Monday 21 January 2019

40 Years of Throbbing Gristle - Centro Iberico, Sunday 21 January 1979

Throbbing Gristle (and audience) - Centro Iberico, 21 January 1979
On this day forty years ago -  21st January 1979 - I made my way from my parents' home in Heston (a small village about three miles from Heathrow Airport) to an event organised by Throbbing Gristle, or more specifically by legendary Whitehouse manager (Jordi) George Valls. I had just started going to gigs on a regular basis - I was 17 - and was quite confident about attending things on my own. Few of my friends shared the same musical tastes as me in those days and even those who did would have balked at going to watch a group infamously titled 'the wreckers of civilisation' by MP Nicholas Fairbairn.

There were two unusual things about this particular 'gig' (that word doesn't really do justice to what I experienced). One, it was taking place in Westbourne Park, an area of west London that I didn't really know and had just started to frequent via regular trips to the Rough Trade record shop every Saturday morning (which is how I'd found out about the TG event). I was used to attending gigs in central London, mainly at The Marquee, clubs in Hammersmith and occasionally The Electric Ballroom and The Music Machine (now Koko) in Camden; 421 Harrow Road, Centro Iberico's address, was very much off the beaten track. I was unaware then of the counter cultural history of the area - it just seemed like the back of beyond to me.

One of the posters for the Centro Iberico event
The second odd thing was the timing. The gig was on a Sunday afternoon. At 3pm. So I sat down for Sunday lunch with my parents in their very sweet chalet style house where we'd moved four years earlier from my first home in Hounslow, prior to venturing out to one of the most important occurrences of my life. My dad had not been well - he was to retire on ill health grounds the year after following a massive breakdown - and things were strained at home as I recall. I hadn't helped matters by seriously getting into new wave/post punk music, which my mother hated, having seen far too many red top headlines and feeling that her son was only a couple of riots away from a prison sentence. I'd also started full time work in November the year before and was on a pretty good wage for a person of my years, which of course was almost entirely spent on vinyl, either from Rough Trade or our own version of that shop, 'Cloud 7' in Hounslow High St (if you wanted punk you went to visit Keith who operated a record stall at the back of 'Rumbelows' further down the road, but 'Cloud 7' was the best bet for imports and limited edition DIY 7" singles). So I was completely obsessed with music, cider, and the excitement of going out to see live music. Typical suburban kid then.

And as a typical suburban kid I of course was in thrall to the week-nightly John Peel show, and my listening at the time was equally split between more experimental music - Cabaret Voltaire, The Residents and This Heat included - and mainstream stuff; research shows that Peel Sessions leading up to the 21st included Gang Of Four, The Prefects, Gary NumanGeneration X, reggae band Capital Letters and The Members, which sort of summarised what I would have been listening to.

So how had I discovered Throbbing Gristle, who were clearly very different to most of these bands? The answer was an Ian Penman review of 'D.o.A. The Third And Final Report' in the NME, which I read and re-read fetishistically, before going out and buying the LP as soon as it was released in December 1978 (I always conflate the strange and varied sounds of this album, with the ghastly memories of my first office Christmas party, for some strange reason). So all I had to go on was that disc and the 'United' single, released earlier that year, in terms of sonic expectations.

Entry ticket for the event
A weather report of the time reads that heavy snow occurred on both the 17th and 23rd of January 1979 with fog a persistent feature of the 21st. I think it's safe to say that my memories of it being inhospitably cold were correct. So, dressed for my wintry trek, including a donkey jacket (with handmade cardboard-backed letters spelling D, E,V and O pinned on it - I'd been to see the band the previous December at the Hammersmith Odeon and was a big fan) I took the tube from Hounslow West to Hammersmith, changed onto the (then) Metropolitan Line and got off at Westbourne Park - the veritable stranger in a strange land. I remember getting a bit lost - I'm not even sure if I owned a London A-Z - and I'm fairly convinced I used a roughly drawn map on a flyer to navigate myself there.

Once at the building I experienced my first understanding of scene and situation. Centro Iberico, a Spanish Anarchist collective, had set up a squat in a dilapidated Victorian edifice, a disused primary school that had fallen to rack and ruin (it's since been demolished and, slightly psychogeographically, is now the site of the Paddington Law Centre). This was exactly the kind of place that the wreckers of civilization would and should play - a crumbling former seat of learning, now appropriated for counter cultural activities. To access the room where the event took place, punters had to walk up a couple of flights of stairs. There was a really long line of people which snaked down the staircase and out into the courtyard of the former school. I've since heard that this queue attracted a bit of a '100 Club Punk Special' reputation - if everyone who said they were at the gig actually stood in that queue it would have stretched back to Ladbroke Grove station. Well it didn't, and I'd love to say that I recognised all the great and good in the audience - sadly all I picked out were Green Gartside and Tom Morley from Scritti Politti, and Jim 'Foetus' Thirlwell.

It seemed to take a long time to process the customers, who numbered around 180. So much so that punters were still arriving towards the end of TG's support slot, a screening of their 1977 Coum Transmissions/TG film After Cease to Exist - I was presumably towards the front of the queue as I was present for the screening of the whole thing. I'd clearly read something about what to expect here already, as I'd prepared myself for the lengthy castration/surgery scene which takes up quite a lot of the film. I was no stranger to 'transgressive' cinema, but this was up there with Richard Kern's 'Death Trip' films made a few years later - very disconcerting (a 2K restoration is currently touring arts establishments of the UK - viewer discretion is, as they say, advised).

So yes, I was already pretty traumatised. But then the group took the stage. As to my memories of the next sixty minutes (and it was precisely sixty - they used a clock to count down the time and the equipment shut off at the hour point) I remember the arc lights shone at the audience, blinding us almost completely at times, and of course the noise. Oh god, the noise. It was my first sight of TG's on stage set up (as a budding electronic musician at the time I was fascinated by the sheer amount of hardware on stage - most of this would be stolen at a later date, forcing the group to move to a more stripped down, less DIY sound). The other thing that I wasn't used to was hearing a band and not recognising any songs. Now I'm sure I wasn't naive enough to think 'oh, they haven't played anything from the new album!' but even so I wasn't prepared for the incessant cacophony that only now and again disclosed a lyric or a halfway familiar guitar or bass motif. What I do recall, somewhat incongruously, is that Chris Carter, whose rig included a small portable TV which he'd plugged into the rest of his gear and was busily channel surfing (ok just three channels, but even so...) suddenly produced the unmistakable tones of Brian Moore commenting on 'The Big Match' football show (a Sunday afternoon TV staple in UK homes). A recording was made of this event, like all of TG's shows, and if you're lucky enough to get to hear it, it's unmistakable. I recall at the time that this was almost too weird - I was mentally projected back from this insanity, Proust style, to visions of an average suburban Sunday afternoon sitting at home while dad watched the football and mum quietly did the washing up.

Two stills from After Cease to Exist 
But something definitely happened to me during that hour - a sort of deflowering of my expectations of what sound could do. This was the famous 'winter of discontent,' where rubbish piled up on street corners, ignored by striking bin men, and bodies went unburied. Depending on who you believed, anarchy was a real possibility in the UK, and something in TG's performance effectively soundtracked that unrest in a way that a hundred angry punk songs at the time could never achieve. This was true nihilism, but nihilism as art, and I liked it a lot, even though it scared the pants off me.

When the 'set' finished, Genesis the 'singer' asked the audience whether they'd like to see the film again (for those who missed it the first time). I'd had enough, so didn't take him up on the offer, and made my exit.

On the train back to Hammersmith, I sat in a carriage next to Foetus and his (then) girlfriend. They both used to work at the basement Virgin Records shop in Oxford St (where he used to front up his own singles in the 7" racks, the cheeky so and so) and were the epitome of cool. As I sat there, stunned by what I'd witnessed, Mr Thirlwell and his partner saw my home made Devo badges and sniggered knowingly. They kind of had a point. I got home, rather confused, and turned the TV on. I'd made it back in time to watch The Muppet Show, but something suddenly felt very wrong. I turned the television off, ripped the DIY coat adornments from my donkey jacket, threw them in the bin and faced my future.

As a post script to this little story I'll leave you with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge's account of the Centro Iberico event:

"We decided to do it on a Sunday afternoon, as it was the least commercial time to play. It was really cold so we built bonfires inside. We were really surprised when almost exactly as we were about to begin there was this massive queue in the freezing cold outside, right around the building and out into this big Victorian school yard. We decided to put the fires out in case it was dangerous. It turned out quite crowded and the place filled up with choking smoke and steam. People who went there said it was one of the most intense atmospheres they'd experienced and that you could never recapture it. It seemed post-apocalypse. It summed up and decoded the whole of civilisation's collapse, and this was a tribal ritual that only those initiated would understand. It was in a sense so completely meaningless that it was very potent. That was the day we did 'Five Knuckle Shuffle' for the first time, our first real deconstruction of words, gibberish."


  1. A fantastic post David, one of the best things I've read about TG. I was part of the generation that discovered TG with the Mute re-issue campaign of the early 90's so for me these eye-witness reports are invaluable - I wish Simon Ford had spoken to more people like yourself when he was writing his book - it certainly needs that kind of input to make it a more comprehensive read.

    I like your blog very much and am looking forward to spending some time here, checking out your reviews and making new discoveries.

    Thanks, Wes

  2. Wes thanks so much for your kind words. The entry was prompted by me reading somewhere that it was 40 years since the CI event, which got me thinking about how the experience impacted on me at a tender age - was I too young to have experienced something like that? Possibly. It was definitely one of those 'life before and after' moments.

  3. I too was at this gig, so thanks for this reminiscence which fills in some gaps I’d forgotten. I also went alone (I was 22 and had only recently moved to London). It was my only TG gig. I arrived early enough to see the film, which remains one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever witnessed. I was stood near the front on the left in view of the digital countdown.

    I enjoyed the gig although it wasn’t as transformative for me as I had well over a hundred gigs under my belt by then, including Faust, Henry Cow and most of the main punk bands. I must listen to the recording that’s out there.

    My recollection was that someone let a stink bomb off at the end.

    Best Keith

    1. Thanks Keith. Vaguely remember the stink bomb but could also be creating history in my head. Yeah by the time I was 22 I would have been in the same position. Five years previously I was MUCH more impressionable.

  4. Happy 43rd to the Centro Iberico concert ! As ever David, this remains one of the finest pieces I've read on TG. I'm listening to the show now, out of the 24 Hours box. The screeching, splatter sound of Gen's violin on What A Day is incredible.

  5. Thanks - I'd make a cake but I shudder to think what would be in it! Do you have the 24 Hours box Wes? I was so near buying it but it was just the other side of affordable at the time.

  6. I do indeed, I was lucky enough to pre-order both boxes from Mute back in the day, and was fortunate enough to get the Scala concert with the first box. Music aside, I understand your hesistancy, the production of both boxes could have been better and the extras that came with both sets were adequate. I have Google calander marked with all 36 original concerts and will listen to them on the day as the year unfolds. Just to give me something to look forward to ! Next up is the Nag's Head on Feb 11th !

    1. Excellent. My near purchase was the original set of tapes which I think was sold in an executive briefcase. Rivals that fridge by The Residents for desirability.

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  8. 'They kind of had a point.' It sounds like even by 1979, Foetus and GF hadn't yet spotted the value of DIY culture, of which both the TG gig and your badges were part. Your subsequent 'proper, bought form a shop' badges (as Thirlwell may see it) were a step away from your original authentic and much cooler efforts. I bet if was Jim who let that stink bomb off! ;o)