Genesis P-Orridge: troubling catalyst who loathed rock yet changed it for ever

<span>Photograph: Neville Elder/Redferns</span>
Photograph: Neville Elder/Redferns

For someone who occasionally purported to hate rock music – it was, a homemade T-shirt s/he was fond of wearing in the 1970s proclaimed, “for arselickers” – Genesis Breyer P-Orridge ended up having a vast influence on it. With Throbbing Gristle, P-Orridge inadvertently helped invent an entire genre – industrial music, its name taken from the band’s Industrial record label – which, over the years, developed and mutated from a misunderstood and frequently reviled cult into a platinum-selling concern.

Intent on, as one writer put it, “bursting open the blistered lie [that] rock and roll culture was telling about rebellion and transgression”, virtually every one of Throbbing Gristle’s radical, confrontational ideas was gradually subsumed into something approaching the mainstream. Electronic producers queued up to pay homage to the band, whose resident technical wizard Chris Carter may or may not have invented the first sampler by dismantling a series of cassette recorders and linking them to bandmate Peter Christopherson’s keyboard: Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig named a 1991 EP Four Jazz Funk Classics in homage to TG’s 1979 album 20 Jazz Funk Greats.

Twenty years after they caused disquiet by writing songs about serial killers and toying with quasi-Nazi imagery, one of the biggest rock stars in the world was called Marilyn Manson: on his Antichrist Superstar tour, performed in front of a huge logo that looked remarkably similar to TG’s trademark thunderflash, with its echoes both of high-voltage warning signs and, more queasily, the symbol of the British Union of Fascists. If P-Orridge’s later work with Psychic TV is less celebrated, it nevertheless demonstrated h/er uncanny ability to think ahead of the curve, presaging everything from acid house to the ongoing conversation about gender fluidity.

Throbbing Gristle perform in Culver City, California, 22 May 1981
Throbbing Gristle perform in Culver City, California, 22 May 1981. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

P-Orridge formed h/er first band, Worm, when s/he was still Neil Megson, a Manchester-born pupil at Solihull Public School. Worm even recorded an album, pressing up a solitary copy in 1968. If nothing else, it revealed that P-Orridge’s approach to music was defiantly left-field from the start: noise, improvisations and tape experiments mixed with songs that sounded a little like a less adept, more chaotic version of psychedelic folkies the Incredible String Band. When s/he moved to Hull, adopted the pseudonym Genesis P-Orridge and set up performance art group Coum with h/er partner, Christine Newby, who was re-christened Cosey Fanni Tutti, they too were initially music-based, albeit in the widest sense of the phrase.

They performed chaotic, tuneless, unrehearsed gigs, including one supporting Hawkwind where they chanted “off off off” from the stage to prefigure the audience’s inevitable response. Despite the enthusiasm of DJ John Peel, who plugged the band in his Disc and Music Echo column, Coum’s interest in music seemed to wane as h/er art became less playful and more disturbing: from brightly costumed actions on the streets of Hull that occasionally attracted crowds of entranced children, h/er performances shifted and began involving live sex acts, violence and much spilling of bodily fluids.

Related: Cosey Fanni Tutti: 'I don’t like acceptance. It makes me think I've done something wrong'

It wasn’t until P-Orridge and Tutti met former sound engineer Chris Carter that they were able to make music that reflected Coum’s bleak latterday vision, while enabling them to break out of an art world they increasingly derided as sterile and elitist. With Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson – a photographer and record sleeve designer who had taken part in some of Coum’s later performances – on keyboards, the early Throbbing Gristle dealt in churning noise, punishing electronic rhythms and distorted vocals that dealt with a variety of distressing topics: the Moors Murders, the Nazi holocaust, the acts of mutilation and barbarism described in Slug Bait.

They started playing gigs, to a largely apoplectic response: shows at regular rock venues frequently degenerated into violent confrontations with the audience. They performed at London’s ICA as part of the Coum retrospective exhibition Prostitution, which provoked such outrage that questions were asked in Parliament – Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn provided Throbbing Gristle with their lasting epigraph by describing them as “wreckers of civilisation” – and the venue’s Arts Council funding was cut. Perhaps understandably, the band did not expect their murky, lo-fi, self-released debut album Second Annual Report to be a success: if it wasn’t entirely without precedent – you could hear in it echoes of Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s experimental work, the German avant-garde rock bands of the early 70s, the Velvet Underground circa White Light/White Heat and Lou Reed’s notorious Metal Machine Music – it was nevertheless incredibly extreme for its era. But not only did its initial pressing of 750 copies sell out, it seemed to act as a lightning rod for other artists who had coincidentally been thinking along similar musical lines, many of whom ended up being released by Industrial: Sheffield’s Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA, Australia’s SPK and Germany’s Leather Nun.

Throbbing Gristle proved to be a more expansive and diverse band than the unsettling din of Second Annual Report suggested. They followed it up with United, an alternately creepy and oddly sweet-sounding electronic single that foreshadowed the synth-led direction that mainstream pop would take in the early 80s: their subsequent albums took in everything from experiments with dark ambience, warped pop songs, audio collages and tracks that now sound remarkably like techno five years too early, while continually picking away at unpleasant subject matter. At its best, their work had a startling originality and power: 42 years after it first appeared on 1978’s DOA: The Third and Final Report, Hamburger Lady’s eerie, hushed retelling of the plight of a burns victim remains a genuinely terrifying piece of music.

Throbbing Gristle were never going to be anything other than divisive, as evidenced by the contemporary critical reaction, but they developed an increasingly fanatical cult following, with Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis among their ranks. Some of TG’s members professed to be horrified by their popularity – “I don’t like acceptance, I distrust it completely,” said Tutti – but P-Orridge set about moulding their fanbase into a quasi-paramilitary cult. S/he began referring to their gigs as “rallies” and sending out literature asking: “Do you want to become a fully-equipped Terror Guard? Ready for action? NOTHING SHORT OF A TOTAL WAR”; their 1981 single Discipline bore the legend “marching music for psychic youth”. By the time of their rancorous split, shortly after Discipline’s release, there was a burgeoning underground scene of new artists exploring similar musical and thematic areas: Current 93, Whitehouse, Nurse With Wound, Foetus, Test Department. Some were TG acolytes, some professed to loathe them and have no connection to their work: either way, it was impossible to see how said scene could have existed had Throbbing Gristle not existed first.

P-Orridge formed Psychic TV with, among others, Christopherson and his partner John Balance. They unexpectedly signed to a major label; more unexpected still, their 1982 debut album, Force the Hand of Chance, was frequently lush, melodic and strangely romantic. Its sleeve, however, bore the words: “File under: fundraising activities”. P-Orridge viewed Psychic TV as the musical wing of Thee Temple Ov Psychic Youth, which, depending on your perspective, was either an organisation dedicated to disseminating information about magickal practices – some derived from Aleister Crowley, others from occultist Austin Osman Spare – a satire on organised religion, or something approaching a cult, with P-Orridge its leader.

The latter was an accusation frequently levelled by ex-members of Psychic TV, including Christopherson and Balance, who left after 1983’s alternately cinematic and chilling Dreams Less Sweet to concentrate on their own project, the hugely acclaimed Coil. Their departure set the tone for a certain turbulence among Psychic TV’s personnel: P-Orridge never failed to attract interesting collaborators – there’s a credible argument that his greatest talent lay as a catalyst – but members perpetually came and left, frequently in acrimony, occasionally claiming that P-Orridge had taken credit for their work or ripped them off financially.

Psychic TV’s subsequent releases were never quite as musically compelling, although you couldn’t fault their eclecticism, nor P-Orridge’s willingness to spring surprises on his audience. Perhaps the biggest shock came when Psychic TV reinvented themselves as a relatively straightforward psychedelic rock band – P-Orridge having presumably decided that rock and roll wasn’t for arselickers as long as he was doing it – with decidedly mixed results: their cover of the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations was an impressive act of chutzpah given P-Orridge’s limited vocal ability, though they grazed the lower reaches of the charts with Godstar, a charming and remarkably catchy paean to late Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones.

P-Orridge performing with Psychic TV in London, 7 October 2006
P-Orridge performing with Psychic TV in London in 2006. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

They then shifted into acid house, or at least something like it: an enthusiastic consumer of hallucinogens, P-Orridge had heard the term, but none of the music. P-Orridge devotees are fond of making lofty claims for the results – initially released as a fake compilation album, Jack the Tab – but in truth “the first British acid house album” betrays its origins: a hastily thrown-together cocktail of electronic beats and samples from 60s exploitation movies, it patently wasn’t going to give any of acid house’s actual progenitors sleepless nights. Never popular with British clubbers or DJs, Psychic TV’s subsequent acid house albums – Towards Thee Infinite Beat and the remix collection Beyond Thee Infinite Beat – fared better in the US: the band played raves in California and looked at one stage to have secured a major label deal.

The latter fell through, but by then P-Orridge had bigger problems: falsely accused of ritual Satanic abuse in a bizarre 1992 Channel 4 documentary made by a Christian fundamentalist group, s/he went into self-imposed exile in the US. Initially, s/he continued releasing albums as Psychic TV – the electronic collages of the Electric Newspaper series, the return to psychedelic rock of 1996’s Trip Reset – but seemed to be gradually losing interest in music: h/er next project, Thee Majesty, featured P-Orridge reading and improvising poetry over experimental soundscapes.

S/he reactivated the Psychic TV name in 2003 – an all-new line-up featuring h/er second wife, Jacqueline Breyer, with whom P-Orridge embarked on the “pandrogeny project”, involving gender neutrality and body modification to look more like each other. Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs contributed to the 2006 album, Hell Is Invisible, Heaven Is Her/e, but more attention was attracted by the reunion of Throbbing Gristle.

The latter came as a considerable surprise: relations between the former members were famously strained, a state of affairs not much helped by Psychic TV playing a 1988 London gig as Throbbing Gristle Ltd, ostensibly to demonstrate that P-Orridge was the sole creative force behind the band and the others were, in his words, “dishonest parasitic bastards”. As it turned out, the reunion was as tempestuous as Throbbing Gristle’s initial incarnation. They played a series of acclaimed live shows and released a handful of interesting albums, but Cosey Fanni Tutti’s 2017 autobiography Art Sex Music depicted the reformed band in a state of almost perpetual conflict, with P-Orridge invariably at odds with the other members before suddenly quitting.

Related: Genesis P-Orridge: fantastic transgressor or sadistic aggressor?

P-Orridge subsequently attempted to halt the release of Desertshore, a cover of Nico’s 1968 album recorded by Tutti, Carter and a series of guest vocalists as a tribute to Peter Christopherson, who died in 2010. Certainly, the album and an accompanying collection of improvisations recorded after h/er departure didn’t do much for P-Orridge’s assertion s/he was the band’s sole creative force: they were significantly better than anything the reformed TG had released while s/he was a member.

These were far from the most damaging claims made in Tutti’s harrowing memoir, which not only depicted P-Orridge as mentally and physically abusive and given to claiming authorship of others’ work, but baldly accused h/er of attempted murder: first attacking her with a knife, then throwing a breeze block at her from a balcony, narrowly missing her head. P-Orridge blithely dismissed the claims, which seemed to have little impact on h/er standing as a revered cult figure, partly because Tutti’s book wasn’t published in the US, where P-Orridge was permanently based: either those devotees who did read it chose not to believe what it said, or felt that s/he had spent so long engaged in transgressive activities that a further set of transgressions didn’t matter. Or perhaps they felt Genesis P-Orridge’s artistic achievements were so monumental that such revelations couldn’t impact on them. Whether history will posthumously agree remains to be seen: that Genesis P-Orridge played a role in changing the course of rock music, however, is beyond doubt.