March 2020
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Genesis P-Orridge obituary

Musician, writer and performance artist who was a co-founder of the band Throbbing Gristle

Genesis P-Orridge in New York, 2007. Photograph: Neville Elder/Redferns

“I am at war with the status quo of society and I am at war with those in control and power,” said Genesis P-Orridge in 1989. “I’m at war with hypocrisy and lies, I’m at war with the mass media.” P-Orridge, who has died of leukaemia aged 70, stuck to the task of delivering aesthetic shocks and trampling over cultural taboos with impressive dedication and across multiple disciplines.

Perhaps best known for work with the bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, P-Orridge, who used s/he as a pronoun, wrote songs about mass murder, mutilation, the occult and fascism. Throbbing Gristle’s track Zyklon B Zombie was a reference to the poison gas used in the Nazi death camps. Hamburger Lady (from their 1978 album DOA) was inspired by the story of a burns victim.

Unstintingly harsh and abrasive, Throbbing Gristle nonetheless built a select but dedicated following. Their album 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979) – an exercise in Germanic electro-pop rather than jazz-funk – took them to No 6 on the UK indie chart.

Psychic TV, in whose oeuvre a playful pop music sensibility could be discerned, among experiments with electronic noise, psychedelia and droning repetition, seemed to favour subtle infiltration rather than the bludgeoning approach of Throbbing Gristle. They reached 67 on the UK pop chart in 1986 with Godstar, a song about the death of the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. More remarkable was their project, starting in 1986, to record a live album on the 23rd of each month for 23 months. They managed 14 in 18 months, but this was enough to earn them a Guinness World Records entry.

Genesis P-Orridge with Throbbing Gristle performing at the Coachella Valley festival in Indio, California, in 2009. 
Photograph: Axel Koester/Corbis/Getty Images

But music was only one of the ways in which P-Orridge channelled their creative energies. Psychic TV made their debut in 1982 at a four-day multimedia event in London and Manchester called the Final Academy, which featured artists including William S Burroughs and Brion Gysin – whose cut-up writing technique had been a powerful influence on P-Orridge – in a mix of music, literature, film and video. In 1969, P-Orridge had begun laying the groundwork for future explorations by forming COUM Transmissions, a group based in Hull who performed improvised theatre and music shows. They adopted a logo of a partially erect penis, and infused their work with Dada-inspired absurdity.

They became successful enough to win grants from the Yorkshire Arts Association, the Arts Council of Great Britain and the British Council, though this did not bring with it a yearning for respectability. Their performances became increasingly extreme, featuring body-cutting and involving P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti (AKA Christine Carol Newby) having sex onstage. In her autobiography Art Sex Music (2017), Fanni Tutti made allegations that P-Orridge had been a violent and manipulative partner, which were denied by P-Orridge.

Throbbing Gristle was founded on 3 September 1975 (on the 36th anniversary of Britain declaring war on Germany), comprising Tutti and P-Orridge alongside Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson, and for a time continued alongside COUM.

COUM’s show Prostitution, staged at the ICA in London in 1976, provoked uproar with its pornographic images, sculptures fashioned from used tampons and transvestite security guards, prompting the Scottish Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn to describe P-Orridge and Tutti as “wreckers of civilisation”.

P-Orridge was born Neil Megson in Longsight, Manchester, the child of Muriel and Ronald Megson. Ronald was a travelling salesman, jazz drummer and former actor who had survived Dunkirk with the British Army in 1940. The family moved to Essex, then later to Cheshire, where Neil attended Gatley primary school and won a scholarship to Stockport grammar school. In 1964 Neil was sent to the private Solihull school.

There tastes for literature and the avant-garde were developed and Neil became fascinated with the writings of the magician and occultist Aleister Crowley. (In 1981 Neil would form Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth, an association of occultists.) In 1965 Neil founded his first band, Worm, with some school friends. They recorded an album, Early Worm (1968), but only one vinyl copy of it was produced.

In 1968, Neil went to Hull University to study social administration and philosophy, but dropped out the following year and moved to London joining the Transmedia Explorations commune in Islington. By the end of 1969 Neil was back in Hull, where COUM Transmissions was developed with John Shapeero.

The later phases of P-Orridge’s life were in some ways the most startling. P-Orridge moved to the US in the 1990s, following allegations (that subsequently proved false) in a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary that s/he had been involved in satanic ritual abuse.

In 1993 P-Orridge met Jacqueline Breyer, who was working at a New York S&M dungeon. She adopted the name Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, and they moved in together in Queens, New York. They married in California in 1995, the year that P-Orridge was badly injured while escaping a fire at the Los Angeles home of the record producer Rick Rubin. He was awarded $1.5m compensation in 1998.

The couple set about using plastic surgery to become mirror images of one another, beginning with matching breast implants on Valentine’s Day 2003, and continuing with work on eyes and nose, liposuction and hormone therapy. They dressed in identical outfits, and P-Orridge coined the term “pandrogyny” to express the idea that they fused into a third person, Breyer P-Orridge, who only existed when they were together. P-Orridge subsequently preferred the self-descriptor “we”, though did not object to being called “s/he”.

This pandrogyny project was cut short when Breyer died of acute heart arrhythmia in 2007, an especially painful loss at a time when P-Orridge was beginning to receive highbrow acclaim. The Invisible-Exports gallery in New York staged a retrospective of their collages, 30 Years of Being Cut Up, and in 2009 Tate Britain purchased their archive.

Marie Losier’s documentary film The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye was released in 2011, and in 2016 the Rubin Museum of Art in New York hosted Try to Altar Everything, an exhibition of P-Orridge’s paintings, sculptures and installations. In 2018 s/he published Brion Gysin: His Name Was Master, a collection of interviews and essays.

In 2003 P-Orridge had unveiled PTV3, a new band drawing on the legacy of Psychic TV. They released four albums and several EPs between 2007 and 2016. In 2018 they performed at Heaven in London.

P-Orridge is survived by two daughters, Genesse and Caresse, from a first marriage, to Paula Brooking, which ended in divorce.

Genesis P-Orridge (Neil Andrew Megson), musician, writer and performance artist, born 22 February 1950; died 14 March 2020


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