From acid house to gender identity, we look back at the Throbbing Gristle founder's radical impact on society.
Non-binary icon, industrial music pioneer, scourge of the red tops, art world darling, writer and propagator of one of the most powerful, poignant and important love stories the world has ever known. Genesis P-Orridge is all of these things, and so much more; weaving an ongoing history about gender and art and pretty much everything else in a way no few others would dare.
In amongst all this, it can be easy to forget just how important he/r legacy has been on today's electronic music makers. From Cosey Club staples like DJ Richard D Clouston to the eerie cut-ups of Hype Williams, from the gender-play of Mykki Blanco to Perc's searing marriage of EBM and heavy techno, Genesis' various projects—Psychic TV, Throbbing Gristle, COUM Transmissions and pandrogyny—have found their way into some of the most exciting pockets of 21st Century music.
We are going to trace Gen's ongoing influence through compartmentalising h/her life and work into five distinct categories, examining how a wrecker of civilization became a uniquely cherished figure. Cherished, but never unchallening, anyway.
1. Dangerous Dalliances with Occultism and the Dark Arts
The story of music is, in a way, also the story of witchcraft and the devil, but few have taken such a broad, sincere and measured approach in their investigations into alternative belief systems as Genesis. This is shown in the poignant and wildly colourful film Bight of the Twin by Hazel Hill McCarthy III, which documents a trip to west Africa during which Genesis undergoes a voodoo "twin fetish" ritual designed to unite a dead twin (in this case, Gen's late partner, Lady Jaye) with its living counterpart.
Throughout Gen's career s/he has variously drawn on figures including Aleister Crowley, artist Austin Osman Spar, and Santeria deity Eshu Elegguá, as well as practicing various ritualistic practices like sex magic—"where the orgasm is the moment when all forms of consciousness in your mind are joined, temporarily, and therefore you can pass a message through." Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey can also be heard reciting the Lord's Prayer backwards on Psychic TV's Joy, while Genesis' superb 2010 tome Thee Psychick Bible outlines many of he/r ideas and sigilization methods.
Today the visual signifiers of an occult-leaning underbelly are rarely far from sleeve designs, lyrics and, naturally, the merch table. You only have to cast your mind back a few years to recall witch house—a far-too-readily maligned genre, in this writer's opinion—the cracked-out, chopped 'n' screwed spawning of outfits like Salem, Ritualz (†‡†), Balam Acab and oOoOO. There are more than a few debts here to Psychic TV; not least the unusual samples, vocals warped to be almost comically eerie and identities forged through modified religious symbols (here's looking at you, †‡†).
The graphic reference points usually associated with occult-leaning genres like goth—think Blackletter typefaces, monochrome and warped photographic negatives—are finding their way into contemporary hip hop culture thanks to designers like Hassan Rahim while countless artists including Austra and Zola Jesus invoke rituals and sigils in their processes and lyrical reference points.
One of recent times' most fascinating acts, Hype Williams, owes a whole bunch to Gen. Like TG, PTV and COUM, the band aren't afraid to shy away from death in their words, sonic reference points, and the borderline terrifying chills that imbue their complex textures of drones, spoken word, mournfully reassembled sound collages and vocal lines. If PTV was a colourful rush of chemically engineered serotonin, Hype Williams is its painfully beautiful comedown.
2. The Industrial Revolution
There really is no doubt that Genesis invented industrial music as Throbbing Gristle in the mid-1970s. The band founded the label Industrial Records in 1976, and dubbed its debut album The Second Annual Report "industrial music for industrial people." Among the acts today carrying that baton of abrasive combinations of rock music tropes and electronically created samples, noise and generally provocative experimentation are Death Grips, dälek and Factory Floor—a London-based band who regularly collaborated with Throbbing Gristle's Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti.
"There was a kind of shamanism sympathetic magic going on with industrial music back then," says multidisciplinary artist Barry Hale. "Manufacturing had come to an end in the UK with a massive recession and the sound of industrial was like a ritual emulation of what it sounded like to live in an industrial town—almost like we were trying to refill the streets with the sounds of the factory to breathe life into the corpse of the UK manufacturing industry."
3. Stepping into the Acid House
In Thee Psychick Bible, Genesis claims to have been the instrumental figure in popularising the phrase "acid house," and who are we to deny that? Back in 1988 Psychic TV released Tekno Acid Beat, one of two fake compilation albums that typify the band's superb ability to recognise a scene and recreate it—while beating everyone else at their own game.
"The Psychic TV gigs, we were calling those raves," Genesis recounted in an interview with The Wire, "and we used to be really good friends with the E dealers, when you came to our gigs there were free tabs of E, our things became like parties, so it was a big crossover for a while. Then I worked on this single "Turn On, Tune in to the Acid House", which for what it's worth was the first record to actually have acid house in the title, although the phrase came from America."
It goes without saying that these heady days of Roland synthesisers, copious amounts of MDMA, ill-advised hats and day-glo regalia are alive and well as acid house reaches its 30th birthday. Artists like Luca Lozano, Legowelt and Helena Hauff are very much flying the flag for the sound today.
4. Gender Fluidity and Sex Positivity
Perhaps no other artist has stood at the intersection of electronic music and gender politics for as long as Genesis has. Artists like Mykki Blanco continue this legacy, making electronic-led music while rejecting gender norms.
Genesis P-Orridge's pandrogyny project saw he/r and Lady Jaye undergo surgery to look like one another and become one being, ultimately breaking down bodily representations of "male and "female". This was, and still is, instrumental in forging these paths towards more artists than ever identifying as non-binary.
Trans activist and musician Terre Thaemlitz, who also plays under the name DJ Sprinkles, is as vital and vocal a figure as Genesis in terms of discussions around gender identity politics, regularly speaking on topics such as trans rights, sexuality and class. She too has amassed a vast array of musical styles into her oeuvre, from deep house to ambient to "computer-composed neo-expressionist piano solos," and works across graphics, video, photography and illustration alongside musical works.
5. The Life-Changing Cut-Up
Gen's ongoing influence can be directly traced to sampling as a form of instrumentation. "Basically Sleazy invented the first sampler, there were no samplers in 1975," says Genesis, discussing how Throbbing Gristle's Peter Christopherson—known to most as Sleazy—discovered he could dismantle Walkman tape players and feed them into keyboards to create samplers and later, sequencers. TG tracks including the gloriously named "Five Knuckle Shuffle" used rhythms created entirely using cassette noises. Among the found sounds he surreptitiously recorded and then used included Soho brothel activity and discussions from a mercenary office he'd bugged.
He was "taking contemporary technology and bastardising it and rebuilding it to make it do something completely different to its technical specifications," says Genesis. This sort of bastardisation is so commonplace in electronic music now, used everywhere from vast US EDM "raves," to hip-hop beats to the diligent bedroom producers that grace the Resonance FM airwaves.
Gen's investigations into musical cutups were inevitable when you consider his relationship with artist Brion Gysin and his collaborator, writer William Burroughs, who s/he'd long been a fan of, and with whom s/he collaborated on 1981's Nothing Here Now But The Recordings, a compilation of Burrough's spoken word cut-ups, field recordings and "flirtations with EVP recording techniques."
Remember "hypnagogic pop"? That oddly named raft of late 2000s acts like James Ferraro, John Maus, Oneohtrix Point Never and Ariel Pink, who combined 1980s TV and gaming nostalgia with noise and drones to strange and heartbreaking effect.They too made a point of muddling through with outdated or unfit for purpose equipment, delighting in the strange accidents that come from fucking with things in ways you're not supposed to. The "hypnagogic" of the name references a dream-like state, halfway between sleep and wakefulness; surely a link to Gen's fascination with (un/higher) consciousness if ever there was one.
What's interesting is not only the direct musical appropriation of cut-up techniques, but Genesis' application of the process to broader ideas around life and love: s/he compares the idea of taking separate entities and combining them into a "third thing" to the creation of the pandrogyne, aligning this with the gnostic Divine Hermaphrodite concept. It's also part of a far broader, refreshingly idealistic view of how we can each individually shape the world by joining forces to heal our collective ailments.
"When you're making cut-ups, you're not in control of what you receive," Genesis told us post-performance at Berlin's CTM Festival. "We cut-up to see the nature of existence and make that third being; without cutups we wouldn't have arrived at the idea of pandrogyny. Binary ideas are traps, anchors."
A constant curiosity about the world and its possibilities, bringing these strange and esoteric ideas to us through eerie and hypnotic music, it's little surprise Genesis' creations have made such a mark on other artists. "We're all constantly asking questions and looking for meanings, we have to be really open to things without preconceptions," Gen says. "Don't assume there's a truth—there's not a truth."