Post-Industrialism and Industrial Music

The term ‘Industrial Music’ has become so misused in recent times as to be almost meaningless. The range of music attaching itself to such a label is so broad it’s hard to make any sense of it. If you use harsh synth sounds and beats or profess to have some underground intent, ‘Industrial’ has become a catch-all, easy/lazy tag.

So, what was this ‘Industrial Music’? The term was coined by American sound artist Monte Cazazza: ‘Industrial Music For Industrial People’ in 1977 to describe some of his early collaborators and friends. Does it have any shared defining characteristics? Perhaps the following:

  • The (mis)use of technology, moving away from the traditional guitar, bass and drums set-up, although some of these would be deployed in various ways, de-tuned, fed through various effects pedals. The use of found objects, tapes, cheap drum machines and synths. A largely egalitarian approach to band line-ups, without a focus on a frontman and the backing band. Vocals that would rarely be sung, the use of vocoders and effects to distort the vocals often into another audio input rather than a focus on lyrics or language. A focus on non-Western sound structures, utilising found sounds, tape recordings, harsh noise and rhythm over melody.


  • Subject matter which avoided party-political sloganeering, but was political in its forensic spotlight on the extremes of human existence, from the personal to the societal. So, a focus on mental health, illness and disability, alienation, extreme politics, the Holocaust and genocide, religious fanaticism, state control and repression, information as power, drugs and mind altering states, vivisection and animal cruelty, modern warfare. The listener is faced with deciding what is sane or insane in society.


  • A complete disregard and disdain for the music industry. This music was not made to entertain, but to suggest self-reflection by the listener. Dissemination methods were often so low key, they required effort on the part of the listener; you had to engage in communication in order to track down recordings. It wasn’t a commercial transaction in the main. Although records were made and sold, it was mostly through small independent record shops, mail order, small ads in the music press and fanzines.


But where did it all originate and why? I would profess that there are literally only a handful of groups which should really rightfully claim the label of ‘Industrial’, although ironically several of them would deride such a classification!

These trail-blazers all appeared in the late 1970s/very early 1980s, almost simultaneously popping up in various cities across the world, from the UK, USA, Germany to Australia. How could this be? At that time there was no internet, no video links, no email – what communication there was, was very laborious, time-consuming and slow. What was it that led to this eruption in non-rock/pop which defied a categorisation?

There were clearly some global factors at play, to generate a similar reaction across so many cities around the world. In the West (Europe/North America), deconstruction of the huge mono-industrial bases of the previous 100-150 years of Industrial Revolution was gathering apace. Cheaper, imported goods from the likes of South Korea, Taiwan and Japan were putting mass strain on the shipbuilding, steel and car industries which were the mainstay of most major Western cities. The late 1970s saw a massive scaling down of production across these industries to the point of virtual extinction.

The political climate was also highly volatile. The Cold War between the organised international blocs of Western and Eastern Europe was at fever pitch, the highest level it had been since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. New, short-range battlefield nuclear weapons were being developed by both sides, outwith the previous parameters of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and deployment of Cruise & SS20 missiles across Europe was a wake-up call to a younger generation of the precariousness of international peace, and existence itself.

Concurrent with this was a general shift to the Right across the political spectrum. In the UK, the election of the Margaret Thatcher-led Conservative Government in 1979 broke up the post-war consensus which had existed between the two major parties which was broadly to support a welfare state which (even if clumsy and blunt) looked to support the less well-off in society, partly through the state control of major industries. Almost immediately the government started to dismantle and sell-off elements of national employment, starting with the steel industry in 1980. In the USA a similar lurch to the Right ushered in Ronald Reagan to the Presidency with a new harder line approach to international relations.

In society at large there was also the real return of neo-fascist street movements such as the National Front in Britain very much in evidence. In Germany, the repression of left wing movements in the wake of the Baader-Meinhof Gang/Red Army Faction era was widespread. Youth culture in general was having a much greater impact on society for the first time since the days of the Hippy/Peace movement of the 1960s. The explosion of Punk, in particular, impacted much more widely than just on the music charts. Televisual and printed media went on a frenzied crusade to demonise punk, which only increased its popularity amongst the young.

Whilst punk music itself appeared to be a speeded-up rehash of rock ‘n’ roll, with limited innovative longevity (punk was generally perceived to be a spent force by 1977), its importance as a culture cannot be overemphasised in our context. The explosion of do-it-yourself culture, via fanzines, tape labels, independent venues showcasing non-mainstream music, opened up avenues for a vast range of self-directed activity far outwith the confines of ‘punk music’. It was in this heady mix of youth culture that the seeds of Industrial Music were realised.

And yet, the roots of Industrial Music stretch back to, and are intertwined with, the counter-culture movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of the pre-eminent figures associated with early Industrial Music really began developing their ideas and activities long before the punk explosion of 1976. These influences draw on diverse fields such as mail art (an worldwide communication network sharing innovative art via the medium of postcards), the counterculture underground press of Oz and International Times, the squatting and commune movements, and  the development of non-Western rock musical genres, particularly the ‘Krautrock’ phenomenon in West Germany, and non-conformist musics in the UK and USA: Brian Eno and his ‘Ambient’ works, The Residents, Sun Ra, Suicide, The Velvet Underground, Miles Davis, Steve Reich etc.

Clearly, this new movement did not appear from a vacuum. Participants had been diligently absorbing these musical influences, reading the works of William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Huxley and other visionary writers, watching the films of Bunuel, Coppola, Scorsese, Kubrick et al. They were self-educated in the art movements of Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus, Fluxus, Pop Art and began applying the ideas in a musical setting, e.g the ‘cut-up’ methods of Burroughs and Gysin.

The gestation of these counter-cultural ideas met with the punk d-i-y culture opportunities in an explosive mix. Many of the protagonists had already been engaged in dada-esque prankster activity, subverting existing cultural structures. COUM (pre-Throbbing Gristle) had been actively engaging and challenging the art gallery and performance art world for several years; Cabaret Voltaire had managed to infiltrate university societies and grammar schools before 1976. Now their low-key activities started to get nationwide attention, primarily through the writings of a few music journalists in the weeklies: New Musical Express, Sounds, Melody Maker. Jon Savage in Sounds started a feature on ‘New Musick’ in November 1977 covering The Residents, Kraftwerk, Devo etc. Paul Morley was an early champion in NME, and John Gill authored ‘Dr Caligari’s Greatest Hits: Ten Bands Who Are … Different’ in Sounds in November 1978, giving coverage to Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, This Heat, Robert Rental and Thomas Leer, The Normal amongst others.

A couple of other key factors fed into the development of these early threads of what would become called Industrial Music.

Firstly, access to new affordable technology and the growth of build-it-yourself equipment. The late 1970s saw the release of the first ranges of affordable synthesizers which the average person could access, perhaps on hire purchase. Cheaper technology coming in from Japanese companies Roland and Korg, along with UK companies like EMS (Electronic Music Studios) and EDP (Electronic Dream Plant) developing the Synthi AKS and Wasp synths, meant access to a range of non-traditional sound sources. Added to this was the opportunity to build your own kit from the various schematics in ‘Popular Electronics’ magazine. This was how the likes of Chris Carter (later of Throbbing Gristle) started out, building his own sequencers and effects units in the early to mid 1970s. Allied to this, was the development of the 4 track portastudio, meaning recording could take place outwith professional studios for the first time. This opened up a whole new world of home recording, literally in bedrooms.

Secondly, the re-purposing of former industrial spaces in our major cities. Punks may have posed against the walls of derelict factory units, it was the electronic experimenters that occupied them, either legitimately renting or squatting. A key factor for several of the pioneer Industrial artists was access to their own recording and rehearsal space. This gave them complete control over the recording process, endless hours of cheap or free studio (however rudimentary) time for them to develop their ideas and processes free of the restrictions of commercial studio costs. Throbbing Gristle’s studio in Martello Street in Hackney had been a trouser factory until it was progressively taken over as art spaces from 1968 onwards. Cabaret Voltaire’s Western Works studio was in a semi-derelict industrial space in Sheffield which became a hub for recording by local bands, and the nascent recordings of New Order, which the group facilitated when not recording themselves. Einsturzende Neubauten famously began their aural experiments in Berlin in a void space within a motorway overpass.

So, how did this collection of individuals and cells become a ‘movement’ as such? How did such disparate outfits spring up almost instantaneously across the globe? A crucial part was the active communication between participants, despite what would now be regarded as archaic communications channels. The artists involved were very active in the tape trading network, shipping out significant quantities of cassettes to interested parties, sympathetic media and fanzines, and to everyone who wrote. Yes, bands actually wrote lengthy letters to supporters, building a community of like-minded people who would spread the knowledge by word of mouth. Fanzines played a major part in disseminating information and building up networks, as did a few very significant physical outlets like the Rough Trade shop in London. Bypassing the music industry almost completely, the nearest to coverage in the mainstream would be occasional mentions and reviews in the weekly music press.

Activity would also coalesce around certain cities, where collectives of artists would collaborate. This was particularly pronounced in the likes of Sheffield, Manchester and London in the UK. Cross–fertilisation of membership of groups, the sharing of equipment and recording facilities, self-organisation of gigs all created a receptive environment for future participants, and there were indeed successive waves of Industrial-esque music. David Henderson, in his masterful ‘Wild Planet’ series in ‘Sounds’ music paper in 1983, charted around 160 active participant groups, labels and magazines, which would broadly fall into a category of ‘underground, free-form, experimental, avant-garde, industrial, call it what you will’.

That broadening of intent, that divergence into different fields and activities, led to a dissipation of what had been coined ‘Industrial Music’. Not that there was any lessening of activity by the original participants. Indeed, some 40 years later, many of those original activists are as busy and prominent as ever. 


Suggested listening:

Throbbing Gristle 1978-1981

Cabaret Voltaire 1978-1982

SPK 1979-83

Einsturzende Neubauten 1980-1985

Test Dept 1981-86

Chrome 1977-83

Clock DVA 1977-81

They also served:  Abwarts, AMM, Attrition, Bourbonese Qualk, Bushido, Monte Cazazza, Coil, Current 93, DAF, DDAA, Esplendor Geometrico, Factrix, 400 Blows, Foetus, Holy Toy, Hula, Konstruktivists, Laibach, Last Few Days, Thomas Leer, Legendary Pink Dots, Lemon Kittens, Lustmord, Maurizio Bianchi, Merzbow, Metabolist, Metamorphosis, Muslimgauze, Nocturnal Emissions, Non, Nurse With Wound, Portion Control, Robert Rental, The Residents, This Heat, Tuxedomoon, 23 Skidoo, We Be Echo, Whitehouse, Z’ev 


Suggested bibliography:

Industrial Culture Handbook (Ed. V. Vale) (Re/Search #6/7) (Re/Search, San Francisco 1983)

William S. Burroughs / Throbbing Gristle / Brion Gysin (Re/Search #4/5) (Re/Search, San Francisco 1982)

Beats Working For A Living: Sheffield Popular Music 1973-1984 (Martin Lilleker) (Juma Press, Sheffield 2005)

Hoer Mit Schmerzen: Listen With Pain (Klaus Maeck) (Max Volume Prods, Hamburg 1989)

Cabaret Voltaire – The Art Of The Sixth Sense (M.Fish & D. Hallbery) (SAF, Harrow 1985)

Industrial Evolution – Through The Eighties with Cabaret Voltaire (M. Fish) (SAF, London 2002)

Clock DVA – Black Words On White Paper (Contempo, Firenze 1992)

Wreckers Of Civilisation – The Story of Coum Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle (Simon Ford) (Black Dog, London 1999)

Art Sex Music (Cosey Fanni Tutti) (Faber & Faber, London 2017)

Tape Delay (Ed. Charles Neal) (SAF, Harrow 1987)

Test Dept – Total State Machine (G. Cunnington, A Farquhar & P. Jamrozy) (PC Press, Bristol 2015)