Say these words aloud: “You boy--What's it like to wet your foot in a cold swimming pool?--What does your voice sound like underwater?--At night?--Can you do the chickenskin swim?--Can you do the chlorine gargoyle?--Can you wriggle like an eel?”
Ahh, strong emotion… it’s what music conveys like no other medium. If you really were saying those words, or--heaven forbid--hearing them, there’s bound to be a murder going on. Subtle displays of emotion certainly have their place in music, but it’s screaming hatred, blinding love or intense desire that really makes music the art that it is.
Whitehouse (formed 1980) is a British band that specialize in something called “power electronics.” At first glance, that sounds like a redundancy, but it does make some sense. If early-80s British synthpop used synthesizers to approximate a full band (including strings and horn sections) under the total control of the producer, Whitehouse perverts this purpose… maybe “molest” is a better word… if molestation included a lot more blood. Whitehouse rewire synths into pile-driving instruments of torture wrapped up in insults, which seems to be the basic gist of their lyrical matter (and has gotten them into quite a lot of trouble in their native England, where censorship of violent content and accusations of misogyny have kept their name in the papers). Further proof is in that name: “Whitehouse” has nothing to do with our president’s home, but is a reference to both a British porn mag and the deceased anti-porn crusader Mary Whitehouse. Live, Whitehouse is said to make Wolf Eyes (the current kings of noise) look like frightened little girls.
“Wriggle like a Fucking Eel,” which was released on 12” in 2002, is both representative in its typical Whitehouse sound and something different for the band, as the structure is unconventionally (for Whitehouse) conventional. A sound like a broken air raid siren blares before someone yells out the quoted threats and some contraption starts spitting out bass tones, which sometimes sound like fucked up tribal drums, sometimes like a slowly dying digital fart. The “singer” then gets angry, eventually giving such a scream so as to drown out the air raid sirens, which by this time are beginning to sound like buzzing saws and Sonic Youth blended into a goo. Structurally, “Wriggle” is pretty damn Nirvanaesque, with a loud-soft-LOUD progression that heightens the drama and allows you the pleasure of getting your ass kicked twice.
Download the song, give it a listen. Turn it up loud enough that some child under the age of 12 will be warped by it. I guarantee that you probably won’t hear anything else so visceral today. Sometimes, people listen to music with too much of their brain. I’m just suggesting you give your skull some attention.
Throbbing Gristle also confront listeners with the brutal side of human life. These granddaddies were making audiences vomit (literally) 30 years ago, using visual stimuli (like band member Cosey Fanni Tutti cutting herself from throat to crotch,) or deafening aural tones that turned guts inside out. Their lyrics concerned the blight [sic] of the poor, burn victims and bird shit (I think, although it could be about jerking off). Lead singer/spokesman Genesis P-Orridge started cults, baited the media with Nazi imagery, and is now partially female. Their music was deceptively simple, almost minimalist in execution, but open-ended enough that their “songs” could stretch out upwards of half an hour or more.
“Discipline” is Throbbing Gristle’s last single (released 1981) and was never recorded in the studio. Genesis was always at his best before a bemused audience, but this performance gets downright weird, with audience participation bordering on cult-like uniformity. Witness the frightened looks from the boys and girls when Genesis gets in their faces or hits himself repeatedly during his tantrum, witness the girl holding her head as if it might explode, witness the strangely sedate dance the audience spontaneously participates in. What starts as “I want discipline” slowly turns into “What do WE want?” over crude rhythms and noise generators, and while the music doesn’t really progress, it’s on a death march of repetition that drains the mind and helps you remember that we’re all animals.
Is this even music? The British government labeled Throbbing Gristle as the “wreckers of civilization” after their first live shows and Genesis is quoted as having said something like about changing the very nature of music. Shows included blood enemas and Cosey’s pornography, and the censor baiting got to the point that Genesis had to leave England before they took his children away. TG is now making a comeback with an album called Part Two: The Endless Not, but some of the old aggression (and even some of the humor) is missing. Maybe 25 years just mellows a man (woman). Who knows, in 25 years, I could be listening to some limp-ass Fusion records. Enjoy while you can.