| || |
| ENGLAND'S HIDDEN REVERSE by David Keenan |
by Jim Haynes
originally published in The Wire, 234: August 2003
"It was a nihilistic little group of people. Yet we've all developed and changed and our creativity has been long-lived when it could have gone the other way and everybody could have committed suicide." John Balance offered this synopsis for the intertwining paths of Current 93, Nurse With Wound, his own group Coil and a handful of other post-Industrialists at the centre of David Keenan's timely first book England's Hidden Reverse. No one is better qualified to get their stories down before they finally dissolve into half-remembered tales and drug polluted hearsay than prolific Wire writer Keenan, who has already profiled its main protagonists in the magazine. His book essentially picks up where Wreckers Of Civilization, Simon Ford's monolithic account of Coum Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle left off, with its main protagonists one way or another inheriting the transgressive agency through which TG reinvested the gruesome, sidereal, oblique or arcane undercurrents of English society as a means of questioning its social contracts with its subjects. While he's not central to Keenan's story, P-Orridge emerges as an insightful foil to Current 93, Coil, and to a lesser extent Nurse With Wound.
Current 93's history is a complex affair, and their creator David Tibet is the most beguiling character here. Aided by Tibet's near photographic memory, not to mention his predilection for blurring the lines between metaphysical planes, Keenan traces C93's amazing story back to his dreamlike childhood in Malaysia, unhappy times at an English boarding school, and his gradual introduction into the occult, apocalyptic and apocryphal theologies at the core of C93's work. By the time he had moved to London from Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1980, Tibet already had it in mind to form an extreme electronics outfit that added occult esoterica to the aggression of TG and Whitehouse. Such a desire was partially sated when he landed a role in early Psychic TV, the group formed by P-Orridge and Sleazy Peter Christopherson when TG terminated their mission. Keenan's narrative deftly recounts Tibet's passionate involvement and growing frustration with P-Orridge. The first to jump the PTV ship, Tibet unleashed Current 93 as a torrent of nightmarish, apocalyptic sound collages. Keenan cites Love, Tiny Tim and Shirley Collins as crucial to C93's later reinvention as a vehicle for spartan folk minstrels, but his litany of Tibet's non-musical sources is just as compelling. Artists like Louis Wain, composer William Lawes, decadent author Count Stenbock, horror writer Thomas Ligotti and Noddy all figure in Tibet's vision of Christianity, manifest in grand imagery of suffering, passion and beauty.
Longtime C93 associate Steven Stapleton's began his own concern, Nurse With Wound, several years earlier as an attempt to make "cold, sterile music". Yet Keenan argues that his back catalogue of Surrealist experiments, ur-rock mantras, plunderphonic splutterings and generally form-destroying musics reveals an obtuse autobiography of a man obsessed with the creative process. Coming across as ruggedly individual and eccentric, Stapleton defines his work rather simply: "When it comes to creativity, whether I'm building a wall, mixing cement, making a sculpture, painting a picture, or making music, it's all the same. The same energy goes into it, the same creativity goes into it, and there's no room for anybody else." Keenan respectfully differs, mapping a counter argument through Stapleton's numerous source inspirations - for starters, the infamous Nurse With Wound list of favourite groups published with the first NWW record - collaborations with Tibet, Whitehouse's William Bennett, gypsy violinist Aranos and others, and relationships.
Though they were enthusiastic users in their early years, chemical abuse for Tibet and Stapleton diminished considerably with age. That's not the case with Coil's Balance and Christopherson. As a schoolboy collector of TG records, Balance had harboured a long-standing crush on Sleazy, and the pair became lovers when they were both in Psychic TV. Like Tibet, their eventual disillusionment with P-Orridge caused them to leave and concentrate on Coil. From the off, Coil drew energy from the works of William S Burroughs and English occult sex magician Austin Osman Spare, and London's gay underground. Drugs were the key to Coil's rituals, through which they attempted to shatter norms of perception, unravelling the fabric of society with their abject transubstantiations, carnivalesque apocalypses and triumphant, regenerative musics. Frustratingly, Coil's story periodically stalls when they reprise attempts to better their third official album, Love's Secret Domain, with its followup, Backwards. In the frequently heightened states they used to work in, the unknown forces they saw conspiring against them must have felt mighty real. Just so, Balance's growing addictions. Documenting the ravages of chemical use on recent Coil, Keenan is almost apologetic in his enthusiasm for their post-LSD albums, the still unfinished Backwards notwithstanding, which explore psychotropic ambience and Prog-laden electronics, as opposed to the sample-heavy vertigo of LSD or Horse Rotovator.
Punctuating his concise prose with dry wit while paying due critical attention to detail, Keenan's biography is a superb document that effortlessly unravels the intricacies of his main protagonists and their countless accomplices' relationships to post industrial England. For Current 93, Coil and Nurse With Wound, Keenan argues, Englishness, or rather the perversion and reversal of Englishness as a social construct, is necessary to their production.