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Throbbing Gristle – Heathen Earth


OK, having not been born until 1971, I was a bit late to the Throbbing Gristle party. By the time I discovered them in the late 80s, they were long defunct, the mission having terminated several years before. So when they did reform, I was cock-a-hoop (do people still say “cock-a-hoop” anymore?), and by the same token I was greatly saddened by last year’s tragic death of Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson. But my first memory of Throbbing Gristle’s actual music (as opposed to the legendary tales of their live shows, imagined lifestyles, ideologies and controversies) was the album Heathen Earth. Sitting around a home-made dreamachine at my mum’s house (it took us fucking AGES to find a record player that would still go at the right speed, even back then) listening to it with eyes closed and wondering why we hadn’t all tripped the fuck out. Probably something to do with the fact that we were teenagers and lacked concentration.

An album evoking the horror of reality, the rejection of musical forms, the commodification of music, the hideous insect lust of Burroughs, the glory of smashing things up to build anew in their place, an obsession with and rejection of control and conformity, part psychedelia, part atonal noise, filled with a truly unsettling blend of the mournful and the nasty, shot through with shafts of utter beauty – yeah, I remember that one.

And now it’s been re-released, along with the other classic albums, in a lovely digipak with the original sleeve artwork and an extra bonus CD of other live stuff. Of course, the idea of remastering the work of a band who say in the sleeve notes that much of their work featured “a diverse range of intentional (and unintentional) tonalities, timbres including: tape hiss, phase errors, white noise, distortion, clicks, pops, extreme high and low frequencies and occasionally silence” seems a little strange, but by crikey it’s fantastic. It was recorded live in front of an audience, whose names are listed in the sleeve (and whatever happened to Monte Cazazza? That’s a name from another era), and in contrast to their more recent work, it really IS very lo-fi sounding. That’s not a bad thing, though. Remember this was a band who actually WERE doing that “inventing a whole new style of music” thing that so many get wrongly accused of. A band whose influence completely outstripped their fame, it’s hard to imagine what walking unexpecting into an early gig must have been like. Although these days there are many bands and performers taking a lead from TG, nobody’s ever been quite the same. And that’s a good thing; slavish tributes would no doubt tickle Mr P-Orridge‘s ego, but they’d be directly contradictory to TG’s meaning.

TG were always as much about destroying music as creating it, and playing with the idea of pop as commodity. Heathen Earth showcases a pretty wide spectrum of their sound, from the disturbing chunks of conversation that make up “Still Talking” (an old memory resurfaces – “he said it, and it was TWICE!” circulating as a meme among my friends as teenagers), to the Tangerine-Dream-Get-Hammered-With-William-Burroughs-On-Top-Of-An-Elephant onslaught of “The Old Man Smiled.” An introduction clipped from their Sheffield University gig which begins the second CD betrays the fact that behind the darkness, the noise, the well-publicised and much misunderstood Nazi and Moors Murders imagery there was a sense of humour, and that they never took themselves quite as seriously as the rest of us did.

The obsession with control, the grimness of post-industrial life, and the possibility for transcendence through rejecting convention are still as relevant today as they were back in 1980, making this much more than just a historical document. Although for the musical genealogists there’s a lot to be gained from all of TG’s back catalogue in terms of isolating the elements that continued into the members’ later projects. (Indeed, when they reformed it was interesting how the “new” TG sounded pretty much exactly like you’d expect a Psychic TV/Coil/CarterTutti joint project to sound!)

If you’re not familiar with the band, this is as good a place to start as any – I mean, I did, and now I own more stuff by them than probably any other band – and if you are, then you’ll know Heathen Earth is well worth revisiting.

-Deuteronemu 90210-

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