War at 33 1/3: Throbbing Gristle, Public Enemy & Datapanik

World War III is a guerilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation

-Marshall McLuhan

In 1978, Pere Ubu released the EP Datapanik in the Year Zero. With its release came the first intimations of “Datapanik,” a concept developed by the band’s singer, David Thomas, and their graphic designer, John Thompson. In their words: “Datapanik is the seed from which sprouts Modernity. Modernity spreads through societies wiping away value and judgment. Datapanik describes the mechanism. Media is driven by it. If it is likened to a virus, then the media itself is the laboratory where the virus was germinated and from which it spreads.” If Datapanik describes the mechanism, that mechanism follows these axioms:

“-Information is a sedative, a kind of existential palliative care.

 -Dataflow is imperative.

 -Info-junkie culture is inevitable.

 -Judgment impedes dataflow. It is anathema.

 -Dataflow requires that all things be demonstrable as true all of the time.”

This idea doesn’t come from nowhere. Its seeds can be traced to some of the earliest instances of Rock music. The rhythms of early Rockabilly and Rock ‘n’ Roll imitate those of trains and cars. A clear example of this is Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line,” which sets locomotive rhythms against a chord progression whose key center is constantly shifting, setting the scene of a man on a train pining for the woman he loves, reflecting the changes in his mood and outlook over the course of his journey. 

Musicians instinctively preserve and protect their geography by encoding it into sound, preserving it in a place safe from predatory media beasts

Consciously or not, Rock music has been documenting the encroachment of technology and media on the human subject since its inception. We see this psycho-geography charted further by many musical figures of the ‘60s, chief among them Captain Beefheart. Beefheart’s Safe As Milk is the point in the sonic cartographic record where the mechanical rhythms present in earlier strains of popular music begin to overtake the rest of the ensemble. Harmonically, the music is still very much rooted in the folk tradition of the delta blues, but, in terms of performance, the instrumentalists play with a machinic rigidity. Fast forward to Trout Mask Replica and the performances have become more aggressive, more incisive, and the compositions infinitely more intricate. The process has accelerated. Almost none of the players are working in the same time signature, much less the same key. Each instrument is pursuing their own rigidly composed end, only briefly intersecting with the other parts to allow the piece some degree of musical cohesion. This mirrors the Western Post-War social and cultural landscape: everyone is increasingly alienated from one another, only being allowed to make contact with others in an effort to keep the cogs greased just enough so that everything stays running, smoothly or otherwise. In the middle of it all stands Beefheart: the alienated subject, whose hysterical howls have become increasingly obtuse and incomprehensible.

Throbbing Gristle take this vision of the contemporary Western landscape for granted, and push its aesthetic articulation much further. Take something like “United.” On the surface, it’s a pretty straight forward love song, not unlike Cash’s “Walk the Line.” Given Genesis’ later biography, it’s tempting to treat lines like “You become me/And I become you/She is she/And she is you too” and “You miss them/You want to be them” as foreshadowing the alchemical synthesis of lover and beloved s/he pursued with Lady Jaye. Whatever truth there might be in this reading, I think it glosses over many of the more interesting aspects of “United.” For starters, it stands in stark contrast with most of their discography. What gives? Where’s the fuckin’ noise? Ya put on the track, and what you get are austere synthesizers that border on the clinical. But Throbbing Gristle, even at their most Apollonian, are never really clinical. There’s always a touch of grime somewhere, always just shy of pristine. Still, by their standards? This is anti-septic. Up to this point, it’s also their most rigid track, due, in part, to the first use of a drum machine in their discography, which is the first trace of a distinguishable rhythm on a Throbbing Gristle record outside of the Southampton recording of “Slug Bait” (which is a variation on the African tribal drum pattern on “Abba Zaba” from Safe As Milk) and the snippet of a sampled drum groove we hear for a brief, passing moment on the Rat Club version of “Maggot Death.” Then, when you consider the flat, affectless vocal delivery… it all starts seeming too mechanical, dispassionate, and particularly sexless for a band whose oeuvre is littered with material where they revel in seedy and sadistic sex. Let’s consider a few more lyrics:

“You and I

 You and I

 Living together

 Loving forever

 At our distance

 Another for instance,”

“Oceans between us

 Sky between us

 Land between us

 Fire between us

 We’re United.” 

The most obvious thing to point out here is the beat-you-over-the-head irony of these lyrics, emphasizing the distance between the lovers, followed by the insistence that they’re “United.” It’s also worth noting how profoundly vapid the first excerpt is. I’d hope the point I’m about to make is so glaringly obvious that I don’t even have to make it, but, in the spirit of Throbbing Gristle’s contempt for and condescension towards the audience: it’s fuckin’ satire. The band have stated in interviews that the song’s meant to be a parody of New Wave, but, for one, it doesn’t sound like New Wave. It sounds like Kraftwerk. And, as suggested above in reference to reading the song biographically: we shouldn’t take reductive, easy to digest interpretations at face value, especially when they’re presented by the artist. At best, explanations like these are a red herring. At worst? Yet another instance of an artist being completely oblivious to what they were actually making. “United” is a representation of romantic desire mediated by technology, of love completely divorced from any natural human impulse and reduced to a series of empty platitudes after being rigidly codified by a cybernetic control society and channeled into safe, acceptable modes of expression. Relevant here is the repeated lyric “Love is the law,” originally taken from Aleister Crowley. In Crowley’s cosmology, “Love is the law,” as I understand it, means that love is one of the ordering principles of reality. In the context of “United,” this phrase becomes more ambiguous. Is love simply complying to authority? An act of cultural or political submission? Here, we see love rendered compulsory in a society where every desire has its root in an InfoWar campaign waged by corporate and political entities with fundamentally anti-human interests. Yeah, you can love, but only in these pre-specified ways that have been deemed socially and politically acceptable by these institutions. But even this reading is reductive. We shouldn’t just dismiss the more sincere aspects of the song. The tension between these readings is what makes this song beautiful, and its ability to flit between sincerity and satire is a large part of why it’s so compelling.

“Datapanik provides a cure to itself. Hence, the first corollary, codified thusly: We don’t promote Chaos. We preserve it”

“United” is hardly representative of the sound worlds typically created by Throbbing Gristle, though. For a more representative example, let’s take the studio version of “Maggot Death” from Second Annual Report. Genesis plays the part of a stalker in a park who abducts a married woman and kills her. The listener is given no indication of how to feel about this, the killer’s perspective is merely presented to them. The music underlying this is a miasma of heavily processed guitar, bass, and synthesizer squeals that all bleed into each other. Even characterizing it this way is inaccurate though, as the vocal isn’t raised to a position above the music and given supreme importance. Instead, we find it’s as heavily processed as the rest of the instrumentation, just another texture in a vortex of sound that’s barely intelligible most of the time. The subject is being whisked away in a tide of technologically mediated desire and frequently being subsumed by it. I can’t help but think of Tetsuo: The Iron Man here. In the movie, the titular Tetsuo begins growing shafts of metal and machinery out of his body, eventually turning into this quasi-organic, machinic homunculus. Much of early Throbbing Gristle is the sonic equivalent of this. This swathe of Throbbing Gristle’s material embodies a primordial Chthonian force, an eruption of unfettered Sadean desire, the emergence of some techno-animus from the depths of our collective unconscious.

There are certain parallels between Throbbing Gristle’s work, particularly pieces like “Maggot Death,” and the electric era recordings of Miles Davis. Something like Davis’ Bitches Brew has a similar amorphous quality to much of Throbbing Gristle’s material, and records like On The Corner and Dark Magus introduce the use of electronics in Davis’ work that owe quite a bit to Stockhausen, who was also a key influence on Throbbing Gristle. Stockhausen’s use of electronic sound processing on pieces like Hymnen were of particular interest to Davis, who would apparently blare Hymnen while driving around in his Lamborghini, which is a fuckin’ glorious thing to imagine. By the time Davis gets to Dark Magus, he’s pushed this synthesis of Jazz and electronics to the point where Dark Magus is practically a noise rock record. As a result, many of the sounds there would feel right at home on something like Second Annual Report. Why is this? Why do these parallels exist between Miles Davis and Throbbing Gristle? It’s worth mentioning that Throbbing Gristle actually owe a lot to Jazz. Peter Christopherson has professed his love for Sun Ra in many interviews, Genesis grew up playing Jazz drums, being exposed to Big Band Swing by h/er father, and was a big fan of Charles Mingus. With this in mind, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to argue that Throbbing Gristle were affecting their own type of Jazz. But where Davis comes from the actual culture of Jazz, where a high premium is placed on technical mastery and hierarchy, Throbbing Gristle’s Jazz is more like a garage rock band taking their best swing at “doing Jazz.” Which sounds dismissive, but given what I’ve said about their particular debts to rock music, this is exactly what makes their music so compelling. By forgoing technical skill, they’re forced to employ other tactics.

Davis’ fusion of Stockhausen with the Jazz-Funk of his previous electric albums also created a synthesis of electronic music and grooves essential in creating a cultural context for hip-hop. Similar to Throbbing Gristle, the pioneers of the genre arrive at this out of necessity. Hip-hop is largely born as a result of kids who, a few years previously, would’ve just been funk musicians. But New York’s economy was in the shitter, everyone was broke, and no one could afford instruments. Not having access to instruments, they made due with what they had, and what they had were records and turntables. In a certain way, this also parallels the birth of Jazz. The introduction of drums and brass into Jazz is largely due to proto-Jazz musicians in New Orleans getting access to these instruments through military surplus. Aside from the fact that both groups of musicians had to adopt these tactics out of necessity, it’s also true that, under Datapanik, sampling takes on the same role as adopting the instruments of martial music. When information is the weapon used against you, any reclamation of that information is an act of aesthetic terrorism.

Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari had this idea of haptic visuality, which, to explain it quickly and crudely, is a mode of seeing that extends beyond vision into touch. It ceases to be about what is seen and more about how it’s felt, the materiality of the image, its texture, and how the image physically affects the viewer. What Deleuze & Guattari were concerned with in the visual arena, Throbbing Gristle where equally interested in when it came to sound. They made haptic music. Throbbing Gristle went as far as building their own PA equipment in pursuit of what they termed “metabolic music.” They wanted to know how you could use sound to affect the body, frequently using this knowledge to torture and assault the audience. This is partly due to a sense of mischievousness on their part, but’s it’s also an extension of their larger embrace of military aesthetics, which they mobilized to affect their own brand of aesthetic terrorism. They’d often be seen in press photos sporting battle fatigues, and would produce quotes like:

“you can always aim to be as skillful as the most professional of government agencies. The way you live, structure, conceive, and market what you do, should be as well thought out as a government coup”

Beyond this, the group employed surveillance techniques used by military and espionage agencies to acquire sounds. Peter Christopherson’s primary role in Throbbing Gristle was to manipulate found sounds on a proto-sampler constructed from reconstituted cassette players by resident electronics wunderkind Chris Carter. Among these were recordings procured by Christopherson’s bugging of mercenary offices and prostitutes negotiating with Johns.

“Discipline” is an interesting manifestation of this preoccupation with military and totalitarian aesthetics, occupying a sonic midpoint between “United” and “Maggot Death.” No proper studio version of it exists, only various live recordings. The only consistent feature between the various recordings is the incessant, quasi-militaristic dance beat and Gen’s chants of “Discipline! Discipline! We need some discipline in here!” The rest of the instrumentation is in a constant state of flux, varying from recording to recording. Sometimes the group is clearly playing off the rhythm from the drum machine, with shafts of abstract electronic sounds assaulting the listener from oblique angles. Other times, it approaches the quasi-organic noise of “Maggot Death.” What are we to make of this? How do these pieces fit together? As always, the easy out would be to cry “irony!” and move on. The cover of the “Discipline” single shows the band, once again, decked out in military fatigues, standing in front of the ex-Nazi Ministry of Information building. With this presentation, it’d be easy to interpret Gen’s character in “Discipline” as some would-be fascist or otherwise authoritarian personality and view the song as a satirical exploration of this sort of character, who, if this reading holds true, is being presented as an apoplectic child. Not to disrespect the dead, but let’s face facts: Gen did not have an intimidating scream. Compelling? Sure, but it’s not the type of scream that really sells a fascist character that could be credibly read as threatening. But Throbbing Gristle are a mercurial entity: as soon as you think you’ve caught them, they dissolve, oozing out of your hands and slinking back to the gutter. We should not assume that their handling of a fascist character would be this safe and approachable, especially when we’ve already gone through an example of them presenting a serial killer to us in “Maggot Death” without much in the way of overt criticism or commentary. So, what other interpretations are there? We could read the cries for “discipline!” coming from Gen’s character as a reaction to the environment they’ve been placed in. Confronted with a world governed by impermanence, where everything is in constant flux, and where you’re constantly being assailed by forces outside yourself that threaten to subsume you, the desire to have some sense of order imposed on the world starts to seem pretty sensible. If we look at the Manchester recording of “Discipline” from the original 12”, we could just as easily say the character is reacting to desires within themself that they’re incapable of confronting. This version leans into the dance elements latent within the song’s rhythm, giving it a more directly libidinal quality and suggesting that this landscape may be eliciting a desire for discipline that may be more… apolitical. Hell, maybe these desires for sexual and political discipline are intertwined. In either case, “Discipline” could be seen as an appeal to the Apollonian in a world where Dionysian impulse has run amok. And again, I can’t stress enough that none of these readings should be seen as primary or definitive. Depending on which performance or recording we’re talking about, any one of these interpretations could be the appropriate one, or even some combination of them. But the larger point is that these various potentialities all exist within “Discipline.”

“My friend’s a stooge for the media priests

In the morning with his hand on his heart

He keeps the world safe from falling apart”

— Pere Ubu, “My Friend Is A Stooge”

There are interesting parallels here between Throbbing Gristle and the rap group Public Enemy. Both share an interest in military aesthetics with an eye to confronting Datapanik. Organizationally, Public Enemy were run like a small government, having their own Minister of Information in Prof. Griff, who dealt with the press, researched lyrical content, and acted as intellectual and spiritual advisor to the rest of the group, as well as leading the Security of the First World. The S1W were a mock militia who would accompany the band on stage in military uniform sporting replica guns that had morphed out of Unity Force, a group of security guards and club bouncers lead by Prof. Griff in the days before Public Enemy. Prof. Griff has remarked that presenting the S1W as militants was supposed to be a demonstration of black, male vitality, as well as a provocation aimed at the record executives and industry personal with a long history of taking advantage of black artists. The S1W and Public Enemy as a whole were declaring war on the Media Priests, the moneyed people in positions of power making judgements about the dataflow for the public at large.

This plays out musically in some interesting ways. Public Enemy’s production team, The Bomb Squad, confront the listener with a maelstrom of musical information completely ripped from its initial context. The cultural history of these sounds is, at least partly, obscured by this removal of context, a tactic mobilized to illustrate the removal of the subject from their history and culture. Once the bomb of modernity dropped, it was just a question of time until Datapanik hit and fractured everything. To confront this, Public Enemy attempt to construct something that can withstand the blast-impact of Datapanik. But this construct isn’t the music (although, in certain ways, it reflects this). The construct is the group itself, which was meant to act as a model to be emulated by others. That being said, this model for comporting oneself under Datapanik is very much present in the music.

Public Enemy are indebted as much to James Brown as they are to the machine rhythms from early Rock ‘n’ Roll. Unlike Throbbing Gristle, Public Enemy come to this through Kraftwerk, whose influence on early hip-hop due to Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” is well documented. But where Kraftwerk’s rhythms are completely mechanized, Public Enemy’s are rooted in Brown’s dance rhythms. This highlights a major difference between Throbbing Gristle and Public Enemy; where Throbbing Gristle are simply documenting the encroachment of technology on the subject and “preserving chaos,” Public Enemy are attempting to chart a line of flight out of it. By rooting their music in the dance rhythms of funk, and thereby prioritizing the rhythms of the body over those of machines, there seems to be an insistence that, in spite of everything, the human subject will persist. To elucidate this distinction between Throbbing Gristle and Public Enemy; in reference to Nick Land’s quote that “nothing human makes it out of the near-future,” Throbbing Gristle nod in agreement, whereas Public Enemy demand an alternative. In their effort to find an exit, Public Enemy present two ideals of how best to handle the information saturated environment they find themselves in, embodied by Chuck D and Flavor Flav.

Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad has said “one of the things I always want to do is […] I want[ed] sound to be able to come out and touch you,” demonstrating a similar interest in haptic sound to Throbbing Gristle. He’d often crank the treble when EQ-ing samples in an effort to give them more attack, making them that much more capable of assaulting the listener. This functions as a sort of sonic shit-test, less extreme than, but not dissimilar to, how Throbbing Gristle would use sound as a weapon against their audience in live settings. Both bring to light the harshness of the modern world in different ways, and seem to challenge the listener to different degrees in an effort to coax them to rise to the occasion and find some means of dealing with the dataflow’s onslaught. Shocklee’s use of EQ also echoes Captain Beefheart’s insistence that the guitar players on Trout Mask Replica use metal guitar picks, which was also done to increase the attack of the instruments and make the sound more cutting. While not influenced by Beefheart, there are interesting parallels between his work and Public Enemy’s; overwhelming barrages of sound, a lack of concern with conventional tonality, and there’s a certain parallel between Beefheart’s often absurdist, Dada inspired wordplay with the goofy, clown prince vibe of Flavor Flav. Consider the following sets of lyrics, the first from Public Enemy’s “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor,” the second from Beefheart’s “Sugar ‘N’ Spikes”:

“Ya eatin’ death ’cause ya like gettin’ dirt from da graveyard

Ya put gravy on it

Den ya pick ya teeth with tomb stone chips

And casket cover clips, dead women hips ya do da bump with, bones

Nutin but love bones

Life styles of the live-en-dead

First ya live den ya dead, died trying ta clock what I said

Now I got a murder rap ’cause I bust ya cap with flavor, pure

Flavor”

“I’m paid up in home in ‘m new Friday’s house

There’s no H on my faucet there’s no bed for m’ mouse

My punch ‘n grow mind in diamond back time

Now it’s king for uh day with my lady look fine

Got m’ peakin’ up hat ‘n my caramel mask

Tremelo car got m’ speidel wrist round m’ honey

Goin’ t’ see the navy blue vicar

Paul Peter ‘n misses wray flicker”

What I find so interesting about these lyrics is the lack of concern with meaning and the focus on the materiality of the language. Flavor Flav and Beefheart are both more interested in playing with the musicality of the language and presenting what borders on stream of consciousness writing. There’s also a genuine sense of joy in both tracks, and, in the case of “Cold Lampin’,” a sense of bravado and self-assurance. Flav exudes a very palpable can’t-touch-me attitude, which is interesting given that “Cold Lampin’” is easily one of most chaotic and intricately produced tracks on “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” As fragments of samples whirl behind him, Flav simply laughs and moves on, barely taking note of them. Flav’s refusal to acknowledge or engage with this process reflects a Jungerian aspect of his character. Flav, in some ways, embodies Ernst Junger’s idea of the Anarch: a figure who exists in the world, but is not of it. In Junger’s words, the anarch exists “not because [they] despise authority, but because [they] need it,” and is a “man who demands something worth believing in.” The songs where Flav is given center stage demonstrate this contempt for existing authority, “911 is a Joke” being a fairly obvious example of this, while “Cold Lampin’” displays this in a more oblique way. Flav’s lyrical digressions into absurd word play and, in flashes, complete nonsense are affronts to intelligibility and display a lack of concern with being understood. In this way, both he and Beefheart echo aspects of the Holy Fool of Eastern Orthodoxy, who “feigns insanity, pretends to be silly, or […] provokes shock or outrage by his deliberate unruliness” in order to facilitate contemplation of the divine and to mask their own perfection from the world.

If Flav provides a flippant dismissal of societal authority, the authority the Anarch deems worth believing in for Public Enemy is embodied by Chuck D on a musical level and by Prof. Griff on an organizational one. The tension between these perspectives is most clearly illustrated by the fact that, at the time of releasing the single “Night Of The Living Baseheads,” a song railing against the use of free-base cocaine in the black community, Flav was absolutely BLASTING that shit. “Baseheads” is also a clear illustration of the more dominant, narrativizing perspective presented by Chuck D. In contrast to Flav, Chuck is explicitly trying to advance a viewpoint. If Flav is a Holy Fool, Chuck D is a preacher attempting to shepherd his flock to safety. Chuck thinks coke is ravaging his community, and he wants you to know that. Parallel to this is the production. As chaotic as Public Enemy can sound at times, let’s not forget that, in stark contrast to the freewheeling improvisation of Throbbing Gristle, Public Enemy presents very considered, finely crafted works. From almost every angle, Public Enemy are an intensely Apollonian project, with Flavor Flav maybe being the sole exception. As already mentioned, the music is highly scrutinized and constructed, but the Public Enemy world view also reflects this. As opposed to Throbbing Gristle’s ambiguous exploration of potentialities, Public Enemy’s black nationalism presents a constructed counter-factual as a challenge to the Media Priests. Public Enemy were fighting fire with fire by pushing a competing narrative. Throbbing Gristle looks at both, laughs, and says “ya know this isn’t gonna last, right?”

In this vein, it’s notable how Genesis in particular differs from Chuck D. Genesis is a shaman, an embodiment of the archetypal English mystic. S/he acted as a conduit for the outside, channeling various personalities and desires from the collective unconscious. Contrast this with Chuck, preacher and arch-moralist, attempting to resuscitate an ideal of black excellence that may already have been lost. Chuck D. and Public Enemy attempt to part the Red Sea and lead their people away from the vision of hell conjured by Genesis and Throbbing Gristle. But the Media Priests, seizing on some unflattering comments made by Prof. Griff in regards to the people of Judea, can’t allow that. Media outrage ensues, Griff is forced to exit the group, and, in the intervening time, what was once a united front gets watered down as members of the group are increasingly focused on side projects, Public Enemy quickly becoming one among a number of other concerns. Public Enemy remain active, but have plummeted in cultural relevancy, acting as proof of one of Ubu’s axioms: “Judgment impedes dataflow. It is anathema.”

Will Samson runs a Schizo-ArtFag twitter account that functions as an R’n’D Dept. for his larger artistic projects. In his down time, you can find him eating paint chips, pining for lost shakers of salt, and, both literally and metaphorically, beating his head against the walls of the shithole duplex he calls hell.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s