The first time I heard a Throbbing Gristle album was in 1981 and it scared the bejezus out of me.
Other than the Residents, I had never heard music that affected me on such a dark and visceral level.
One side of the album, Second Annual Report, had three versions of a song called “Slug Bait” and three versions of another called “Maggot Death”. Each version sounded nothing like any of the other ones.
They weren’t even songs in the traditional sense, more like dark sonic soundscapes, hellish vistas of the screaming human soul.
Their music was like a formless horror movie told purely in demon sound. It was so ugly, it was beautiful.
That would be a good way to describe Thursday night’s show at the Regency Center Grand Ballroom.
The band last played San Francisco in 1981; it was their final show before breaking up.
Just after taking the stage Thursday night, lead singer Genesis P-Orridge said, “I have a story to tell you. It’s a children’s story – well, a story about murdering children...” And then the pounding heartbeat of the drum machines began as a beautifully sculpted cacophony sprouted like sinister fungus from the amps.
Propelled by thunderous drum machines and electronic bass loops, Throbbing Gristle’s music lays down an unstoppable substructure of rhythm over which surges of dissonance and noise rise and fall like gentle waves.
Their music is mainly electronic, a combination of laptops and vintage gear played by Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson while Cosey Fanni Tutti’s guitar rides walls of feedback squall.
Despite their atonal and Art Brut nature, all these clashing elements somehow still mesh, thanks to the perfect chemistry of the musicians.
In the nearly three decades since they broke up, Throbbing Gristle’s influence has been massive.
They almost single-handedly invented industrial music and rarefied the art of shock theater.
Onstage they performed acts such as having sex with the severed head of a chicken.
Without them there would never have been Skinny Puppy, Marilyn Manson, or GWAR. The rave and techno scenes also owe them a huge debt.
Multiple feminizing surgeries have transformed the once male Genesis P-Orridge into an exotic many-gendered thing.
She has shiny metal teeth. Her voice ranges from that of a fragile Marlene Dietrich to a sibilant masculine hiss.
She prowls the stage singing songs of psychopaths, so it really threw everyone for a loop when she brought out a young totally normal-looking girl and said, “This is my daughter, I’d like you all to wish her a happy birthday.”
Throbbing Gristle played all the hits: “Persuasion”, “What A Day”, “Hamburger Lady”.
The show ended with an epic version of “Discipline” with Genesis playing rhythm by banging the microphone on his head while Cosey sailed shimmering winds of white noise feedback. It was symphonic, thunderous, epic, filled with ugly splendor: the perfect way to end the show.
Everyone on stage was so old that at times I felt like I was watching the Golden Girls playing industrial music on bad acid, but that was part of what made it great.
There were people in the audience who weren’t even born when this band broke up, and Throbbing Gristle wasn’t just showing all these young techno kids that they could still do it, they were showing them how it’s done.
When this music first came out it was considered shocking, atonal. Now it sounds melodic, one could even call it pretty in places, and that’s purely because of how Throbbing Gristle's influence has changed the culture in the thirty years since they last came to town.
Jon Longhi left the show Thursday night feeling that there was some hope for us all growing old and still staying true to our muses.