Throbbing Gristle is one of the most enigmatic bands I’ve ever come across. From 1976 – 1981 they released harsh, noisy challenging music that explored the darker side of human behavior. In contrast, this record cover has to be one of the oddest visual representations of them. Confusing, bland, odd and cryptic all at the same time. Keeping with the spirit of the music on the record, something seems off with almost all of its decisions. The image is deliberately forgettable and aimed to please absolutely no one.
“From the very beginning an aesthetic of bleak, post-industrial and dehumanizing references to contemporary life were utilized in our graphics. Peter Christopherson (TG band member) worked as a part of Hypgnosis at the time. They specialized in lavish, conspicuously expensive and elitist photo-surrealist covers for the likes of Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Led Zepplin and other super groups. His job also gave us, as an anarchic and status-quo-challenging cultural unit, access to the highest end of graphic design techniques and labs to execute all our packaging to the same level of quality as his other clients. This is important to remember especially in reference to the finished cover of 20 Jazz Funk Greats”. – Genesis P-Orridge
The reactionary gesture is rooted in a relentless push towards alienating and violating expectations. On the surface of it all the whole enterprise ultimately allows them to break with their own past, but not without a suspicious feeling that something in the image is about to fall apart.
The squeaky clean scenery takes a bleak turn when the backdrop is identified as Beachy Head, notorious for being a popular suicide point because of its steep dive down. The cliff there is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain, rising to 531 feet above sea level. From 1965 to 1979 (the year the record was made) Beachy Head had a suicide count of 124. Approximately 14 jumps a year.
“There was a photo that was a Hollywood still, this Hollywood still from Brigadoon that had Robert Mitchum standing wearing tweeds on a rugged clifftop … I was interested in this because it’s got a weird vibe, but I wanted to give it a bit of a twist. We were talking about having bodies in the bracken, in the grassy surface.” – Peter Christopherson
In a very Duchamp-ian turn (who also did a piece that featured a cryptic body of a naked woman lying in a field) the above black and white image turned out to be an alternate cover used in a box set and a cd reissue. It is possible that the body was superimposed on the photo after the fact.
Along with the revelatory bleak location and puzzling fifties retro look (before retro lounge references were trendy) the band mentions the Range Rover as being a key element of the puzzle. It was rented (“at considerable expense, actually”) and drove down to the site of the photo shoot as part of the performance aspect of the event.
Where usual record sleeve designs try to open doors and suggest helpful paths to guide the listener in, 20 Jazz Funk Greats seems carefully considered to do the opposite. It’s a frustrating but liberating idea. The hardest thing to decode is the band’s own stance toward the image, but this distancing effect and clash perfectly sums up the spirit of the music.
“In December 1978 during a visit to my parents my mother, Muriel, who was well aware of the controversial nature of our images mentioned to me after hearing that we were making a new record – Why can’t you make a nice record for a change? Something nice like flowers and why can’t you you all smile for a change? For some reason, for all the wrong reasons, this idea stuck in my head.” – Genesis P-Orridge
* Notes and comments above were taken from / after reading Drew Daniel’s book about the record, part of the 33 1/3 music book series.