ArticlesDatacide 19

Industrial Music for Industrial People: Throbbing Gristle 1978

Industrial Music for Industrial People: Throbbing Gristle at Wakefield Industrial Training College, July 1978

Excerpt from Ian Trowell’s new book Throbbing Gristle – An Endless Discontent, published by Intellect Books

Foto: John Frost, wikipedia

Throbbing Gristle are documented as playing Wakefield Industrial Training College on Saturday 1 July 1978. It was their first gig north of London, coming after a series of gigs from 1976 onwards in and around London where they had a core fanbase. The uncannily apposite name of an Industrial Training College, as if it is some kind of academy for TG initiates undergoing practical sessions in extreme noise and written papers on media control techniques, is a bit of a misnomer as the college was not known by that name in the city, instead being referred to as the Technical College (or ‘tech’). Recently celebrating its sesquicentennial anniversary, the foundations for the College were laid in 1868 with the establishment of The Industrial and Fine Art Institution that was set up thanks in part to the profits from the Wakefield Industrial and Fine Art Exhibition three years earlier. This new institution aimed to benefit the young people of Wakefield by providing a practical education giving them skills necessary to survive nineteenth-century industrial life. Aside from one of their standard live cassettes, little survives of the Wakefield gig: no retained ephemera such as flyers or tickets, no announcements in either the local or national music press, no reviews in music newspapers or local newspapers, and no recollections in later studies or autobiographical memoirs of the band.

1978 had witnessed the carefully considered emergence and organic growth of the TG’s sound towards an industrial blueprint away from the shoddier provocations of the punk scene they enacted through 1977, and the band were included as part of Jon Savage’s ‘new musick’ umbrella feature in Sounds at the end of 1977. Savage followed this up with a dedicated feature for the same newspaper in June 1978, a few weeks before the Wakefield gig. It’s a harrowing read, as Savage narrates what appears to be a personal breakdown as he tries to come to grips with the TG project. The Sounds article is complemented by a long feature in ZigZag where P-Orridge is given free reign by editor Kris Needs to stoke controversy. In addition, to seemingly counteract the sex, noise, horror and chaos, TG also released what could be claimed as the UK’s first synth-pop single with ‘United’ – coming immediately before more celebrated debut releases by The Normal and The Human League.i It gathers elements of the industrial force that the band had assembled, building from a muted and slightly off-centred 4/4 beat and hisses of compressed air escaping, to sequence in squalls of synth bursts (said to be equivalent to the sound of a Coke bottle having its lid flipped off) and P-Orridge’s deadpan vocal. As Savage eulogised in his review for Sounds: “near perfect synthetic mantra to dance at dawn to or to chant on the terraces”. Football and TG is an unlikely mix, though punk bands like The Clash and Sham 69 were trying to appeal to a terrace mentality with staccato guitar riffs mimicking the sonics of football chants. Whereas Sham 69, with their ‘If the Kids Are United’ single released at the same time as TG’s ‘United’, reach earnestly for a bit of the ‘real life’ of the football fan, TG offer a brief chanted section of “love is the law” in the middle of the record, imagining the football crowd as an insurgent Crowleyesque body!

The trials and tribulations of following an alternative (punk or post-punk) subculture in a town like Wakefield were patently obvious, with bully-boy Tetley beer drinkers to the fore, festering Teds spoiling for a scrap, a burgeoning far-right movement (linked to Leeds United football club) that was trying to connect with youth subcultures, and the spectre of the Yorkshire Ripper at large. This threat understandably stifled the atmosphere of West Yorkshire – murders were gaining frequency with three occurring in early 1978 across Bradford, Manchester and Huddersfield. Tension was ramped up in March 1978 with the letters created by ‘Wearside Jack’, a hoaxer claiming to be the murderer. Adding an appearance of TG into this mix is incendiary. Summer 1978 was fetid beneath the gloss, and TG intended to get underneath that gloss.

Punk was blooming in the provinces through 1978, with episodes of Top of the Pops often featuring upwards of five punk and new wave acts. However, the pop charts were in a strange summer lull at the time of this TG gig, topped by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John performing music from the film Grease, only challenged by Father Abraham and the Smurfs with their ‘Smurf Song’. For June, punk presence on Top of the Pops was spartan and relatively lukewarm, and the programme was cancelled at the start of the month for the opening of the World Cup in Argentina where much attention was fixed. On the screen, Plastic Bertrand is accompanied by Pan’s People, Elvis Costello and the Attractions perform ‘Pump it Up’, and two days before TG’s gig the nation are treated to Boomtown Rats jerking around to ‘Like Clockwork’. The Wakefield public were ripe for an onslaught of industrial transgression and a different type of clockwork machine rhythm.

TG perfected the industrial sound as a multiform concept in late-1977 and early-1978, pounding out an industrial grinding, chugging rhythm, but taking the meaning of the term to a manifold of interpretations and levels. Early instances included the performance at Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre in May 1977 which momentarily transformed to a pure blend of grinding and bleeping, and then an intense industrial section of relentless and metronomic machine noise at London Roundhouse in September of the same year. This was intensified at the subsequent gig at Winchester in November, the band embodying a machine effect that no longer allowed the listener to effectively stand outside of the sound and imagine a potential source, but instead posited the listener within the machine itself. Industrial related to the mode of production and how consumption and conformity were built into everyday life at an increasing rate. This was reflected in the band’s fascination with Tesco, the ubiquitous supermarket chain that aggressively rose to power during TG’s formative years and became akin to an ironic exemplar for the band. Much like TG, Tesco had a strong logo and corporate identity, and the band saw Tesco as both emblematic and synergetic in their typically ambiguous way. However, the multiplying presence of Tesco had a sinister interpretation provoked by the band’s use. The corporate branding encompassed a way of doing things and a way of appearing, whilst at the same time hinting at a discernible hidden depth of layers of staff working out of site keeping the function going. The concept of a strapline for supermarkets did not appear until recent years, even if competing giants of grocery and general goods retail had mottoes. For Tesco it is recorded as ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’, which would obviously not translate well as a banner headline on stores or carrier bags, but would no doubt appeal to the humour of TG. The emergence of a strapline for Tesco came to the fore in recent years with the now ubiquitous phrase ‘Every Little Helps’, though TG were clearly ahead of things here with their own strapline: ‘Industrial Music For Industrial People’.

So, what industrial music were the industrial population of Wakefield presented with? The band open with ‘IBM’, a sound piece debuted at an earlier gig, and allegedly created from a discarded computer tape salvaged by the band outside the IBM offices. Somehow the band extracted from this tape the sound of it either performing its data duties or they forced the computer tape to ‘play’ in an alien media. The cold and invasive sounds of the IBM disk are quickly augmented by P-Orridge narrating a story that barely registers in the mix. He intones twice: “There’s been a death in the family” and then adds the name “Ian” at the end of his third recital – we are not provided with further details or clues on the nature on this incident as everything is quickly drowned out by soaring noises from the band’s treated instruments. A beguiling monotone recital of an unnamed product purchase follows, given a short broadcast as the noise momentarily parts like a pair of curtains opening for a brief glimpse. This is again based upon a similar monologue extolled at Goldsmiths, with P-Orridge using the William Burroughs cut-up technique which would be applied in later performances. This relaying of short sentences chopped around and idiomatic malfunctioning of partial phrases cut apart and mixed serves to muddy conceptions and create confusion, akin to the ‘zone of indistinction’ attributed to both Maurice Blanchot and Gilles Deleuze in his pursuit of radical writing, in which we encounter a ‘tour de Babil’ and ‘agrammaticality’. Frida Beckman captures this perfectly with her 2017 study of Deleuze, expressing how he sought a place where you became “a stranger within one’s own literature”. The noise returns with P-Orridge clambering for traction in the mix with his “one product” chant reverberating amidst the cacophony. After seven minutes there is a lull, the IBM tone returns, then fades to close out this first section.

P-Orridge adopts his whiney punk voice to proclaim “cheap and nasty” followed by a switch to a pastiche crooner voice obliterated by more reverb to announce “catch me at the Cabaret Voltaire”, the frontman both welcoming his new friends into the fray (the band had been communicating with P-Orridge and this was their first meeting with TG – fellow Sheffielders Clock DVA were also in the audience) and extolling his avant-garde art kudos by acknowledging the Cabaret Voltaire as its original intention as a Dadaist gathering point. Seemingly running out of interest or inspiration after ten minutes, the energetic sample of what sounds like a kids’ football match with a piercing whistle and a shout of “go on, go on” cuts into the mix as the industrial section rises from a slumber. These snatches of sampled sound are tantalisingly familiar but seldom identified. They may have come from television programmes, or be part of Peter Christopherson’s sonic rampage with the early portable cassette recorders and parabolic microphones he acquired as part of his Hipgnosis (graphic designers) connections. This composition was performed previously as ‘D.o.A’ at Goldsmiths, however at Wakefield it is listed simply as ‘Industrial Muzak’ and forms an incredible ten minutes of the band at their breath-taking best.

The sound cuts and there is a short dialogue from a medical drama; this fades but continues in the background as the new track ‘Hamburger Lady’ groans into life with what is now a signature introduction of droning noise and treated cornet. A TG milestone moment. P-Orridge seemingly takes great pleasure in delivering the narrative of a burns victim as related by their American colleague and mail artist ‘Blaster’ Al Ackerman. ‘Hamburger Lady’ would become an enduring track that was played through 1978 and 1979, attaining the status of an ironic signature for the band. Its cloying and atmospheric nature meant that it was the antithesis of how a rock band would signal the commencement of a track with favourite status by teasing their audience with recognised intricate riffs or keyboard notes. Next we have ‘Slug Bait’ revisited, albeit as a shortened version. Perplexingly, it is delivered in an atonal and staccato style with a TG version of bathos – the increased original graphic horror of the track (someone being force-fed their own castrated testicles) being offset with a comedy delivery and a northern affliction. This is followed by an overlaid and looping series of nonsense monologue samples that the band used for a number of gigs around this time. Each monologue makes little sense on its own, and there is a link here to P-Orridge’s connections to 1970s performance artists Kipper Kids, Silvia Ziranek and Anne Bean. One tract concerns a landlady advertising a bizarre range of services (listed as ‘Mother Spunk’ or ‘Good Clean Fun’) – delivered in a switch between a deadpan northern male voice and a comedy female voice redolent of a seaside landlady in a town such as Blackpool. The name ‘Mother Spunk’ could be read as a playful parody of Mother Courage and Her Children, the 1939 play by Brecht (spunk is a slang word for courage). In taking this and positing it in a seedy porno-lexicographical context, the band out-Brecht Brecht. As with previous airings of this composition, background noises are cut to a minimum and the first monologue loops while the longer second monologue plays through. Samples, synths and the foundations of a wall of noise take over as the monologues fall away, only to be cut down. Nothing holds together, and for a short while it’s like a meeting of industrial machines performing improv.

A microsecond of silence cuts the project down, and then Wakefield is given a sublime treat; the first live airing of ‘Five Knuckle Shuffle’. This is the real Tesco Disco, punched out processing rhythms looped without deviation or acknowledgement. The click signature of ‘Five Knuckle Shuffle’ drives on as everything else rhythmic slips away and a new wall (whorle) of sound grows from almost nothing to almost everything. And then the hour is up.

Malignant hum

Whereas the other TG performances have attained various degrees of documentation, commemoration, reflection and even reconstruction, the memory of Wakefield lies buried and forgotten. A reverberation of sorts is offered through the novelist David Peace, growing up in Wakefield but just too young to witness TG’s fleeting appearance in the city. Peace crafts dark and distorted fictionalised histories of the murkier aspects of recent events and employs the tactic of listening to the music of the time of his historical setting, giving him access to the feel or the grain of a place at a certain time. Peace’s first work to reach public acclaim was his four-part arching story of the Yorkshire Ripper woven into a vivid picture of the West Yorkshire landscape and the suffocating corruption and corruptibility of his characters. Nothing ends well, nothing looks good, there is never ever any salvation for any character. As a reader you cannot stake any connectivity or investment with protagonists, antagonists, narrators or side-line players – everything collapses.

For the third part of this quartet, the book Nineteen Eighty (2001), Peace goes beyond evoking the contemporaneous music as retrieval aid for mood and aura, and transplants TG’s 1980 album Heathen Earth into the body of narrative. The dark mood of the album, with its preface of a Charles Manson statement rhetorically asking ‘Can the world be as sad as it seems?’, nourishes the forlorn soul of both antagonist and victim(s). Peace adopts P-Orridge’s verbal substitutions – ‘thee’ for the, and ‘e’ for I – as the reader is drawn into a black vortex of the helpless and hapless pleading in an echo chamber. According to cultural theorist Mark Fisher, the arc and narrative of Peace’s Red-Riding Quartet intensifies with a foregrounded religious fervour, constituting ‘not so much a negative theology as a negative theodicy’, ending with a ‘quasi-Gnostic treatise on evil and suffering’.ii Fisher knows that TG, and the unabashed musing on Manson, fitted perfectly with Peace’s constricted and asphyxiating reimagining of the world that allowed the Ripper to flourish, a world that (in Peace’s writing) exploited and opportunised on horror and dread.

If Peace retrospectively inserts TG into Wakefield and the Yorkshire Ripper of 1980, a time when West Yorkshire Police were under increasing scrutiny as to why no-one had been apprehended, then TG of 1978 do not bring up the spectre that haunted the region. Peace’s reimagining of the lost underside of the Ripper decade invites reconsideration a facet of TG that had and has a tendency to be buried or swept under the carpet: P-Orridge’s narrative foregrounding of gruesome murderers. He claims to deconstruct the structure of pop music narration, and offer instead ‘instinctive journalism’. There is always the temptation to try and ‘rescue’ Throbbing Gristle from questionable connotations, which, in my opinion, needs to be strongly resisted. But where does this take us, or leave us, as we tread in the footsteps of the Ripper?

By 1978 and his arrival in Wakefield, P-Orridge’s shock tactics of seemingly celebrating serial killers and sexual deviants had waned, his source material previously gleaned from an obsessive reading of books on these subjects. If anything, the glib aesthetics and contrived mythologization of the Ripper case mimicked TG, with the June 1979 hoax tape produced by ‘Wearside Jack’. The tape incorporated a residual segment of the cheesy track ‘Thank You for Being a Friend’ by Andrew Gold, giving it the feel of something off TG’s album D.o.A: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle released at the end of 1978. But that is just my projection. In actuality, the generation of industrial and power electronics bands that followed TG were quick to exploit the shock value of this serial killer, eventually apprehended and named in January 1981. The track ‘Ripper Territory’ appeared on the 1981 Whitehouse album Dedicated to Peter Kurten Sadist and Mass Slayer, structured around harsh industrial noise on top of the ITV News at Ten announcement of his capture. As with the Wearside Jack tape, the track includes a banal but quirky segment introducing a subsequent news item about the Olympic swimmer Duncan Goodhew.iii In the same year, Whitehouse founder William Bennett released an album Bradford Red Light District, a field recording purporting to be from Bradford, under the mischievous name of The New Order. The sleeve notes of the album are credited to P-Orridge, but this is said to be a ruse as P-Orridge had little time for the immediate generation of deliberately controversial industrial bands seemingly inspired by his own works. In the following year, 1982, ex-Whitehouse member Kevin Tomkins formed a power electronics band called Sutcliffe Jugend, continuing this exercise in bad taste.

But. Something else does not sit well and nags at you. The timelines of TG’s operation and Sutcliffe’s killing spree are uncannily coterminous. Embarkation and disembarkation in alignment. The band date the announcement of their formation to September 1975, one month before Sutcliffe claims his first victim. Sutcliffe is thankfully apprehended in early 1981, charged and then sentenced – the verdict coming down on 22 May 1981. This coincides with the playing out of TG’s ‘termination’, the band actually performing the first of two final gigs in America on the day that Sutcliffe is sentenced. This almost perfect overlapping of existence and activity proffers an inevitable interweaving of circumstances that manifests as a conspiratorial shared narrative. For example, TG’s peak (live) moment of questionable context and content occurs during their Christmas 1977 gig at London’s Rat Club, where they performed ‘Urge to Kill’ followed by ‘Assume Power Focus’ which ended with P-Orridge exhorting the audience to ‘go out and kill’. As Simon Ford (Wreckers of Civilisation) notes in his discussion of Jon Savage’s thoughts on this gig (edited down for his subsequent review in Sounds newspaper), the ambivalence and ambiguity to extreme matters was open to misinterpretation. A fictional ‘how so?’… Sutcliffe’s killing spree accelerated in early January 1978, with the murders of Yvonne Pearson and Helen Rytka. Whilst in custody in 1981, he confessed that at the time of these two murders he had “the urge to kill any woman. The urge inside me to kill girls was now practically uncontrollable”. Peace’s para-historical fictionalising reverberates in Throbbing Gristle’s dark cultural domain, and you are left to concoct your own morbid conspiracies as you assume the persona of Peace and implicate the band in a morbid multiverse.

Matthew Worley, in his 2017 overarching study of punk formations and practices (No Future), explores the lyrical content and projected aesthetics of punk with regard to certain bands electing to pursue themes such as class sensibility and social realism, aspects that situate punk outside of the mainstream pop process and give it a critical cutting edge. His work builds upon Dave Laing’s classic 1985 book One Chord Wonders, which documents punk as a progression from earlier set themes of ‘love, dance, hard luck and so on’. Historian Worley is a safe pair of hands in these matters, working through contexts with a taxonomical methodology and gradient of extremity. However, he ultimately reaches the point where “punk gave rise to tendencies keen to recover the marginal and the suppressed, to scrape away the veneer of British propriety to reveal what lay beneath” (page 105). TG enter the dialogue, where the intent shifts to “shock and disrupt the fragile equilibriums of modern society”, and by the time we arrive at Whitehouse Worley acknowledges in a defeatist manner that “things got messy if the propensity to shock fell out of context”. Pantagruelic one-upmanship. Shits and giggles. The critical detachment initiated by TG becomes a trump card to be bettered each time. If, and I use the term with caution, TG had a didactic or even dialogical imperative when summoning up these heinous crimes and their perpetrators, then Whitehouse and their ilk simply drip-feed a subcultural identity that has a need to be appear controversial as part of its general facets of appearance, identity and connotation.

Academic Gregory Steirer wrote a 2012 academic paper on TG’s malefic tendencies and necessarily touches upon this moment at the Rat Club in 1977, but a resolvable critical appraisal is lost within Steirer’s wider and overly-ambitious arc of linking valences of situationist thought (towards urban space and art), TG and the industrial subculture, information art, and the politics of neoliberalism.iv Whereas previous discussions towards a potential contextualisation and validation of TG’s grim themes have orbited around ideas of legitimising cultural and critical practices – the suggestion that making certain aesthetic and lyrical themes taboo stifles and excludes criticality of what is NOT taboo – Steirer calls upon P-Orridge and Christopherson’s text ‘Annihilating Reality’ from the June/July 1976 issue of art magazine Studio International.v He suggests that this text can be read in the situationist valence of Raoul Vaneigem, such that anything can be art, and so TG’s explosive litanies of the acts of serial killers is raising the consideration of aesthetic phenomena:

The anti-progressive aspect of Throbbing Gristle’s aesthetic was achieved, in a manner that resembles Gray’s representation of the Situationist City, primarily through the selection for representation of objects that cannot rationally be accounted for by any functioning utopia. Exemplary in this regard was the band’s handling of murder, which (especially in its early days) was a frequent topic of its music, writing, and performances. Songs like ‘Urge to Kill’ and ‘Slug Bait’ reported the activities of serial killers like Edmund Kemper and Charles Manson not as calls for moral outrage (and subsequent corrective action), but as aesthetic

Steirer continues, shifting the context slightly onto a dubious and dangerous terrain:

Certainly the band did not actually hope to incite murder, but wished instead to open up modes of experiencing murder and the fantasy of committing it that are not wholly determined by the familiar problem oriented discourses of sociology and psychology.

He then returns to the aesthetic dimension, summoning ‘Annihilating Reality’ and proposing that it:

does not actually advocate murder; rather it argues for the separation of the act’s formal qualities from its social effects and moral value. Instead of immorality, murder, the band argued, can be seen as an aesthetic event, as art. Furthermore, when the concept of art was thus expanded so as to include murder as a paradigmatic example, it shed the need to reflect what ought to be and contribute to that ought’s utopian realization.

He directly quotes a section from the text, where P-Orridge and Christopherson call upon numerous multiple murderers from history, to refocus on their proposal of an aesthetic dimension (in this case the work of German avant-garde shamanic artist Joseph Beuys):

Rais, Prelati, Poitou made crosses, signs, and characters in a circle. Used coal, grease, torches, candles, a stone, a pet, incense. Words were chalked on a board. Could these rituals preceding child murders, in another context and properly photographed, become Beuysian performance?

Steirer avoids the more scandalous claim that Ian Brady be considered as a conceptualist artist (Brady and Hindley photographed the Moors as landscape, encoding a hidden reading of the photographs referring to where the bodies of their child victims were buried in much the same way that conceptualist art works with latent readings). However, even the Rais-Beuys homology does not sit well. Perhaps it is not meant to… a meta-ethic tautology in play, a swipe at the dead end of avant-gardism? Indeed, it would require a degree of art knowledge to link P-Orridge and Christopherson’s adjectival Beuysian with the German artist, and further knowledge to know that he specialised in the ritualised use of wax and fat.

This is without doubt a brutal allegory, bringing together the ways that TG approach the darkness of thought with Peace’s own fiction, through the cipher of the Ripper. There is a dark synergetic return to Sutcliffe again, grim reality filtered through Peace’s occult cartography as both the author and TG offer their responses to the underbelly of the lost decade. A neat conclusion of thoughts is evasive. Sutcliffe, when captured, was found to be wearing (underneath his outer clothes) a knitted sweater worn upside down with his legs in the sleeves such that the void offered by the inverted v-neck allowed his genital area to be exposed. Presumably also keeping him from getting a chill in cold January air. The jumper had leather patches on the elbows, now coinciding with Sutcliffe’s knees, as he crouched over his victims. In the homological pairing and semantic gamemanship of ‘Annihilating Reality’ we could consider this as avant-garde clothing design, Sutcliffe as a protégé dynamic for the Antwerp fashion designer Martin Margiela with his re-worked gloves made into sweaters and sweaters made into jackets? Is this the intent and endgame?

If this serves as an extreme example to delegitimise the hallowed bubble of authenticated art production, circulation and critical reflection, then we can allay any concerns. But, taking shots at art through escalating abjection and extremism is a safe game – taking this into the realm of pop and rock music is something different. ‘Annihilating Reality’ and its pop medley of society’s ultra-sadistic overspill was a parting shot to the art world, prefaced by the short section ‘Scenes of Victory’ in which P-Orridge and Christopherson pronounce: “For every interesting performance artist there was a psychopath, fetishist or intense street individual who created more powerful and socially direct imagery”. This can be read two ways as a chiasmus: legitimate art is made meaningless and worthless by the aesthetic inventiveness of serial killers, or serial killers need to be escalated to the role of higher artists and role models of creative expression… which is it to be?

i ‘United’ was reviewed in the music newspapers through May into June. The Normal’s ‘TV-OD’ was reviewed around the same time but then re-booted in October with the more commercially-friendly ‘Warm Leatherette’ as the lead track. Human League’s ‘Being Boiled’ was released and reviewed in June, shortly after ‘United’. Kraftwerk also went ‘pop’ in 1978 with the German-only release of ‘The Model’, though this would not find popular appeal in the UK until its 1981 re-release.

ii See

iii The Wearside Jack tape was incorporated into the rough punk single ‘Northern Ripper’ by The Blanks. The bassist, Allen Adams, was a TG fan and is listed as among the attendees at the Heathen Earth recording in 1980.

iv The paper is here: Steirer, Gregory (2012), ‘The art of everyday life and death: Throbbing Gristle and the aesthetics of neoliberalism’, Postmodern Culture, 22:2.

v Studio International, volume 192, number 982, pp. 44-48. Facsimile and transcript available at

vi The subject of ‘Slug Bait’ is actually the murder of a wife of a farmer in the former Rhodesia, but it is often confused with the Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate. P-Orridge “splices” the narratives together, see:

Ian Trowell

  • More articles by Ian Trowell on
  • Ian also contributed numerous record reviews in early issues of Datacide Magazine, all of which can be found in the review sections of issues 2, 6, 7, and 8 on this web site and in printed form in the book EVERYTHING ELSE IS EVEN MORE RIDICULOUS.

Ian Trowell’s new book Throbbing Gristle – An Endless Discontent, published by Intellect Books, is out now. The chapter about the gig at the Wakefield Industrial Training College is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.

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