1982–1983: Formation and early years
In 1978, John Balance (born Geoff[rey] Burton; also known as Rushton, by his stepfather's surname) was a teenage zine journalist, writing—along with his schoolmate Tom Craig, a grandson of Edward Carrick and grand-grandson of Edward Gordon Craig—under a moniker Stabmental, through which he published the articles on UK underground artists, including seminal industrial bands Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. A Throbbing Gristle fan, Balance had contacted them via mail, and thus befriended the Throbbing Gristle frontman Genesis P-Orridge. In February 1980, Balance had attended a Throbbing Gristle gig recorded and released as Heathen Earth, where he had first met P-Orridge's bandmate Peter Christopherson and befriended him as well.
Following the dissolution of Throbbing Gristle in 1981, P-Orridge, Christopherson, and Alex Fergusson (formerly of Alternative TV) went on to form the new project, titled Psychic TV, along with the accompanying fellowship titled Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth. Balance, who had attended the University of Sussex for a short time and participated in Brian Williams' Lustmord project, returned in London to live with Christopherson—with whom a romantic partnership had begun. As a Psychic TV member, Balance participated in the recording of the single "Just Drifting" (from the album Force the Hand of Chance) and, the following year, of the album Dreams Less Sweet.
Already having an experience of performing and recording previous to his tenure in Psychic TV, Balance went on to use the name Coil in 1982, originally envisioned for a solo project. In 1983, Balance wrote a manifesto titled The Price Of Existence Is Eternal Warfare and sent a tape of the song "On Balance", dated 5 May 1982, to Gary Levermore's label Third Mind Records for an inclusion on a compilation album Rising From The Red Sand; Levermore, however, had rejected the track. Despite this, Balance had recorded three more new tracks—"S for Sleep", "Red Weather", and "Here to Here (Double Headed Secret)"—on 11 May 1983. On 4 August 1983, Coil—as the duo of Balance and Christopherson—had played its first gig in London at the Magenta Club, during a screening of films by Cerith Wyn Evans and Derek Jarman. Since Christopherson's commitments for Psychic TV—in which he had become disillusioned due to growing conflict with P-Orridge—still limited his participation in Coil, Balance approached John Gosling—also Psychic TV member who fronted his own project Zos Kia—to work with. Balance's and Gosling's collaboration resulted in the next three gigs during 1983, with the last one being performed in December on Berlin Atonal festival, where Balance participated as both Psychic TV and Coil member. The recordings from aforementioned gigs, as well as "On Balance", were later included on Zos Kia/Coil split album Transparent, released in February 1984 by Austrian label Nekrophile Records. Since January 1984, Balance and Christopherson had departed from Psychic TV and the Temple of Psychic Youth, in order to make Coil as a full-time concern.
1984–1986: How to Destroy Angels and Some Bizzare years
The band's official recording debut, an extended play titled How to Destroy Angels, was released on the Good Friday (20 April) of 1984 by a Belgian-based label L.A.Y.L.A.H. Antirecords.:49 Recorded on 19 February 1984 at Britannia Row Studios, the album was dedicated to Mars as the god of spring and war, using predominantly iron and steel instruments.
Shortly after in May 1984, Coil went on to record their first full-length studio album, eventually titled Scatology, approaching JG Thirlwell as a co-producer and co-composer; several others contributors, including Stephen Thrower, Alex Fergusson and Gavin Friday, took part in its recording. Scatology’s themes echoed those of How to Destroy Angels, while focusing mainly on alchemy as an idea of transforming matter.
Scatology was released in early 1985 with a 1984 copyright date by the band's own label, Force & Form, and K.422 (a Some Bizzare Records sublabel), to mainly positive feedback. Shortly after, the single "Panic/Tainted Love" was released, with the profits being donated to the Terrence Higgins Trust; hailed since then as the first AIDS benefit music release, it was supported with the "Tainted Love" video directed by Christopherson, which was purchased by The Museum of Modern Art in New York, U.S.
Horse Rotorvator followed in 1986 as the next full-length release. Although songs such as "The Anal Staircase" and "Circles of Mania" sound like evolved versions of Scatology material, the album is characterized by slower tempos, and represented a new direction for the group. The album has a darker theme than previous releases, according to Balance:
Horse Rotorvator was this vision I'd had of this mechanical/flesh thing that ploughed up the earth and I really did have a vision of it—a real horrible, burning, dripping, jaw-like vision in the night ... The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse killed their horses and use their jawbones to make this huge earth-moving machine."
The artwork features a photograph of the location of a notorious IRA bombing, in which a bomb was detonated on a military orchestra pavilion. Horse Rotorvator was in part influenced by the AIDS related deaths of some of their friends. Furthermore, the song "Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)", is about the mysterious death of Pier Paolo Pasolini, as well as what Balance described as "the number one suicide spot in the world", the white cliffs of Dover.
Gold Is the Metal... and Unnatural History (1986–1990)
After the release of Horse Rotorvator, Coil left Some Bizzare Records, since they fell out with its owner Stevo Pearce. Gold Is the Metal with the Broadest Shoulders followed as a full-length release in 1987, marking the beginning of the band's own label, Threshold House—the album is described in the liner notes as "not the follow up to Horse Rotorvator, but a completely separate package – a stopgap and a breathing space - the space between two twins," which refers to Horse Rotorvator and Love's Secret Domain.
The 13-track Unnatural History compilation was then released on Threshold House in 1990. The first three songs on the album were first released as one half of the Nightmare Culture mini-album.
Love's Secret Domain (1991–1992)
Love's Secret Domain (abbreviated LSD) followed in 1991 as the next "proper" Coil album, although a few minor releases had been produced since Horse Rotorvator. LSD represents a progression in Coil's style and became a template for what would be representative of newer waves of post-industrial music, blended with their own style of acid house. Although the album was more upbeat, it was not intended as a dance record, as Christopherson explained "I wouldn't say it's a party atmosphere, but it's more positive." "Windowpane" and a Jack Dangers remix of "The Snow" were released as singles, both of which had music videos directed by Christopherson. The video for "Windowpane" was shot in the Golden Triangle, where, Balance claimed, "the original Thai and Burmese drug barons used to exchange opium for gold bars with the CIA." Christopherson recalled "John [Balance] discovered while he was performing that where he was standing was quicksand! In the video you can actually see him getting deeper and deeper." Furthermore, Thai friends of the group commented that they had known of several people that died where Coil had shot footage for the music video.
A music video for the song "Love's Secret Domain" was also shot, which was initially unreleased due to its nature: as Christopherson explained, "We shot 'Love's Secret Domain' in a go-go boy bar in Bangkok; with John [Balance] performing on stage with about 20 or 30 dancing boys, which probably won't get played on MTV, in fact!" As of January 2015, the music video is viewable on more than one YouTube channel. Stolen & Contaminated Songs followed as a full-length release in 1992. However, as with Gold Is the Metal..., it is a collection of outtakes and demos from the LSD era.
Soundtracks and side projects (1993–1998)
Coil separated their works into many side projects, publishing music under different names and a variety of styles. The pre-Coil aliases, Zos Kia and Sickness of Snakes, formed the foundation of a style that would evolve to characterize their initial wave of releases.
Before embarking on their second wave of side projects and pseudonyms, Coil created a soundtrack for the movie Hellraiser, although they withdrew from the project when they suspected their music would not be used. Furthermore, Coil claimed inspiration for Pinhead was partly drawn from the piercing magazines that director Barker borrowed from the group. Balance explained after the release of Stolen and Contaminated Songs, in around 1992:
Yeah it would have been brilliant but we wouldn’t have carried on, because they were changing everything and they weren’t being very nice to us, the actual film people. They were keeping us in the dark a lot. We said we’d had enough just at the same time they decided they wanted to use Howard Shore. They just wanted normal film music. They didn’t want anything too scary which is sad and ridiculous for a horror film.
Also in 1992, Threshold House released a "Remixes And Re-Recordings" version of How to Destroy Angels. Nurse with Wound's Steven Stapleton contributed a remix of the song, "How To Destroy Angels II".
In 1993, Coil contributed music to Derek Jarman's film Blue. Their 1985 score for Jarman's The Angelic Conversation was released on CD in 1994. In addition, they recorded soundtracks for the documentary Gay Man's Guide to Safer Sex as well as Sarah Dales Sensuous Massage, though both remain unreleased.
Much like the pre-Coil aliases, Coil's series of side projects represented a diverse basis from which the group evolved a different style of sound. While Nasa Arab—credited to the group's project "The Eskaton"—was Coil's farewell to the acid house genre, the following projects, ELpH, Black Light District, and Time Machines, were all based heavily on experimentation with drone, an ingredient that would define Coil's following work. These releases also launched the start of Coil's new label Eskaton.
Transparent was reissued in CD format in 1997 on Threshold House. A disc and booklet were packaged in a "thick" slipcase, which was released
in partnership with the World Serpent music company.
Late Coil (1998–2004)
After the wave of experimental side projects, Coil's sound was completely redefined. Before releasing new material, the group released the compilations Unnatural History II, Windowpane & The Snow and Unnatural History III. In March 1998, Coil began to release a series of four singles which were timed to coincide with the equinox and solstices of that year. The singles are characterized by slow, drone-like instrumental rhythms, and electronic or orchestral instrumentation. The first single, Spring Equinox: Moon's Milk or Under an Unquiet Skull, featured two versions of the same song, the second version of which included an electric viola contribution from a newly inducted member, William Breeze. The second single, Summer Solstice: Bee Stings, also featured performances by Breeze, and also included the industrial-noise song "A Warning from the Sun (For Fritz)", which was dedicated to a friend of Balance and Christopherson's who had committed suicide earlier that year. The third single, Autumn Equinox: Amethyst Deceivers includes the track "Rosa Decidua", which features vocals by Rose McDowall. The single also features the song "Amethyst Deceivers", later reworked and performed throughout most of Coil's tour—it was eventually re-made into an alternate version on the LP The Ape of Naples. The fourth single, Winter Solstice: North, also includes a track sung by McDowall, and is partially credited to the side project Rosa Mundi. The series would later be re-released as the double-CD set, Moon's Milk (In Four Phases).
Astral Disaster was created with the assistance from new band member Thighpaulsandra, and was released in January 1999 via Sun Dial member Gary Ramon's label, Prescription. Although the album was initially limited to just 99 copies, it would later be re-released in a substantially different form. Musick To Play In The Dark Vol. 1 followed in September 1999, and a few months later Coil performed their first concert in 16 years.
Queens Of The Circulating Library followed in April 2000, with production credit given to Thighpaulsandra. The single-track, full-length drone album is the only Coil release made without the assistance of Christopherson. Musick To Play In The Dark Vol. 2 followed in September 2000, and Coil began to perform live more intensively, a period that also included writing the music for Black Antlers in between a series of mini-tours. Coil also released a series of live albums around this time. Constant Shallowness Leads To Evil, a noise-driven experimental album reminiscent of Christopherson's work with Throbbing Gristle, was first sold at a live performance in September 2000. Coil finally released Black Antlers in June 2004.
In contrast to many of their earlier releases, Coil's later material is characterized by a slower sound which relies more on drone than acid house. This change in sound was reflected in their live performances, as songs like "Ostia" and "Slur" were slowed down from their original pace, as well as re-recordings of "Teenage Lightning" and "Amethyst Deceivers" that were later released on The Ape Of Naples.
Coil's live incarnation is associated with a distinct legacy. The first live shows took place in 1983, but after only four performances, 15 years would pass before they would play live again.
On 14 December 1999, Coil performed elph.zwölf at Volksbuehne in Berlin. Although the performance lasted just under 18 minutes, it marked the beginning of a new era of live performances. Coil would go on to perform close to 50 additional concerts, with varied set lists as well as performers.
Coil performed twice at the Royal Festival Hall in 2000. The first concert was in April, as part of a weekend curated by Julian Cope, when they first performed as the full band line-up – and wearing the "fluffy suits" that would become a staple of live performances for the first time – performing Time Machines. They performed again in September, sharing a bill with Jim Thirlwell (as Foetus) on that occasion. Both performances were full sets.
Coil's performances were surrealistic visually and audibly. The signature fluffy suits, an idea inspired by Sun Ra, played a foremost role at the live shows. The suits would later be used as album covers for the release Live One, while other costumes appear on the covers of Live Two and Live Three—straitjacket and mirror-chested hooded jumpsuit, respectively. Video screens projected footage and animations created by Christopherson, while fog machines created an eerie atmosphere. Balance would often screech and howl during performances, which would add to the effect.
The band's performance at the 2003 All Tomorrow's Parties festival was released as ...And the Ambulance Died in His Arms. Released on Threshold House in 2005 as a digipak, a Thai version was released the following year. ...And the Ambulance Died in His Arms was released under a name chosen by Balance before his death in November 2004.
Many Coil performances were released, including the widely available releases of Live Four, Live Three, Live Two, Live One and ...And The Ambulance Died In His Arms, as well as several very limited editions, such as Selvaggina, Go Back Into The Woods and Megalithomania!. Video recordings of several concerts were released on the DVD box set,
Colour Sound Oblivion, in 2010.
Coil's final performance was at DEAF (Dublin Electronic Arts Festival), Dublin City Hall in Ireland.
Deaths of Balance and Christopherson
Balance died on 13 November 2004, after he fell from a second-floor landing in his home. Christopherson announced Balance's death on the Threshold House website, and provided details of the circumstances of the death. Balance's memorial service was held near Bristol on 23 November 2004, and was attended by approximately 100 people.
The final studio album, The Ape of Naples, was released on 2 December 2005. In August 2006, the rare CD-R releases, The Remote Viewer and Black Antlers, were "sympathetically remastered" and expanded into two disc versions, which included new and recently remixed material. A comprehensive 16-DVD boxset, titled
Colour Sound Oblivion, was released in July 2010. A "Patron Edition" was pre-orderable in November 2009 and sold out in three hours. Christopherson also discussed the possibility of releasing Coil's entire back catalogue on a single Blu-ray disc.
In November 2006, the official Coil website posted the following announcement: "Following the success of Thai pressings of The Remote Viewer and Black Antlers, and after many requests, we are planning to expand the CD catalog still further." A few days later Duplais Balance and
Moon's Milk In Six Phases were announced. Furthermore, an expanded vinyl version of The Ape Of Naples, which includes the album The New Backwards has been released and a two disc version of Time Machines has been announced.
Six years after the death of Balance, Christopherson died in his sleep on 24 November 2010 in Bangkok, Thailand.