‘We were not willing to be silenced’: Cosey Fanni Tutti on the unsung heroine of electronic music

In her new book, Re-Sisters, Cosey Fanni Tutti, musician and co-founder of industrial band Throbbing Gristle, draws parallels between herself and two other uncompromising female artists allergic to convention: the electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire, and the 15th-century mystic Margery Kempe, believed by many to be the first person to have authored an English-language autobiography.

In this extract, Tutti digs into Derbyshire’s reputation on the music scene of the Sixties, which oscillated between “brilliant” and “difficult”, “exacting” and “trouble”. Derbyshire died in 2001, her legacy as a creative genius cemented by those influenced by her work, among them Pink Floyd, Portishead and Orbital.

But in her lifetime, Tutti writes, she encountered sexism, belittling and disrespect. All of which, she adds, she herself encountered as a professional musician.

It’s never easy to be part of the establishment when you’re driven by self-preservation to push against it. Delia’s boldness and self-confidence helped. Some people have said she could be unpredictable, contradictory, feisty and difficult to work with. Up one minute and totally enthusiastic, with floods of ideas, then down and unmotivated the next, bereft of inspiration during periods of depression. Her mood swings suggest the possibility that she had bipolar disorder. Oscillating like a sine wave from positive, above the zero baseline, then plunging down into negativity – ironically, as demonstrated expertly by Delia herself for a BBC film using one of the RW oscilloscopes. She seems to have had many of the experiences that are believed to be potential triggers for bipolar episodes – a traumatic childhood, stress, the pressure of work and alcohol abuse. That may have been the case, but I could also understand why she may have come across that way for other reasons: having to work within the limitations of the equipment and technology, difficulties with her colleagues, sexism and other prejudices, whether blatant or unintentional.

Her patience must have been sorely tested at times, and I’d hazard a guess that her changes in mood and sudden outbursts could also have been a way of releasing the frustration she felt. She’d sometimes close herself off, not speak to anyone, which was flippantly referred to as “sulking” or giving people the “silent treatment”, “sending them to Coventry”. I know myself how seemingly innocent offhand remarks can be upsetting, insulting and infuriating, and the anger they cause can be hard to ignore and contain. The tone of voice and delivery of a simple comment can differ when a man speaks to a woman, rather than man to man. Some years ago my suggestion of adding a sound to a mix got the reply, “We can do that later.” But it was spoken with such a dismissive, curt tone it made me take it as meaning, “Shut up, woman, I’ll let you know when I want your input.” Being spoken of and not to, as if you weren’t there, especially if there’s a technical problem. It’s assumed that as a woman you know little about such things, so you must be to blame. This happened at Throbbing Gristle gigs when PA crew (always men) came on stage to resolve tech issues, messing with my gear as they joked about it between themselves and the rest of the band, not talking to me, only to discover the issues were actually nothing to do with me and that someone else (a man) had done something dumb – but it was brushed off, not criticised or mocked, with no apology offered.

It’s demeaning and annoying to be publicly treated that way. Sometimes circumstances dictate that it’s best to suppress your feelings – which then sets in motion an act of self-appeasement by way of what I can only describe as an internalised controlled explosion of built-up emotions. An outburst could lead to saying something you may regret, quickly followed by more judgemental comments fired your way about the oversensitivity or hysteria of women – or, for Delia, getting fired from her job. Her withdrawals into silence would avoid that and also provide some protection for herself by “closing the door” on people who were disrespecting her or her work. Or maybe it was just so she could refocus. I’ve done it myself in response to similar situations. Trying to make yourself understood but being seen as difficult or obstructive, when really you’re reeling at the obstructiveness of others, their attitude towards you, their inability or unwillingness to empathise. Or you’re simply deep in thought. I retreat inside myself: it’s a place of comfort where I can get some relief from a world that can seem so alien to me, when I reach the point of overload, feeling that what’s happening is wrong and doesn’t relate to who I am or who people seem to think I am. It’s a way of protecting the self. Inside is where no one can get to “you”. Other times I make my feelings known in no uncertain terms. It’s a case of what or who is the priority.

Delia was exacting and didn’t tolerate imperfection in her own work, presenting only what she deemed perfect. Perfection is subjective – what I think is perfect, Delia may not have, but the works are our own and that decision lies entirely with us. Consequently she was affronted, angry and immensely resentful of the male-female hierarchy, when some men pulled rank on her and overruled her on creative decisions, talking at and down to her, disregarding her expertise with an air of authority about things they knew little about, certainly less than she did. To Delia they weren’t qualified and had no right to interfere with her music. She was no shrinking violet and she’d put them right, often in public at a meeting or a party – much to the annoyance and indignation of the men she corrected. It was part of her character to correct inaccuracies – she couldn’t help herself. Needless to say, her impropriety wasn’t appreciated. Being pretty upfront and outspoken myself, I know how it can be seen – not as you being confident in your competence but as “trouble”, a sign of being uncooperative, whereas we’re just not willing to be silenced or seen as a doormat to be walked over.

‘Re-Sisters: The Lives and Recordings of Delia Derbyshire, Margery Kempe and Cosey Fanni Tutti’ is out now via Faber

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