David Keenan – England’s Hidden Reverse: A Secret History of the Esoteric Underground (2003, revised and expanded edition 2023)
Review by Jonathan Thornton
David Keenan’s England’s Hidden Reverse: A Secret History of the Esoteric Underground was first published in 2003. The book was the definitive biography of UK experimental music groups Coil, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound, and chronicled these artists’ development and growth alongside the post-punk post-industrial underground music scene that birthed them, from the late 70s through to the present. David Keenan, a music journalist for experimental music magazine The Wire and the founder of Glasgow experimental music distribution company, record shop and record label Volcanic Tongues, brought his life-long passion to the project. He conducted numerous interviewers with all the key players, and was granted unprecedented access to their archives. England’s Hidden Reverse chronicles the history of the post-industrial experimental music scene that emerged in the wake of Throbbing Gristle and industrial music, and positioned Coil, C93 and NWW as central to a secret history of transgressive and outsider art that influences and shapes English underground culture that takes in artists and occultists like Austin Osman Spare, Weird fiction authors like Arthur Machen and Thomas Ligotti, and experimental film artists like Derek Jarman and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
A clear labour of love, the book was sold as a limited edition with a free CD, and quickly became the key text on these musicians and the post-industrial underground.It fell out of print for 10 years, and was republished by Strange Attractor Press in 2015 with new material, before falling out of print again. The same year, Keenan left The Wire and became a novelist. His debut novel This Is Memorial Device (2017) became a cult classic, and drew on some of the same energy as England’s Hidden Reverse in its fictional portrait of a band and the Airdrie avant-garde music scene, and his incredibly ambitious latest novel Monument Maker (2021) displays the same love of experimentation, occult secret histories and Weird fiction that drew him to this music in the first place. Now, 20 years after its original publication, Strange Attractor Press have brought out a new edition of England’s Hidden Reverse, complete with updated information, new black and white photos and bonus material originally included in the fanzine FURFUR (plus an extra fanzine of colour photographs and documents if you pre-ordered it as I did). Read today, England’s Hidden Reverse stands as the definitive document of a unique collective of uncompromising, original and underrated artists as well as a fascinating glimpse into the early obsessions and development of one of our key authors.
I’m going to be honest from the start – there’s no way I can be in any way objective about this stuff. Because I’m a weirdo, my last few years of high school were soundtracked by Coil, C933, NWW and Throbbing Gristle. I desperately wanted to read England’s Hidden Reverse when it first came out, but couldn’t afford a copy. I went on vet work experience placement instead of going to the last ever Coil gig, a decision I regret to this day. Finally reading England’s Hidden Reverse, I enjoyed it as much as I’d expected to, but there’s also an element of sadness mixed in. in 2003 when the book was first published, all those involved seemed like they were in a pretty good place. Coil had successfully rebirthed themselves into their lunar phase, opening themselves up to everything they were closed off to before to create two of their masterpieces, the Moon’s Milk EPs (1998-9) andboth volumes of Musick To Play In The Dark (1999-2000).
David Tibet’s Current 93 had released two of their most personal and moving albums, Soft Black Stars (1998) and Sleep Has His House (2000). And Nurse With Wound’s Steven Stapleton had moved to Cooloorta in Ireland and set up his house, which became a focal point and haven for avant-garde musicians and outsider artists. All this would change shortly after the book’s release. In November 2004, John Balance, Coil’s charismatic but troubled frontman, would fall to his death in his and his partner Sleazy’s house in Weston. I remember the day I found out Balance’s death vividly. I was absolutely devastated, and coincidentally it was the start of a dark time in my own life for various reasons. It genuinely felt like the end of an era of experimental, underground music, one which has receded even further into the past over the intervening 20 years, even as C93 and NWW have continued to release great music and Coil’s mythic legacy has only grown in stature. Now, not only is Balance gone, but also Sleazy, Coil’s Ian Johnstone and Current 93’s John Murphy. The new edition of the book is dedicated to them. With Gen passing as well in 2020, the world of the 80s and 90s underground subculture described in England’s Hidden Reverse seems to be fading ever faster in time’s rearview mirror.
The central figures in England’s Hidden Reverse emerged in the post-punk era, but took as their year zero not 1977 and punk’s rock-derived guitars but Throbbing Gristle’s emergence from performance art collective COUM in 1975 and the birth of industrial music. Industrial music was coined by Throbbing Gristle – Genesis P-Orridge, Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti – as a descriptor for their music. Inspired by the further reaches of krautrock, electronic music and the worst nightmares of the Velvet Underground, and just as equally all the transgressive shock tactics they’d learned as COUM, TG created a new form of music to reflect the horrors of austerity Britain, a semi-improvised machine drone that revelled in its noisiness and messiness, capped off with P-Orridge wailing lyrics inspired by Burroughs and Ballard to soundtrack a nighttime alternate world of serial killers and sexual deviancy. TG messily collapsed in 1981 after four albums, myriad bootlegs and a series of unforgettable live performances, but not before inspiring an entire scene of weirdos and outsiders armed with primitive synthesisers, tape machines and diseased imaginations. Into this wild and bizarre scene enter England’s Hidden Reverse’s key players.
John Balance, Blakean visionary and Sleazy’s precocious boyfriend, would form Coil with Sleazy. David Tibet, a Malaysian-born Crowley-obsessive armed with a Tibetan thighbone trumpet and a fascination for theology and the occult, would form Current 93. And Steven Stapleton, obsessive record collector and master tape-manipulator, would form Nurse With Wound. Over the years, as these artists relentlessly pursued their own unique artistic visions, these would remain the sole constant members of these bands, however they would collaborate extensively with each other and a revolving cast of experimental musicians and artists. Over the course of the 80s and 90s, Coil, C93 and NWW exist on the fringes of mainstream culture, secretly influencing it from the outside as they cross paths with Clive Barker, Bjork, Trent Reznor, Tiny Tim, Shirley Collins, Derek Jarman and more. Also, everyone takes a whole bunch of drugs.
Keenan does an excellent job of introducing Coil, C93 and NWW at the peak of their powers, then backtracks to tell us the story, more or less chronologically, of how these artist met, their early days and the way they formed their own scene of individuals who obsessively chased their own muses with little regard for compromise. Tibet, Sleazy and Balance all start off in Psychic TV, Genesis’s post-TG project, contributing the intellectual scaffolding and musical direction to PTV’s best and most iconic albums Force The Hands Of Chance (1982) and Dreams Less Sweet (1983), before becoming disillusioned with the direction Gen was going in and starting out on their own.
Stapleton starts NWW as a trio, with his friend and fellow record obsessives John Fothergill and Heman Pathak, and recording the experimental classic Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella (1979) before it becomes clear that Stapleton’s singular vision of a genuinely surrealist music inspired by the weirdest fringes of experimental music requires that the project be his alone. Keenan charts the highs – Coil’s visionary industrial releases Scatology (1984), Horse Rotorvator (1986) and Love’s Secret Domain (1991), Current 93’s transition from the harsh, tape loop soundscapes of Nature Unveiled (1984) to the apocalyptic folk music of masterpieces Thunder Perfect Mind (1992), Of Ruine Or Some Blazing Starre (1994) and All The Pretty Little Horses (1996), Nurse With Wound’s first flowering of Stapleton’s unhindered vision on Homotopy To Marie (1982) and their epic drone sculpture Soliloquy For Lilith (1988).
He also charts the lows, and spares no blushes when it comes to it. His writing is sharp and insightful, his enthusiasm is contagious, and his arguments are convincingly thought out. He is also meticulous in his research, and very even-handed. In a scene full of strange people on a lot of drugs, some of whom have fallen out over the years, Keenan is careful to speak to as many people who were involved as possible to get as detailed a picture as he can, and when accounts disagree will often print both.
Where Keenan shines, and where he most clearly prefigures his work as a novelist – aside from This Is Memorial Device’s amusingly snarky use of music taste to tell the reader something about the characters – is in his argument that Coil, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound sit at the heart of this hidden reverse of English culture. Each act like a magus, sitting in a dense knot of references and cultural influences, gaining a talismanic significance that extends beyond their music. Fans of these artists will be familiar with this feeling. John Balance describes Coil’s mission as to do through music what Spare did through his art, a magickal bringing of the world into being. Sleazy talks about Coil’s relentless project to queer everything, creating a space in which certain artistic truths are only achievable through the perspective and experience of queerness.
David Tibet’s lyrics weave together a tapestry that takes in Russell Hoban’s post apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker (1980), the bleak cosmic horror of iconic Weird fiction writer Thomas Ligotti (indeed Ligotti and Tibet’s worldviews so align that they have frequently collaborated on multimedia projects), and Philip K. Dick’s paranoid fantasies with works of Christian mysticism like The Cloud of Unknowing and gnostic texts like The Thunder, Perfect Mind. And Nurse With Wound’s famous NWW list, printed in the liner notes of Chance Meeting, is a guide to obscure avant-garde rock, jazz and noise music that is still fetishised by record collectors to this day. To enter into the work of any of these groups is to enter a world dense with intertextual references and allusions, to undergo a mind-expanding induction into a wider world full of strangeness and wonder, a recurring motif in Keenan’s own fictional work.
Twenty years on from its first publication, England’s Hidden Reverse stands as a remarkable work of music journalism, and the chronicle of some truly singular artists. As we get ever further from the time it describes, the more incredible it seems that any of it really happened. Keenan has done a massive service to all fans of early industrial music in chronicling its history in such depth and detail, and Strange Attractor have brought out a truly beautiful edition, overflowing with photos and scans of gig posters and other ephemera, which really gives a strong sense of the aesthetics of the various artists. England’s Hidden Reverse is a must-read for fans of Coil, C93 and NWW, and for fans of Keenan’s later fictional writings who want to see where he started from. I can’t speak to how it reads for people outside of those demographics, but as someone in both, I had an absolutely lovely reading experience.
David Keenan – England’s Hidden Reverse: A Secret History of the Esoteric Underground (2003, revised and expanded edition 2023)
An expanded edition of the classic exploration of the English esoteric musical underground–with the first biography of Coil, Current 93, and Nurse With Wound.
This newly expanded edition of England’s Hidden Reverse, the classic exploration of the English esoteric musical underground that includes the first, and only, biographies of Coil, Current 93, and Nurse With Wound, is based on exclusive interviews and unprecedented access to all three bands’ personal archives. Together, these genre-defying bands and their circles represent the English underground in all its cultural, artistic, and sexual variety. Over four decades, the three intertwined groups have maintained a symbiotic, yet uneasy, relationship with the mainstream of popular culture, even as their music, beliefs, and practices have repelled them from it. Theirs was a clandestine scene whose work accents the many occulted peculiarities of Englishness that flow through generations of outsiders, channeling personalities as diverse as Aleister Crowley, Arthur Machen, Joe Orton, Shirley Collins, Björk, and Marc Almond. The story of this Hidden Reverse has, necessarily, remained a secret. Until now.
This new volume contains almost 100 pages of extra material culled from Furfur, a collection of interviews with musicians and artists whose careers intersected with the bands’, initially published alongside Strange Attractor’s first limited edition of the book.