"Industrial culture? There has been a phenomena; I don't know whether it's strong enough to be a culture. I do think what we did has had a reverberation right around the world and back." Genesis P. Orridge (Throbbing Gristle) [1]

I've often thought that somebody really ought to write a history of industrial music. After all, there are histories of reggae, rap, and countless rock, jazz, folk and classical histories. Unfortunately, the best books on industrial music (Re/Search's Industrial Culture Handbook and Charles Neal's Tape Delay) were both written when the genre was still fresh, still on the move, and neither tells us much about where the music came from. A more recent contribution to the field, Dave Thompson's Industrial Revolution suffers from Americocentrism, major omissions, basic errors and from a concentration on electrobeat and industrial rock to the near exclusion of all else. Still, this article isn't that history; that will have to wait for someone better qualified than I.

Instead, I offer a prehistory, a look at heritage, tradition and ancestry. For all that industrial music set out to provide the shock of the new, it's impossible to understand its achievements without a context to place them in. Few, if any, of its tactics and methods were truly original, although the way it combined its components was very much of its time.

Before the prehistory can be properly explored, we need to know what this "industrial music" is, or was. It would be hard to disagree with the suggestion that prior to the formation of Throbbing Gristle as a side-project of performance art group COUM Transmissions in late 1975 [2] industrial music did not exist; and certainly the genre took its name from the label that Throbbing Gristle set up, Industrial Records. Monte Cazazza is usually acknowledged as inventing the term "industrial music", and the label used the name in a very specific sense - as a negative comment on the desire for "authenticity" that still dominated music in the seventies. Very few of the groups who were initially called "industrial" liked the term, although from the mid-80s it became a word that bands embraced willingly, to the extent that nowadays even quite tedious rock bands claim to be industrial, and the jazz / classical ensemble, Icebreaker, has even bizarrely been described as an "industrial" group. Rock and jazz groups don't waste much time worrying about the word used to define their genre, so for my purposes I'm happy to include in the "industrial" genre plenty of artists who tried to disown the label.

The groups who were released on Industrial Records (Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, ClockDVA, Thomas Leer and Robert Rental, Monte Cazazza, S.P.K., with the probable exception of The Leather Nun and Elizabeth Welch [3]) combined an interest in transgressive culture with an interest in the potential of noise as music, and it's easy to see how groups like Einstürzende Neubauten, Whitehouse or Test Dept can be considered to share similar interests.

Dave Henderson's seminal Wild Planet article [4] presented a survey of the (mainly British and European) "industrial" scene as it was recognised in 1983, but with artists as diverse as Steve Reich, Mark Shreeve, AMM and Laibach cited it was clear even then that the borders of industrial music couldn't be clearly defined. Since then, the music has fragmented, most notably into a division between experimental and dance/rock-oriented artists (or uncommercial and commercial). The popular "industrial" musicians, such as Front 242 or Ministry, draw on the elements of early industrial music most amenable to the rock and techno arenas (sometimes this just means aggression and paranoia); the others have explored industrial music's relationships with ritual music, musique concrete, academic electronic music, improvisation and pure noise. In recent times, through the popularity of ambient music, several artists involved in this more "experimental" tradition have achieved more popular recognition than before.

It's tempting to see the fragmentation of industrial music into popular and "underground" areas as just a recognition of the relative accessibility of different musical styles, but this would be extremely misleading. As with jazz and rock, it's another example of "a music of revolt transformed into a repetitive commodity ... A continuation of the same effort, always resumed and renewed, to alienate a liberatory will in order to produce a market" [5]. As industrial music's history and prehistory will make clear, industrial music originally articulated ideas of subversion that go significantly beyond the saleable "rebellion" that the rock commodity offers. It was inevitable that the market would adopt only the superficial aggression and stylisms.

It's clear that the label, "industrial music", is of no use in pigeonholing music, but it still serves as a useful pointer to a web of musical and personal relationships, a common pool of interests and ideas which every industrial sub-genre has some connection with. The uncommercial industrial tradition has frequently been labelled "post-industrial"; in contrast, this article attempts to identify "pre-industrial" music. However, as will become obvious, there are few meaningful boundaries between industrial music and its ancestors.

Writing in Alternative Press, Michael Mahan attempted to define industrial music as "an artistic reflection of the de-humanisation of our people and the inexorable pollution of our planet by our factory-based socio-economic state" [6]. This is too simplistic; if industrial music were simply anti-factory music then it would encompass any number of reactionary Luddites. Mahan at least managed to identify some of the genre's important musical precursors, citing Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, David Vorhaus, Frank Zappa and Klaus Schulze as some probable ancestors. Jon Savage has elsewhere identified five areas that characterised industrial music [7]: access to information, shock tactics, organisational autonomy, extra-musical elements, and use of synthesizers and anti-music. By examining each in turn, it will soon become obvious exactly what place industrial music has in the twentieth century cultural tradition.


  1. Re/Search #6/7: Industrial Culture Handbook (Re/Search, 1983)
  2. TG Chronology in Re/Search #4/5 "William Burroughs / Throbbing Gristle / Brion Gysin" (Re/Search, 1982)
  3. Welsh's Stormy Weather, from Derek Jarman's film The Tempest, was an Industrial Records single.
  4. Published in Sounds, May 7 1983.
  5. Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali (Manchester University Press, 1985)
  6. Welcome to the Machine, by Michael Mahan, in Alternative Press #66 (January 1994).
  7. Introduction to Re/Search #6/7, op.cit.