|HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE|
New Musical Express, 11th April, 1987
"Evil is creeping through the backstreets and COIL are in love with it. DON WATSON gallops with them through the ghostly post-Gristle wastelands to discover the glory of death (other people's, that is)."
The relation between music and time is a complex one. There's nothing like a popular song of the period to unleash a private memory - everyone has their banal pop song, secretly cherished because of its associations.
Occasionally music can penetrate deeper into a time, tapping into the collective unconsciousness of the moment.
Some music has more than one time - the doomed romanticism of The Doors, the soundtrack not only to Apocalypse Now but to the Vietnam war for real, seemed to fall through a time warp, emerging in the late '70's/early '80's as the sound of post-punk, Postcard and Creation.
Listening now to the music of Throbbing Gristle brings back memories of an era of experimentation between 1976 and 1980 when conventions were being trashed and possibilities seemed endless. But what's surprising about the sound of TG today is just how contempory it is.
In an age before electronic technology had reached its current development, TG invented their own instruments. As Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson says in his sleeve notes to the TG Compact disc, recently released on Mute, "I was using digital sampling on stage before Fairlights were even invented, and Chris was building equipment that was at that time unheard of, never mind unobtainable."
What today's better equipped electronic musicians could lern from TG is that it's not the instruments that you use, it's the imagination with which they're used. What TG created on their classic studio LPs 'DOA' and '20 Jazz Funk Greats', as well as the controlled live performance of 'Heathen Earth' (now on the Mute catalogue), was a deeply textural, strongly environmental sound - the ghosts of English industrial arhitecture float through it, disused factories, the broken, blackened windows of deserted warehouses. The sounds are still evocative of a recognisable landscape of England.
The themes of TG - the sinister side of the second industrial revolution of computerisation, the rot and the underlying totalitarian tendencies of the English system - seem all the more powerful and all the more applicable today, especially now that we've learned at last that the best place to go fascist-spotting is the House of Commons, not in the realms of muic. TG were fetishistic certainly but never fascistic, they may have appropriated Oswald Mosley's 'England ignite' lightning flash as their logo (as had David Bowie before them), but now it' clear enough to see that their idea of the igniting of England was a very different one to that of Mosley's blackshirts. TG stood for deviance, diversity and imagination - concepts totally alien to the cant of fascism.
If the mantle of TG has been inherited by anyone it must be the experimental group Coil. Presided over by the elder statesman figure of Sleazy Christopherson, Coil is based around the contributions of two young musicians, both of whom were deeply affected by Throbbing Gristle at an early age - John Balance and Stephen E Thrower.
They share with TG a desire to reflect the reality of modern day Britian but in doing so transform that reality, fashioning out of it a mythology that has resonances stretching back beyond memory. Above all they have the ability to create a landscape out of music, a landscape that sometimes looks like the sands of Rome, sometimes like rural England, sometimes like the loose brick and broken glass wastelands still inhabited by the echoes of TG.
The cover of their endlessly fascinating 'Horse Rotorvator' LP captures some of the strange and haunting atmosphere of its contens. A late afternoon shot of a bandstand in an English park, the lines of a crane can be seen in the distance, there's a figure asleep on a bench, the light is falling. All the same there's something disturbing about the image, a sensation whose explanation comes with the slow realisation that the bandstand is the one blown up by the IRA in Hyde Park. The fact that the military horses were killed by the force of the blast makes a characteristically black joke out of the line on the cover: "we plough the fields and scatter our dead steed on the land."
"There's an atmosphere that lingers around places like that," says Stephen Thrower, "places where something has happened."
"A lot of the LP is constructed in a fairly filmic way," continues Sleazy, "in the sense that there's a lot of references to a street or a house where something happened. We've tried to be more discerning in the use of tapes so they're only used where they have a particular relation to the subject of the song, or to the atmosphere. With TG I often just used to have a stack of tapes and would play the nearest one that came to hand, or the least inappropriate. In those days we were playing with a 'how random is random' Burroughsian thing. What we do now is a great deal more calculated and chosen."
Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian film director who found his inspiration, and eventually his death, amidst the thugs, pickpockets and boy prostitutes of the streets of Rome, plays a big part in Coil's scheme of things. They share not only his criminal fascinations but his interest in the eroticism of the Catholic religion. The wall of their West London house is lined with lurid Mexican religious ikons.
"You might as well have fun with gods," Explains John, "after all, we invented them." On 'Scatology' the most successful track 'Cathedral In Flames',was based on Pasolini's Salo: 120 days of Sodom, the terrifying treatise on sex and power which was to be his last film. On 'Horse Rotorvator' there's a track called 'Ostia (The Death Of Pasolini)', in which the details of Pasolini's death are transposed over the story of a friend of the band who committed suicide by jumping off that great symbol of Englishness, the White Cliffs of Dover.
Both of them, Coil believe, were deaths that were perversly inspirational.
"They both relate quite strongly to the myth of the Fisher King," says Balance, "part of the Grail myth which implies that the king must die in order that his land can live. It's quite a universal theme which Pasolini was well aware of; he'd written poems on the subject and he died in that precise way. It's as if in establishing the lines on which he lived, he established the lines of his death."
They myth of the young god whose appetites are too great to be bound by life is one that has its most popular incarnation in the James Dean myth of 'live fast die young', but it's actually much older, running through Baudelaire,Rimbaud, Artaud, and further back still.
"There are a few of them that have successful artists," says Sleazy, "like the ones that you mention, but most of them are dead by the time they're 20. In a way if you become a successful artist you've already copped out.
"There are just some people who have this unnatural glow around them; you know that they are going to be dead in a few years and that it simply doesn't matter to them."
The obvious question which must be brought to bear on their work is whether this fetishisation of the brief flaming life is possible in these post-Aids days. Surely death is best glorified when conditions grant it a rarity value?
"I don't think it's the rarity value that's important so much as the fact that it is present. People have accused us of being generally morbid and draing attention to these things, but it's because we have friends who have died that we can say these sort of things. It's actually more appropriate to do that now than it was five years ago."
The chorus "You get eaten alive by the perfect lover" on 'Circles Of Mania' sounds like an Aids reference, which perhaps, through the medium metaphor, it is.
"It was supposed to be based on a Christ-like figure," Balance explains, "burning at the stake while under the influence of ergot, which was what caused St Anthony to have visions of burning hell and demons and that sort of thing. It's actually what Abbie Hoffman synthesised LSD from. It was quite a common thing that they used to bake into the bread, quite by accident, and it used to cause you to have terrible visions, or quite nice visions as the case may be. The only problem was that it also caused your limbs to go black and gangrenous and fall off."
You mean it got you legless?
"Quite. The song's very close to parody altogether. There's a point in the middle of the song where the vocals break into a laugh. I was laughing while I was doing it, just thinking 'how much of this can I get away with?'"
There's a constant undercurrent of black humour to Coil that many seem to miss.
"Exactly," says Sleazy, " a lot of people don't expect us to have a sense of humour at all. When we did 'Tainted Love', for example, a lot of people couldn't see the point in us doing anything as morbid as that. But it was actually meant to be funny, although it did have a serious aspect in that the money did go to the Terence Higgins Trust. It's a matter of trying to work on a lot more levels than one at the same time."
There's a constant reference in Coil to the dignity and eroticism of classical imagery.
"In most contemporary music there's a complete abhorrence of any historical reference," says Sleazy.
"You can refer back to the '50s or the '60s" adds Balance, "because for rock or pop music that is the classical period, but, however pretentiously it might be interpreted, we'd like to reach back to something more permanent, to archetypes and that sort of thing."
For all their classical references Coil capture the mood of today better than the vast majority of their contemporaries.
"There are monsters that live in the back streets of Britian," says Balance with conviction. "Mark Smith of The Fall has seen them, and I've seen them a few times as well. It's creeping evil, it really is. There's a mystery in Britain that people just don't see, because it's so familiar to them, the creeping chaos in the prefabs. It's definitely there.
"I love it, and I'm going to get to it." The odyssey continues.