Revisiting a Classic: Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979)

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By Jordan Pytosh

Making sense of the genre of “industrial music” has been extremely difficult. It is hard to denote its status mainly because it exists as a sonic rebellion that defies what mainstream understanding of music has come to be defined as. However, even in its defiance, there grew a substantial class of individuals who saw fit to elevate these strange forms to new and inventive musical heights. Out of this revolution, Throbbing Gristle’s 1979 album 20 Jazz Funk Greats served as the figurehead of this singular movement that thrived outside the traditional parameters of popular music, as it was among the first full length releases to create a space for industrial music amongst the ever-growing omnipotence of the radio.

Chronologically, 20 Jazz Funk Greats served as the famous industrial collective’s third studio album and fourth release (if counting the 1975 bootleg tape The First Annual Report). In describing the statements made through the noise collages of their first two albums, these albums are simply musical works oozing with grimy ambiance, full of dynamic and eclectic sounds that led to the soundscape of Jazz Funk Greats. Their debut album, The Second Annual Report, focus on creating a sensory space filled with gritty tones and unrefined noise coming together through elements that are randomly combined, forming together into strange collages. It consists of different versions of the songs “Slug Bait” and “Maggot Death,” concluding with a 20 minute coda called “After Cease to Exist.” The latter is the piece that binds the chaos together, where the airy melodies deep within the track remind the listener of a Brian Eno-style ambient composition, a little refreshing after the weirdness of the prior songs. Even while retaining a bit of the chaotic sound, the group’s second album D.O.A. The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle is a little more cohesive in structure, stringing a lot of the strangeness of their previous work into a more melodically focused sound. Listening to songs like “Dead on Arrival” and “Hometime”, there seemed to be more of a well composed vision behind the way they made things come together here than on their previous material.

All of this leads right into 20 Jazz Funk Greats, the album that cohesively wraps everything together in a strange package of industrial perfection. This album exists as an influential masterpiece in spirit, but not in the typical way that a Thriller or Sgt. Pepper’s is defined under this often used description. The appeal of industrial music is not transcendental, and it’s hard for the average music listener to get into the genre, mainly because it’s easily one of the less conventional and stranger forms of music out there. Given the type of music is usually promoted, especially during TG’s time, where there seemed to be a tight knit structure to it, whether a verse-chorus-verse structure or the idea of a structured melody. This is especially true with tracks like “Convincing People,” a track that if sung by a different group, would have a completely different sound behind it. There’s so many ideas couched within the song, which tackles the theme of persuasion, concluding that there's “never a way to convince people.” It feels like a political song with bombastic production, but instead, it’s handled minimalistically, with a small yet brooding background. This difference means quite a bit when considering that during its time and even now, this song feels radically different than the rest of the popular music landscape.

Yet even amongst the unsettling nature of certain tracks, there are others that have beautifully constructed aural tones, meant as refreshing breaks from the more intense and strange moments. These songs feel a little more accessible to the ear, especially with the bass on “Tanith” and the vibraphone and rhodes sounds on “Exotica.” These tracks serve as a contrast to let the album breathe for a moment, where the screams, jolts and spontaneous cues are replaced with smoother, more delicate underlying harmonies. As mentioned before, the electronic side of the band came out on this album a lot more than D.O.A., especially with the Kraftwerk-esque “Hot on the Heels of Love.” This track is just one of the few that truly bring out this side of Throbbing Gristle, suggesting that  they were going places beyond just the random, unsettling side of their previous output.

In their innovation, Throbbing Gristle served as the fundamentally most important turning point for the industrial genre. Of course, there was weird music before their time, including the work of NEU! and Faust, but industrial music was never considered anything more than noise - partially due to the reception Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, which, in retrospective, is really not that bad. And, unfortunately, until 20 Jazz Funk Greats, Lou Reed's controversial album served as the representative work of this genre. Why? Simply because Throbbing Gristle’s work was not just “noise;” it, in fact, deviated largely from that category through their most important works. Even Second Annual Report, the most noise-based work in their catalogue, is not entirely reckless in its composition, and actually showed a sense of musicality amidst all the so-called chaos.

MusicSteven Norwalk