In which The Author takes a drunkard’s walk down his psychick pathways
I told you a few weeks ago about the nostalgia trip I took while looking through the long-defunct OMNI magazine (see OMNIscience). I’ve taken another one more recently, sparked off when I was scanning in old copies of ZigZag which were also hiding in my Time Machine. I bought this regularly as well – in fact, it might have replaced OMNI in my monthly purchases – over a period of about two years. I started reading it when I was doing my A Levels (1983), and carried on through my first spell at University and back home again.
The magazine I was reading bore little resemblance to the hippy bible which had been launched in 1969. Ironically, largely thanks to my cousin Christine, but also to some of my mates in school, I’d acquired a taste for music which had been the meat and drink of ZigZag in its early years. I also had both volumes of Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees on my bookshelf. This neat, revolutionary idea of presenting musical history had been pioneered in ZigZag while Mr Frame himself was the editor during the early 1970s.
Things changed when its then-editor Kris Needs ‘cut ZigZag‘s hair in 1976 and led it into a better way of life’ (ZigZag, Jan 1986, p. 24). By the time I started reading it, a guy named Mick Mercer was at the helm. It was firmly based around Post-punk, Gothic Punk, the rump of the New Wave, and the growing Indie scene.
Along with the usual raft of single and LP reviews, interviews, features, brief photo/text puffs for new bands, and letters, every so often it would produce something surprising. One issue included a revealing – if somewhat depressing – article on the Punk scene in East Berlin (see Back in the DDR). It exposed the tribulations faced by young people who didn’t want to play ball with Erich Honecker’s totalitarian regime. (If anything, it reinforced my belief in anarchism as a political system.) Some time later, two consecutive issues carried related pieces about the Jack the Ripper killings and the Freemasons. It was a long way from Smash Hits, that was for sure.
In the pages of ZigZag I first encountered Shock Headed Peters, Coil, Swans, Sonic Youth, the Very Things, Danielle Dax, Lack of Knowledge and Blyth Power, to name but some of the artists that have made a lasting impact on me. (You can sample most of these, and many more besides, in my 100 Songs in 100 Days project). I’ve still got records by all of these artists at home. Not CDs, not downloads – proper vinyl records. In fact, I might give Dave Ball’s solo LP In Strict Tempo a spin this weekend. It was thanks to ZigZag that I first learned of his post-Soft Cell recording career. I haven’t listened to it for years.
I’ve dipped randomly into the small pile of A4 magazines on one of the upstairs bookshelves (don’t even ask!) and picked up ZigZag from September 1984. Within a month of its publication I’d be settling into student halls at Brunel University, an hour’s tube ride from Central London. I was in the right place at the right time to see some top-line musicians, thinking back. After all, just look at the roll-call of interviewees for this particular issue:
Twisted Sister, macho US hard rockers who scored a couple of Top 40 hits, and whose (male) singer Dee Snider sported a nice line in shocking pink dresses
Roddy Frame, guitar guru and singer with Scottish indie band Aztec Camera, whose songs still occasionally make the daytime Radio 2 playlist
Bronski Beat, an openly gay synth-soul trio who entered the mainstream with nothing like the controversy caused by overtly sexual contemporaries Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Dead or Alive
the Lotus Eaters, whose only Top 40 hit ‘The First Picture of You’ (from 1983) also turns up on daytime Radio 2 from time to time
Tom Verlaine, formerly of the legendary New York art-rock group Television, but resident in London at the time
Rubella Ballet, an imaginative post-punk outfit from East London, whose dayglo clothes were meant as a visual antidote to the black-clad anarcho-scene
the Kane Gang, a Newcastle-based trio whose brief visits to the Top 40 sadly failed to fulfil their promise as songwriters
X-Mal Deutschland, a punky male/female Berlin-based five-piece who were splashed across the cover
the Flying Lizards, whose dismantling of the old Motown classic ‘Money’ had got to Number 5 in 1979, and who were apparently exploring much the same territory five years later
Furniture, a five-piece band whose only chart appearance came two years later with the groovy and memorable ‘Brilliant Mind’
Lloyd Cole, another Glasgow-based (although Derbyshire-born) songwriter, whose wistful Lou Reed-tinged singles (recorded with his band the Commotions) pop up on Radio 2 once in a while
The Gun Club, an anarchic US punk/blues/roots quartet, whose name turned up in a daft conversation with an old pal on Facebook last week (possibly the first time in twenty years anyone’s mentioned them!)
At either end of the magazine we find the minor players, whose careers were as brief as their quarter- or half-page features: Ut; Sex Beat; Anne Pigalle; Sagittal Suture; Heza Sheza; Kasai Chant and Chat Show (two for the price of one); Spizz; Hysteria; the Boothill Foot-Tappers; M + M. This last act was formerly known as Martha and the Muffins, whose commercial career seems to have run into the sand somewhere near ‘Echo Beach’. Of these, only Sex Beat ever found their way into my collection – purely by virtue of a tape showcasing the key players in the relatively new Goth scene. Apart from Martha and the Muffins, the compilers of the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles never had to worry about any of these jumpers-for-goalposts bands.
Probably the oddest features in the September 1984 issue of ZigZag are on pages 5 and 34 respectively. The first is a review of ‘[t]he most welcome comeback of the decade’ – now-disgraced paedophile Gary Glitter’s ‘long overdue return’ to Hammersmith Palais. The second is a full-page retrospective of Frank Sinatra’s career. The latter coincided with the release of his digitally remastered Capitol Records back catalogue (on vinyl and high quality cassette, of course – we’re still a couple of years before CDs made their entrance). I shouldn’t think many Rubella Ballet fans rushed to Our Price to buy the reissued Songs for Swinging Lovers. But you never know …
To recap, in just one month, we had X-Mal Deutschland as captain; Bronski Beat, Roddy Frame, Rubella Ballet, the Kane Gang and Twisted Sister playing up front; Furniture, the Flying Lizards, the Lotus Eaters and Lloyd Cole in the centre; Tom Verlaine and the Gun Club playing down the wings; Frank Sinatra and Gary Glitter making up the back row; and a whole load of hopefuls on the subs’ bench. It’s one of the most eclectic gatherings of musicians ever gathered between two sheets of glossy full-colour A4. And it cost the princely sum of 75p. Even if you never followed up on the bands that it mentioned, it was a good read.
In another issue (March 1984) I encountered more Second Team players: Indians in Moscow, the Wolfgang Press, Celebration, Look Back in Anger, the Tuffs, Glass Museum, Eddie Walker, Anorexic Dread …
I can’t recall ever hearing anything by any of them. Over the course of my readership I must have made passing acquaintance with a couple of hundred other Next Big Things who never made it as far as their second single release. John Peel probably played some of their records on his nightly Radio 1 show. I can’t be sure.
Does anyone else remember any of them? With the benefit of hindsight it didn’t matter anyway, as journalist and broadcaster Stuart Maconie revealed in his excellent and very entertaining autobiography Cider with Roadies:
Trips to cover bands were paid for by the record labels with the paper acting as a wing of the PR machine. I now know of course that this is the standard arrangement throughout the press. But back then it came as a shock. But then I hadn’t even realised at first that pieces in music papers were specifically geared around key releases for maximum publicity value. I had, with breathtaking naiveté, thought that they were models of pure journalistic enquiry, occasioned by nothing more than almost academic interest. Not so. Every time I had read some sneering denunciation of a rock dinosaur, some poison pen review, the poison had been paid for the band. What a pillock I had been! What pillocks they had been, come to that (Maconie, 2004, pp.220-1).
That explained the Frank Sinatra feature, at least. Payola may have been consigned to the history books, but the seemingly symbiotic relationship between the record labels and the music press was more complex than it appeared. Here’s an example:
Throughout late 1984 and early 1985 it seemed as though the Jazz Butcher appeared in every issue of ZigZag. To judge from the frequency of his appearances, he was surely destined for greatness. (Actually, I’m not sure whether the Jazz Butcher was the guy in the shades on the guitar stool, the guy in the shades at the mic, the bass player, the drummer, or the quartet as a whole. For safety’s sake I’ll consider them collectively to have constituted the Jazz Butcher.)
Anyway, I saw the Jazz Butcher supporting the Fall at Hammersmith Town Hall in March 1985. I’ll be perfectly honest and say I can’t remember a single thing about his/their set. It could be because I was in the front row, wedged up against the stage next to a tiny and very cute Japanese girl who kept distracting me (see Picture This). Or maybe it was because he/they just wasn’t/weren’t any good.
[A digression: The music press had given the same treatment to a duo named Interferon in 1983. By their reckoning, Interferon’s debut single ‘Get Out of London’ would make them the new Sex Pistols, if not the new Beatles. I heard it only once, on Radio 1, at my friend Chris’s house one lunchtime. I remember saying, ‘Oh, this is them, is it?’ Chris, Darren and Andrew just looked blank. I explained that according to all sources Interferon were going to be the Next Big Thing. Instead, they took the money and, as far as anyone knows, vanished without trace.]
In Incomplete List of Gigs I gave a run-down of the bands I saw during my time in London: the Fall were great; the Cult were disappointing; Marc Almond and the Willing Sinners were superb; the Smiths were at their peak; New Order were exhilarating; Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were full of brooding menace; SPK were quite possibly insane, engaging in self-harm before a live audience; the Sisters of Mercy were of a waste of time and money. By and large, like the Jazz Butcher, the support bands were just there to make up the numbers. The only one I followed up on supported Nick Cave at the Electric Ballroom in November 1984 – Death in June, of whom a little more later.
The band that really fascinated me at the time were Psychic TV. They had a chequered history, and since a lot of water has passed under the bridge, I’ll outline it here. They rose from the ashes of art-terrorist collective COUM and the original Industrial band Throbbing Gristle. Founder member Genesis P-Orridge (not his real name!) had been part of the counter-culture since the counter-culture came into being. Through mail art, painting, performance art, poetry, installation art, sculpture, and most notably his confrontational music, Genesis had been pushing the boundaries of what was ‘acceptable’ for close on two decades.
By the early eighties he was a veteran of media attention and police interest. Another controversial figure, the celebrated US Beat novelist William S. Burroughs, had written in his defence to Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court in February 1976. Part of his statement said: ‘I consider him a devoted and serious artist in the Dada tradition … P-Orridge is an artist and not a pornographer’ (quoted in Ford, 1999, p. 0.2).
COUM consisted of Genesis himself and former porn model Cosey Fanni Tutti, who were later joined by graphic designer Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson and electronics wizard Chris Carter. The four of them coalesced into Throbbing Gristle in 1975. In 1964 John Cale had described the Velvet Underground as ‘musical primitives’. In terms of musicianship, Throbbing Gristle hadn’t even evolved that far. None of them were musicians in the accepted sense of the word. Instead, they subverted and perverted pop culture. It was a wall of noise designed to assault the sensibilities of the audience.
Throbbing Gristle’s first “disconcert” took place in October 1976 at the now-notorious Prostitution exhibition at London’s prestigious Institute of Contemporary Arts. Punk was on the rise as well, and at this point the two subcultures had collided in an explosion of creative energy. Predictably, the right-wing press mauled the show. Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn was ‘outraged’ (aren’t they always?) by what he saw. He described the people behind COUM and Throbbing Gristle as ‘wreckers of civilisation’ (Mamatas et al, 2002, p.163). This gave them considerable kudos, and they quickly became cult figures.
Their subversion of pop culture started early, as the sleeve of their second LP, 20 Jazz Funk Greats, demonstrated:
After four LP releases, a handful of singles, and only thirty disconcerts they burned themselves out. Mind you, when you realize what one of their shows was like, it’s no wonder.
In their short career they’d given rise to a whole genre of music, the Industrial scene. The legacy of their electronic explorations trickled down into pop acts like the Human League (their first two LPs especially), and can still be occasionally heard in some of today’s music. Chris and Cosey continued to work together as CTI. Genesis and Sleazy teamed up with former Alternative TV guitarist Alex Ferguson (not to be confused with Manchester United’s manager). The three made up the core of Psychic TV before Sleazy left to join Coil a few years later.
Psychic TV was Genesis’s artistic vision recast for the 1980s, the age of cheap reproduction technology and mass broadcasting. With a nucleus of two anarchic artists and a constantly changing line-up who drifted in and out over the years, they became a true multimedia entity. Apart from the occasional piece in the short-lived paper Soundmaker, the odd review in Sounds, and ZigZag‘s coverage, they operated almost entirely beneath the music press’s radar.
Even so, Psychic TV made LPs and singles, released videos, did music and spoken word performances with Burroughs himself, wrote manifestos outlining their extreme libertarian beliefs, and (judging from the very limited press coverage) occasionally played some of the wildest, most unpredictable gigs (or ‘Psychick Rallies’) imaginable. When I got to London, I decided to check them out for myself. After all, Genesis had once asked a live audience, ‘Were you bullied at school? Do you want revenge?’ I was able to answer ‘yes’ on both counts. They seemed like my kind of band!
On a visit to the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street, having read a couple of interviews with them, I bought Force the Hand of Chance, their first studio LP.
Even though I had to wait until the Xmas holidays to listen to it, I was intrigued by the presentation as much as anything. It was actually two LPs inside a single sleeve – the studio LP and a second chunk of vinyl entitled Psychick TV Themes. (Note the spelling, designed to reflect Aleister Crowley’s ‘Magick.’) Once you got used to thee deliberate misspelling ov words which Genesis had adopted during the COUM days, you realised that these were shrewd and very intelligent people. Were they just parodying organised religion, or setting up an occult organization of their own? Certainly the note on the rear of the sleeve, File under: Fund-Raising Activities, might have raised an eyebrow or two.
The music wasn’t actually as unpleasant as the cover might lead you to believe. In fact, once you get over the fact that Genesis can’t be considered a ‘singer’ by normal standards, it’s surprisingly melodic in places. The opening track, ‘Just Drifting,’ is gentle and a bit folky. ‘Terminus’ is a spoken piece very much in the spirit of Burroughs. ‘Stolen Kisses’ is a rather lovely ballad. ‘Guiltless’, featuring vocals by Marc Almond, is a great song about not caring what people think and just being yourself. ‘No Go Go’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an early Hawkwind LP. ‘Ov Power’ is a pounding anthem which yanks you back to the TG days of massive rhythms hitting the very core of your being. Finally, ‘Message From the Temple’ is a Zuccarelli Holophonic™ voice track, outlining the aims of the Temple of Psychick Youth:
Psychick TV Themes was very different. The tracks segued from one to another, and were entitled simply ‘Part I’ through to ‘Part VIII.’ It consisted of improvisations using instruments such as ‘Piano and Clarinet’, ’23 Tibetan Human Thigh Bones’, ‘Cowbell, Bicycle Wheels and Vibes’, and ‘African Initiation Drum and Animal Tusk Horn.’ Weirdest of all, ‘Part VI’ is credited as ‘Recording made at Jonestown, Guyana at the time of the suicides.’ (Goddess alone knows how that found its way into the public domain, but it’s extremely disturbing to listen to.)
The intense gravitational pull exerted by Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV had drawn a number of outsider artists and musicians into a vague system of interrelated projects: William Burroughs himself; Geoff Rushton (aka John Balance) of Coil; David Tibet, John Murphy and the other members of Current 93; an androgynous guy named Bee, who teamed up with the former members of Southern Death Cult to form Getting the Fear; Karl Blake and Danielle Dax, formerly the Lemon Kittens and afterwards pursuing solo careers; John Gosling of Zos Kia; William Bennett, the charming sicko behind electro-noise merchants Whitehouse; Steven Stapleton, John Fothergill and Diana Rogerson, all members of Nurse With Wound; Alan Oversby (aka Mr Sebastian), the UK’s pioneer body-piercer; Derek Jarman, the renowned film-maker; and Trevor Watson, the leading photographer of the fetish scene, to name just some of the more prominent people who moved in this circle.
Even mainstream stars could be found in the outer orbits. Marc Almond and Dave Ball (better known as chart-toppers Soft Cell) both collaborated with Genesis P-Orridge in their latter careers. Rose McDowall was one half of the deceptively saccharin Scottish female duo Strawberry Switchblade before she went off to moonlight with Psychic TV, Current 93 and Death in June.
One focus of this Binary System was Hackney, where Psychic TV and their friends operated a number of anarchic squats where people came and went seemingly at random.
The other was the fetish club Skin Two. Bizarrely, the club had been founded by (amongst others) David Claridge, the man with his hand up the bum of children’s TV puppet Roland Rat. There were other fetish clubs operating in London as well, but Skin Two had by far the highest profile, with an eponymous magazine and a high-profile clientele drawn from the music, art and fashion worlds.
Fetish wear was starting to break into the mainstream. There was a shop named She-an-Me in Hammersmith, which specialized in PVC clothing but did some rubberwear and bondage equipment as well. (After I’d left Brunel University, they opened a second shop in Uxbridge, of all places – only a mile or so from where I’d been living. That would have been a great Saturday job!) A few places in the King’s Road had ‘specialist’ sections. There were some great sex shops in Soho, of course. And there was Kensington Market.
It was this small display ad in the Time Out London Student Guide from October 1984 that drew it to my attention. I can’t begin to imagine why.
Kensington Market has gone now, but on my trips into ‘town’ (as we trendy suburbanites called it) I always made a point of calling in. There were always hundreds of punky/Gothic types hanging around. Even on the occasions when I didn’t buy anything, I’d always see at least a dozen girls who were my type. There were clothes stalls, record stalls, stalls selling magazines and second-hand books, a couple of cafés, a hair salon, the fetish shop Pure Sex … In fact, it might be the proto-archetype of the Market in Where I Go in My Dreams Part 2. I swear I once saw Billy Duffy, the guitarist with the Cult, browsing through vintage clothes a few yards from where I was standing.
At one stall I bought two bootleg cassettes of Marc Almond’s Hammersmith Palais gig, which I’d seen the previous November. Early in the show Marc had alluded to the Daily Mirror‘s description of him as an ‘outrageous pop star’. He vowed to do something outrageous before the end. In the event he raised his shirt and showed us his nipples. He also had to be rescued by security from adoring fans, who’d pulled him off the front of the stage into their midst.
I bought a couple of unusual collars from a stall in the basement, including some years later a lovely jewelled one which Sam fancied for herself. A stall on the first floor provided my first copy of Skin Two magazine – Issue 5, published in 1985. The music and fetish scenes overlapped to a fair extent in those days. Both scenes were something I was interested in – even if the latter was strictly non-Participant Observation.
On my regular visits to Rough Trade Records, just off Portobello Road, I’d often passed Mr Sebastian’s tattoo studio. I knew almost nothing about body modification in those days. A couple of my mates had their ears pierced, and some of the older lads I knew were tattooed. The Human League’s singer Phil Oakey was known to have pierced nipples, but that was extreme by my standards. I didn’t have my ear pierced until I plucked up the courage in Carnaby Street one day. It closed up years ago.
Body piercing has only entered the mainstream relatively recently. I knew a couple of girls with pierced noses back in the Carpenters Arms days. Jason in work had his nipple pierced, which led to fun when we had a magnetic security plate installed on the counter, and you could often see the metalwork trying to escape through his shirt. My friends Deno, Ed, and almost certainly a few others, have genital piercings. Gema and Helen have multiple piercings, and I know youngsters with all manner of facial piercings (and presumably body modifications too).
I was thirty-three years old when Alun G. and Deno convinced me to get my first tattoo. By that time I was ready. I knew what I wanted. I had another two subsequently, and am contemplating a fourth. I’ve wondered about a piercing, but it would involve a trip to Cardiff, so I’m priced out of the market at the moment. Like everything else in my kinky life, my interest in body modification is more theoretical than practical.
But these were different times, and I was a different man back then. Bear in mind that this exposure to new and exciting possibilities was seductive stuff for a guy who’d often felt himself to be on the margins. I read the interview with Genesis P-Orridge which had been the cover story to ZigZag‘s November 1984 several times. He actually had something to say, in contrast with the vacuous PR puffery which most of the magazine’s subjects uttered. I felt as though I knew where he was coming from – especially on ‘Guiltless.’
Now, here’s an interesting scenario: I was in London, away from home, and – in theory – answerable only to myself. I could have made the journey across London to some obscure venue and got caught up in one of the near-riots that usually resulted from Current 93’s rare live appearances. I could have written to the Temple of Psychick Youth at the address on the little poster/booklet which came with the LP. I could even have spent a fair chunk of my grant on fetish gear and gone to Maitresse one night. I knew exactly where it was. On a visit to town one day I’d investigated the little alleyway in Soho which was Falconberg Court. But I never plucked up the courage to jump on a tube train and head into town on a Monday evening.
In the back of my mind, I feared that I would be lurking at the edges of a scene which was far too intense for me. Earlier in 1984, Morrissey had summed up the way I felt in arguably his finest song:
There’s a club, if you’d like to go
you could meet somebody who really loves you
so you go, and you stand on your own
and you leave on your own
and you go home, and you cry
and you want to die.
The Smiths, ‘How Soon is Now?’
If only I’d read the interview with fashion designer Daniel James in the first issue of Skin Two, I might have had a bit more confidence about taking the plunge.
ST. Are people nervous of going to the clubs like Der Putsch or Maitresse? I mean because they either think it’s a heavy sexual atmosphere, full of people into bondage, or because they think it might just be too painfully fashionable? DJ: No, most people like to wear the clothes around other people, and they like the friendly atmosphere more than, say, Camden Palace, which is so fashionable. They aren’t into the clothes very much in a sexual way – they just like dressing up. Of course, you get plenty of people who are much more heavily into the sexual side, but everyone accepts everyone else. I’d be more nervous of the heavier places such as the old Subway Club – a lot of the gay leather boys can be intimidating (Woodward, 1991, p.9).
Three pages on, I could have read the listing for Maitresse itself:
Every Monday night from 10pm at Stallions, in Falconberg Court, off Tottenham Court Road. The major fetish club in London. It is necessary to wear rubber, leather or plastic to get in – a sensible rule to keep out the curious. The real strength of Maitresse is its friendly atmosphere – you don’t have to be nineteen and beautiful to feel at ease. No one particular crowd dominates. From young people into the clothes through middle aged suburban couples who just like somewhere to have a drink and dance in their gear. Well established, and recommended. Membership at the door – not expensive
‘Not expensive’ translated as £1 membership fee and £3 admission. Drinks would have been fairly dear, I expect, but I wasn’t a big drinker in those days. Unfortunately, Issue 1 had been published early in 1984, before I got to London. I didn’t bother to read the club listings in Issue 5, because I was in my first serious bout of depression at the time. Going to a place like that would have been totally beyond me. In exactly the same way, I bottled out when I went to my one and only BDSM Munch (see From Russia With Love). Read the listing again. I was nineteen, if not particularly beautiful. If only, eh …?
I know of one person who’d successfully made the transition from South Wales to this incredible environment where the only limits were in your imagination. Her name is Theresa, and we met in Cyberspace a few years ago. The meeting was brokered by Karl Blake himself, as I related in Not Born Beautiful. A few years older than me, Theresa was living in Abercynon at the time, where she constructed odd and rather frightening sculptures out of everyday bits and pieces. She’d been a small element of this parallel planetary system for a while. We never met in the flesh, unfortunately, and I stopped using MySpace ages ago. Maybe I should revive my membership, just to get in touch with her again. I’m sure she’d be far more interesting company over a pint or two than the average numpties I meet in the pubs most days.
Psychic TV and the rest of the people I’ve mentioned so far weren’t just edgy (to use the modern word). They’d gone way beyond the edge and were now in unknown territory. They were interested in the occult, in taking art and music to the limits and beyond, in all forms of sexual expression, in body modification, in exploring the ways in which political and religious power could be used and abused. The desperate urge to assert one’s personal, artistic and psychological freedom which had inspired the original Punk explosion had given rise to a subculture beyond imagining. The more I thought about it, it was increasingly obvious that I had nothing to contribute to the scene anyway.
After all, I wasn’t an artist, a musician, a writer, a film-maker, or involved in any other sort of creative activity. I also suspected (and now know, largely thanks to David Keenan’s book England’s Hidden Reverse) that the scene was heavily drug-fuelled. It’s not my pint of beer, thank you very much. I stopped short of taking that first step towards what could have been a pivotal point in my life. Alternatively, I might have found out to my chagrin that you should never meet your heroes. We’ll never know.
In the spring of 1985 I returned to Aberdare and my university career came to a premature end. My family was starting to fall apart, and I was too depressed to go away again. It seemed that every time I’d gone to Brunel University something bad had happened at home. I didn’t want to risk it a third time. I wrote to my personal tutor explaining that I wouldn’t be continuing the course and turned my back on Applied Biology for ever. I was back in the backwater where half the time it seemed as though Punk had never happened. I’d never be part of the trendy London scene after all. Even so, I carried on reading the magazines and buying the records. I suppose it was a similar process to that engaged in by bored housewives who read about the lives of so-called ‘celebrities’ – a brief escapist glance at a different world.
I was already acquainted with Coil. Originally it had been John Balance’s solo project until he’d teamed up (musically and romantically) with Sleazy. I’d heard their radical reworking of Gloria Jones’ hit ‘Tainted Love’ on John Peel’s Radio 1 show one night. I bought my 12″ copy in the old Virgin store in Cardiff. It was a world apart from Soft Cell’s poppy dance version. They’d dissected the song and found a disease at its very heart – a previously unknown condition called AIDS. As an openly gay band, they decided to donate the record’s proceeds to the Terence Higgins Trust. The flip side was equally disconcerting – an outpouring of electronic insanity called ‘Panic.’
The video to ‘Tainted Love’ attracted the sort of opprobrium which Sleazy must have become used to in his Throbbing Gristle days. Mick Gaffney’s Coil fanzine Open the Bloodgate reproduces the letter which their US record company sent them when they’d seen it for themselves.
Fortunately for the rest of us, it’s available on YouTube.
(Incidentally, I’ve just found a single copy of Open the Bloodgate listed on Amazon for US$145. I think I paid about two quid for my copy in Rough Trade years ago. It won’t be going back on the shelf, that’s for sure. I’m not even sure I should have brought it to the library, in fact. Out of interest, I checked the prices for the other books I’ve cited. It’s the most expensive Reference List I’ve ever compiled …)
In Spillers, on another trip to Cardiff, I chanced upon a compilation LP entitled Devastate to Liberate. It was a fund-raiser for the Animal Liberation Front. A few of my pub mates were associated (at arm’s length, of course) with the ALF – mostly by graffiti-ing butchers’ shops and the odd spot of hunt sabotage. They played a small part in my decision to extend my meat-free lifestyle and flirt with veganism for a while. It seemed like a worthy enough cause to me. Anyway, the names of Coil and Crass on the LP sleeve were enough to catch my eye. Put together by David Tibet, it featured tracks from the Industrial Music scene’s more anarchically inclined outliers, as well as some survivors of the anarcho-punk scene.
Crass had been the undisputed figureheads of the anarcho-punk movement. They came to Aberdare in July 1984 to play a benefit for the striking miners, along with A Flux of Pink Indians and Annie Anxiety. My friends were supposed to have done a set as well, but it never materialised for some reason. I don’t think any of us knew at the time that we were witnessing their final gig.
For Devastate to Liberate they assembled a great musical collage entitled ‘Powerless With a Guitar’. It married a chunk of their notorious single ‘How Does It Feel (To be the Mother of a Thousand Dead)?’ with cut-ups of bits taped off the radio and TV, and included a section from their even more notorious ‘Thatchergate tape’. (If you want the full story behind this extraordinary prank, I can do no better than refer you to Crass drummer Penny Rimbaud’s autobiography Shibboleth, pp. 250-255.)
Nurse With Wound, Sema, the Hafler Trio, Who Will Carry My Arms and P16D4 all contributed very strange musique concrète soundscapes, as did Annie Anxiety, who’d supported Crass at the Coliseum.
Shock Headed Peters contributed a blistering version of the Residents’ song ‘Blue Rosebuds’. That in turn inspired me to buy their debut LP Not Born Beautiful. (Now you know where I nicked the title of that entry from!) Much later, as I’ve already mentioned, their main man Karl Blake and I became Cyberfriends.
Anglo-Dutch techno-hippies the Legendary Pink Dots observed the true spirit of the proceedings with ‘Mmmmmmmmmmmmm’, a jolly song about the pleasures of meat-eating. That led me down another musical avenue, to Edward Ka-Spel’s mournful post-apocalyptic love songs and his vignettes of lives less ordinary.
D&V – who took their name from their musical repertoire of Drums and Vocals – recorded two clever songs, almost like a stripped-down Crass (if you can imagine such a thing). Their first LP, Inspiration Gave Them the Motivation to Move on out of their Isolation, had been issued on Crass Records, so that was a must-have as well as soon as I came across it.
Coil’s song was called ‘Restless Day’ which (according to Open the Bloodgate) ‘features a very well known singer on guitar.’ (It turned out to be Marc Almond, as you may already have guessed.) Their LPs Scatology and Horse Rotorvator are still on my shelves – the latter is signed, as I mentioned in Snap, Crackle and Pop.
Current 93’s own offering was ‘Jesus Wants Me For a Moonbeam’, a detourned recording of a school choir singing a well-known hymn while bells and unearthly sounds loomed over the top. Its track length was given on the label as ∞, and it really was – it had a locked groove, which in theory could have gone on forever. In reality it ended when the actuator kicked in and returned the tone-arm to its resting point. (See kids, you can’t do that with an mp3!) On the back of that single track I bought their mini LP Dogs Blood Rising, which features some of the most terrifying sounds ever committed to vinyl.
By this time, David Tibet was running a mail order service, so I was able to acquire some real oddities from him. One is a vinyl issue of Charles Manson’s LP Lie; the other is a limited edition recording of Aleister Crowley reading some of his poetry. Tibet had somehow acquired the rights to these recordings.
Brogan asked me about this latter record a while ago. She wanted to know if the Great Beast had had some sort of speech impediment. Apparently, one of her lecturers at Oxford used to try and read in Crowley’s voice, and did it with a slight lisp. I told her that, on the contrary, he sounded like a BBC newsreader from the Dinner Jacket era, an occult version of John Snagge.
I found a copy of Magick in Theory and Practice in a second-hand bookshop in Swansea shortly afterwards. It’s currently in the Missing, Presumed Lost section of the Cosmic Tigger Lending Library.
In Aberdare I met some slightly older people (most notably a guy named Jon A.) who were into Psychic TV. I also started to meet some girls with kinky tastes (see Skirting the Issue). For a little while, we actually managed to bring some of London to the Carpenters Arms and a couple of other pubs. I wasn’t working at the time, and it seemed as though there was nothing to keep me in Wales. The idea of a second attempt at London life kept rearing its head. But apart from the odd shopping trip, or a few days staying with relatives in Walthamstow, I never made a serious attempt at it. Even when Sam and I were engaged, I baulked at the idea of moving back. I applied for (and failed to get) a couple of jobs there, and eventually the distance drove a wedge between us. She was meeting new people there; I was meeting new people here. We broke off the engagement, but have stayed friends to this day.
I continued to buy records, but not in the numbers that I used to. I usually returned from Bristol or London with a few obscure LPs or 12″ singles under my arm. Shock Headed Peters went down okay with a couple of people, and the Legendary Pink Dots were psychedelic enough to appeal to some of my hippy friends. In spite of my best efforts I wasn’t able to turn anyone on to Current 93 or Death in June.
Spillers was becoming more erratic in its buying policy, aiming towards the hard-rock/thrash metal end of the market. Even so, they managed to keep me supplied with some oddities, including the early volumes in Psychic TV’s Live in … series of LPs. One of them, Live in Heaven, features the definitive take of ‘Unclean’, complete with a power blackout towards the end. (‘So now you know what happens when you curse God,’ Genesis tells the audience, once normal service has been resumed.)
Live in Reykjavik features an audio recording of Genesis and Paula P-Orridge’s Astru marriage in 1983, conducted beneath a statue of Thor by a pagan priest named Sveinbjorn Beinteinsson Allsherjargodi. His chanting of the Old Norse hymn is haunting and seemed strangely familiar. I realized why some time later, when I was watching Sir Harry Secombe presenting his religious TV show Highway from the Shetland Islands. The Viking cadences had embedded themselves in the folk music of the northernmost part of Britain, a place that has always appealed to me for some reason.
However, I was starting to grow out of the scene, I think. From my remote vantage point in Aberdare, even going to a gig in Cardiff was a virtual impossibility. (The last bus back left at 9.30 p.m., a full hour after the last train!) A taxi home would have cost £30 or so. Cardiff wasn’t able to attract many fringe acts anyway. The anarcho-punk scene had its final hurrah in the Bristol Hotel in the early 1990s, and then ran out of super strength cider with which to fuel itself. The city’s music scene had been reduced to major stadium acts, tribute acts, or dance music.
Looking back, I think I was displaying the early symptoms of musical malaise, which I detailed in Falling Out of Love. I’d already stopped buying music papers, so I was completely out of touch with what everyone was up to. Besides, the Rave Scene was well under way, and it was far too closely tied to the drug culture to interest me.
My other interests were fairly well catered for, though. Forbidden Planet in Cardiff had opened more or less where the Virgin Megastore had been, and stocked Skin Two amongst newer fetish magazines such as Marquis, Secret, Zeitgeist and Fetish Times. Glen C., Hannah C., John G. and I used to pass my copies around the staff room in Dillons, much to the amusement of our colleagues, the bemusement of the management, and the embarrassment of the Saturday girls. We even got a mention in dispatches from Head Office one week, after we sent them a copy of the Fetish Times report into the best places to buy erotica on the high street. Dillons came out on top (no pun intended).
Early in 1993, through the pages of these magazines, I became aware of the then Conservative government’s moral clampdown on our personal freedoms.
The avalanche which engulfed Psychic TV and the people around them is well documented in Chapter 10 of David Keenan’s book. It was triggered by two related events. The second was an investigative TV programme named Dispatches which showed parts of Psychic TV’s 1982 video First Transmission. The first had occurred two years earlier, when some of the Psychic TV circle (most notably Alan Oversby/Mr Sebastian) had been arrested and their property seized during Operation Spanner, a police investigation into the gay SM scene.
The UK media had been obsessed for some time by the idea that children were being ‘ritually abused’ throughout the country. Certainly, some organised child abuse had been uncovered, most notably at a children’s home in North Wales. However, in the eyes of the press the country’s latest folk devil – the ‘paedophile’ – was everywhere: in schools, hospitals, churches, scout groups, youth sports clubs, outside schools, in public parks – maybe even in the house of the single man living right next door to you! As far as the popular press were concerned, ‘paedophilia’ was an exact synonym for ‘sexual perversion’, in whatever form it happened to take.
The media assault continued. A couple of married schoolteachers were photographed enjoying themselves at Westward Bound, a fetish club in Plymouth. Their photo was published ‘somewhere’, and one of the parents spotted it. Predictably, he contacted the school governors and demanded that they take action against their wayward staff. The Sunday People picked up on the story and ran a splash exposé of the club. (It seems likely that the parent concerned had been reading a fetish magazine – but such hypocrisy was par for the course in the weekend tabloids.) It didn’t matter that they were among fellow adults – they lost their jobs!
It was a witch hunt – or, as Throbbing Gristle themselves had said, ‘Nothing short of a total war.’ At one point, a paediatrician in Newport, Gwent, was attacked by local fuckwits who’d got the two words confused. Officially sanctioned insanity.
From this tiny acorn in the public mind, a mighty oak grew. The police took it upon themselves to scrutinise and proscribe any aspect of sexual behaviour which didn’t conform to the nice middle England idea of ‘married couple, lights off, missionary position, cigarette afterwards’. Needless to say, the right-wing media were solidly behind them.
I won’t go into the sordid details (and believe me, they really are sordid!) of what happened in Operation Spanner and the Dispatches affair. You can read them for yourself in Mr Keenan’s book, but here’s David Tibet’s preamble to the whole story:
It was really odd. In the top left of the [Observer] front cover there was a column that said a video had been discovered that finally provided evidence of ritual abuse. I just knew that something was wrong. My heart sank when I opened it up and saw that they’d reproduced the big PTV testcard with the skull. I knew something unpleasant was happening (Keenan, 2003: p. 223).
Suffice it to say that a combination of sheer bad luck, police involvement, and media persecution led to a long-standing legal battle which eventually ended up at the European Court of Human Rights. Fetish Times outlined the state of play in the leader column of its first issue:
For anyone who still doesn’t know, Operation Spanner was the codename given to the three million pound police operation that resulted in convictions for a group of men who were involved in mutually consensual sadomasochistic sex. Although no money changed hands, no complaints were made to police and none of the men required medical attention, their appeal to the house [sic] of Lords was rejected by three to two. The campaign group ‘Countdown on Spanner’ now needs to raise £100,000 over the next 4 years to finance their appeal to the European Court. This legal invasion of our bedrooms is an attack on all our rights and fighting against it must be one of the priorities of not only the SM community but of all of us. Where will it end? You could be the next target (Fetish Times, Issue 1, p.5).
Fortunately for Genesis P-Orridge, he and his family were on holiday in Thailand when the excrement hit the air conditioning. He stayed there for a while before moving onto the US, although his marriage broke up under the strain. Meanwhile the SM scene was increasingly victimised. Fetish Times editor Niki Wolf related how she
was in Club Whiplash in Putney when the door was broken down by 58 police officers (some of them with dogs) who were, apparently, investigating a ‘breach of the licensing regulations.’ Or so they said (Fetish Times, Issue 6, p.3).
A couple of SM Pride marches were held in London to protest about these totalitarian tactics, echoing the 1960s Gay Pride movement which eventually led to changes in US and UK law.
This, then, was the scene I’d avoided getting involved with nearly ten years earlier. It seemed that my reluctance to step forward and say ‘hello’ had protected me from the worst of the backlash. Even so, I decided not to keep my head quite so far below the parapet in future. After all, the police couldn’t arrest you for just reading and thinking, could they?
In Chapter and Verse in Cardiff, I bought a US translation of Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. I got hold of a copy of Modern Primitives in Dillons, before a subsequent consignment got seized by UK customs. Not long after that, we had a visit from the Vice Squad. They confiscated our stock of the Taschen edition of Jeff Koons’ photography – not on the grounds that the book was obscene per se, but rather because our erotica section was in such close proximity to the children’s books!
At the same time, in spite of the clampdown (or, just maybe, because of it – remember, there’s no such thing as bad publicity), UK publishers were making the most of the new interest in BDSM and all things related to it. Little, Brown published Brenda Love’s Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. Macmillan brought out Rituals of Love by Ted Polhemus and Housk Randall.
The same authors collaborated on The Customised Body, published by Serpent’s Tail. This followed Nicholas Sinclair’s 1996 book The Chameleon Body, published by Lund Humphries. Both books dealt with all aspects of body modification. In 1998 Creation Books issued David Wood’s The Torture Garden, a photographic celebration of the edgiest of all ‘edgy’ clubs. I bought all of these and more besides. They live in the Restricted Access section of the Cosmic Tigger Library, for consultation only on the premises.
I met some interesting people through the book trade as well. Julian C. and his other half Glynis (I was never sure whether they were married or not) were freelance reps for a number of small publishers, including SAF, who produced England’s Hidden Reverse. Julian was able to get me a copy from his own personal stash of sample copies, as it was a limited edition with a CD tucked into the back cover. They were active participants on the fetish scene in Plymouth and Bristol, not too far from where they lived in Devon. We always got on well (Julian and I had similar tastes in 1960s and early 1970s music, for one thing), and they invited Sam and me to join them at Westward Bound if we could both get the time off. (We never could, unfortunately.)
Another rep, Helen from Turnaround Distribution, was a radical lesbian with a warped sense of humour. It was she who tipped me off about Penny Rimbaud’s autobiography. She also gave me a Necrocard, which I still keep in my wallet. It (apparently) gives the holder’s consent for his body to be sexually exploited after his/her death. I’ve no idea whether it’s a legally-binding document. Just to be on the safe side, I haven’t filled in my name and address.
I was showing it to the gang in the Students Union bar one afternoon when it dawned on me to find out a bit more about it. I Googled ‘Neoist Alliance’ (the group who’d issued the cards) and found that it was the idea of Stewart Home, the novelist, theorist, and arch-prankster of the neo-Situationist movement in the UK. It didn’t surprise me one bit when I read his name on my Netbook screen. It was new to everyone else, of course. It must be an age thing.
I met some more interesting people in Aberdare through our shared interests – Claire M., the fetish model; Gema and Helen R., of course; a young girl named Karen J., who is now Ed’s partner; and, most unexpectedly of all, Long Tall Sally.
She’s a very tall, slim girl (whose name really is Sally), with long red hair. She used to come to the pub at weekends. She was (and still is) very much my type. She sometimes wore a lovely black PVC sleeveless top with a high neck, and I had a feeling that she wasn’t just wearing it for fashion’s sake. One night she came in wearing a very long fluffy coat and high heels. I couldn’t resist asking her if she was wearing anything under the coat. We’d never spoken before. She opened it to reveal a short dress, and I said, ‘Well, that’s a relief!’ We laughed and she rejoined her friends.
I saw Sally a few days later in town, She was wearing her school uniform. At least she was in the sixth form, so I didn’t feel too bad about lusting after her.
A few weeks later I was in the pub on a Sunday night when she and her friends came in. I’d been around to Dean and Carole’s house in the afternoon and they’d returned my VHS copy of Fetish, a documentary by Robert Jacobs and Roger Sewhcomar. It was on the ledge behind me when Sally and her pals sat down at the next table and we started chatting. After a while she asked me what the ‘film’ was. I said it wasn’t exactly a film and handed it over to her.
Her eyes widened and she said, ‘Are you into all that?’ I said that I was. ‘I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned anything about my black top,’ she continued.
‘I was going to, but I didn’t know you at the time,’ I replied.
When the next SM Pride march came up, I was tempted to go. I asked Sally if I could borrow her top for the day, and she agreed. Needless to say, I bottled out of that as well.
The closest I ever got to the fetish scene in London was about ten years or so ago. I’d gone up for the day, and was browsing in a sex shop in Old Compton Street when I spotted a blond chap with glasses chatting to one of the staff. I recognised his face from author photographs on book jackets – most notably Rituals of Love and The Customised Body. It was none other than Ted Polhemus: author, broadcaster, social anthropologist, and chronicler of urban subcultures.
I was about to approach him and say how much I’d enjoyed his books when a voice called out, ‘We’re ready for you now, Ted.’
He looked around and said something. I looked around as well. There was a bloody TV crew in the corner! Like any self-respecting Sunday tabloid hack, I made my excuses and left.
I introduced James E. from my Psychology group to Throbbing Gristle a couple of years ago. We were putting together a project to see whether music could induce emotional states in people. The idea was that we’d play a sample of unidentified (and therefore ‘neutral’) music to volunteers and get them to tell us how it made them felt.
James had brought along a piece by the Italian avant-garde composer Luigi Nono. In return I lent him 20 Jazz Funk Greats. It appealed to him in several ways. He’s a young, artistically-inclined gay man who’d gone to a Catholic school in Cardiff. I suppose that on a deep level he was able to relate to being on the margins. Maybe that was why we struck up such an immediate rapport. There’s safety in numbers.
I also played the group a minute of so of a live performance by Amalgamelensemble, a loose collective of musicians from the Binary System, which I’d found on YouTube when I was looking for music by Karl Blake. Nicky H. asked me to turn it off as it made her feel sick. We weren’t sure whether that counted as an emotional reaction or not. It certainly wasn’t one which I’d anticipated.
It’s 2012 now, more than twenty years after Operation Spanner and nearly twenty years since Genesis P-Orridge was forced into exile. I’m no closer to being involved with the fetish scene than I was then. Although I still revisit the music now and again, I’ve got no idea what most of the old participants are up to these days. I’m sure they’ve all got a web presence, and if they’re still recording I probably should check out their latest offerings, if only for old times’ sake.
I do know that a reconstituted Throbbing Gristle played a series of gigs in 2007. One was at the Camber Sands holiday resort in East Anglia. I must admit I was tempted to book time off work and go along for what would have probably been a remarkable weekend. In the event I couldn’t afford to go. Anyway, I’ve never really subscribed to ‘reunion’ gigs, even of a band as influential and far-reaching as Throbbing Gristle had been in their brief career.
And that’s pretty much where this story ends, apart from a brief postscript.
John Balance died in November 2004 after falling downstairs at his home. I found that out by sheer chance. I’d wanted to look at the Legendary Pink Dots’ discography online, and clicked onto http://www.brainwashed.com where most of these bands tend to hang out in Cyberspace. It took me straight to John Balance’s obituary. He’d had a drink problem for a long time, apparently, and it seems that he’d lost his balance (ironically) on the landing at his home.
Sleazy himself died in November 2010 after a short illness. His obituary appeared in the Guardian. That night, I posted the video to Coil’s ‘The First Five Minutes After Death’ on my Facebook page and told my friends that I was marking two minutes’ noise in his memory.
I took my copy of Painful but Fabulous off the shelf to double-check something when I was writing something (not for the blog) a couple of weeks ago. Together with the ZigZag reminiscences, it triggered off a whole lot of memories and ideas which have finally formed some sort of coherent shape.
I’m forty-six years old, I have three tattoos, no piercings, no musical ability, no artistic ability, and no prospect of a sex life (kinky or otherwise) in the foreseeable future. Would things have been different if I’d grasped the nettle back in 1984/5 and caught the tube into London one Monday evening? There’s no way of knowing for sure.
On the other hand, I didn’t get caught up in the whole sorry debacle which engulfed Psychic TV and their friends less than a decade later, and spread to overshadow the whole BDSM scene in this country. I suppose you have to be thankful for small mercies.
Meanwhile, the wheel has turned full circle.
The runaway bestselling book in the UK is called Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s the first in a soft-porn trilogy by E. L. James, an atrocious piece of shit in which a young woman named Ana gets involved in a BDSM relationship with the mysterious Christian Grey. It seems that half the women I know have read it or are reading it – Nicola N., Neola, Sharon J., Thi Nga … Even Rhian’s mother has bought it, for Goddess’s sake! (I don’t know whether she’s read it yet, mind.) The Works in Aberdare even has the boxed set in the window.
Helen’s read it and says that it’s pure exploitation, with little resemblance to a real BDSM relationship. Meanwhile, my friends Sharon and Michelle who run the sex shop in Aberdare are carrying real S&M porn. Many pop videos are little more than four-minute bondage movies for the teenage market. Kinky sex is back in fashion, at least on a superficial level. Last Thursday the Daily Mirror ran a feature called ‘The A-Z of Bondage.’ My kinky sex life consists of occasionally flirting with a beautiful single mother sixteen years my junior, and wondering what might have been …
I haven’t got around to playing In Strict Tempo yet. I moved the stereo a while ago to accommodate yet more bookshelves. I’d forgotten that I need to rig it up again before I can take a step back towards vinyl.
Instead, while I’ve been working on this entry over the weekend, I’ve had Rhythmbox on shuffle most of the time. (For those of you still in thrall to the corporations, Rhythmbox is an Open Source media player rather like iTunes.) In that time it’s randomly selected a fair few tracks by Crass, Coil, Current 93, Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. Out of nearly seven thousand podcasts and pieces of music, they’re few and far between. Maybe I’ve created a psychic-electronic ambience which is conducive to playing that sort of music, and it’s somehow manipulating the software. You never know.
I’ve discovered that my new neighbours are a pair of noisy bastards, partying late into the night and slamming doors at all hours. The occasional random blast of Current 93 from my PC might be my subconsciously directed means of getting my revenge on them. (It’s either that, or shoot their cat with a water pistol every time I see it, like I do to Helen’s.)
However, what would happen if they’re Sun or Daily Star readers? If they are, there’s a fair chance that they already think the single guy next door to them is a paedophile. Maybe I should keep the volume down a bit. I don’t want to raise any untoward suspicions that I might be involved in ‘ritual abuse’, do I?
FORD, S. (1999) Wreckers of Civilisation: The story of COUM Transmissions & Throbbing Gristle. London: Black Dog Publishing.
GAFFNEY, M. (1986) Open the Bloodgate. Harrow: R&D Group 28 By Products.
KEENAN, D. (2003) England’s Hidden Reverse: A secret history of the esoteric underground. London: SAF Publishing.
MACONIE, S. (2004) Cider with Roadies. London: Ebury.
MAMATAS, N., BALISTERI, M., MOYNIHAN, E., GOEDE, D. (2002) Painful but Fabulous: The lives & art of Genesis P-Orridge. NY: Soft Skull Press.
RIMBAUD, P. (1998) Shibboleth: My revolting life. Edinburgh: AK Press.
WOODWARD, T. (Ed.) (1999) Skin Two Retro 1: The best of issues one to six of Skin Two magazine. London: Tim Woodward Publishing.