Let us get pastoral for a minute – I have always had a love for the bright weak sunshine and shards of long shadow that break the lethargy of a gormless summer with a deep sense of urgency. There’s a lingering perception that things are starting to happen… and all lingering perceptions need a soundtrack. On a personal level, there has seldom been a more fitting soundtrack to encroaching rust tones and brittle atmosphere than Throbbing Gristle – whatever the flavour of noise, it works in equal parts easy and uneasy listening, making this a perfectly timed reissue for these ears.
JOURNEY THROUGH A BODY has long been an evasive chunk of the Throbbing Gristle catalogue. Although reissued on CD as part of Mute’s incredible “The Grey Area” sub-label in the early 90s, this is the first time since its initial and unofficial pressing in 1982 that it has been available on vinyl. Phase 2 of Mute’s TG reissues also includes MISSION OF DEAD SOULS (out of print since the early 90s) and HEATHEN EARTH (which seems to still be readily available from the 2011 Industrial Records reissue).
By the turn of 1981, THROBBING GRISTLE was on its last legs. Strained internal relationships (now well documented) and the feeling that they were becoming a cog in the music industry weren’t helping to move anything forward creatively. It had been a year since the recording of HEATHEN EARTH, and despite Industrial Records as a label being at its most active in 1980, THROBBING GRISTLE itself was in danger of stagnating.
In Early 1981, Cosey Fanni Tutti was invited to create a piece of sound art in Rome for RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana) on the recommendation of Robert Wyatt. The given brief was “A Journey Through The Body” and Cosey diplomatically suggested it to TG as somewhat of a retreat – an opportunity to record new material in a fresh environment. Over 5 days in March of ‘81, and with no pre-planned material, TG recorded this piece of radio-art, one track per day, mixing directly after recording and adding nothing to the tracks once the day was done. Although this was the state broadcaster’s studio, Cosey Fanni Tutti recollected in ART SEX MUSIC a less than professional atmosphere…
“The Studio technicians were a joke – They were stoned or drunk and unhelpful most of the time – so we took over the recording sessions and recorded with their grand piano, synthesisers and other assorted instruments”.
…With TG in total control of all aspects of its work, the results of what became JOURNEY THROUGH A BODY were unadulterated (as they were with recordings made at the Death Factory in Hackney), but this final studio session of the group (first time around) was often bleak and difficult unlike anything that preceded it.
MEDICINE on side A kicks in with a piercing high frequency… this might have served as a repellant to those who caught up with TG as its popularity swelled, thinking that “experimental” or “electronic” meant that they were getting an OMD record – It’s a trying fanfare to announce the album’s arrival. The track morphs into a simulated field recording of sorts with medical instructional audio, an ECG machine and echoed human breathing, supported by the suction and pump of breathing apparatus… Snippets of medical staff conversation, distant cries, coughs and varied breathing patterns all detail the track’s 15:22 minute duration. The result is a ball of sensory confusion from the sedated viewpoint of the patient, with a possibility that the timeline of events could also be flipped and the opening high pitch is the sound of flat lining. For anyone who ever found the two and a half minutes of a loading data cassette on IBM from the D.O.A: THE THIRD AND FINAL REPORT irritating, this will be a barrel of laughs altogether! The initial cacophony of CATHOLIC SEX brings with it some familiar and unmistakable TG audio components. As the noise subsides, the track pulses through washes of noise, bass, cornet, organ, spoken vocals and reluctant sex noises in a manner that seems to revisit auditory and thematic ideas from the 20 JAZZ FUNK GREATS era, and could very easily be slotted into that album.
Opening Side B, EXOTIC FUNCTIONS is both tropical and uric – A determinedly simple tune stabbed out on what sounds like a cheap marimba preset is accompanied by piano, hand drums, running water and tropical birdcalls. The group’s Martin Denny/exotica fetish playfully juxtaposes itself with the ordeals of bladder physiology and the sleazy, lounge-y reality of catching something nasty after the carnal trajectory of one too many Martinis. On, VIOLENCIA (THE BULLET), the unpleasantness and trauma are taken up several notches with an array of screams and other harrowing vocalisations… These sit into a soundtrack of noise blasts, tinkling/crawling/thumping piano lines and synth fragments – It doesn’t look enticing on paper but it’s classic TG in so many ways and arguably the most rewarding 8 minutes of the album. All that remains is the disarmingly musing OLTRE LA MORTE, BIRTH AND DEATH – a piano piece that approaches the instrument externally and internally, impinging on the conventions of this compositional tool, playing it the right way and the wrong way. Nowadays, it’s an approach lauded as “prepared” piano. Back then, you would most likely have simply been asked to step away from the expensive instrument.
The striking feature of JOURNEY THROUGH A BODY is its creative and improvisational cohesion. Despite internal strife, the recordings resonate with moments of articulate clarity and chaos. This is testament to the consistency of TG, even if it was essentially at an end – Shortly after arriving back in London, Chris Carter announced his intention to depart the group once May 1981’s live dates in the US were done and dusted (he was already in negotiations with Rough Trade about what lay beyond).
RAI declined to provide the group with a proper copy of the project (they received a cassette tape) but the record was subsequently (and unofficially) released in April 1982 by a label called Walter Ulbricht Schallfolien run by a record shop in Hamburg, Germany. Posthumous TG bootlegging was rampant throughout the 80s (and beyond), with several paper trails eventually leading back to something Genesis P’Orridge had signed – In the case of JOURNEY THROUGH A BODY, the source was a little more brazen with CATHOLIC SEX dedicated to his wife Paula.
In October 1981, 4 months after TG’s official “The Mission Is Terminated” announcement, Rough Trade’s excellent THROBBING GRISTLE’S GREATEST HITS (ENTERTAINMENT THROUGH PAIN) was released. The compilation might have seemed like the perfect slice of accessibility to end on, but it is somewhat fitting that TG’s final studio recording was anything but accessible.
This release comes on semi-opaque silver grey vinyl with silver foil-blocked cover lettering and some interesting photos of the session on the inner sleeve. For best results, hook your carcass up properly to this – It’s a gloriously masochistic yet strangely tranquilising headphone listen.
Get it here…
…more Throbbing Gristle related reviews here…