On a day like this, where, at least in Australia, we are all drowning in a soupy quagmire of political inanity and conservatism, a day where the mundane fights the mundane for its day in the sunlight, the need to listen to music that grabs the mainstream by the throat, and strangles it until it gags, is, for me, acute.
Britain’s Throbbing Gristle formed in the mid 1970s, performed mostly between then and 1981, and then reunited again every now and then since 2004 for the occasional retrospective on their music. TG are usually described as belonging to some sort of avant-garde industrial genre, but I prefer to think of them as the Trotskyists of modern music – fusing together different stages of musical development, leading change, forthright and aggressive, recognising the need for revolution in music to be permanent and confronting and international, like Trotsky believed it to be in politics.
And just as Trotsky saw the importance of co-opting the grassroots – the workers and the peasants – into his bigger picture, melding them into shape, taking them in the direction he knew they needed to go, so too do TG take the nuts and bolts of daily life – daily noise, daily conversation – and transform them into a formidable force that changes the way you think about how things were, and how they’re going to be.
TG intend their music to be confrontational, and it is. Whether it’s loops of distorted noise, with snippets of random conversation interweaving around it, punctuated by strange, haunted clangs and clatters, or the single, unrelenting beat of a note on a bass guitar, like much of the music on their album DoA: The Third and Final Report (which was neither their third nor their final album), or more mainstream music, with the lifeblood sucked out of it, and aggressive industrial acid injected into it, like much of the music on 20 Jazz Funk Greats (which has 13 songs, and none of them are jazz and none of them are funk, although the ghostly remnants of both are undeniably there), this is music that takes the straight and narrow, bends it and distorts it, in a way that unsettles and frightens you, but somehow still leaves you thinking that maybe this was how it was all meant to be after all.
The vocals, when there are any, are intentionally off-key; the beats, when there are any, are minimalist, driving, stripped down to their bare essentials; musical instruments appear almost in mockery of themselves - like the flattened, distorted brass that opens their fourth album, Heathen Earth; the sound is low-fi and unglamorous, harsh and unmusical. Nothing here is meant to be easy to listen to – but it is built out of the sounds and machines and music of ordinary life, beaten into a new shape, and even though the face it shows you is riddled with warts, it is undeniably your own, and so you keep looking at it.
TG’s debut album, The Second Annual Report (needless to say, not their second album) – which includes several versions of a thing called ‘Slug Bait’ and several of another thing called ‘Maggot Death’ (none of them sounding even remotely alike) – is a great place to start, if you’re brave and don't mind music where distortion is the anti-hero of the day. But 20 Jazz Funk Greats is probably safer, if no less confronting in the long run.
It’s hard to imagine what Trotsky would have thought of Throbbing Gristle – but, with his sense and breadth of vision, he might just have seen something powerfully symbolic in the way they take what was once ordinary and benign and turn it into something terrible and terrifying; the way they distort what was once comfortable and make it confronting and, in the process, somehow show it for what it really is; the way they take risks, even unpopular risks, because they, like he, know that’s what you have to do if you’re really serious about moving forward.