it was back to free enterprise - of which, as any honest person will tell you - the music industry is the final bastion.

In theory, it's quite simple: you announce that you are 'in the music industry' by placing yourself there or at least near enough. This means playing 'gigs', making the right connections with the pop press and various people, and finally - for these are the rules of this game - release a product. It is thus a grave mistake to consider TG in terms of their records alone (although "Second Annual Report" and "Heathen Earth" will do quite nicely, thank you) because they are, at the most basic level, functional -- for they are the passport to this particular arena - Pop music - which, for a brief time (1976-80) really mattered. It doesn't now of course, so please don't believe those who tell you it does, for they are serving their own (and others) vested interests.

Like the Sex Pistols, TG understood this -- although occasionally, like many others, they allowed their immersion in the medium to blind themselves to this fact-as-occupational-hazard. However, the noise, while important, was ancillary. I see Throbbing Gristle as being very absolute seekers after a particular truth and set of truths. Truths about the limits of human behavior that we are encouraged to ignore - love, despair, coercion, bestiality, repose, intense sexuality, frustration and incredible violence.

Ever present was that ultimate and final truth that is now perhaps the biggest taboo and which most of us rush headlong to deny with whatever lies to hand. DEATH. Ever present was the suggestion that there are people in the upper echelons of power society who are aware that unquestioning acceptance of this social and behavioral confusion by the majority preserved their privileges, and that these people use the mass media and consumerism to perpetuate this situation.


I've spent the last years of my life working in commercial media. That is, information packaged for consumption in order to make money for large organizations. (TG often declared they were involved in an information war.) Most of what you read and hear is produced in accordance with these "package- consume- money" conditions as we are encouraged to live not our own but others lives. This is not an entirely irrevocable fact of life in our present state.

From my work I now understand that mainstream media seeks to ignore any Truths as much as it can. This force, with such power over our lives, actually prevents us from realizing certain root facts -- we all die, and virtually everything presented to us on this material plans is one long trivial diversion and denial of that fact. There is, of course, considerable pleasure in trivia, in consumption - otherwise it wouldn't work - but it is important to realize that our life is temporary and that the way we live is a temporary state - brought on by various economic and social forces - and that, contrary to the propaganda, we needn't and won't live this way much longer. This realization is at once terrifying and liberating.

Although I will dash down to Virgin Records with the best of them (so good on Saturdays with the knifings outside), I tend to prefer noise that has some recognition and exploration of this fact: Utopia and Dystopia. I hear it in the Sex Pistols, in the Velvet Underground, in NON, in Joy Division, and in various pieces of classical music to name a few, in the same way that I hear the pleasure and ultimate futility of consumption delineated by Roxy Music. I hear it too, in Throbbing Gristle.

Our society works by pretending that ours is the only age; the past, the future do not exist except in terms of the present: the best work is that which doesn't remind you, but puts you into other, future, past, alternative present ways of thinking and being. Mind you, I wouldn't pretend to have always ever agreed with TG, individually and together: nor would I pretend that I play all their records all the way through all the time. Such would require more time than I am prepared to give to plastic, or even the seductive qualities of chrome tape, these days. Such would also pre-suppose a harmony with the product that I don't always feel. Apart from those two, perfect dream machine records that bookend TG's pre-post-humous work, the albums suffer from that intensity that makes the individual tracks so valuable as a whole.

While as game and as manic as the next person, it is difficult either to enter each state so particularly delineated on 'D.O.A' or '20 Jazz Funk Greats' or to pass over each as Muzak: perhaps everybody should be able, if they're bothered, to make up their own 'Best Of' on tape, and, well, go... (this criticism incidentally could also be applied to the Velvet Underground).
And the records aren't that important, although I will cherish 'Beachy Head', 'Six Six Sixties', 'Adrenalin', and 'Weeping', among others; what are equally as important are the ideas and their execution. The list is long, but worth detailing; for this, as much as the search to define and capture various truths, was also the aim of the laboratory.

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A Summary :
The end of 'Rock-n-Roll' as an attitude, as a way of knowledge, and as a way of making noise, kindly called music. Rock-n-Roll is for Arse Lickers. Rock and Roll, and now Pop, are infected with a creeping and terminal disease: the inevitability of obsolescence as a form.

The impossibility of running a truly independent record and tape company:
Most Indies - although apparently shifting the emphasis 'away' from the majors - actually worked for them as unpaid A&R departments. Most of the brave new wave only ever wanted one thing: money, and to get their mug on 'Top of the Pops'. This, although possibly venal, is not a particularly ignoble ambition given the state of things -- what is ignoble, is to pretend otherwise. I will now watch with amusement the ideological U-turns of such as Rough Trade, in the same way as I have watched the U-turns of most Pop commentators. Industrial Records - a zingy catch phrase also thereby introduced - was determinedly independent. This caused problems with pressing plants, bootleggers and cash flow, but it allowed the freedom to release whatever (and who else, Monte Cazazza?) and to pack it in at the right time.

The proper assimilation of electronics into pop and youth culture: and this is where TG come nearest to being assimilated by the mainstream, and like all of us, nearest to prolonging its active life.

A sense that, after punk, four boys pouting and banging away on electric guitars had to stop, that the chill winds starting to blow outside pop's ivory tower had to be admitted. Jane Suck, Sandy Robertson and I all realized this with a start -- the first TG LP arrived exactly to confirm the suspicions and prophecies we made with 'New Musick', and then took them further. The result is, on the one hand, artists such as NON; on the other, Gary Numan and synthed up oldies like 'It's My Party'. Heigh-ho.

The use of different media:
Pre-dating the 'Indie tape boom', Industrial Records were the first of the then current crop of independents to organize a proper system of producing and selling tape-recorded and video-recorded material. This was organized with the care and attention that we came to expect: the TG Tape Box Set is an obsessional fetish of considerable power. I don't come over it...but nearly. TG also made everything available. I prefer to regard this not as a piece of self-indulgence, but as an impressive effort at equality of access, deconstruction and making money. Malcolm McLaren later got in on that act and did it rather well. Many people thought he had invented the idea.


Many minor fashions and teases, witness by the fact that TG were just as fascinated by the trappings of consumption, kitsch and packaging as the rest of us. Their presentation of products was never more than immaculate graphic design: they used camo-chic before Miss Selfridge and Echo & the Bunnymen got in on the act. They used it as packaging (of "Adrenalin" and "Subhuman" singles), clothing and research, eventually having an entire TG camouflage uniform made by Lawrence Dupre in Paris as part of her "Avant Guerre" clothing project.

The Martin Denny Revival:
Predating the current obsession with 1940's Muzak and the Specials' mood hi-fi. TG finished almost every gig with Martin Denny tapes, did the track "Exotica" in honor of his styles on "Jazz Funk Greats" and dedicated their "Greatest Hits" to Denny. TG were a little late on this one. The Screamers, Skot Armst, the Residents and Boyd Rice got there first. However, P-Orridge now has 23 Martin Denny platters. Eat your heart out!

The championing of cassette tapes as a valid ALTERNATIVE to records: Produced on high-quality tape and run off laboriously by them and a few close friends until the Last Few Days. As well as releasing every TG live gig on cassette they also released cassettes by Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA, Richard H. Kirk,
Monte Cazazza, Leather Nun, and Chris Carter. All artists they had admired before their later success, of course now three years later cassettes are at last being recognized as viable commercially and creatively. Ironically, as TG stopped producing anymore. They saw having other groups and individuals on their cassettes as evidence of a new and non-competitive alliances that demonstrated the lie of big company rivalry.

Contrary to recent claims in some music papers, TG released the first music video cassettes for sale. Totally filmed, produced, mixed and packaged by themselves in 1979 and sold at £18 including postage to demonstrate that independent labels and groups can compete at every level and make every kind of information available.

A serious and conscious continuation of the work of William S. Burroughs,
(whose LP "Nothing Here Now But The Recordings" is still available on Industrial Records), Brion Gysin (the inventor of "Cut-Ups"), and The Velvet Underground: Of course TG are not quite the same, as this is a self-conscious, synthetic, intensely referential age, but they do quite well in dealing with control, collage, and the subculture of street life in fairly equal quantities. Anyway, they've met most of their heroes by now. I suppose you could whine about the "Beat Revival" being prophesied but I wouldn't bother.

An uncanny premonition of the Sex Pistols scandal, when as Coum Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle various parts of their "PROSTITUTION" exhibition were besieged in the I.C.A. for being pornography. Front-page headlines, outraged editorials in the dailies, M.P.'s calling them the "Wreckers of Civilization" -- they even appeared in a live TV special on Thames on October 22nd, 1976. Fab and Kinky, and McLaren (who'd already commissioned Peter of TG to do Sex Pistols publicity shots) was watching again.
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But that'll be quite enough. I'm sure you get the picture. Front line cultural guerrillas whose research was pillaged and diluted by all manner of incompatible characters perhaps...their eyes must be burning but it doesn't do to be nice and TG weren't nice anyway so I'll say that they were a bunch of evil scumbags with a nasty line in vicious humour which nobody ever quite got. I see P-Orridge as the 10-year-old outsider: runny nose, spots, hanging on the other kid's coat tails and whining forever so you wanted to smash him, 'Zyklon! Zyklon! Zyklon! Zyklon! Bee Zombiees!'. And then he smiled and you forgave him all, such a sweet boy Neil. I will spare the others my indelicate imaginings, for they have enough problems.

The laboratory is now locked -- the camo' overalls, and the people inside them have moved office and moved power focus. Naturally, the week that TG ceased to exist they received the first in what has become a regular series of apologies and eulogies in the established music press - whose ignorance and muffled hate, if they only knew it, gave them a great deal of strength. Now, their recantation, however sincere, gives mirth; such is ever the price of cultural deviancy: to be ignored and reviled while active and when finished, to be lauded to the skies. Only these days, things being what they are, all accelerating and cracking up, it's happened rather faster. Like INSTANTLY.
I wish them all luck with their analysis: TG are now part of the "rock canon", they have left a "significant body of work" behind. The only problem, and the last laugh, is that it's all junk really - as serious or as meaningful as you want to make it. Which leaves TG exactly where I suspect they'd like to be -- just kicking around a corpse.
~ London & JON SAVAGE (Manchester, 1981)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

if it's of interest, a new site will be appearing on September 1st that tells the story of third door from the left and we be echo:
http://www.webeecho.worldhelix.com/

Kismet said...

I found your blog by searching on phaze. I have this record that was produced by Pat Bermingham in 1984. The band, The Living Daylights has Amanda Bradshaw and Steve Piper on vocals and Rolfe Kent on the instruments. Is there anything you can tell me about it that I don't already know.

I have listened to many tapes and records from most of the people you mentioned.