Sunday, November 18, 2007

Throbbing Gristle - Hamburger Lady

Throbbing Gristle - "Hamburger Lady"

Spending the summer back from college at my parents' house meant going without a high-speed Internet connection, but I was determined not to let it stop me from having the same access to the Internet and Napster that I'd grown to take for granted at school. I set up my computer in the basement and spent more evenings down there than I should willingly admit to, given that it was the summer of my 21st year, and everything. In hindsight, I can see how this set an awful precedent for the rest of my life up to this point, though it was the last time I ever used a dial-up connection. Hopefully it taught me a little patience.

Throbbing Gristle... the "first industrial band," or so the lazy descriptions went. I had to check this out for myself. Downloaded a handful of songs, including "Hot On the Heels of Love" and "Walkabout," both which sounded more like house music than KMFDM, Nine Inch Nails, or anything else I was expecting. This "What a Day" song sounded pretty weird. "Aw shucks," I thought to myself. "I can sure relate to that!" But where was this weird, spooky stuff they were supposed to be known for? The Spin Alternative Record Guide mentioned "Slug Bait" and its backwards-playing counterpart, "tiaB gulS," so I patiently downloaded those and, probably an hour later, finally gave them a listen. Doing this alone, in the dark... not a good idea. "tiaB gulS" at least spared me from the original's accounts of rape and castration, but was somehow almost creepier.

I was relieved to make it through those tracks and just assumed that "Hamburger Lady" couldn't possibly be any worse. I remember "Hamburger Lady" following the same track as "Slug Bait," like a sadistic "A Century of Fakers"/"A Century of Elvises" pairing. I could be wrong about this, since I haven't listened to either song since! The warped vocals were a little hard to make out at first, so I probably turned up the volume, straining my ears to try to understand just what the then-Mr. P-Orridge was saying.

Why did I do this?

I can only remember fractions of lyrics ("burned from the waist up... she's dying..."), coldly recited and split up with some kind of echo or delay effects, all over that insistent, repeating siren in the background (which didn't even have the decency to introduce anything as simple as a beat to distract me from the sickening monologue). I waited for this song to go somewhere, but after more than three minutes, it was clear that there wasn't going to be any relief from this grotesque account of loneliness, misery, and suffering. Maybe I was just too impressionable, maybe most people can listen to this and "enjoy" it in the same way they'd enjoy watching a slasher film. The only problem is, there's no layer of irony or camp here, just a brutal, unflinching portrait of hopeless agony.

I'd had enough and went to stop the song, intending to delete it and put it out of my mind for good. That's when things got a little weird. I must have been running too many programs at once, because when I tried to use the Winamp controls, my computer froze up, causing the always-unsettling glitch sound of a "skipping" mp3 to come tearing out of my headphones. Ctrl-Alt-Delete, Ctrl-Alt-Delete... nothing. Desperate to put a stop to this and reboot my computer, I quickly reached for the power switch, which killed not just the computer but my monitor as well. I was left in the dark of the basement, incredibly spooked by what I'd just heard and the sudden, unexpected series of events that followed. I don't remember what I did then, except that I somehow managed to stand up and find the light switch in the dark, flipping it back on even though I half expected to be face-to-face with the Hamburger Lady after doing so. After that, I probably went back upstairs, turned on all the lights, and woke up the dog for company.

Even now I can't quite bring myself to listen to this song again. I'm sure Throbbing Gristle would love to know that they scared a 21 year-old man completely shitless, and even in 2000! Not that this would offend anyone in 2007. Americans love watching panic-striken people suffer and die, the more painful and agonizing it is, the better.


Ayinsan said...

I remember you telling me about that song awhile back. After your description I didn't quite have the nerve to actually listen to it, but I looked up the lyrics to both Hamburger Lady and Slug Bait.

Slug Bait is so over-the-top depraved it's almost funny. Hamburger Lady is just sad and creepy.

Adam Holdsworth said...

Frigging Nora, this brings back memories. In very similar circumstances (in the dark, alone in the house) I downloaded this track because I'd heard that TG were...kind of weird. How right. It was in the days of Audiogalaxy (2001 or so?) and after listening to it once, I couldn't believe how strange it was but I was drawn to it, as to a car crash. After the third listen I was pretty dang spooked and decided to walk along our street for a can or two of beer. This is in relatively brightly lit suburbia, yet walking along the pavement I had the impression that I was being followed and if that I looked round, I'd would see the blackened, shrivelled husk of the HL herself a few paces behind me. I was aged 33 so don't worry about being 21 and truly weirded out by this track. My computer is next to our bedroom and I had to switch off the machine in the middle of the night, I was so convinced that by a freakish glitch of nature it would start playing by itself. I deleted it the next day, but later, as some kind of aversion therapy, I put it on my iPod and am used to hearing it pop on on shuffle every now and then.

Soon after hearing it, I played it to a friend in her 40s and she asked me to stop half way through.

Thanks for reminding me of a truly scary evening.

Adam, London

Wyatnoze said...

Throbbing Gristle is my favorite band. Way better than The Beatles. No joke. I make my own experimental music influenced by them. And NIN is more David Bowie influenced than TG influenced.

Bag of Hammers said...

I play this song to freak my wife out. Works. Freaks me put too. Can only play during the daylight.