Part Two: The Endless Not/TG Now/A Souvenir of Camber Sands by Throbbing GristleRelease date: December 13, 2019
The latest phase of their reissues series brings us Throbbing Gristle – The Reformation Years. In which the notorious ‘wreckers of civilisation’ return for a valedictory twirl as a heritage lounge act. That’s right friends, reissues of comeback records from 15 years ago, talk about bringing you the hot sound of now. We shouldn’t really be dignifying this sort of thing. The past choking the light, taking up too much space. There’s a ceaseless torrent of derivative young bands who could use the support to reach an audience, to achieve something, anything. These ludicrous 70’s pantomime dames really don’t need any more words.
Still, such is the dark magnetism of Throbbing Gristle that here we are. In a world where it’s now fair enough to assume every band that ever was has either reformed or soon will (The Smiths being the exception that proves the rule) it’s hard to think of anyone for whom it posed a higher stakes gamble.
It’s not as if they were all sat around on their hands, in the 20 odd years since they terminated the mission all four members had produced extensive and well regarded bodies of work. Much of it was better, more interesting music too but none of it carried quite the mythic power or brand recognition of Throbbing Gristle. Their myth was one of confrontational nihilism, a radical, scouring, iconoclasm that made contemporaries like The Sex Pistols sound like cosy pub rockers.
How do you reanimate something like that without trampling over everything that made it special and falling flat on your face? Aware of such problems Genesis P-Orridge initially refused, on the reasonable grounds of not being that person anymore. Paul Smith, of Blast First who was instrumental in getting this to happen, is said to have convinced them that their potential audience would be more interested in something new than an undignified greatest hits re-enactment.
TG Now finds them testing the waters to see if this could work, the title making the nature of things as plain as possible. As a return to recording after 23 years ‘X-Ray’ is almost comically minimal, a gentle pulse as if Chris Carter had turned up first, plugged in The Gristleizer and let it run for a bit while he made a cup of tea. It’s a table clearing reset on their career. ‘Splitting Sky’ starts up on a slow, ominous rhythm. Electronic seagull wails echo around P-Orridge’s processed vocals intoning about “albatross, with iron wing” the mood is sparse and sombre. Things brighten a little on ‘Almost Like This’ an elegiac sigh with some lovely moments that is revisited on both the other reissues. By contrast ‘How Do You Deal’ rides on a rumbling post punk bass line for 14 minutes like Bauhaus three days into a bender. At a full 45 mins TG Now doesn’t really work as an album and seems like it would benefit from a severe edit down to an EP. Still, when you’re actually listening to it there’s a pleasingly steady and hypnotic quality to the way the tracks slowly unwind and circle around.
The live versions on A Souvenir of Camber Sands are shorter and tighter. Genesis opens ‘Splitting Sky’ with a cringey repurposing of ‘There were three in the bed…’ but almost immediately redeems it, as the track coughs into life, with an amused “you all thought you’d hear things that you were very familiar with, but you’re not. ha ha ha.” First available immediately after the show A Souvenir… is a live document of their performance at ATP’s Nightmare Before Christmas in Dec 2004. Nice to have if you were there but unlikely to become anyone’s first choice when they’re in a Gristle-y mood I would have thought. Most of it seems to be on YouTube if you want to see it as well. Not that it’s bad at all, especially the second half. I really like the version of ‘Convincing People’ here and the closing ‘Fed Up’ into ‘Wall of Sound’ is great.
The pick of the three is Part Two: The Endless Not an imperfect but nonetheless decent stab at a late period comeback record. Immediately livelier, ‘Vow Of Silence’ is a churning parade spattered with wordless vocal cut ups and borne along on a deep monk-ish drone, a procession towards unknown purpose or destination. ‘Rabbit Snare’ is some etiolated after midnight jazz, a scattering of drunken brass, fractured piano dabs and brushed snare. Initially surprising it comes into focus as a natural continuation of 20 Jazz Funk Greats. I can’t shake the idea that a joke about returning as cabaret entertainers is at the root of it. ‘Almost Like This’ becomes shorter and sharper still. In truth, similar in tone to ‘Rabbit Snare’ but with more familiarly TG electronic sounds, it might have been nice to see them push a combination of the two. After that the album does tend to fade slightly.
‘Greasy Spoon’ is fairly typical of the general sound they’re putting together here. Squatting stubbornly in the centre of the album it drags on longer than welcome. I’ve belatedly come to the conclusion that my main issue with ‘Lyre Liar’ is the tiresome wordplay of the title, even if it was ‘Liar, Liar’ I’d be happier. It doesn’t help that it’s also the only lyric, repeated by P-Orridge in a dull, enervated whine. A drained ‘will this do?’ vocal that makes you wish it was an instrumental. He makes a far better contribution on ‘Endless Not’ even if the track follows roughly the same path.
As on D.o.A: The Third and Final Report, there is an individual track a piece by each Gristle. ‘The Worm Waits its Turn’ was written and performed with Bryin Dall a member of P-Orridge’s Thee Majesty project. It features more beats and words than the whole of the rest of the album and sits slightly apart, as if it wandered in from a different record entirely. The others all chip in lovely low key tracks that bring space and breadth to matters. Chris’ ‘Separated’ begins quietly and gently fills with spectral noise. Cosey’s ‘Above The Below’ is haunting and beautiful with a Radiophonic Workshop vibe about it. Sleazy’s ‘After The Fall’ closes the album, sparkling piano notes float us out into the drone and when they reappear they seem far below. Using the magick of digital technology I sometimes listen to just these three tracks together. It’s a pleasing little suite that gives them more room to shine than when spacing out the bigger, denser album tracks. Make of that what you will, try it for yourself, whatever.
This is not the best stuff that Throbbing Gristle ever did but it’s a long way from being an embarrassing afterthought in their discography. There’s plenty of that anyway. Easy enough to make fun of little Neil Porridge and his adolescent fascinations with serial killers and uniforms, rolling about in performative abjection. Attention seeking behaviour that’s dated badly, beloved of every witless industrial dickhead that ever tried your patience with some grindingly dull, try-hard, outrage twattery.
Throbbing Gristle were always more than that and they succeed here by leaving the transgressive pageantry of their own legend in the past and concentrating on the more lastingly important work the band did exploring the possibilities of sound and structure. That’s the stuff that still carries weight and influence for younger artists, the reason we might still care about old records of old comeback tours. It was a risky venture but they kind of got away with it. Then, A year later they even went in for the whole ‘performing the debut album for the 30th anniversary’ caper and got away with that as well. There’s a lot of good stuff here for fans of the band, but I would say, if you’re making tough decisions on a budget at this time of year, then CarterTuttiVoid’s Triumvirate is probably the one to go for.