Throbbing Gristle’s “Hamburger Lady” is a masterful work of horror

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Throbbing Gristle

Several years ago, over a round of beers with colleagues, we began to discuss the scariest movies we’d ever seen.. The first movie that came to mind was Eraserhead, primarily on the basis that it remains one of the most deeply unsettling things I’d ever seen. But my answer was nearly dismissed outright: “Eh, that’s not really that scary though.” And it’s true, if your measure of terror is in the here-and-now moments of violence and unseen menace that send blood to race through your veins. But Eraserhead is different. There are no jump scares, unless you’re counting the unpleasant fate of the poor, goopy bovine puppet baby (the material construction of which David Lynch has kept secret). But the uneasy feeling that it leaves lingers, like carbon monoxide bonding to your cells and depriving you of oxygen.

Throbbing Gristle‘s “Hamburger Lady” has a similar effect. There are no jump scares or harsh climaxes in the proto-industrial song from 1978. It features no visitations from the devil or monsters rising up from the deep. If anything, the horrors it depicts—however grotesque and genuinely terrifying—are those born of everyday accidents and clinical, even mundane readings of their effects. It’s uncomfortable to listen to but never piercing or cacophonous, but it’s hard to purge the nauseous feeling it leaves in the pit of your stomach. It’s maybe the most horrifying thing I, and probably you, have ever heard.

The standout moment on the group’s D.O.A.: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle is a masterpiece of blood-curdling sonic manipulation. It’s fairly simple, too, comprising only a few key elements—the rise and fall of wheezing distortion, the steady pulse that mimics both a heartbeat and the stalking of a violent shadow in the distance, effects-masked disembodied vocal wails, and Genesis P-Orridge’s matter-of-fact description of a burn victim: “She’s dying,
She is burned from the waist up, On her arm…
” The lyrical content of the song was written by mail artist Blaster Al Ackerman, taken from one of his letters, and not from a real life depiction of burn trauma. That doesn’t make it any less harrowing of a listening experience. Over the course of its four minutes and 16 seconds it ebbs and flows, at times feeling like the tension might boil over but it never quite does, simply leaving it to hang in the air like fetid humidity.

Somehow this nasty little number managed to fly under Tipper Gore’s radar, but then again, Throbbing Gristle didn’t make hit songs that penetrated the mainstream. (It was also released a good seven years before the Filthy Fifteen was A Thing.) They made avant exotica, musique concrête, noise, cacophonous synth-punk and what one former contributor to this site coined as “industrial boner disco.” More to the point, they made art. Formed out of the collective COUM Transmissions in the mid-’70s in England, Throbbing Gristle began life as performance artists, blending sound with visuals and installations that would juxtapose images of pornography with tape manipulations and other experimental fragments and elements. Throbbing Gristle didn’t routinely make terrifying music but it happened often enough, starting even earlier than “Hamburger Lady” with the murderous noise crawl of “Slug Bait.”

The provocative nature of Throbbing Gristle’s performances was met with general distaste from supposedly polite society in England, and law enforcement would seek out reasons to shut down their performances. They also turned that hatred into art, titling one of the songs on D.O.A. “Death Threats,” which featured supposedly unchanged phone messages they received with actual death threats. Over time the legends about them grew to bizarre proportions, which often didn’t reflect the truth of the matter.

“It’s like conspiracy theories, and there are conspiracy theories about everything,” the group’s Chris Carter said in a Bandcamp Daily interview. “We were told we’d killed chickens live on stage, which we never did, or that we were fascists. We were probably more like anarchists than anything.” 

But even for a group whose artistic aims extended well beyond songwriting, production or even live performance, their body of work is singular. In addition to coining the term “industrial,” they left an impression on decades of industrial music to follow through their use of found-sound samples, synth sequencing, noise and fascination with provocative imagery. And though it’s not on their best album (that would be 20 Jazz Funk Greats), “Hamburger Lady” is their greatest single moment in song, as much as you can call it a song. It’s an immersive experience in fear, its disparate parts fairly disturbing on their own, but collectively far more powerful. Essentially every noise and industrial song released in the past 40 years owes something to “Hamburger Lady”—particularly tracks like the hospital-bound body horror of Pharmakon’s “Bestial Burden”—though few come close to capturing something this visceral, even palpably threatening in the way it seems to provoke our primal instinct to get the fuck out of wherever we seem to have found ourselves here.

“Witch-house wishes it were this creepy, but even upside-down crosses won’t save you from the horror of everyday life,” wrote Drew Daniel in Pitchfork in 2011. “A nauseating masterpiece, and an essential recording.”

A friend of mine once claimed there wasn’t such a thing as Halloween music and, after I responded with a YouTube link to “Hamburger Lady,” responded something along the lines of “What the fuck?!” Which isn’t just a valid response. It’s maybe the only natural reaction to hearing this bizarre psychic parasite of a song. It’s a peerless piece of art that won’t seem to come off no matter how hard you scrub.

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