Throbbing Gristle, ATP 2004: a gateway to a strange other England

An encounter with the British industrialists opened not only a world of music and underground culture but a whole new way of living

By the winter of 2004, the Pontins holiday camp at Camber Sands had seen better days. Barely updated since its 1970s heyday, the bleak chalets, roamed by the ghosts of Bluecoats, were an appropriate setting for Throbbing Gristle’s comeback.

In the late 70s, the band had held up a mirror to a seamy, degraded Britain ruled by corrupt authorities and mired in industrial decline, with lyrics about the Moors murders and political control, and stage outfits made of army-surplus gear. Musically, their use of samplers and abstract sound made them pioneers. After they terminated their initial phase of operation in 1981, none of the industrial artists who later cited them as an influence – Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails – came close to their radical sonics and social commentary.

TG’s plan had been to return to the fray with their own weekend event at Camber Sands in May 2004, but this was cancelled and that December they joined an All Tomorrow’s Parties lineup, part-curated by the artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. Although a comeback concert earlier that year had been well-received by the faithful, a festival bill featuring Aphex Twin and Sunn O))) could have left a 25-year-old group like TG sounding stale. But this one would be no exercise in nostalgia.

Late on the Friday night, Chris Carter and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson walked on to the stage of the huge upstairs venue, a garish space decorated with murals of cartoon characters and adverts for WKD drinks, its carpet sticky with years of spilled lager. Sleazy was dressed in a giant white furry outfit; Genesis P-Orridge followed in purple tights, tiny skirt, boots and a shock of bleached-blond hair. I had never seen anything like it – this was not standard at a fairly blokey jeans-and-T-shirts festival. A deep rhythm, pulsing like an anxious human heart, filled the room, Cosey Fanni Tutti used her guitar to make a sound I had never heard the instrument make before and an unearthly growling tickled my ears. The next 90 minutes were life-changing.

The four musicians on stage were constantly reacting to each other, riding the sound as much as they were generating it through a PA that, rather than being punishingly loud, cushioned and lifted the audience. For every unsettling moment – such as P-Orridge describing a burns victim over a bleak air-raid siren drone in Hamburger Lady – Sleazy and Chris Carter’s mastery of sub-bass and Tutti’s pranging electric guitar created a noise that was as ecstatic as it could be discomforting. It was hugely entertaining too, in TG’s own twisted way. P-Orridge roamed the stage gleefully yelling, “What a terrible day! What an awful day!” and impersonating two old dears having a strange conversation about shopping over chopped-up jaunty electronics. When P-Orridge slur-crooned their new track Almost Like This as if s/he were a drunken Sinatra, there was even a glimpse of the more traditional Pontins entertainment. It was pure showbiz, mangled pop, sonic attack, caustic wit, deviant rave, naughty, queer.

Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the performance was so intense. In Cosey Fanni Tutti’s memoir Art Sex Music, she writes of the alleged abuse that Genesis had subjected her to, and the turmoil of TG’s later years. This particular gig was dedicated to Geoff Rushton, (AKA John Balance, Sleazy’s partner in Coil and a dear friend of the group), who had died only a few weeks earlier.

I was so discombobulated afterwards that I ended up wandering Romney Marsh until dawn, listening to Nico on my headphones. TG didn’t just blow my musical imagination wide open. In the 70s, their embrace of direct communication with their fans made them a focal point for the dissemination of underground culture. Although by 2004 we had the internet, an artistic encounter as potent as this sent many of us present off into new directions, discovering not only the musical projects of the various members (Coil, Carter Tutti, Psychic TV) but also worked as a gateway to anything from to techno to musique concrète, the occult art of Austin Osman Spare, and way beyond. Throbbing Gristle also modelled how to try and exist without compromise, to be your best and truest self.

In 2013, I went back to Camber Sands for the final All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. Compared to the radical 2004 event, performances by the same old indie-rock groups – Shellac, Slint – seemed conservative and stale. I escaped to nearby Dungeness, where winter sun lit the shingle after a storm. A man dressed as Santa drove his scooter past Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage. We put Throbbing Gristle on the car stereo: still–futuristic music for the edge, and the end, of England.


Luke Turner

The GuardianTramp

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