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Throbbing Gristle - 20 Jazz Funk Greats

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Artist: Throbbing Gristle

Album: 20 Jazz Funk Greats

Label: Industrial

Review date: Nov. 15, 2011

At this point, Throbbing Gristle’s influence on modern music can’t be denied. Over 30 years ago, however, the idea of "industrial music" and the links between Punk’s DIY ethos and knowingly confrontational performance art were anything but mainstream. Following TG’s first two albums, 1979’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats was a deliberate attempt to toy with the ideas behind marketing strategy and the purpose of musical genres. One can sense that the quartet felt more willing to indulge their predilections, and cared less about the band’s image. Featuring exotica (even using it as a song name), synth-pop motifs, and Kraftwerk-derived electronics, the album contains moments that could be confused with "friendly." The album’s kitschy photograph, showing the band in their finest ‘70s leisure-wear, is a perfect example -- despite the pastoral look, the location, Beachy Head, was a well-known suicide point.

There’s little left to be said, really, about 20 Jazz Funk Greats after Drew Daniel’s book on the album -- the Matmos member covers all of the details that anyone might want to know, from the front cover photograph to each individual song, and the album’s reception upon release. It’s a great read for anyone interested. Here’s the short of it: 20 Jazz Funk Greats didn’t fit in back in 1979; it still doesn’t today; and the smart money is on it staying that way. The electronic percussion should date it, and perhaps does slightly, but ultimately the morass of sound stands alone, unlike anything else before or since.

The crispness of the re-mastering represents a notable difference from the original, and it might be the only Throbbing Gristle release that sounds proper given such treatment. Clean rhythms, sparkling electronics, and -- oddly -- bursts of noise and mechanical creaks all sound distinct and shiny. From the reverb’d-to-infinity trumpet of the title track to the spikey shards of sound on "Still Walking," the tinkling bells of "Exotica" and the perfectly-channeled Kraftwerk of "Walkabout," the album sounds…well, I’d say beautiful, but I’m not sure that word really applies to Throbbing Gristle. The ominous, doomed pulsing of "Persuasion" and very modern-sounding guitar churn of "Six Six Sixties" have had some edges honed without losing any of their dread.

The reissue contains a live disc of performances from 1979, and hearing the band during its 20 Jazz Funk Greats period is a keen reminder of its performance intensity. The sinister mechanical pulse of "Convincing People" sounds dank and dark, and the inclusion of "Five Knuckle Shuffle" is a good one; Gen’s vocals are a bit loud in the mix, but the steamy chugging of the electronics is as affecting as ever. "What a Day" has always had one of my favorite buzz-driven rhythms, and here they’ve added some particularly anarchic vocals. Two versions of "Discipline" might be excessive, but it’s interesting to compare them, one from Manchester and one from Berlin.

It’s tempting to point out the way 20 Jazz Funk Greats‘s myriad musics have become ingrained in avant-garde circles during the past 30 years, but that might be giving it too much credit. I can’t confidently claim it’s had a tangible influence on any artist, simply because nothing else I’ve heard sounds anything like it. Having had 20 Jazz Funk Greats near the top of my record collection for so long, it’s difficult to step back and imagine anyone who hasn’t spent some time with it. But if you haven’t, now is the time.

By Mason Jones

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