First era: 1976–1981
Throbbing Gristle evolved from the performance art group COUM Transmissions, which was formed in Kingston upon Hull by a group of performers centred on Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti. The last known performance of COUM Transmissions—Prostitution, an exhibition which was held in October 1976 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts—was also the public debut of Throbbing Gristle.
Throbbing Gristle's confrontational live performances and use of often disturbing imagery, including pornography and photographs of Nazi concentration camps, gave the group a notorious reputation. The group always maintained that their mission was to challenge and explore the darker and obsessive sides of the human condition rather than to make attractive music. Throbbing Gristle made extensive use of pre-recorded tape-based samples and special effects to produce a distinctive, highly distorted background, usually accompanied by lyrics or spoken-word performances by Cosey Fanni Tutti or Genesis P-Orridge. Though they asserted they wanted to provoke their audience into thinking for themselves rather than pushing any specific agenda (as evidenced by the song "Don't Do As You're Told, Do As You Think" on Heathen Earth), Throbbing Gristle also frequently associated with the anarchist punk scene. They appeared in the fanzine Toxic Grafity, with a condensation of their own propaganda parody series, Industrial News.
In 1977, they released their debut single, "United / Zyklon B Zombie", followed by an album, The Second Annual Report. Although pressed in a limited initial run of 786 copies on the band's own Industrial Records label, it was later re-released on Mute Records due to high demand; however, this later release was reversed with all tracks playing backwards and in reverse order. This was followed by a series of albums, singles and live performances over a four-year period.
In 1981 Michael Sheppard, concert promoter and founder of Transparency Record label brought Throbbing Gristle to Los Angeles. On 29 May 1981, Throbbing Gristle performed at the Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco. This concert marked the end of the group. As Cosey succinctly put it, "TG broke up because me and Gen broke up".
Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson went on to form Psychic TV, while Cosey Fanni Tutti and Carter continued to record together under the names of Chris and Cosey, Carter Tutti and Creative Technology Institute. Christopherson had participated in Psychic TV's first releases, and had later joined John Balance in the latter project Coil. Meanwhile, Gen (now known as Genesis Breyer P-Orridge) subsequently formed Thee Majesty and PTV3 with the help of his wife, Jacqueline "Jaye" Breyer.
Second era: 2004–2010
In 2004, Throbbing Gristle briefly reunited to record and release the limited album TG Now. On 2 April 2007, TG released the album Part Two, which the group had finished recording in Berlin. With the exception of TG Now, it was their first studio album in twenty five years. It was originally set to be released by Mute Records in September 2006 but was delayed for unknown reasons.
In March 2007, Side-Line announced Part Two's final release date, adding that a string of special live events would take place in 2007.
A seven-disc DVD set, titled TGV, was issued in 2007. The set contains old and new footage of the band. TGV came packaged in a deluxe box with a 64-page book, all designed by Christopherson.
The group performed a re-interpretation of their debut album The Second Annual Report twice in 2008 to mark thirty years since its original release. The performance in Paris on 6 June was issued as a limited edition framed vinyl set entitled The Thirty-Second Annual Report, which was limited to 777 copies (as the group claim the original was, although other sources claim that there were 785).
Throbbing Gristle worked to record an album based on their interpretation of Nico's album Desertshore. The group issued the entirety of the recording sessions for this album as a limited edition twelve-CD set packaged in a custom CD wallet, The Desertshore Installation, which sold out via mail order from the group's website.
In April 2009, Throbbing Gristle toured the United States, appearing at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Chicago. A new release was made available at these shows, The Third Mind Movements, which was edited from jams recorded during the Desertshore recording sessions.
A collaboration with Cerith Wyn Evans titled A=P=P=A=R=I=T=I=O=N was displayed at Tramway, Glasgow from the 7 August to 27 September 2009. Throbbing Gristle contributed a multi-channel soundtrack that was played through sixteen hanging Audio Spotlight sound panels that Evans had incorporated into his sculpture.
In November 2009, Throbbing Gristle and Industrial Records released their version of the Buddha Machine called Gristleism. It was designed by Throbbing Gristle and Christiaan Virant based on FM3's design. Gristleism offers more loops and almost twice the frequency range of the Buddha Machine. The player comes in three colours: black, chrome and red.
On 29 October 2010, Throbbing Gristle announced on their website that Genesis P-Orridge had informed them that s/he was no longer willing to perform with Throbbing Gristle and would be returning to their home in New York. Chris, Cosey and Christopherson would finish the tour under the name X-TG.
P-Orridge's website stated that s/he had not quit Throbbing Gristle and had just stopped participating on the current tour; it also said that an explanation would be released when all things were cleared up. However, on 24 November 2010, Christopherson died in his sleep at the age of 55, and the band subsequently dissolved.
Third era: 2011–present
In 2011, Industrial Records had an official "re-activation", as TG's contract with Mute Records had expired. Since TG has permanently disbanded following the death of Christopherson, the label's plan is to re-release the original TG albums (The Second Annual Report, D.o.A: The Third and Final Report, 20 Jazz Funk Greats, Heathen Earth and Greatest Hits) on the label. Originally intended to be released en masse on 26 September 2011, they had to delay due to a Sony DADC warehouse fire in London. The plan changed to issue each album chronologically once per week starting on Halloween 2011 with The Second Annual Report and ending 28 November with Greatest Hits.
Industrial Records announced that a double album, called Desertshore/The Final Report, would be released on 26 November 2012. Chris and Cosey produced the album, with the participation of guest vocalists Anohni (from Antony and the Johnsons), Blixa Bargeld (from Einstürzende Neubauten), Marc Almond (from Soft Cell), film director Gaspar Noé and former pornstar Sasha Grey.
A group decision had been made prior to Christopherson's death that the album would be recorded afresh, as they were not satisfied with the ICA recordings. Christopherson had been the driving force behind the project and had been working on the record in Bangkok with Danny Hyde, even getting custom instruments made to use for the album. "It was Sleazy's project, then Cosey and Sleazy's, then I came in on it", Carter explained in an interview with The Quietus. After Christopherson died, the Desertshore instruments were given to Carter and Cosey and they began combining the recordings he had been making with the work they had done themselves. They announced plans to debut the album live at AV Festival on 17 March 2012 accompanied by a screening of Philippe Garrel's film The Inner Scar "for which Desertshore was soundtrack and inspiration".