Coil is a rather sinister-sounding name to me, conjuring up images of serpents. It’s also the name of one of my favorite groups, put together by John Balance (a stage name for Geoffrey Rushton, also sometimes spelled Jhon or Jhonn – I’ll stick with plain old John for this post) and Peter Christopherson aka “Sleazy” (one of the founding members of the pioneering industrial group Throbbing Gristle). The list of genres Coil has covered is quite long – experimental, dark ambient, industrial, acid house and more.
Much of Coil’s music is challenging. I often find it exciting, but at the same time dark and witchy. And no wonder. John was a student of Aleister Crowley and thought of himself as a magician. I’ve read that some of the odd sound effects in his music are actually sigils – magic spells that were spoken, then chopped up, altered and sent out into the world. I don’t believe in magic or witchcraft, but knowing that he did believe it gives his music a certain spookiness. Coil’s music often involves themes such as obsession and dominance.
But there was another, softer side to John Balance. Some of his creations are simply beautiful. “Going Up” is a perfect example. It’s part of an album called The Ape of Naples that was produced after Balance died from a freak accident – he fell off a balcony in his own home, while intoxicated.
Vocals were sung in a high falsetto by Francois Testory.
The lyrics are taken from the opening theme of a British sitcom set in a department store, called “Are You Being Served?” (I’ve never seen it, but I’ve played a clip from it on Youtube).
“Ground floor perfumery, stationery and leather goods, wigs and haberdashery kitchenware and food…going up First floor telephones, gents ready-made suits, shirts, socks, ties, hats, underwear and shoes…going up Second floor carpets, travel goods and bedding, material, soft furnishings, restaurant and teas. Going up!”
In between the lyrics, low in the mix, John comments, “Are you ready to go now?” and finishes with “It just is.”
With a bit of engineering magic, his partner and mate Peter Christopherson was able to pull John’s words out of a live performance that took place not long before he died.
I never realized what the lyrics were until I looked them up, but I got the gist of the song. On the surface it might be a recitation of department store items, but Coil made it into something more. It’s about the hope for something more than what’s around us, hope for something beyond death. John made it into his own epitaph.
Beautiful, isn’t it? It makes me think of men, especially gay men – Balance never kept that a secret – who are contemplating death and hoping against hope that they might make it to heaven even though everyone’s told them they’re going to hell, or nowhere at all. The list of mundane items actually makes a very nice metaphor: Going up a department store escalator or elevator and wondering if there are other levels above the ones we can see. I don’t know if there are, but if so, I hope John found them.
Here’s another song that shows the sensitive side of Coil:
And here’s the perhaps more typical, “witchier” side: