Englands Hidden ReversePublisher:
well bound, limited edition hardback with illustrations, colour photos costing £35 ($45), England’s Hidden Reverse looks more like a grimoire than a music biography. But this presentation is perfectly fitting as Keenan proposes an alternate timeline to alternative music; replacing Lydon, punk rock, safety pins and guitars with Crowley, S&M, tape/noise subculture and music for ritual. This edition also contains a free disc (and so it should considering the bloody price) of previously released material by all three acts, which at least it gives you a flavour of the main acts under discussion.
Subtitled A Secret History of the Esoteric Underground, the book follows the lives, careers and intertwining threads of British avant garde musicians Coil, Nurse With Wound and Current 93, although it’s as much a book about the whole underground scene (its ethics and its osmosis into the corners of mainstream culture), as it is these key players.
These three strands stick to a fairly chronological line after a brief introductory summing up, though sometimes slipping forwards to explore collaborations or to highlight common issues between these eccentrics bringing them together despite wildly incongruent lifestyles. The Coil story is by far the most interesting read, with Sleazy already having achieving a great level of infamy with both Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle and partner John Balance’s tendency to reach for the extreme. Being a fan of their work it was good to get some rare insight and honest reflection from people exploring boundaries and pushing their art and their muse beyond the concerns for commerce. There are several clear gaps in this strand with Peter Christopherson’s (Sleazy’s Sunday name) highly respected career as a promo video director for artists including Marc Almond, Sepultura and The The, receiving only cursory comments within the book relegating it as merely a sideline to his Coil day job; his personal opinion and accounts of the visual aspect of his creative life isn’t discussed at all.
My brief dalliances with the music of Current 93 and the interviews of its only core member David Tibet always left me with the impression that he was a bit of a helmet. My sole reason for having come to this conclusion? His Noddy as Christ obsession. I still find the vast majority of his work whimsical, silly and charmless after reading this book, but getting access to the thoughts and ideas behind the concepts helps to make some sense of what he was doing. The book seems to lose a lot of its pace when switching to the Nurse With Wound story, with Steven Stapleton’s fully domesticated and family orientated lifestyle in the wilds of Ireland not providing any high times, low times or points of great interest (not being as attention-grabbing as Coil’s more intense path). I should confess my previous absolute naivety with his music, somehow having come to the mistaken conclusion that that they were affiliates of Whitehouse in both politics and sound.
Keenan’s work with magazines like Mojo, Uncut and The Wire has given him the opportunity to work through the darker musical reaches of the British underground and view it within a historical context without lapsing into dry, academic writing. He isn’t afraid to call a turd a turd, pointing out the petulance, pretension, idiocy (e.g. the continual rehashing of Manson imagery as some sort of pathetic shock totem) and even the shoddier ends of their back catalogues. Using lengthy but judicious quotes from the people who were actually there, Keenan uses these eye witnesses to colour an important period of place and time (the Secret History of the title) which has been ignored, whitewashed and invalidated for being extreme and unconventional.
As with many biographies covering musicians who are still actively creating England’s Hidden Reverse speeds up towards its present day conclusion having insufficient distance to cover very recent events or foresight into what the future might hold. But as with many other good biographies this one leaves you with heading off in new directions, after finishing this I was left with a breadcrumb trail of references to Thighpaulsandra’s solo releases, Osman Spare pictures, the work of H.L. Mencken (the magnificent quote referenced here is ‘There comes a time when every man feels the urge to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and start slitting throats’) and London’s hidden underground canals.
England’s Hidden Reverse leaves the dramatic impression of the Eighties underground as an innovative, mentally dangerous time where conceptual thought and sonic experimentation met in people near the epicentre of the industrial/noise collective who were prepared to use their talents to push beyond the acceptably staid British way of life and produce its cultural flipside.
By: Scott McKeating
Published on: 2004-03-15