Throbbing Gristle, 1978. Photo enlarges.
Noise. Do you consider it music? If not, can it at least be part of music? No? Then does noise have your permission to even exist? Stop shaking your head. Just kidding. Noise doesn't give a hoot what you think anyway. It's been around a lot longer than you, flirting with music for nearly a century now. Among the first to tap its unruly characteristics were two Italian gents named Luigi Russolo and Antonio Russolo, who had close ties to the Italian Futurist movement. Around 1916, they built custom sound boxes called intonarumori that blatted out a ruckus of myriad sounds during concerts that greatly upset the general public. A decade later, Edgar Varese composed very dissonant symphonic works employing an unusually large battery of percussion, sirens and even a lion's roar (a big rope pulled through a metal tub) that proved far too much for the gentile classical audiences of the day.
In 1937, experimental composer John Cage, who was responsible for a few cacophonous pieces of his own, authored an amazingly precise prediction: "I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard." Sure enough, by the time the tape recorder rolled around at the beginning of the 1950s, Cage's dream came true as composers began to record everyday noises and manipulate them. The sped up, slowed down, spliced, re-arranged and layered sounds were thus transformed into startling new abstract sound realms. By the late '60s, psychedelic and krautrock bands combined these same techniques with their own increasingly distorted guitars, setting the stage for another great upheaval.
Throbbing Gristle, 1980. Photo enlarges.
In 1975, noise reared its beautifully ugly head once again as a new British group called Throbbing Gristle unleashed an outright attack upon the world of music. Beginning in the late '60s as controversial performance art group COUM Transmissions, Throbbing Gristle startled a complacent mid '70s arena rock scene with distorted, grinding noise music made with synthesizers, tapes, guitars (but no drum kit) and vocals spouting lyrics about burn victims, murderers, rapists, serial killers and numerous other aspects of humanity's dark side. And the fact that the shock tactics came all wrapped up with fascist imagery on their debut album only added insult to injury. No wonder British politician Nicholas Fairbain was moved to call Throbbing Gristle the "wreckers of civilization."
Over a six-year period, the band released several official albums (some of which unpredictably explored less harsh territory) and a case of 24 cassettes that documented their confrontational live shows. For example, in a live setting, in addition to their abrasive sound, Throbbing Gristle was known to blind the crowd with ultra-bright lights, scare them with the taped admissions of serial killers, and assemble a wall of tall mirrors at the front of the stage, forcing audience members to engage in non-idolization and self-reflection. (One of the main ideas Throbbing Gristle tried to convey was to resist authority and think for yourself.) In 1981, right as the band almost became (gasp!) semi-popular, they broke up, mailing out a postcard to fans with the terse message: Throbbing Gristle: Mission Terminated.
Public Impact: In 1976, Throbbing Gristle started a record label called Industrial Records to self-release all of their material. This simple act inspired a worldwide movement in the late '70s and '80s called industrial music. (Confusingly, this term was later applied to a quite dissimilar form of abrasive, rapid-fire rock--exemplified by bands like Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, etc.--which bears little resemblance to the more improvised approach of Throbbing Gristle.) Even if the band hadn't reformed in 2004, their legacy would still live on today through the myriad outfits who call an aural tsunami home. And, coupled with the performance art of COUM Transmissions, Throbbing Gristle will always be remembered for pushing out the boundaries of art and music quite a bit further. As one critic put it, they "elevated civilization more than they wrecked it."
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