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(Credit: Throbbing Gristle)

Music

Genesis P-Orridge: Alternative culture's ultimate iconoclast

In terms of iconoclasts, you do not get much better than Genesis P-Orridge. A pioneer in every sense of the word, they defied expectations in myriad ways. Breaking down every barrier that was in their way, they went against the grain musically, sexually and socially. In attempting to become a “pandrogyne” with their partner Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, Genesis showed that in many ways, they were above this world, way ahead of their time, with their gaze constantly fixed on the future. 

They didn’t do it all on their own, however. Genesis P-Orridge helped to rewrite the handbook for modern creatives as part of three notable groups. The first came in the challenging performance art of COUM Transmissions, the controversial Hull, England based group that changed what a band and performance could be. 

Then, they masterminded the game-changing industrial outfit Throbbing Gristle alongside the equally as iconoclastic Cosey Fanni Tutti, before forming the highly influential multi-media group, Psychic TV, in 1981. Influenced by Dadaism, the works of Burroughs and Gysin, the condition of modern society and the occult, Genesis P-Orridge had a fluid, hard to pin down, and brilliant style.

Even today, over 50 years since COUM Transmissions were formed, their activities remain mind-blowingly futuristic. Inspired by the against the grain sentiment of the counterculture and the work of The Velvet Underground, COUM Transmissions were perhaps the most forward-thinking outfit of the ’70s, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. 

If you read the group’s 1974 manifesto, you’ll heed our point: “COUM enable all kinds of people to discover their abilities to express ideas through different media. COUM believe that you don’t need special training to produce and/or enjoy, worthwhile, significant and unique works. COUM demonstrate that there are NO boundaries in any form. It has NOT all been done before, and that which has can still bear valid re-interpretation. Thee [sic] possibilities remain endless.”

During an interview with the New Yorker in 2011, P-Orridge explained why COUM and Throbbing Gristle adopted such an experimental approach. They expressed how the industrial north of Britain and the spectre of the Blitz imbued both groups’ work with such a cold dose of modernity. They were making art for modern Britain. 

They said: “I began having my own dialogue with myself: Can’t there be something about my experience, as a person in Europe, who grew up playing as a child in the bauxite after the Blitz? Who’s talking about that happening to me? The destruction of the railways and the mill factories closing down in Manchester because cotton was too expensive. That was a very conscious thought: What could be done? Is there a way to make music that includes this experience, that includes what we’ve been living within—cars honking, trains going past, buses grinding gears, people shouting in the streets?” 

They continued: “We’d been reading Silence, by John Cage, and that was the last key, really. Chairs scraping can now be the music; what do we want to include? No drummer, because music is so quickly fixed and made traditional and acceptable by the four-four-drum pan of the rock music. Then why do you need to know how to play? What is an instrument? Something that makes a noise, amplified or not. We don’t need to know how to play. What’s around? What can we use, in the spirit of a Duchamp readymade?”

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Artistic to the core, Throbbing Gristle is where you can trace a lot of the most pioneering modern music back to, either directly or indirectly. Showing just how influential they were, it is unsurprising that Trent Reznor, the mind behind the group who popularised industrial, Nine Inch Nails, hails Throbbing Gristle and Genesis P-Orridge inspirations. Reznor told NPR in 2011 that Nine Inch Nails were “heavily influenced by Throbbing Gristle”. 

What Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti did for women in rock was also groundbreaking. They dug into dark, serious topics, something that, for the most part, was hitherto unheard of for a band that featured women. They totally flipped the longstanding idea of gender roles on its head, which for the time was breathtaking. Together P-Orridge and Tutti went much further than the likes of Grace Slick, Janis Joplin and Moe Tucker had done only a few years prior.

P-Orridge recalled: “There were hardly any girls in rock bands. We had me and Cosey Fanni Tutti, and she didn’t like electric guitar, because it was too heavy, so we got an electric saw and sawed off the bits we didn’t like. I didn’t really like the trying to learn where to put my fingers, and it wasn’t necessary for our purposes.”

Sawing parts off an electric guitar was Throbbing Gristle and Genesis P-Orridge to a tee. Their idea of music was fluid, so why did they need a guitar in its fully realised factory form? When Chris Carter was introduced into the fold, he made his own synthesisers, and to P-Orridge, this was the final part of the puzzle, as no one was really using them in England in 1975. When they met Carter, they thought:” ‘That’s great—it’s very anti-rock.'”

This “anti-rock” sentiment was something the band espoused right until the very end. Never wanting to enjoy the trappings of fame, as soon as they started to gain popularity, they decided to call it a day after their first duo of shows in America, in Los Angeles. P-Orridge said to the other band members:” ‘This is too easy. We’ve got to stop.'”

P-Orridge explained that Throbbing Gristle had accomplished what they first set out to do. They made music in the way that “Ford made cars on the industrial belt. Industrial music for industrial people.” Genesis P-Orridge and the band refuted the established form and found something completely different, inspiring many in the process. It was a colossal thing to walk away from the project just as it was getting going, but this way Genesis P-Orridge. 

It wasn’t just Trent Reznor who their work affected, either. You can see their work permeating the artistry of everyone from Slipknot to Kurt Cobain, Björk and Aphex Twin. Their work also colours the work of more modern artists such as Yves Tumor and Arca. After Throbbing Gristle, they would carry on their pioneering work in Psychic TV, and aided by new developments in technology, take their musical work to the next level. 

Next time you’re thinking about David Bowie or The Beatles, musing on their seismic impact, spare a thought for the late Genesis P-Orridge. They were a true pioneer, thinking outside of the box, and showing that you can pave your own way. You don’t need anyone to tell you how to do anything. 

Watch Genesis P-Orridge talk about their work below.