Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
On brutalism, artistic prostitution and the birth of industrial music
Forty years ago today, COUM Transmissions took over the ICA with their Prostitution exhibition. Spearheaded by Genesis P-Orridge, it was unlike any art show the venerable institution, or indeed any gallery, had hosted before. A visceral statement about how artists have to debase and sell themselves in order to keep creating, the show ripped apart any preformed notions of morality and shocked visitors with an extreme vision of youth in revolt. And they did it all through the medium of performance art, pornography, and relentless waves of punk rock and white noise.
On the opening night, P-Orridge came prepared with a case full of syringes, bloodied bandages, Vaseline, used tampons, a rusted knife, wire, a bottle of blood, some chains and a large black wig. A Guardian reporter at the time asked him what it was all for. “The knife and wire I use to garrott myself — almost but not quite — in my performances,” he replied. “The wig is just to wipe up the blood.” Cosey Fanni Tutti, also a member of COUM, hung images of her porn mag past on the walls. A stripper called Shelley titillated the audience between bands. Rising punk outfit Generation X (billed as LSD) played an assured set of dole rock so loud that it could have disturbed the Queen in her castle at the end of the road.
The cultural cognoscenti ate it up. The establishment, not so much. “It’s a sickening outrage. Sadistic. Obscene. Evil. Money is being wasted here to destroy the morality of our society. These people are the wreckers of civilisation. They want to advance decadence. I came here to look, and I am horrified,” Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn pronounced in the press. The Mirror and other shambolic tabloids also condemned it. And in doing so, they cemented Prostitution’s place in counter-culture history.
The event also marked the end of COUM Transmissions and their reinvention as Throbbing Gristle. Tony Parsons wrote an NME review about their first show: “Throbbing Gristle, music from the Death Factory, were the first band to appear. The lead singer and bass player, Genesis P. Orridge, had ratty shoulder length hair that was shaved bald up the middle of his head, as if he had been run over by a crazed lawnmower. While he went into a rap about the decay of humanity, Peter Christopherson took his place behind his tape machine, Chris Carter got behind his keyboards and Cosey Fanni Tutti settled herself on a wooden chair to handle lead guitar. After Genesis finished his opening speech of doom and destruction the band went into their, uh, music which consisted of lots of weird sub-psychedelic taped sounds rolling around random keyboards played plonk-plonk style, lead guitar that Patti Smith would have been ashamed of and moronic bass on a superb Rickenbacker by old Genesis P. Orridge himself.”
Forty years later, P-Orridge is still ruffling society’s feathers and inspiring a new generation of outsiders. An icon of experimental art, s/he has embraced a pandrogynous existence since 1993, referring to h/erself in the plural and physically identifying as “third gender.”
Now living in NYC but still touring the world with h/er group Psychic TV, s/he recently appeared at Second Home for the Serpentine’s Miracle Marathon for a spoken word performance as incendiary in its tone – albeit much less noisey and bloody – than the one s/he debuted on the ICA stage four decades ago. Before the event, I met h/er to talk about many things, from brutalism and the role of architecture on people’s mental health, through to fashion’s appropriation of h/er music and, of course, the legacy of Prostitution.
Tim Noakes: Why do you think you were first drawn to the shadows?
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: I think it’s called the dystopian view of life. (laughs) Such a simple but great question. The sufis say that “you don’t learn anything from somewhere else, you recognise it in someone else”. So I was drawn to William Burroughs and Anthony Burgess and his Clockwork Orange ideas, and all those other references because that was what the world looked like to me.
What exactly did it look like from your point of view?
My experience of the world wasn’t happy. I was born in 1950, so I remember Harold Macmillan waving a Union Jack saying, “You’ve never had it so good” and we’re all thinking “You fucking liar”. Everybody is working in factories and miserable, but they are not complaining, That’s not ever so good. That’s destroyed and miserable and numbed and that’s not how life was meant to be. In parallel to that I played in bomb craters and the bombed out buildings as a kid. We were told you can’t go there as it might fall on you. We saw all the mills closing down and we used to watch all the trains being cut up for scrap, the steam trains. So we saw the underbelly of life very literally. The destruction, the way that when something was no longer needed it was just thrown out as scrap. And to me it was the same with people. There was this leftover of the Pinewood Studios vision of England. The copper on his bicycle, saying ‘Evenin’ all. How do you do?”, like Dixon of Dock fucking Green. It was just this complete bogus vision of the perfect England, which at the moment sadly America is going through with its nostalgia for the 50s.
“We played in bomb craters and the bombed out buildings as a kid. We saw all the mills closing down and we used to watch all the trains being cut up for scrap, the steam trains. We saw the underbelly of life very literally.”
What was the last straw for you?
The final nail in my dystopian coffin was when I went to public school. Originally the first school in Stockport, Stockport grammar school, was actually really nice. It was like being in Billy Bunter land and all you had to wear as a uniform was the blazer, but you could still wear winkle pickers and skin tight mod trousers and have a Beatle haircut and a little thin leather tie and everything. So that to me seemed like the perfect place to be. You could be yourself but you could learn, that to me was education. I had that for 3 or 4 years and then was suddenly removed to Solihull, which we still believe is the most sterile place in Britain. It’s soulless there, and then this school, Solihull school, another public school you had to wear herringbone wool suit, laceup oxford shoes, the school tie, the right white shirt, your hair had to be above the top of your ear. All this garbage, which I knew wasn’t necessary to education, because I’d had the other. So I walk in with my Beatle haircut and they pick on me. The school teachers, the other kids, everybody. I had a Manchester accent so they beat me up for that. They beat me up for writing poetry, they beat me up for being different and so on. And they were all going to be, as the teachers said, the new leaders of England. The heads of industry, the politicians, the diplomats, and they were most of them sons of that. Princes from Africa and so on.
“At school, I walked in with my Beatle haircut and they picked on me. The school teachers, the other kids, everybody. I had a Manchester accent so they beat me up for that. They beat me up for writing poetry, they beat me up for being different and so on. And they were all going to be, as the teachers said, the new leaders of England. I just thought they were scum”
What did you think of them?
I just thought they were scum. These people were scum, and they are ignorant, and their answer to everything is violence. This is not a world I want to live in, this is the enemy. So in that environment my English teacher, the best teacher in the school, one day gave me a piece of paper after a class and said I want to see you afterwards. I thought “uh oh what have I done”. He gave me a piece of paper and he said ‘you live in a completely different universe to the rest of us.” He even wrote it on my last school report. But he said ‘I think you’d like this book, and it said On The Road, Jack Kerouac.” I was 15 and I thought I wonder who that is. So I told my Dad and luckily he was cool, he used to race motorbikes before the war and play in a jazz band on the drums. He didn’t know who it was but one day he came home with a copy of the book he found in a motorway cafe in the book bin, and I read it and I realise that they were real people, and I figured out that one of them was William Burroughs and I started seeking out anything else by those people. That world resonated. That was the world I wanted to be in. I wanted to be a bohemian beatnik and travel, and not be afraid of the unusual and the strange and the decrepit, and the scraps of society. I wanted to be part of that.
As soon as I finished school I wanted to get out of there. I didn’t have any problems at home but I just didn’t want to be at home. I wanted to have adventures, I wanted to be a beatnik. So I went to Hull university very briefly so I could escape in a sort of respectable way. Then I packed it all in after a year and went on the road with the Exploding Galaxy and I’ve never been off the road since (laughs). The decayed rebellion and the dystopian vision of the world has always resonated with me. That human nature is innately flawed and unless we change it, we’re doomed. It’s not original sin, it’s a behavioural flaw.
“The decayed rebellion and the dystopian vision of the world has always resonated with me. That human nature is innately flawed and unless we change it, we’re doomed. It’s not original sin, it’s a behavioural flaw.”
It goes right back to ancient prehistoric times, when the male of the species was still basically a strong chimpanzee. The only way for that particular clan to survive was through protection and violence against anyone who tried to intrude, and they would protect the women and the babies to maintain existence. That was a survival tool, a genetic survival tool that got built into us. But the environment required it. We’ve been in an environment that does not require that response for at least 1000 years and so why are we still behaving that way even today, with all this amazing technological environment and all the possibilities that are exploding in science and medicine and space? We react to everything like we are still in the cave protecting a piece of meat. Oh it’s different, it’s other, I feel threatened, I must attack it. That is the problem of humanity right there. Anything that is different and other is a threat. You have to be afraid and the only answer is violence.
Especially now in America. Is it difficult living there?
I don’t think I could live anywhere but New York now. When we lived in England I used to write poems about how New York was the toilet of the world. That every country in Europe who had people they didn’t want flushed them to New York (laughs). And I guess that’s why I ended up here, because England didn’t want me either. I got flushed here too. There’s people from everywhere in the world in New York, every language in the world is spoken here. And people get on because there’s no time to argue you just got to survive. Rents make it impossible to have the space to get into fights because you just have to survive, and it’s actually the most tolerant city I’ve ever lived in.
You’ve lived in the vertical city for a long time. What do you think it does for people’s mental health living in high rises?
I don’t think it does very much actually. I used to imagine it did, but I never see anyone. My neighbours are pretty reclusive, as am I. I’ve had one party here in 4 years. I’m not very sociable. When I’m not working and traveling I’m writing and creating art and thinking and prying, I’m a workaholic.
One shared entrance for a 12 storey building and you don’t interact with anyone — that in itself is quite a dystopian way of living.
I live on the sixth floor. This particular building is kind of fun because it’s mainly hasidic. They were terrified of me at the beginning (laughs). They couldn’t think how the hell I got in here, but it’s been changing. I’m very garrulous, I always says hello to everyone in the elevator even if I don’t know them and I always remark on something, I’m friendly. And now my current best friend, Nicolette, she said when she wanders round they are always telling her how they all really like us and how they’re really glad that we’re living in the building. So we’re a catalyst for change, even here.
The old Throbbing Gristle studio in Martello Street has been turned into a massive high rise now.
Has it? Where the club used to be, the All Nations club, right there?
Yes, sadly. What was that area like when you were there?
Well, that’s definitely the source of a lot of the sound of Industrial music. There were all these workshops under the arches of the railway, plus the trains going by and in the middle of it was the All Nations Clubs which was loud as fuck. All these people were parking their cars on the pavement outside our building, yelling, and beeping horns, playing music loud. The place was just in sonic turmoil. Put those together and you’ve got a new kind of music right there. Instead of thinking, ‘This is driving me crazy’, we thought ‘how can we manipulate this so that it’s not abrasive in that way that it makes your nerves on edge, but it somehow reconfigures the experience so it’s acceptable and even creative?’. That’s really true, we used to tape record all the stuff outside and blend it in. That was from Burroughs’ tape recorder experiments. He was the one who gave us the idea and Sleazy was the one who was really obsessed with that, of bringing in the outside world.
“Instead of thinking, ‘This noise is driving me crazy’, we thought ‘how can we manipulate this so that it’s not abrasive in that way that it makes your nerves on edge, but it somehow reconfigures the experience so it’s acceptable and even creative?’”
It was also inspired by John Cage, who I was a fan of since 60s, you know where everything is potentially music, even silence. Once you say anything and everything that can be recorded is part of music, and everything that has two sounds is a rhythm, no matter if they are a year apart it’s a rhythm, then the floodgates open up as to what options are possible.
How did you go about piecing it together?
We looked at the music that was going on, glam and leftovers of disco and we thought that’s not the world we live in, and prog rock is not the world we live in. This is the world we live in, so it should have its own music, it should be expressed. We are not the only ones who are experiencing this, this has happened all over Britain. And also it’s British, it’s English, it’s not nationalistic, it’s a post-industrial experience everywhere in Europe and it’s not being discussed. What if we push this into the front and see what happens.
How important – both musically and symbolically – was cutting up your sonic environment?
The cut up to me is the greatest creative tool of the 20th Century. It’s still my my basic tool, collaging, cutting up, reassembling, taking things that aren’t meant to go together and putting them together and getting these weird energies and vibrations and responses that would never happen any other way. And yet it’s random, so how random is random. Burroughs used to say “let’s cut it up and see what it really says”. That’s a really great strategy. Maybe it’s just how we perceive things that makes things speak, that tells stories. So we were liberated by the experience of being there. We could have gone, “oh it’s horrible in here it gives me a headache”. But we didn’t, we went, “this can be something really special, interesting, and at the very least it needs to be set free”. Instead of encompassed and held back by it’s initial function of industry and travel and so called entertainment. What if we break all that and say it’s raw material.
Do you think people in inner cities need extreme music to help normalize their daily experiences? White noise as medication.
Definitely. We were a bit like those headphones people wear in airplanes, so they don’t hear the noise but it has a white noise in it. We were a bit like that. We were the white noise of the city. And it wouldn’t have worked unless people were empathizing and recognising that that was what they were also experiencing. They recognised it even if it was completely new and alien, they recognised it or else they wouldn’t have come. They wouldn’t have stood there being battered by this wall of new sound and paying to do that. I think in the beginning it was almost a bit like a rollercoaster experience. People went for that alienation sensation, but as time went by it started to make more sense as to why we were doing it and what it was actually discussing, and that’s when it began to change.
“Throbbing Gristle were a bit like those headphones people wear in airplanes, so they don’t hear the noise but it has a white noise in it. We were a bit like that. We were the white noise of the city.”
It’s a bit like jazz, we are really lucky we can actually say we invented a genre of music and named it. But like jazz it then breaks up into all these endless endless variations and subgroups and other intepretations. That’s how it’s supposed to be because the world is not static nor is anything else that describes it. If it had stayed the same and everything had just sounded like TG, it would have been a failure. The fact that it is endlessly mutating to this day and it’s worldwide and that there are labels, DJs, clubs, clothes, etc everywhere, suggests that we were speaking a new language but it was a language people understood. They recognised it. They knew the experience. It still makes sense but it mutates to its environment. All creativity should continue to restrategise and mutate, it should never stay the same, it should never be a formula and when it’s worn itself out it should be thrown away and you do something else, which is what we do.
Do you think that’s why people like you, Burroughs and Ballard still resonate with the youth of today? Because you had the guts to write and say things no one else was going to?
We were purging, yeah. Well the late 70s was ignored for ages. Even in the art world it was ignored for ages, until the Barbican did that exhibition that we were entered in. They didn’t know where to put the rebellious works that were happening, the anarchy of it. That people didn’t care if it was in a gallery or if it was down the street and nobody knew about it. We played in derelict buildings, we played in deconsecrated synagogues. We did everything ourselves, and we did our own newsletters, we didn’t care about music press, we didn’t try and get a label deal. When Sniffin’ Glue wrote, “Here’s three chords now go and form a band”, my reply was – why learn any chords? To me that was insanity. Let’s carry on being the same? No! Get rid of it all. And what did we get, we got bands who wanted label deals, who wanted to be on top of the pops and played sort of garage rock.
“Why learn any chords? To me that was insanity. Let's carry on being the same? No! Get rid of it all.”
Whereas we were saying, “Where’s the cheapest clothing that lasts the longest?” Army navy surplus. It’s made to last and be battered by barbed wire and survive. So those are the clothes you should wear, because it’s cheap and easy and it’s funny because camouflage doesn’t work in a city. If you wear green and brown and yellow and walk down the street everyone can see you because the thing behind you is grey, which is why we eventually made grey camouflage for the band. We said this is the kind of camo you need in cities, and that’s where the next warfare will be, and we were right. We said it would it would be urban warfare next.
Your music has been described as sonic weaponry. Do you see a future where governments use music as a weapon?
Definitely. We used put it in our newsletters right at the beginning that they were working with sonic weapons. The problem with it was first they had to set the deep frequencies into the concrete, and they can’t direct it accurately. It goes round the back still and everybody else gets sick. So far they’ve not perfected how to aim it, and they’re still working on it as though it’s a non-lethal weapon, though if it’s deep enough it will rip you apart. So at some point somebody will figure that one out. They’ll get the right algorithm and they’ll use it as a weapon. It’s strange but we heard from people we know who are in the intelligence community within the United States, names cannot be said, but when they were down somewhere in Central America and they actually played Throbbing Gristle through the speakers at the building where people were holding hostages so they couldn’t rest.
How did you feel when you heard that?
I thought it was brilliant (laughs) I just thought it was hilarious. And of course if the people in the building had the right attitude it wouldn’t bother them at all. They’d be dancing and having a party, waving out of the windows saying, “Louder!”
“They actually played Throbbing Gristle through the speakers at the building where people were holding hostages — so they couldn’t rest. I thought it was hilarious. Of course if the people in the building had the right attitude it wouldn’t bother them at all. They’d be dancing and having a party, waving out of the windows shouting “Louder!””
They should have drafted you in to play a live show.
Yeah, well, we would have made it fun. But there’s an aspect of TG people forget. If you listen to 20 Jazz Funk Greats it’s still very modern, it still sounds very fresh, much to my surprise as anyone else. DJ’s have started playing TG again in New York recently, it’s starting to come back but in this context it’s seen as very modern. It’s an example of what people are trying to do again in New York. There’s a lot of electro music, there’s a lot of noise music.
When I saw Prada using Psychic TV to soundtrack their SS15 show, I just thought, ‘what must Genesis think about this?!’
That was weird because we didn’t know anything about it. Somebody sent me a link. Hey guess what — Prada used “Maggot Brain” with my poem on it. Prada?! And we didn’t get paid, the fucking bastards (laughs).
Did you get any clothes?
No, they never got in touch with us at all. They just did it. I don’t think there’s anything you can do. They’re probably supposed to pay some kind of publishing but I bet they didn’t. So you can say well it’s nice they like our music but they should really ask.
Do you think it’s lost on most of the people who witnessed it?
This is only guess, but my guess is that the set designer did it for a little bit of mischief or just really liked it. The odds are that all the boring fashionistas had no idea what it was and it was just in the distance behind them and they were looking at the clothes, so it wouldn’t really achieve anything useful. It’s amusing to think that that’s happened but it’s also a bit concerning really because you know it wasn’t used for any purpose, except decoration. The thing that does amuse me is because it’s all about a slave in a dungeon who likes to be cut, who says “slice me, slice me, slice me.”
Like the poor factory workers making their clothes.
Yeah (laughs). They didn’t get paid either probably. It’s definitely a strange one. The decision on what that means is still unresolved.
When you came to London and you encountered the swathes of brutalist high rises— did you feel alienated or inspired?
Repulsed actually, because my initial reaction was anyone’s sensible reaction would be. Must be hell to live in there and to end up in there. Human beings are not meant to live piled up on top of each other in basically massive rabbit hutches and it’s obvious that a lot of contemporary social issues will probably be traced back to the ludicrous mistakes of the 50s and early 60s in architecture. They’re paying the price.
“Human beings are not meant to live piled up on top of each other in basically massive rabbit hutches and it’s obvious that a lot of contemporary social issues will probably be traced back to the ludicrous mistakes of the 50s and early 60s in architecture.”
You know when you live 30 floors up and have no contact with nature, the earth, with a community of people. The basic concept of high rises and slamming people together — it came from the war of course. Where I used to live in Manchester at the end of my street were a load of prefabs and they built those really fast to house people whose houses were blown up during the blitz. They said they’d only be there a few years, and then you were there 30 years later and they’re probably still a lot of them. And then in places that got bombed to hell they just piled people in because they needed somewhere to live, there wasn’t a great deal of thought. Then it was considered modern of all things. The architects are to blame. I mean how dare they think that’s good design. A big monolith, it’s like the monolith in 2001. Except it’s got a few windows.
“We had a stripper and we had beer instead of wine, and a comedian telling filthy jokes. It was saying you elitist bastards have no idea of what the other culture is and who the other people are and what is going on in the shadows, but it’s coming.”
It’s been 40 years since the Prostitution show at the ICA. What do you think the most lasting legacy of that show has been?
Well that really was a slap in the face of English complacency, because all the security were 6ft 6 transvestites and everybody in the audience had never seen punks before. Generation X played as LSD and we played as TG. We had a stripper and we had beer instead of wine, and a comedian telling filthy jokes. It was saying you elitist bastards have no idea of what the other culture is and who the other people are and what is going on in the shadows, but it’s coming. It’s like Charles Manson said, ‘your children are coming to get you’, and we were. TG at the beginning were rage, my lyrics were rage. Rage at hypocrisy, the bigotry, the lies, the privilege. All things that we still find unacceptable.
Prostitution took place on the Pall Mall, just down the road from Her Majesty. What are your views on the Monarchy and the government?
I just find it appalling that they are still trying to live in Victorian times and they are trying to reestablish the privilege as strongly as they can, and emasculate the left and socialism and the welfare state and equality. They are trying to emasculate, and that’s why they’re so happy about so-called terrorism, because it gives them the excuse to increase the security, the cameras, the violence, the weaponry, the lack of freedoms. Their ability to invade privacy, their ability to ignore the law. When they started going to Northern Ireland, I predicted that’s not just because they want to stop the rebellion in Northern Ireland, it’s because they want to teach the army how to fight in cities. They’re using Belfast as a training ground, because they know it’s coming, they know urban warfare is coming and they want to teach the army how to deal with it. And they were. I still believe that’s what they were doing as much as anything else, they didn’t really keep very much peace, so what were they really there for?
At the time you all were called “The Wreckers of Civilisation”. Were you happy about that description?
We have become a mirror, you see. My favourite Velvet Underground song is, ‘I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are.’ That’s one of the best lines ever written. It’s so true – whether it’s in love or whether it’s in hate, it’s so true. And the artist is supposed to be a commentator, you’re the narrator of the story of what your people — your tribe, your chosen group — you’re their voice. You are supposed to speak for how they experience the world and you are supposed to criticise what is going on that’s inappropriate and wrong. Britain is riddled with leftover privilege and inequalities and it’s coming back to bite them. Instant karma.
“Artists are supposed to speak for how they experience the world, to criticise what is going on that’s inappropriate and wrong. Britain is riddled with leftover privilege and inequalities. It’s coming back to bite them. Instant karma.”
The neglect that they’ve been guilty of in terms of not caring about immigrant populations, not caring about the unemployed, not caring about the young and the teenagers who never think they’ll ever have a job and don’t even get encouraged to get any training to have a job. All of it is neglect. The falling apart of the city, the neglect of the heath service, the failure to subsidise medicine to the degree it’s needed. All of that is neglect and that comes from the top and trickles down. Britain is basically a matriarchy — the Queen is the mother, and the mother is the one who sets the tone for her children, who are the politicians and the diplomats and the secret bureaucrats and the law lords and everyone else, and then they let it trickle down to the next layer of privileged people, which are the rich and the upper middle class, and the aristocrats and their cronies and it trickles down this neglect and this disinterest in taking care of each other and it becomes this morass — a split between those who are neglected and those who don’t give a shit. There’s an old folk song ‘River of Shit’. Have you ever heard that one? “So wide, so long… River of shit” and then they start talking about politicians and everything and then that comes back at the chorus every so often.
Who invited the politicians to the show?
We have a secret confession we can make now. We went through all the newspapers and found all the names of the news editors and sent them invites to the opening night because we knew it would really piss them off. We did it without telling anyone else — we didn’t tell Chris or Cosey or Sleazy or anyone. We knew someone would try and persuade me not to do it.
How many of them turned up?
Oh loads of them, dozens of them. One of them hit me over the head with a beer glass. He was from the Daily Mail I think. He got drunk on the beer and came up with a pint glass and whammed me on my head. I sort of dropped to floor. The security pulled him down to the ground and dragged him out and he got away and grabbed a brick and tried to hit someone else in the head with a brick and then the cops arrested him. He was the moral journalist for attacking us and got fined next day, for disturbing the peace. He should’ve been fined for GBH really.
I feel there’s this sense of unease in London and with more gentrification and foreign investment. It seems like real estate moguls wouldn’t care if a massive class warfare kicked off. London is in danger of losing its soul to the people you were taking the task 40 years ago.
Yeah, and they’re the ones who are probably buying those brutalist buildings right now. They’re probably all in their 60s and they’re all rich and they’re the ones that are doing it and they’ve got carte blanche. They been told since they were kids that they’re privileged and they have a right to be ruthless because that’s their inheritance. That ruthlessness When people speak to me they say, ‘Oh but I thought England was the home of democracy’ and I say no it’s not, it’s a monarchy. Don’t ever forget it’s a monarchy. The Queen is legally the head of the Church of England, the army, the navy, the airforce, Scotland Yard and she can close parliament. It’s not a democracy, and also they are gangsters. How do you all royal families get to be the royal family, by killing their rivals. If necessary having a hundred year war to do it. They’ll let thousands, even millions die to maintain their little privilege in that castle. They are gangsters, they are the sickness of the worst aspects of humanity in my opinion, which is why I don’t live in England. I prefer my apartment in New York.