Remembering the industrial music pioneer, performance artist and provocateur who died this weekend.
Note: in recent years, Genesis P-Orridge would use ‘s/he’ and ‘h/er’ as a pronoun and description. We fully respect that choice. For the bulk of h/er life, P-Orridge identified as male. We’ll be using both regular male and subsequently chosen descriptions as relevant to the time period here.
There is no way to over-estimate the importance of Genesis P-Orridge on the world of art, industrial music and what we might still call transgressive culture. Never a household name, s/he nevertheless helped change the face of music more than s/he was credited for, while remaining at the edge of boundary-pushing art and bodily expression throughout his life.
Born Neil Megson, P-Orridge had the first of many tabloid baiting moments as the leader of performance ensemble Coum Transmissions, whose ICA exhibition Prostitution saw P-Orridge and partner Cosey Fanni Tutti famously labelled “wreckers of civilisation” by MP Nicholas Fairburn. It was an early example of P-Orridge’s ability to get under the skin of the mainstream, an ability that would eventually prove to almost be his undoing. But even as the outrage continued, P-Orridge and Tutti were moving into more musical directions, although their musical expression – finally with the collaboration of Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson – was no less challenging. Throbbing Gristle may not have been the first act to play with extreme noise and experimental sounds, but they effectively perfected the concept and made it their own, even giving it a label – Industrial, named after their self-owned label, Industrial Records.
As an archly independent outfit – self-recording, self-releasing – Throbbing Gristle offered a prototype to punk, but their music was as far removed from the three-minute rock ‘n’ roll burst as you could imagine. Pinning down a description of just what Throbbing Gristle was is almost impossible without making reference to Throbbing Gristle, and even then, you’d need to ask which album: the harsh noise of early recordings, the twisted pop of songs like United, the warped disco lounge of Twenty Jazz-Funk Greats or the ambience of Heathen Earth.
P-Orridge was the de facto leader of Throbbing Gristle, the one who saw the building fan base as a movement and who was good at sloganeering and pushing the concept of the band as less a music group and more a collision of art project and cult. It was a concept that he would take much further after the band broke up and he formed Psychic TV, the musical entity of the greater whole known as Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth. Thee temple – known to fans as TOPY – was part a religious cult (albeit one that was decidedly loose and satirical), part an art movement and part an organisation devoted to disseminating challenging and provocative art, music and literature. P-Orridge and TOPY dabbled in magick and occultism, body modification and sexual ritual, all of which would prove increasingly scary for a society that didn’t much value individuality or subversive ideas.
The TOPY video release First Transmission unnerved most of those who saw it, specifically in two sections: one featuring a doctor carrying out decidedly unethical experiments on teenage boys (staged by Christopherson with special effects, but shot to look worryingly real) and a sex magick ritual involving various bodily fluids. This would become problematic years later, but even at the time when it first started circulating as a bootleg tape, The Sunday People referred to P-Orridge as “the sickest man in Britain” and a “greedy gutter guru” in a hysterical exposé entitled “THIS VILE MAN CORRUPTS KIDS”.
Such moral panic over TOPY existed alongside several important record releases – the pioneering ‘holophonic’ Dreams Less Sweet, the unexpected almost-hit Godstar (still one of the finest pop songs of all time), and Jack The Tab, sold as a compilation of unknown US acid house acts but in truth entirely PTV – it might not have invented acid house, but the album certainly helped break it in the UK.
The TOPY provocations finally came home to roost in 1992, when Channel 4’s Dispatches – a current affairs series that has often only been on nodding terms with the truth – ran an episode entitled, with painful accuracy, Beyond Belief. An exposé of Satanic abuse at the height of the Satanic Panic in the UK, it claimed to show footage of a woman being forced to have an abortion during a Satanic ritual. The footage was, in fact, the sex magick performance from First Transmission, something that everyone involved in the show knew all along. P-Orridge and his family were, fortunately, out of the country when the police raided their offices and home – otherwise, it is entirely likely that his children would have been taken into care. The shameful affair saw P-Orridge and family move, in exile, to the USA, where assorted incarnations of Psychic TV would continue to record. Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth, however, was dealt a body blow by the accusation and its leader’s exile, and never quite recovered.
In America, P-Orridge split from wife Paula, and began a relationship with Jacqueline Breyer, which quickly morphed into the Pandrogyne Project, with the pair morphing into genderless, identical beings. It was at this point that he became h/er and stopped identifying as neither male or female, long before gender-fluid ideology became popular.
An unexpected reunion with Throbbing Gristle in the mid-2000s resulted in several shows and new recordings, but P-Orridge felt constrained by both the other band members – there was no love lost between anyone, it seemed – and reliving the past. If there is one thing that is undeniable about P-Orridge, it is that s/he continued to move forward with new ideas. Throbbing Gristle must have felt like an exercise in nostalgia, and s/he quit under acrimonious circumstances, eventually taking legal action to prevent the rest of the band from using the name.
How much this, and their fractured relationship from the 1970s, had to do with the claims made about P-Orridge in Tutti’s autobiography is anyone’s guess. None of us will know how much truth lies in her claims of his mental and physical abuse of her or, more outrageously, a suggestion of attempted murder; I am, however, always suspicious of claims that only emerge when there is a book to sell. P-Orridge dismissed the claims, and claims in an autobiography are not a smoking gun, no matter how much some people would like to claim otherwise. As P-Orridge said, “Whatever sells a book sells a book.”
In these conservative and fragile times, P-Orridge seemed a scarier than ever character, even outside Tutti’s claims. A sneering 2018 Guardian piece saw the writer clutching at pearls as she revealed that the police raid discovered material about “necrophilia, murder and Nazism”, and that P-Orridge had staged performances featuring “enemas of blood, milk and urine, or masturbating with severed chicken heads”. Nurse, the screens!
That some people will almost desperately try to dismiss P-Orridge as a mere shock-rocker (while still being very shocked at what s/he did), or attempt to suggest that s/he was the lesser talent of Throbbing Gristle (ignoring that everything that the other band members have done, some Christopherson Coil recordings aside, pale into insignificance and blandness compared to any P-Orridge project) is perhaps legacy to just how much the establishment – in this time, less the morally appalled right as the socially conscious and po-faced left who fret about any artist who doesn’t entirely toe the line politically – still fear P-Orridge and would like nothing more than for h/er legacy to be demolished. But for us, P-Orridge was a constant in life – someone who continued to push at the limits of what art, music, sexuality and bodily limitations allowed. H/er death this weekend, after a long battle with leukaemia, is a huge loss to those of us who believe that creativity, provocation and experimentation are vital components of life.