Coil - Biography
Coil was the experimental music and occult practice project of lovers Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson and Jhonn Balance. Twenty years and a stack of records into Coil’s career, Balance’s accidental death ended the project in 2004.
In 1974, towards the beginning of his career in visual art and music, Christopherson joined Hipgnosis, the graphic design firm that had created album covers for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and T. Rex. The following year, Christopherson co-founded the visionary industrial band Throbbing Gristle. One of the first to use electronic sampling technology in music, Christopherson was using an Apple II computer as a sampler by 1981.
Balance’s obituary in The Guardian gives this biographical sketch: “John was a farmer's son, born Geoffrey Burton, in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. When his mother remarried, he took the surname Rushton. He attended an Oxfordshire boarding school, but, diagnosed with schizophrenia, spent time in a mental hospital. He took solace in Aleister Crowley’s works, and, as ‘Scabmental,’ wrote a fanzine and made music.”
Balance met Christopherson as a Throbbing Gristle fan around 1980, and the two became a couple the following year. After Throbbing Gristle split in 1981, Genesis P-Orridge and Christopherson started a new project called Psychic TV with Alex Fergusson of Alternative TV. By 1983, Psychic TV’s exceptionally fluid lineup included Balance and John Gosling, who called his band and then himself Zos Kia, after Austin Osman Spare’s occult system.
Christopherson and Balance collaborated with Gosling in the original lineup of Zos Kia. Their performance at the 1983 Berlin Atonal Festival makes up side A of the Zos Kia/Coil cassette Transparent (1984 Nekrophile). Side B, credited to Coil/Zos Kia, compiles solo recordings by Balance from 1982 and 1983, as well as collaborations with Gosling and Christopherson. When Balance and Christopherson separated from Zos Kia to pursue Coil as a duo, they directed their energies away from the stage and towards studio recording. Coil’s 1983 shows with Zos Kia were the band’s last live performances for nearly two decades.
The first proper Coil release was 1984’s How to Destroy Angels (1984 L.A.Y.L.A.H. Antirecords), a 17-minute performance of “ritual music for the accumulation of male sexual energy.” Coil’s debut LP Scatology (1984 Force and Form), co-produced by Jim “Foetus” Thirlwell later that year, introduced Stephen Thrower on clarinet and percussion. Like Balance, Thrower had been a fan of Throbbing Gristle, and Balance and Christopherson invited him to contribute to the sessions after Thrower approached them. Thrower subsequently joined the band as a full member. Coil collaborated with noise outfits The New Blockaders and Vortex Campaign on an untitled 1984 cassette, reissued on CD and LP as The Melancholy Mad Tenant (2005 Black Rose / 2008 Important).
Balance and Christopherson collaborated with American noise musician Boyd Rice under the name Sickness of Snakes. Their sole release was a 12” EP split with fellow Crowley followers Current 93 called Nightmare Culture (1985 L.A.Y.L.A.H. Antirecords). Coil scored Derek Jarman’s 1985 film The Angelic Conversation, resulting in the unlikely juxtaposition of Coil music with the voice of Dame Judi Dench reading Shakespeare’s sonnets. Credited as “Raoul Revere,” Soft Cell singer Marc Almond plays guitar on Coil’s “Restless Day,” a song that was first released on the compilation Devastate to Liberate (1985 Yangki) and then later added to the CD issue of Scatology.
Like Soft Cell, Coil released a version of Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love.” Coil’s version appears on the 1985 “Panic / Tainted Love” 12” (1985 Wax Trax!), with a string arrangement credited to “Filth Spektor.” During 1986, Coil was essentially a trio consisting of Balance, Christopherson, and Thrower for the album Horse Rotorvator (1986 Force and Form) and EP Anal Staircase (1986 Force and Form), though Thirlwell and Almond made contributions once again.
Coil launched its own label, Threshold House, with the album Gold Is the Metal [With the Broadest Shoulders] (1987 Threshold House). Writer/director Clive Barker commissioned Coil to record the soundtrack for his 1987 horror movie Hellraiser, but either he or the studio rejected the music submitted by the group. The 10” The Unreleased Themes for Hellraiser (1987 Solar Lodge) also includes some of Coil’s advertising jingles. Coil’s adventures into commissioned sound included the documentary The Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex.
The “Wrong Eye/Scope” (1990 Shock) single broke several years of silence from the band in 1990. The following year’s album Love’s Secret Domain (1991 Wax Trax!) featured Charles Hayward of This Heat, Crass collaborator Annie Anxiety, and another vocal appearance by Marc Almond. Coil contributed to the soundtrack of Derek Jarman’s last feature, Blue, in 1993, which is also the year Thrower left the band. During the 1990s, Christopherson directed music videos for numerous rock and pop artists, including Ministry, Sepultura, Van Halen, Robert Plant, Rage Against The Machine, and even the wholesome boy band Hanson. Coil remixed tracks by Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, and ex-Throbbing Gristle mates Chris and Cosey.
Starting in the mid-90s, Coil introduced a number of alter egos and side projects on their new Threshold House subsidiary, Eskaton. Balance and Christopherson recorded as Black Light District, Time Machines, and The Eskaton. They also unleashed a disembodied creative partner named ElpH on a series of releases, among these ELpH vs. Coil’s album Worship the Glitch (1995 Threshold House). According to Coil’s website, “ELpH is the entity Coil use to describe what musical compositions come out of the equipment that are sometimes unrehearsed or [un?]consciously thought of.”
According to Balance’s obituary in The Guardian, he and Christopherson split as a couple, though not as Coil, around the time of Balance’s 1998 rehab stay. Balance subsequently moved in with his partner, artist Ian Johnstone. Death in June contributor Ossian Brown (a.k.a. Simon Hurst) had lived with Balance and Christopherson in the early 90s and formed the band Cyclobe with Stephen Thrower. Brown joined Coil in 2000, the year the band gave its first live performances since the Zos Kia days in London and Barcelona.
Massimo and Pierce, described in a press release as “[r]adical young artists, Fetish Club owners, and experienced male sex-workers since their teens,” created The Plastic Spider Thing, a “Ritual Work” remixed from Coil albums. Massimo and Pierce gave 23 performances of their sex magick ritual set to Coil music, and Coil themselves released the soundtrack, The Plastic Spider Thing (2002 Eskaton). The press release elaborates: “Coil themselves heard Plastic Spider Thing for the first time while receiving a demonstration of various pieces of bondage machinery at a private ceremony at Massimo and Pierce's Club in Zurich. Perhaps unsurprisingly under those circumstances, they were so impressed by the work that they immediately agreed to release it on their own Eskaton label.”
Balance died in an alcohol-related fall at his house in November of 2004. Several days later, Christopherson announced that Coil would not continue. Coil’s final album was …and the ambulance died in his arms (2005 Threshold House), so titled by Balance before his death. Christopherson now lives in Thailand, where he is still preparing Colour Sound Oblivion, a collection of Coil performance videos to be released through Threshold House. He has been recording and performing with Ivan Pavlov as SoiSong since 2008, and with the reunited Throbbing Gristle since 2004.