Friday, 10 May 2013

Throbbing Gristle, The Invisibles, and All That

Grant Morrison, so far as I am able to tell, is one of the biggest names in comics today. This I gather from what I am told, having more or less given up on comics in the late 1990s due to the encroachment of other interests and a sudden decrease in the number of titles I could be arsed to read; plus one of the titles I was still following out of some spurious sense of loyalty was Grant Morrison's Invisibles, which had begun to irritate me more and more each issue. So I ducked out.

Grant Morrison began writing (and in the early days) drawing comics way back in the 1970s. His early, possibly even earliest strips appeared in a short lived magazine called Near Myths, also home to Bryan Talbot's deservedly celebrated Luther Arkwright. Three of Morrison's five Near Myths strips (unless there were others I never saw) were centred upon a character called Gideon Stargrave - one of those names thrown up by a Jerry Cornelius substitute name generator, see also Ziggy Stardust, Lazarus Churchyard, Jobriath Internet, Zebediah Monopole, and Reg Varney; except for Reg Varney who starred in On The Buses and whose life and work are examined in his autobiography, The Little Clown.

Gideon Stargrave looks and reads like the work of a talented school kid raised on Michael Moorcock and Adam Warlock comics. It takes itself very seriously, and tries just a little too hard. On the first page, a 1970s dolly-bird type enters Jason King's idea of a futuristic bachelor pad and asks are you Gideon Stargrave? Our man, then sporting one of those Beegees haircuts and a massive pair of flares replies as often as possible, but you know how it is these days. It's confident, slightly pleased with itself, and no doubt impressive for the work of one so young; but it's a long way off a masterpiece, or even an indication of formative genius. In fact, it's the older kid who goes to school accessorised with a Gentle Giant album in the hope that it will set him apart from the common herd with their Bay City Rollers and Barry Blue. Thank God Morrison grew out of it, or at least thank God it seemed like he'd grown out of it up until 1994.

I first became aware of Grant Morrison when he wrote Zenith for 2000AD comic. From the very first episode it was evident that here was a writer on a higher level. Whilst 2000AD had some serious talent in its stable (Alan Moore, Pat Mills, and Pete Milligan being but three names that come to mind), Morrison wrote with a wit and an eye for bizarre detail that seemed entirely new. Zenith was a comic masterpiece bringing H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos into the pages of 2000AD alongside Nazi supermen, washed out 1960s superheroes and Lion's Robot Archie as an acid house icon. I'm sure some may have regarded it as all a bit smart-arsed, but many quite rightly recognised it as something wonderful. Shortly after (unless my memory is compressing things, which it may well be), Morrison began working for DC comics. Initially he wrote Animal Man, a revival of a minor and somewhat generic 1960s superhero, which famously recast a thinly disguised Wile E. Coyote as a crucified Christ figure and ended its run with the author as a character in his own book explaining what he'd been trying to do over the previous twenty-five issues. Morrison's greatest work, in my estimation if no-one else's, came when he took over Doom Patrol. Doom Patrol were essentially a group of misfits, and misfits even by the standard of the usual generic superhero misfit teams whose outsider credentials usually amounted to being called names for wearing glasses. Paul Kupperberg's initial late 1980s Doom Patrol revival lost sight of this, pushing its wheelchair bound agenda as just another bunch of folks who fight bad guys whilst holding conversations. Morrison took over the title and added Dadaism and the paintings of Richard Dadd, amongst other things of equally bizarre complexion. Doom Patrol stories didn't make sense, and weren't supposed to make sense, at least not if you were still thinking of comics in terms of fights with bad guys. If, on the other hand, you could listen to a Nurse With Wound album and appreciate that the authors of that disjointed twanging sound were probably laughing like drains during the recording (as opposed to sucking their cheeks in and thinking about Charles Manson) then Doom Patrol didn't seem like quite such a foreign country.

If you haven't read an issue of Morrison's Doom Patrol, then a) you should, and b) this will work about as well as having an overenthusiastic friend describing this really cool bit from a film you haven't seen and which you suspect you would probably hate; but stand out elements were: The Painting That Ate Paris (that's both the title and what happens); Jane with the multiple personality disorder and a different power for each one; the Brotherhood of Dada; Flex Mentallo, fictional muscleman born from something drawn in green biro by a small boy, a man so infeasibly strong as to warp the fabric of reality when he flexes a bicep; Danny the Street, a sentient (not to mention homosexual) street which communicates through messages spelt out in pink bunting; the mysterious and censorious Sex Men and oh God... there was just no end to it.

Doom Patrol was about something in the same sense as Marcel Duchamp or a Nurse With Wound album are about something, and if that isn't a recommendation then it probably isn't for you. Anyway, my point is that, unless I'm imagining it, Doom Patrol, if not quite a Watchmen-style year zero for comics, remains pivotal in a way that is not easily defined (which is why I'm not going to bother). It seems that some of my favourite writers held similar affection for Morrison's run on this title. A fan letter written to Lawrence Miles some time ago asking, amongst other things, if he'd ever read Doom Patrol, garnered a response amounting to why do you think I write the way I do? Similarly I was more recently impressed at Simon Bucher-Jones lightning quick identification of three planet-headed assassins occupying no more than two pages of one issue as having been called Fear the Sky (they are defeated when their quarry traps them within an illustration in a 1903 edition of A Child's Garden of Verses). Okay, so that's maybe not quite where were you when you heard that Kennedy had been shot?, but the comic cast a long shadow, and I'm not convinced anything published since has come close to its deranged genius.

So what did Grant Morrison do next?

A few things, some pretty good (Sebastian O), some okay (Arkham Asylum), some underwhelming (How to Kill Your Boyfriend illustrated by Philip Bond, an artist whose cutesy sub-Hernandez brothers style always made my teeth hurt). The next really big thing, and the one which at least some regard as an absolute pinnacle of the man's writing, was The Invisibles, a regular series to which I'll return after a substantial digression.

Throbbing Gristle, authors of a wonderful unpredictable noise and a band who probably changed my life to some degree when I unearthed one of their weird lumps of plastic from a friend's big brother's record collection. I was still at school, and of the age when anything outside the mainstream had instant appeal by virtue of it not being fucking ELO, and Throbbing Gristle sounded like a factory whilst someone whined about serial killers and genetic engineering, so I fell for it big time. I still vividly recall the very first time I listened to their Second Annual Report album: it was like nothing I'd ever heard, and it scared the living daylights out of me. It made the Sex Pistols sound like music hall (which in a sense they were, although that's not a bad thing) and felt like real art, something stripped raw, something truly visceral that bore no relation to rock and roll, arguably no relation to entertainment in any conventional sense. Throbbing Gristle interviews revealed numerous fascinations and associations, most of which I followed up at one point or another: William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick were both writers I discovered through casual references made by members of TG.

I never quite got the counterculture, or at least not the version of it expressed by groups like The Clash. It always seemed like a somehow sanitised alternative to the mainstream: paying your money, shaking your fist a bit, then going home having got it out of your system. Not that I ever had pronounced revolutionary tendencies, but I always appreciated anything that had a bit of thought behind it, and anything that asked the right questions of the status quo. This, for me, was part of the appeal of William Burroughs (in addition to his dark humour). He was as critical of the counterculture as he was of the establishment, and framed his criticisms with wonderful wit and style whilst remaining faithful to an entirely intuitive and visionary means of expression. From Burroughs I learned my first lessons in magical thinking (for want of a less-wanky term), the significance of the number 23, conspiracy theories and whether or not I should take any of it seriously.

Music got pretty interesting in the wake of Throbbing Gristle, not just in terms of weird noises, but also with regard to content. Once again there were bands who would spend an interview discussing art, philosophy, life, or whatever rather than the old anecdotes about televisions thrown from hotel windows. As an aside, I still think this is what at least some music should do regardless of whether its heir to either the New York Dolls or Cabaret Voltaire. It should expand the listener's experience, open up new avenues of thought, and never be just about the music. Of course, other days, you just have to listen to The Ramones, and there's nothing wrong with that either.

So, in the wake of Throbbing Gristle, a multitude of bands, artists, and fanzines sprang up to pursue the spirit of keeping things interesting. This was the birth of what came to be known as industrial, regardless of Nigel Ayers' somewhat sublime Nocturnal Emissions being the only group who ever sounded truly industrial, and equally regardless of the fact that if you consider Nocturnal Emissions industrial, then you really need to listen a bit closer to what they were actually doing.

Throbbing Gristle's Genesis P. Orridge was a hugely influential figure at this time. Had he mentioned in passing a love of Val Doonican, within weeks there would be a whole new genre of bands combining sinister electronics with songs about Irish rovers, rocking chairs, wooly jumpers and the like. Whilst P. Orridge had plenty of interesting things to say as a member of Throbbing Gristle, by the time that band separated and he formed Psychic TV, he'd said most of it several times over. Off the top of my head, recurring themes were Charles Manson, Aliester Crowley, information and its interpretation, sex as a liberating act, and when you wish upon a star it makes no difference who you are because when you wish upon a star your dreams come true. P. Orridge has spent many years telling us that we are all individuals whilst taking the Life of Brian style herd response as some sort of affirmation, and sadly, he has only ever really been as interesting or entertaining as those with whom he collaborates. This is why Psychic TV's output has, for the most part, been a pretty miserable lot but for the involvement of Peter Christopherson, Alex Ferguson, or Fred Gianelli. Take away the talent and you're left with a man mumbling to himself about Aliester Crowley at a Huddersfield bus shelter on a wet day, and take away the Burroughs books and there's hardly enough left to fill up a page of Look-In. Let's break it down a little. P. Orridge, for all his good points, is the man who:

  • Said it's all about individuality then formed the Temple of Psychick Youth, one of the most rigidly conformist and po-faced youth cults since records began, cues taken from the satanic vicar chic sported by the band on the cover of their debut album.
  • Went into a hissy fit about intellectual copyright when the selfsame Temple of Psychic Youth began to distance itself from him and his mighty works. The problem was that some fool had accidentally initiated a few people with brains and a sense of humour who quite naturally began to find P. Orridge a little embarrassing. So it wasn't just about the individuality after all, it was also about being a fan club with delusions of grandeur.
  • Latched onto acid house with all the enthusiasm and understanding of an ageing public school prog band bassist deciding that this punker rock is really gear and he's changing his name to Barry Bollock in a show of solidarity. I'm sort of surprised that no-one yet seems to have noticed that the acid house of "Doktor Megatrip" (oh puhleeease) actually sounds more like extended Duran Duran megamix house.
  • Turned into a woman but with a winkle as part of an art project wherein he and his wife decided to become each other. Fair enough I suppose, but I kind of wonder if it would have happened without the novelty factor of that Throbbing Gristle guy now has tits (and not the nicest tits I've seen, it has to be said). Yes, Genesis, well done, thank you for challenging our preconceptions yet again and boldly going where only several thousand men have gone before, now please, put your shirt back on. We've seen enough.

I wouldn't mind, but it could be argued that P. Orridge's records taught me to think, and I suspect taught others to think. It is for this reason that it doesn't actually feel that great to lambast the poor fellow in such a way, and although I've no doubt he has plenty of admirable qualities, it somehow feels like his life's work can be reduced to look at me, I'm mysterious, which feels oddly like a betrayal.

Anyway, shifting towards the far side of the extended digression, whether from P. Orridge's influence or not, one fairly significant corner of late 1980s subculture was dominated by serial killers, conspiracy theory, magick spelt for some reason with a k, Crowley, Spare, Robert Anton Wilson, pranks, the fetishisation of poor old Bill Burroughs, assorted strains of occult waffle, situationism dressed up in post-punk rags, information war, idiots spelling the with two es, and stuff about the number 23. It got really dull after a while.

I was moderately active in the fanzine and tape scene of the time, and to be honest most it was getting pretty depressing. It was humourless (unless you regard yet another photocopied newspaper headline involving the number 23 as side-splitting), extraordinarily self-important (as is common to anything with a whiff of conspiracy theory), and had an unpleasant tang of elitism - revolution as defined by a prescribed set of hipster name checks because it's easier than actually doing something, and you can just take the moral high ground if anyone bothers to point that out. It was the appearance of philosophy and the development of intellect without having to bother reading a book that wasn't written by either William Burroughs or Robert Anton Wilson. It was mod for people who believed themselves too cool to listen to pop bands unless in some wearisomely ironic sense, akin to that briefly idiotic period when groups insisted that they were corporations rather than bands, because that would be just like the Bay City Rollers and the stuff that stupid people listen to.

And I still don't understand how it got that way, which probably indicates my having more faith in the youth culture of the time than was perhaps its due. Vague magazine, somewhat at the center of this sort of stuff, was pretty interesting for all that. Both John Eden (of the later incarnation of the Temple of Psychick Youth) and Stewart Home showed it was possible to venn diagram with at least some of the obsessions mentioned above whilst maintaining a sense of humour and not being an utter fucking generic 23 worshipping cock, so I've no idea why so many others were happy to just recycle the same old bollocks over and over.

Anyway, having found other stuff of far greater interest, I made my excuses and left, happy to know that I would never again have my letter box soiled by a fanzine with yet another sodding Coil interview and a picture of a bad lad on the front.

DC began publishing The Invisibles in 1994, to finally return to the point, the cover of its first issue quoting from an old issue of Vague, itself no doubt ripped off from some Situationist thing or other, or something along those lines. The first four issues were promising, barring the continued hints of an off-putting obsession with psychedelia (another P. Orridge bullet point) that's never really appealed to me. Then suddenly it was 1987 all over again, all the stuff from those shitty self-important fanzines turning up like a bad smell, and worse, Gideon fucking Stargrave as one of the main characters because he was just too damn good to leave languishing in obscurity; and if you don't like it, then you don't understand it. But actually that's the problem: I get the references only too well, and they were wank first time around. If the Doom Patrol was Grant Morrison's Throbbing Gristle, then The Invisibles is his Psychic TV. Six years of comics amounting to look at me, I'm mysterious.

I've no doubt that many will disagree quite strongly with the views expressed above, which is fine as it would be a dull world if we all liked the same thing, but seeing as in all this time I've yet to hear a bad word said about The Invisibles, I figured someone needed to write this, and it might as well be me. If something is of genuine worth, it will usually survive a backlash.

Throbbing Gristle had a sometimes abrasive sound, although listening close, and compared to many of their imitators, they're actually very listenable with plenty of stuff going on to draw the ear and keep you interested. Psychic TV, marking P. Orridge's switch to songs with regular instruments and a chorus, were instituted as a more obviously commercial concern by virtue of the idea that there's no shame in hankering after a wider audience, or in seeking to entertain people. It seems strange now how that one turned out, considering how bland Psychic TV ended up sounding. Doom Patrol, for all its weirdness, is a big colourful comic book with improbable characters and situations. Its not terribly deep because it doesn't really need to be. It presents enough of an angle on the mainstream (whilst remaining loosely attached to the same) to let its audience go off and find out for themselves. The Invisibles on the other hand, ticked a lot more boxes whilst drowning out divergent thoughts in a torrent of recycled countercultural diarrhoea.

Sometimes less is more.

The above was partially inspired by essays posted on Andrew Hickey's excellent Sci-Ence! Justice Leaks! blog and conversations with my old buddy from the days of wayback, Thomas Hamilton. It was originally posted on my Ce Acatl blog back in February, 2011 and somehow achieved 1832 page views, which is pretty good going for me.

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