Let’s begin with a little history. Coil were an electronic music group whose work touched on themes of alchemy, the occult and sexuality, and were founded in 1982 in London. It was initially envisioned as a solo project by musician and artist John Balance (née Geff Rushton 1962-2004), but evolved into a full-time project with the addition of his partner Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson (1955-2010), formerly of classic industrial music group Throbbing Gristle and later Psychic TV. Over the years they were joined by a host of other players and writers, including Stephen Thrower, Danny Hyde, Drew McDowall, William Breeze, Thighpaulsandra, and Ossian Brown. Here are my memories of Coil.
Tracing through my diaries
Tracing back through ones memories can frequently be a challenge, but thankfully I’ve kept a diary, each and every day of my life since I was 12 years old, never missing a day’s entry into these volumes. Looking over these to write this feels like a warped kind of time-travel, placing me back into rooms that I thought I’d never visit again, dinners that had faded into a remote location of my memory, friends that meant so much at one moment, then just as quickly slipped away. You can read more about my diary keeping here. So, many of these stories to follow are from my diary entries at the time, and John Balance was always ‘Geff’ to me, just in case you were wondering.
How to find alternative culture in the 1980s
As a teenager in the 1980s locating forms of alternative culture were varied and multifarious. Reading columns in Sounds and NME music journals each week, frequenting Kensington Market to pick up flyers and bootleg tapes, hanging out at Compendium Books in Camden, (the only location where one could purchase literary avant garde gems such as copies of American imported RE/Search magazines and William S Burroughs publications), Rough Trade Records off Ladbroke Road where I could pick up Throbbing Gristle tapes on their own Industrial Records label, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Diorama in Regents Park, even Smash Hits pop magazine. Indeed, it was in Smash Hits that I still recall reading about Throbbing Gristle, and bought the Fetish Records Five Albums LP box set in 1982, obsessively devouring the booklet that accompanied this release.
In 1984 Coil released Scatology and made a personal appearance at the Rough Trade Shop in Notting Hill Gate, and I eagerly attended to have my record signed by these mysterious figures. This was my first encounter with Geff and Sleazy, and we would continue to be in touch until the weeks before they both passed away.
The Making of ‘Peyrere’
A year later, I collaborated with a Japanese writer and journalist Keiko Yoshida, who had attended a concert of mine I’d promoted at the Air Gallery London. Indeed, a location itself resonated with history since later on I discovered that Coil had performed there in 1983, with their transgressive and ritualistic “A Slow Fade to Total Transparency.” Keiko had already made contact with countless underground artists and together we compiled Peyrere, a tape release that featured the work of The Band of Holy Joy, Rowland S Howard of The Birthday Party, Nurse with Wound, Test Dept, Derek Jarman, Current 93, Pure, Coil and works of mine. We released it in 1986 and most remarkably sold out the first edition in a matter of weeks.
It had truly been a labour of love and I still recall the day I was at home in the kitchen with my mother, when the telephone rang and she answered it. It was Geff asking for me. He was furious on the other end of this crackly phone line, raising his voice and asking where his ‘fucking copies’ of the release were! I was rather intimidated and terrified at the same time, but it broke the ice and somehow rather incredibly we became good friends after this rather astringent opening conversation.
Now, remember, these were days before social networks and digital technologies, when hours would be lost to expansive telephone calls, faxes would be exchanged and a thriving experimental network of music was mailed on cassettes from city to city, across the world. Though both residing in the same city, Geff and I frequently wrote to each other, whilst also engaging In marathon telephone calls, where we’d playfully riff off one another in amusingly absurd conversations. We both loved our word play!
From faxes to letters to postcards
In 1994 the music scene in the UK was alive with experimentation and all manner of alternative forms of music were being exposed in unexpected places. The ‘Chill-Out’ lounges in clubs began to feature music that one would never have anticipated hearing. Stockhausen, Cage, Coil, Nurse with Wound, Neu, were suddenly accessible to crowds who never otherwise would have experienced such sonic explorations. Many of the letters, postcards and faxes from Geff refer to projects tragically never fulfilled, ideas that reflected the relentless creative spirit that Coil offered. One fax speaks of a twenty minute reworking of ‘Heaven’s Blade’ and it’s worth quoting to offer something of the character of these communications:
“My mind is not elastic, more like a liquid that cats retch up in death moments…Can you please and persuade Mr Morris to do this Coil mix I mentioned. Some versions do strangely enough have a considerable commercial attraction. We’d like a 20-minute plus space Versailles type thing. It used to have the working title of “Kate Busy as she should have been.” This doesn’t help really. Your Scanner mix – if you want to come over and abuse the Mac then you’re welcome to see how little we actually know about these darned machines ourselves.”
And then slightly more worrying
“Sleazy is very ill with an evil space virus. An emergency conference of minute space beings are using his spine as a meeting hall. We had to get a doctor round today as it we thought it might be pneumonia…and certain death.”
A postcard from November 1994 (‘era Vulgaris’)- reports that ‘we’re both in LA, shallow vacuum of low culture – brainless state of perpetual no-ness, the state of denial. Writing towards a Burroughs art/shaman idea script.’ In June 1995 Geff was out of group therapy and reported that ‘his eyes are ringing, my legs are shaking and I’m in a state of transcendental confusion! Will you be able to come to terms with the living expression of non-drinking, no drug taking John Balance – squeaky clean and serene.”
In September 1996 they are ‘in New Orleans recording with Trent and friends. The studio is beautiful. Can I come round to your home for Tea when I get back?”
Our conversations would revolve around music, art, people, and circling back around our favourite subjects. I was closest to Geff. He was more gregarious, open, affectionate and playful. Sleazy was much quieter and shy with a warm bear-like comforting demeanour. With Geff I would post tapes to him when he was in these clinics, often collections of the Aphex Twin bootlegs I had or Stockhausen interviews. With Sleazy it was nearly always conversations about technologies, software and some rather more ambiguous amatory subjects.
The Electronic Lounge
In this fervent creative climate, I decided to set up a new club space in London at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, a monthly event that would feature the strapline – ‘there’s a time to talk and there’s a time to listen.’ I had frequently met up with a host of fascinating characters in clubs and gigs and regretted the opportunity to not be able to actually converse with them, competing with the sheer volume of the music, and so wanted to provide a space where others could meet and talk. In one amusing phone call Geff suggested calling it The Electronic Lounge and the name stuck. For five years it offered a nexus point of connections and new music where many new friendships were made, where once I publicly shaved the head of Gez Varley of LFO, and Mego, Warp, Leaf, Irdial and countless others presented their work.
In 2004 a British music software company, G-Force, was looking to record the Optigan, a grungy lo-fi toy like keyboard sampler that recorded onto plastic discs. I had been using one in a studio in Providence, Rhode Island and loved it, and enthused about this to Geff and Sleazy. Later on one appeared in their studio. Perhaps my words had inspired them? Given the scarcity of such machines I set up the connection that led to the recording and release of the OptiTron, all sounds taken from their coveted collection of Optigan discs. In many unexpected ways, Coil can now be heard in some ways on countless other recordings around the world courtesy of this software. Read more on this story here.
In 2002, I produced a show at the Barbican Theatre in London, to accompany the Game On exhibition in the gallery that focused on the rise and influence of computer games. I commissioned Mouse on Mars, SND, Plaid and Coil to perform and compose new works that resonated with this theme. I especially remember how nervous Geff was, since his dad was attending the show and they’d been estranged for many years. It was, as you might expect, an extremely emotional encounter and event. I was honoured to meet his dad and to share in this intimate moment.
Footage of this Barbican event recently reappeared on MiniDV tape but at the time of writing I’m still struggling to make a good transfer of this film, which includes much live footage, as well as rehearsals and backstage talk too.
We took the same show to Fano in Italy and I remember how delayed my flight was, such that I drew up at the side of the stage whilst Coil were still performing, and had to set up my equipment whilst they continued to play. At one point I look around the side of the table filled with my gear, only to stare like a rabbit in the headlights, into the eyes of one of their naked male dancers, covered in white body paint, on all fours at the back of the stage. Not an image I’ll ever readily forget.
The next day we all ate dinner together and I remember Geff challenging me to eat an entire clover of garlic and we mutually agreed to do this at the same time, thereby alienating friends and loved ones for the days following with the stench permeating from our bodies!
On stage, over the years
I was fortunate enough to see many of their live performances in the UK and overseas, from the densely immersive Royal Festival Hall shows in 2000 and 2002, through to the more song-structured and frequently unsettling performances at the Conway Hall in London and Melkweg in Amsterdam. Sleazy and I both performed in Berlin at the Raster-Noton curated event to celebrate their ambitious 20’ to 2000 release, where he presented Elph, and I recall him hurriedly entering the building, shortly before stage-time, and sharing with me the tale of the encounter he’d just had with a former Russian soldier.
Distressingly conversations with Geff became increasingly difficult with his drinking issues and the last time I saw him was at the final Coil show in London at Ocean. Sleazy had invited my band Githead to perform as support for them. Utterly incongruous to the mood of the evening, my alternative pop guitar group with Colin Newman of Wire was a lightheaded musical venture, completely at odds with the evening, but Sleazy argued that it would be perfect!! I remember wandering around backstage and talking with everyone, and then as Coil performed live wandered into their dressing room and finding books of lyrics and notes from Geff littered over the sofa and table in their room.
You can run, but you can’t hide
My closing memories of Sleazy also echo a sense of finality since it was the last Throbbing Gristle gig at Village Underground in London. A couple of days before the show Sleazy had tweeted to me “You can run, but you can’t hide. Trust me, I know that of which I speak!;-)” and afterwards we had a high spirited conversation about security and surveillance. Weeks later sadly he was dead.
With any friendship and passings there are regrets of course. We played in the studio for a couple of days at their house and I have a DAT with noises, shapes, unfinished structures, but nothing concrete, and sadly circumstances came to be that this was never finished. I still vividly remember their cunningly handsome Egyptian hunting dogs staring me out over the kitchen table, and Sleazy warning me not to attempt to stroke them, since the calm, grand image they presented would be rapidly erased once they tore off my skin.
I remember once attending one of those massive Apple Computer fairs with Geff and Sleazy that would take place annually in London, and bumping into Chris Carter of Throbbing Gristle there, also checking out all the latest developments. When the iPhone was released, I regretted that Geff wasn’t around to enjoy the freedoms it offered and the same with Sleazy. Whenever I read about new developments in musical technology I wonder what fun conversations we could still be having today.
My memories of Coil resound with warmth and affection and I still very much miss these two playful, inventive, innovative characters. Gracefully their music can continue to resonate and inspire others. Their story is modest, but one that touched and stimulated so many others.
A version of this appeared in the limited publication Furfur: Sideways into England’s Hidden Reverse, which accompanied England’s Hidden Reverse by David Keenan.