The Question of Comedy
What do you do when you've become synonymous with degeneracy? When your music, performance art practices, and underground zines have created an elaborate web of references from radical literature, deviant philosophers, and occultists? Where to next when when your black-clad fans are treating you as some musical Manson family? How do you react to be labelled the "wreckers of civilisation" by conservative politicians, and finding your names dragged through the sticky mud of tabloid scandal?
Throbbing Gristle, the infamous English outfit who 'invented' industrial music in the '70s, answered those questions in the following fashion: make an album that's essentially a joke, but leave it lingering, for listeners to wonder whether or not it may actually be funny.
20 Jazz Funk Greats is a record whose artwork delivers the kind of transparent zaniness and high self-mockery more reminiscent of, say, Ween. There's the dress-up cover, a piece of recreationist kitsch that puts the provocateurs of Throbbing Gristle in the polyester leisure-wear of light entertainers. Then there's the title; cheaply, doubly sarcastic. For starters, the album has 11 songs. And, obviously, Throbbing Gristle —whose music was built from rickety electronic devices, squalls of noise, rudimentary loops, ominous incantations, and a sense of deliberate displeasure— weren't playing anything close to jazz funk.
But, what were they playing? After two LPs of unrelenting, cacophonous noise —1977's The Second Annual Report and 1978's D.o.A: The Third and Final Report— the third Throbbing Gristle record tried its hand at disco, ambient music, minimalism, and, well, the album's title track/opening salvo was noticeably funky. It was all so obvious a joke listeners could only wonder: were they really joking?
By hewing dangerously close to the genres they were making their own perverse approximations of —the sex coos, Italo-disco arpeggios, and insistent rhythms of "Hot on the Heels of Love" sound not like a mocking hijacking of disco, but, instead, just like a disco song— Throbbing Gristle made sure that 20 Jazz Funk Greats, title notwithstanding, was no simple punchline.
By keeping the artistic impetus and expressive seriousness constant throughout the LP, the record was essentially its own kind of provocation: the work of a band determined not to be hemmed in, daring others to pigeonhole them.
Varying wildly from track-to-track, 20 Jazz Funk Greats tries to make a virtue of its disparity, cataloguing the sound of a band pulling in different directions, trying to tear themselves apart. Where their first two LPs largely found all four members playing at once —and oft at skull-crushing volumes— many pieces herein qualify as solo sketches; "Persuasion"'s six-and-a-half minutes of dispassionate vocals (which speak of psycho-sexual influence, violence barely kept below the boil) and ominous monotonal bass pretty much Genesis P-Orridge alone in the studio.
Like the best moments herein, "Persuasion" succeeds by rigorous minimalism. As does "Walkabout," a shuffling synthesizer pattern peering into an electronic future; "Exotica," drifting snowfalls of feedback and vibraphone pierced by hissing static and harsh sine-waves; and "Beachy Head," an ambient audio-collage that tries to create the otherworldly dread of a suicide 'hotspot.'
The band that fans had come to know and love occasionally shows up —as on the cacophonous "What a Day"— but, even then, this tantalizing glimpse of the 'old' sound seems like it's here, on this record, due to its incongruousness. Throbbing Gristle could've kept going along their merry path, growing their cult by staying true to their brand. Instead, they released an album that was all questions, and no answers; a deliberate discographical disruption that, even to historians, sounds bizarre.
Record Label: Industrial
Release Date: December 1979