Alan Licht examines Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s legacy of transforming 1960s psychedelic culture into a subversive vehicle for social change
Every obituary has tagged the late Genesis Breyer P-Orridge as a musician and an artist, but the self-categorisation of Cultural Engineer seems to ring far more true. Genesis certainly made music, as a vocalist and occasional bassist and violinist – over 200 album credits worth, at last count – but music for h/er (P-Orridge used gender neutral terms self-referentially from the 2000s on) was always the product of communal activity, a means of challenging prevailing norms and calling attention to the outer edges of human behaviour, often inspired by similar efforts by non-musical thinkers and creators, rather than an end in itself to provide entertainment or demonstrate instrumental skill. In 1981 Genesis pointed out that s/he “spent most of my life… living in communes… and working in different groups. That’s why I never work on my own, because it seems pointless.” While COUM Transmissions and the other communal performance art-oriented troupes of P-Orridge’s that preceded the seminal band Throbbing Gristle had incorporated music, it was TG that was deliberately assembled as an anti-rock rock group – four untrained musicians (P-Orridge and fellow COUM members Peter Christopherson and P-Orridge’s then partner Cosey Fanni Tutti, along with Chris Carter), with two of them doing live electronics, a guitarist who played solely noise with a metal slide, and no drummer or individual songwriter(s).
TG’s intent was subversion within the music scene in a pivot away from the art world, and that was reflected in the arch titling of their albums—their initial homemade cassette was mockingly called ‘The Best of’…Volume 1, the 1977 debut album confusingly dubbed The Second Annual Report. The cheekiness was combined with a distinctly transgressive sensibility: the logo image of their label, Industrial Records, was in fact a photo of Auschwitz; the scenic cliff backdrop they posed against on the cover of 20 Jazz Funk Greats, their third LP (another ironic title, as it contained neither jazz funk nor 20 cuts) was Beachy Head, a popular destination for suicides. The music, imitated in one aspect or another by scores of industrial bands ever since, veered between harsh soundscapes and proto-electro pop, paired with beyond the pale lyrics, such as describing a woman horribly charred from the waist up (“Hamburger Lady”) or a Manson Family-esque home invasion involving mutilation (“Slug Bait”). Even “United”, vaguely a love song, snuck in a lyrical reference to the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley (“love is the law”, part of Crowley’s dictum that continues “love under will”).
Crowley’s hedonistic philosophies were rediscovered by the late 1960s counterculture, and to a great extent that period lasted a lifetime for Genesis (in a 2009 conversation with the band Black Dice, s/he claimed that there was nothing in h/er house – music, furniture or clothing – made after 1969). Psychic TV, the band that s/he, Peter Christopherson and Alternative TV’s Alex Fergusson formed in the early 80s after TG split, played concerts mixing improvisations and songs alongside projections of videos made and assembled by the group, à la Warhol/Velvet Underground Exploding Plastic Inevitable happenings of the mid-60s. P-Orridge glorified The Rolling Stones’ founding guitarist, Brian Jones, in Psychic TV’s sole chart hit “Godstar” and steered Psychic TV in the direction of acid house in the late 80s, initially attracted to the trance element of the music and rave culture as an echo of the trip festivals of the original 60s psychedelic era. S/he also launched The Temple Of Psychick Youth, modelled to some degree on Crowley’s ritual magic organisation OTO, which networked information on various esoteric subjects and which functioned as a Psychic TV fan club with deliberate overtones of a cult movement. It is telling that The Temple was designated for a youth constituency in its very name, as the 60s were a very youth-centric decade and rock is usually directed at a youth audience to begin with, but with TOPY P-Orridge made an association between teenage rock acolytes and the recruitment of youth by cult leader/father figures like Manson and Jim Jones, who s/he was fascinated by and regularly touched on in the 70s and 80s. TOPY didn’t seem to be set up in order to exploit or brainwash their members, but some observers were skeptical about where this grand experiment in conflating cult followings would end up – at best, and at worst it was feared to be a bizarre, quasi-Satanic sex cult. The accusations made by Cosey Fanni Tutti in her 2017 memoir Art Sex Music of abusive and controlling behaviour by P-Orridge during their long domestic partnership, which fell apart during the TG period, suggest that whatever identification P-Orridge may have had with cult leaders could have manifested in his own personal relationships, at least as a young man (P-Orridge denied Tutti’s allegations).
With Lady Jaye, P-Orridge’s partner in the 90s and 2000s, s/he embarked on the Pandrogyne Project, which involved extensive physical surgery to modify their bodies so that they resembled each other to the point of fusing into a single entity, for which they shared the same joint name: Breyer P-Orridge. Genesis was a fan and friend of both William S Burroughs and Brion Gysin, and this took Gysin’s idea of the cut-up (taking a text, cutting it up and re-organising it to reveal subliminal truths supposedly contained within it), which Burroughs used extensively in several novels, to its ultimate interpersonal and biological conclusion (not to mention enacting the lyric of TG’s “United”: “You become me/And I become you/She is she/And she is you too/United”). Pandrogyne exemplified P-Orridge’s core belief in the force of h/er own will to follow and live out h/er interests and convictions to the furthest boundary imaginable (and sometimes well beyond that). “He lived his entire life around his idea or philosophy, and everything he did was part of that,” P-Orridge said of Crowley in 1981. “And that’s what I decided I should do – that’s what I decided everyone should do – but it’s not up to me to make people do what I think they should do.” Such a stance won P-Orridge many admirers but also created conflicts throughout h/er life with mainstream society, up to and including the British government.
When I arrived at the Breyer P-Orridge residence in Ridgewood Queens in 2006, for our appointment to do an Invisible Jukebox for the The Wire 271, Gen opened the door, in full Brian Jones-inspired regalia, and blearily asked “Who are you again?” as Lady Jaye hovered in the background. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the film Performance where James Fox turns up at the home of the reclusive androgynous rock star Turner (played by Mick Jagger) trying to talk his way in while (Jones’s real-life partner) Anita Pallenberg looks on. It struck me that Genesis had made that movie h/er life, at least in certain outward appearances. We talked for four hours, the longest jukebox interview I’ve ever done. Charismatic and loquacious, a raconteur par excellence, s/he spoke for 30 minutes about The Master Musicians Of Jajouka alone, and very passionately about a Patti Smith bootleg track that I played. S/he also talked candidly about the ways in which both TOPY and acid house hadn’t worked out the way s/he’d originally hoped they would, as well as ruminating on the gender concept from prehistoric times and a futuristic vision of body modification for space travel. It was a brutally hot day, and at one point Lady Jaye came downstairs and brought h/er an ice pop. Genesis clapped h/er hands gleefully, saying “yum, yum” as s/he licked the treat. S/he seemed to be five years old and five hundred years old all at once. But that seems to have been a goal, perhaps the one P-Orridge accomplished most successfully: to contain multitudes within one person. The body modifications and name changes (s/he was born Neil Megson) can be viewed as demarcations of that. S/he also referred to h/erself as we, to signify h/er union with Lady Jaye, even after her passing in 2007. But TOPY also used we as opposed to I to recognise the ‘multi-dimensionality’ it tried to develop in the personalities of its members; self-actualisation was one of its stated purposes. As with the 60s counterculture, which also aspired to raise consciousness within the individual and across communities, implementing this had its limits. “We never figured out how to change behaviour, it seems pretty obvious it’s down to each person,” P-Orridge remarked about the collapse of TOPY during our interview. If P-Orridge fell short of transforming society as fully as s/he transformed h/erself, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.