In May 1981, industrial godfathers Throbbing Gristle played a final show in San Francisco before breaking up. They followed in the footsteps of fellow iconic British bands the Sex Pistols and the Beatles, whose swan songs were also performed on our turf. But unlike those peers, Throbbing Gristle has strong San Francisco ties that are bringing it back to this city. This week, the group returns to the place where its members found their aesthetic soulmates, played their most exhilarated gig, and left their inspiration lingering like fog over our metropolis.
Throbbing Gristle's avant-garde origins almost predicted its connection to the San Francisco underground. Frontman Genesis P-Orridge and guitarist and cornetist Cosey Fanni Tutti formed the band in London in 1976 to accompany the last show of their infamously corporeal performance-art group COUM Transmissions. Rounded out by synth and found-sound experts Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson and Chris Carter, Throbbing Gristle imbued aspects of proto-techno beat music and pop structures with oceans of discomfiting synthesized sound.
P-Orridge's lyrics and the band's visuals focused on stark themes of radical sexuality, serial murder, forensic pathology, mind control, the occult, and the psychological nexus between religion and fascism. Throbbing Gristle nurtured this aesthetic by corresponding and collaborating with Bay Area underground figures like body-oriented performance artist Monte Cazazza and RE/Search publisher V. Vale.
Cazazza and Throbbing Gristle exchanged volumes of mail art that explored their harrowing mutual obsessions. The Oakland artist also recorded for the band's Industrial Records label, which was named in response to Cazazza calling Throbbing Gristle “industrial music for industrial people.” Vale's tireless research into grim topics for the Search & Destroy music magazine and his defining RE/Search scene survey Industrial Culture Handbook also fed the band ideas and inspiration.
After five years of activity in Europe, Throbbing Gristle arrived for its landmark 1981 finale at Kezar Pavilion during a suitably gray period in San Francisco history. The city seemed to be on a mortality trip as people recovered from the Milk and Moscone assassinations, came to terms with the local legacy of the Peoples Temple cult, and faced the looming AIDS epidemic. Appropriately, Throbbing Gristle titled its recording of the Kezar performance Mission of Dead Souls. But the local art-punk scene was very much alive. Sludge-rockers Flipper opened the show, which was attended by members of San Francisco's key cutting-edge acts, including Factrix, Rhythm and Noise, and Chrome.
As viewed on YouTube, Throbbing Gristle's set is the group's most focused outing. The band switches effortlessly between compelling drone numbers and thumping alien disco. By the end, P-Orridge thrashes around the stage, dipping into the crowd for sing-alongs and the occasional make-out with audience members.
“We really pulled the stops out at that gig,” Carter remembers. “During our last number, 'Discipline,' the audience was in such a frenzy, jumping, shouting, and singing along, that the Pavilion's sprung floor bounced up and down to the song.”
Rhythm and Noise member (and Recombinant Media Labs founder) Naut Humon notes, “Like with the Pistols, there was a lot of hype around the show. And they lived up to it, obviously, because we're talking about it today. I think it stayed with everyone.”
Over time, Throbbing Gristle has had a viral effect on post-punk culture worldwide, but especially in San Francisco. The industrial stance it originated (as popularly morphed and stylized by Front 242, Ministry, and Nine Inch Nails) reigns at long-standing local clubs like Death Guild, Strange Love, and Meat, and the city's small but stalwart harsh noise scene owes the group an obvious debt.
But you can hear Throbbing Gristle's sonic legacy across a full generation of the city's underground scenes. Local groups like avant-funksters Tussle, electro freaks Numbers, and ambient folksters Gowns (whose lead singer, Erika Anderson, opens for Throbbing Gristle with her solo act) have drawn from the band's mix of synth noise, motorik beats, and futurist attitude. In many ways, Throbbing Gristle's reunion show in San Francisco doubles as a long-awaited homecoming.