The Current, the Coil, and the Nurse

Once upon a time there was a group of performance artists called COUM, who transformed into a band called Throbbing Gristle, who crafted a thing called “industrial music” out of the toxic sludge of mid-1970s Britain’s malaise. Eventually, that band broke up, and two of its members – Genesis P-Orridge and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson – went on to form Psychic TV, a new band with an associated chaos magick occult movement called Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth. Important contributors to both the first two Psychic TV albums (Force the Hand of Chance and Dreams Less Sweet) and the early propaganda and doctrines of TOPI included John Balance, a Throbbing Gristle fan who’d begun a relationship with Sleazy which would last the rest of his life, and David Tibet, an eccentric young man who was in the middle of a serious Aleister Crowley phase.

Meanwhile, gentle-natured music nerd and big time Krautrock fan Steven Stapleton had formed – and soon became the sole consistent member of – Nurse With Wound, whose surrealist experiments with sound tended to be lumped in with the “industrial” movement because Throbbing Gristle was the only thing which anyone felt able to compare it with.

Tensions arose within Psychic TV – with Sleazy, Balance, and Tibet all dropping out and establishing new projects. Sleazy and Balance would form the core of electronic industrial pioneers Coil; David Tibet would start producing nightmare soundscapes with a rotating cast of collaborators under the overall project name of Current 93. Befriending David Tibet, Stapleton soon became Current 93’s in-house producer, a position he’d hold more or less consistently for the next quarter of a century or so, and Stapleton, Tibet, Sleazy, and Balance would spend much of their future careers trading ideas with each other.

Eventually, all three projects would in their own way start expressing a strange and deeply non-traditional take on old-style pastoralism. David Tibet eventually reconfigured Current 93 as one of the most important exponents of what you could call “weird folk” of the latter 20th/early 21st Century, with musical partners such as Douglas Pearce from the controversial Death In June and, ultimately replacing Douglas, Current 93 superfan Michael Cashmore aiding him in producing some of the most delicately melancholy music ever produced. Coil would move to Weston-Super-Mare and start producing a more prog-oriented brand of “lunar music” as a counterpoint to the harsh “solar music” of their early career. Stapleton would move with his partner Diana Rogerson, who’d hit the industrial scene as part of the BDSM-themed performance art unit Fistfuck, to establish a family artistic commune in the west of Ireland, creating strange sculptures deep in the rural wilderness even as he continues to produce nightmare industrial soundscapes.

And through their various musical releases, the bands in question have produced a musical expression of rural and urban Englands which are very different from the sanitised take on the land that the authorities would have been comfortable with – what author David Keenan calls England’s Hidden Reverse.

England’s Hidden Reverse, then, is Keenan’s history of Coil, Current 93, and Nurse With Wound, with occasional forays into the work of associated groups. It’s a fascinating story of an underground scene which produced music which was, by and large, thematically deeply personal to the artists in question. Sure, early Coil and Current 93 did espouse some occult teachings, and Coil also were the most political of the three groups, with their cover of Tainted Love raising money for the Terrence Higgins Trust back when HIV/AIDS was a taboo subject in polite society – but for the most part these groups were guided by extremely personal visions, ranging from the religious and esoteric to the immediate and autobiographical to the entirely abstract.

Coil, for instance, would find their work informed equally by their occult interests and the extreme lifestyle that John Balance in particular embraced; the book recounts how Love’s Secret Domain, their masterpiece, was completed with a group of immaterial spiritual observers watching the recording process, and given the epic drug intake they report at the time you might consider that hallucination but in the interviews here they insist that the entities were real on some level. Current 93 would incorporate lyrical themes ranging from occult Christianity to autobiography to references to whichever literary or artistic figure David Tibet happened to be obsessing on recently – Louis Wain, Arthur Machen, Thomas Ligotti, and others all end up in the mix (and indeed Ligotti has collaborated a little with Current 93 and is considered part of the extended family).

Nurse With Wound’s themes are perhaps the most oblique of all, with Stapleton regularly taking inspiration from dreams; for instance, he famously dreamed that he was giving Tibet a copy of a Nurse With Wound album called Thunder Perfect Mind, which was the title of the Current 93 the duo were both working on, and Tibet agreed that Stapleton should also make an album of that name and they’d release them as companion releases. The two Thunder Perfect Minds are respective high water marks in both projects’ discographies.

It’s inevitable that foreboding music dealing with often dark subject matter should become the subject of controversy. In his introduction to the new edition of England’s Hidden Reverse, released in 2016 through Strange Attractor Press, Keenan notes that knee-jerk accusations of Naziism against musical acts which happen to make use of fascist imagery in their music without taking the context and aesthetic of the music into account is overly simplistic. The power electronics act Whitehouse, known for its beyond-the-pale subject matter, put out a release called Buchenwald, but if you’ve ever actually heard their music you’d never accuse Whitehouse of glamourising or romanticising or otherwise celebrating their subject matter. As Keenan correctly notes, the problem is not the mere mention of fascist ideas – it is the aestheticisation of them. A Nazi black metal band recording an angry call to arms against multicultural society is a much more alarming prospect, for instance.

The fact that Keenan goes out of his way to talk about this makes me think that he must have heard of the controversy surrounding Death In June. As mentioned above, Death In June is the musical project of Douglas Pearce, who would work closely with Current 93 in particular; in fact, there was a point where several Death In June albums were produced by Doug plus various members of the Current 93 family (including David Tibet himself and John Balance). It is also infamous not just for adopting an aesthetic inspired by World War II-era German militaria, but also for Doug’s interviews in which it seems clear that he espouses a Strasserist view – a belief that that the Nazi movement went wrong when Hitler ditched the SA and Ernst Röhm, as though that gang of bullies wouldn’t have been just as bloodthirsty in their own way as the SS that largely displaced them.

Doug Pearce, doing his best not to look a bit fashy.

In short, it seems very likely that Doug is a weird fascist who uses his sexuality as a shield against accusations of Naziism – that, or for artistic reasons he has been posing as one for some 35 years. Admittedly, early on this could be read by a sufficiently naive person as being an ironic or satirical pose – some early Death In June lyrics can be read as a more general condemnation of the Holocaust rather than merely regretting that the SA got liquidated, others you might argue aren’t necessarily endorsing what they are singing about but are meant sarcastically, and a good chunk of their material doesn’t directly address fascism at all. (There’s no direct, overt references on what’s regarded as their best album, But, What Ends When the Symbols Shatter?, which takes more inspiration from the Manson Family and Jonestown, though if you put in the work you could probably draw parallels between it and the work of fascist esoteric philosophers like Julius Evola.)

Why, then, did he end up exerting such an influence over Current 93 – in particular in their left turn into folk, which parallels Death In June’s development of a “neofolk” style which sat on the borderland of folk and martial industrial. (Some lump Current 93 into the neofolk category, but I find their folk work sufficiently diverse and eccentric in approach that I don’t think it consistently lurks in that sphere for long.) Unfortunately, Keenan doesn’t go into any deep dives into Death In June in this book, but he does at least offer enough information to suggest answers. It’s evident from the book that Tibet was living a highly disorganised and nomadic lifestyle for much of the 1980s, moving around between various squats and other communal houses of outsider artists and occultists, and had a tendency to be very influenced by the people he was spending time with. The peak of Doug’s influence in Current 93 can be traced around the time of Swastikas For Noddy and related releases. (Tibet explains the title thusly: Noddy is a symbol of naive childhood innocence, and incidentally a figure he hallucinated being crucified in the skies over London one evening. Giving Noddy a Swastika is perhaps the he most cruel and innocence-destroying gift you could offer him.) This was a time when Douglas and Tibet had rooms in the same group house, which also included the Odinist priestess Freya Aswynn, who’d also make appearances on Current 93 material of the time.

(This time period would also see Tony Wakeford of Sol Invictus – the other major pioneer of neofolk – appearing on a number of Current 93 releases. Wakeford is infamous for being the founder member of Death In June who was stupid enough to join the National Front – at which point he was chucked out of the group; that said, he has since said he regrets this and has energetically condemned the far right, which Douglas never has.)

Does this add up to Tibet being a Nazi, or Current 93 being a fascist project? I don’t think so; I think it’s more a matter of Tibet being more naive about Nazi entryism in the underground scene at the time (a crime much of the rest of the scene was guilty of). Pearce’s camouflage jacket and stern demeanour always made him a bit of an odd man out in the Current 93 lineup, and other hands seem to have helped Tibet avoid going too deep into the neofascist gravity well.

Most particularly, whenever Tibet has elected to address the subject of fascism, it is clear that he does not endorse it at all. Two tracks on Thunder Perfect Mind in particular stand out in this respect. Hitler As Kalki (SDM) takes the idea, originally coined by pro-Nazi mystic Savitri Devi, that Hitler was Kalki, 9th incarnation of Vishnu, sent to ruthlessly end the era of the Kali Yuga. Whereas Devi uses this concept to deify Hitler, Tibet is clearly demonising him here, the song depicting Hitler-Kalki persecuting Christ (Tibet by this point was unambiguously Christian, though in an eccentric and decidedly non-fundamentalist way), the liner notes dedicating the song to Tibet’s father “who fought Hitler”, and Tibet taking the opportunity in the liner notes of the 1993 live album Hitler As Kalki to give a clear and unambiguous denunciation of Naziism – something which the genuine cryptofascists in neofolk always dance around and try to avoid.

Also relevant is A Song For Douglas (After He’s Dead). On the one hand, this is Tibet paying a loving tribute to Pearce, who he clearly has a lot of affection for. On the other hand, it’s also evident that Tibet finds Doug’s politics and World War II fixation to be a difficult part of the relationship; lines like “There’s a crooked cross/That has caught in his mind”, particularly in their delivery, don’t come across as an endorsement. As sweet in some ways as the song is, it’s a seriously weird thing to write if your friendship is smooth and uncomplicated.

Said friendship would not, in fact, last long after Thunder Perfect Mind emerged. Perhaps the most encouraging sign that Coil, Nurse With Wound and Current 93 aren’t crypto-fascists is that they all stopped associating with Pearce, Boyd Rice, Tony Wakeford and other such. Sleazy has mentioned in interviews, for instance, that Coil never repeated their brief collaboration with Boyd Rice (as Sickness of Snakes) as a result of Rice becoming more openly forthright about his far-right views, and was similarly dismissive of Death In June. Sleazy, Balance, Stapleton, Tibet and their whole set ceased collaborating on Death In June albums, and Pearce parted ways from the Current 93 set.

Tibet (left, standing) and Doug (right, crouching) during one of their final gigs together

Pearce’s departure is dealt with only briefly in England’s Hidden Reverse, and it’s a bit of a shame that Keenan doesn’t dig deeper into Pearce’s declared reasons for ceasing his friendship with Tibet. You see, Pearce claims that he fell out with Tibet because Tibet had befriended Tiny Tim – yes, the ukele-bearing Tiptoe Through the Tulips one – and since Tiny Tim had expressed homophobic views Doug, as a gay man, couldn’t stand for that. However, you know who Doug stayed buddies with, to the extent of continuing to collaborate with him over a decade later, despite that person not only also being friendly with Tiny Tim but actually being responsible for putting Tibet in contact with Tim? Boyd fucking Rice. This doesn’t add up at all.

(Though that said, if it were true, it would mean that Pearce believes that shunning and protest are a valid response to views one considers objectionable… which means that by the same principle he should have no problem with antifa protesting Death In June shows. By the same token, those who defend Pearce from charges of fascism by claiming that he’s just striking an artistic pose to get a reaction should be fine with the antifa protests – after all, the protesters are playing along with the performance in that case.)

It is evident, for those who wish to look, that Pearce retains a great deal of animosity towards Tibet; the album art for Death In June’s hideously angry All Pigs Must Die depicts Pearce with a knife to the throat of a toy pig dressed as Noddy (much as Tibet dressed as Noddy during the late 1980s) and includes a song entitled Flies Have Their House, which is hard not to read as a cruel riposte to Sleep Has His House, Tibet’s tribute to his dead father. It is possible that some of this animosity arises from the collapse of the World Serpent Distribution label – other songs on All Pigs seem to be airing Pearce’s belief that he’s been cheated out of money by World Serpent – but this inconvenienced Tibet just as much as Pearce.

Perhaps the spur for Pearce’s departure was his sense that he was being displaced by Michael Cashmore, who until the mid-2000s would be a key collaborator of Tibet’s. Cashmore first joined Current 93 for a live performance in Amiens, after Doug Pearce was unavailable; the gig, captured on the live album As the World Disappears, is truly magical, the inclusion of Cashmore instantaneously transforming Current 93 thanks to Cashmore’s gentle touch on his guitar giving more space for Tibet to express the emotional side of his songs, and amplifying that emotion appropriately.

For me, it marks the end of the awkward transitional phase of Current 93 from its magnificent early dark ambient format to its new weird folk approach; the folk-tinged releases preceding it have their strengths, but it’s Cashmore’s addition which really ties it together, and which makes Thunder Perfect Mind the masterpiece it is. One is inclined to suspect that Tibet felt slighted that his musical contributions had been rendered so comprehensively redundant by so superior a musician; the first full post-Pearce album, produced mostly by Stapleton, Tibet and Cashmore on their ownsome, is the magnificent, weirdly 17th Century-flavoured Of Ruine Or Some Blazing Starre, and honestly, Doug isn’t missed at all.

Stapleton, Tibet, and Cashmore, about to baroque and roll.

All in all, it’s a bit of a shame that Keenan doesn’t look deeper into the Death In June side of things and examine these questions more closely – particularly since he raises the crypto-fascism point in his new introduction for this edition himself, but then doesn’t actually explore it in the context of the artists he’s actually focusing on here. Ultimately, people make their own judgement calls about this sort of thing, but those are judgements based on what music journalists are able to tell us about acts; MetalSucks, for instance, does a sterling job of highlighting whenever a group turns out to have a “we’re actually fascists” smoking gun knocking about in its closet.

Aside from this blind spot, however, this book is an incredibly informative look at a scene which, so far as I can tell, was almost entirely undocumented otherwise. The original edition of England’s Hidden Reverse was, in retrospect, published at just the right time to catch the very end of this strange trinity. The book came out in 2003; 2004 would see John Balance’s untimely death as a result of a fall at home, a moment of clumsiness arising from the alcoholism which he had been battling for years and which had cranked up into high gear after the move to the country. Sleazy, heartbroken, would soldier on for a while caring for the Coil legacy but would himself die of a heart attack in 2010. With the two of them gone, that’s basically it as far as Coil goes; the entangled situation of the rights to Coil’s music means that the physical products have largely fallen out of print, though their music remains available (largely with the apparent blessing of the remaining rights holders) via archive.org.

The story is somewhat happier as far as Current 93 and Nurse With Wound are concerned. From 2008-2009 or so, Tibet and Stapleton have been working very closely with Andrew Liles – to the point where Liles has more or less supplanted Stapleton’s former role as producer and sound mutator for Current 93, though since Tibet still appears on the odd Nurse With Wound release it may be that this is less due to any acrimony between Stapleton and Tibet and more due to it simply being more convenient all round for Liles and Tibet to work this way these days. At the same time, the Stapleton-Tibet collaboration seems to be much less intense than it was in the era chronicled in England’s Hidden Reverse, and indeed Keenan himself seems to have largely lost his interest in both groups.

This seems to me to be a mistake. Keenan writes off recent Current 93, in particular, as an exercise in chasing the mainstream, which is an opinion which you can only really hold if you haven’t paid attention to the bizarre new musical directions explored in releases like Black Ships Ate the Sky or Aleph at Hallucinatory Mountain. And late last year, Tibet and collaborators put out The Light Is Leaving Us All, which I consider to be Current 93’s best folk-oriented release since Thunder Perfect Mind or Of Ruine Or Some Blazing Starre.

2 thoughts on “The Current, the Coil, and the Nurse

  1. This was a fantastic review, Arthur. I knew about some of the players from reading “Assimilate”, S. Alexander Reed’s general history of industrial music, but all these details are new to me.

    I admit I have wondered about Ligotti’s connection with these bands, particularly Death in June. I’ve noticed there’s been a subforum dedicated to the band on Thomas Ligotti Online, but I’ve never know what to make of it.

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    1. So far as I am aware Ligotti has never worked with Death In June: he started working with Current 93 in 1996, two years after Tibet and Pearce stopped talking with each other.

      Like

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