Dogged by constant delays and postponements, the long-awaited, revised, and expanded edition of David Keenan‘s long out-of-print tome took me by surprise when a three-year-old pre-order was honoured and it arrived without fanfare in my post box. In all honesty, I had written it off as unlikely to come to fruition and had, the very day before its arrival, said words to the effect of, ‘I’ll believe it when I hold it in my hands’. A pleasant Saturday evening ensued with me curled on the couch devouring the book, accompanied by some selections from the subjects at hand—namely Nurse with Wound, Coil, and Current 93.
Weighing in at an impressive 464 pages, England’s Hidden Reverse charts the shared and intertwined history of the three acts from their common inception in the early eighties to the point of its original publication in 2004, although now with a rather sad coda, given the number of people involved who have departed this world in the interim, detailing events between then and its reprint date.
In terms of presentation, the volume is amazing, having a wealth of high-quality photographs and gig fliers liberally scattered throughout. Taking a chronological approach to the subject, the book opens with the termination of the Throbbing Gristle mission in 1981 and the genesis (no pun intended) of Psychic TV, a pivotal moment both in the sense of the personages involved as they relate to the rest of the book (John Balance and Peter Christopherson of Coil, David Tibet of Current 93, and a whole cast of other supporting characters who appear and disappear from the narrative having worked with the band). It follows the change of focus from the ‘information war’ of Throbbing Gristle to the more personal and esoteric themes which informed the works the people involved would produce over the coming decade.
My first reading of the text, which consequentially informed the first version of this review, was heavily informed by a number of telling quotes from the author, of which the below is indicative:
‘I also thought it would be a cool move to situate the groups in a much more interesting experimental/outsider musical tradition, rather than the same old dreary, comic Death in June Euro-goths-with-a-chip-on-their-shoulder scene that they’re sometimes associated with. That whole “culture” is of no interest to me whatsoever, so I wanted to go some way towards rescuing the groups from that.’
Given this publication’s mission and audience, I was not exactly in agreement with the author on this matter to say the least, and took some pains to contextualise Keenan’s writing in the light of his work with The Wire magazine, which for all the fact that it’s quite unique as a relatively mainstream publication takes a similarly dim view of what we could think of as ‘genre’ music. When one is, as I am and no doubt much of our readership is also, deeply engaged with a culture in which the author has no interest and wishes to ‘rescue’ key players from, it’s perhaps easy to become frustrated and give vent to some fairly rancorous sentiments.
However, on a second reading and after some further reflection, I did find this element of the text less grating than I had the first time around. England’s Hidden Reverse ultimately sits in a strange in-between state, which may be partly reflective of the fact that it reads much closer to journalism than more formal critical analysis. Once the urge to wield the red pen in the manner of someone marking a more scholarly work subsided (Opinion! Who? Which ones? Citation? Elaborate!—the kind of comments anyone accustomed to writing for academia would be used to seeing appended to their work), Keenan’s obvious deep respect for his subjects, if not their contemporaries, becomes easier to stomach. While admirably heavy on primary source interviews, despite being arranged chronologically, England’s Hidden Reverse is strangely myopic (a criticism I will return to below) in terms of clearly defining the cultural and musical environment which both preceded and surrounded the music it seeks to document. Credit must be given in terms of the coverage of the growing split between acts influenced by early Throbbing Gristle—Whitehouse, Sutcliffe Jugend, etc.—and the more reflective, for want of a better term, music of the protagonists. But until the necessary mention of the birth of Acid House in the late eighties, there is little to no mention of anything happening outside of the immediate sphere of the subjects.
On reflection, I found myself more curious about how exactly Keenan was interpreting the music—this, despite my initial antipathy towards the snide commentary towards, and blatant dismissal of, the angle through which myself (and I’m certain much of our readership) discovered these artists. It’s a curious thing to consider such textually dense material, replete as it is with cascading cross-references and ‘heavy’ subject matter. Ultimately, this is a testament to the power of the music under discussion—that someone coming from an alien, and even oppositional viewpoint has found enough worth in it not only to casually listen to it, but to write a lengthy book on the subject. In this respect, Keenan’s handling of the self-consciously Esoteric and Occult subject matter which necessarily permeates here is balanced (no pun intended) and reasonable. For the most part, Keenan is happy to acknowledge these interests as part of the ability to construct a total worldview far removed from the common perception of reality. If only as a reference in terms of decoding some of the more dense eschatological references informing the Noddy apocalypse, you will learn more about the relationship between nineteenth-century cat paintings, seventeenth-century court composers, Edwardian ghost stories, and the sub-nuclear miracles of broccoli than anyone might otherwise credit.
In a sense, this ability within the protagonists to construct ‘private universes’ forms the central narrative arc in common between them. There is an abiding sense of sadness and anxiety in the descriptions of childhood—an aspect reflected in the common interest in ‘sinister whimsy’ and the everyday reconfigured as the magical. And there is an inherent tension between this ability to create such unique individual worlds and the disconnect that living in one brings between the individual and the rest of the world. This positioning of the subjects as ‘outsider artists’ rather than being part of any sort of wider movement informs and underpins Keenan’s thesis throughout the work.
It’s in the final chapters, written after the death of many of the protagonists, that this sense of fragility and desire to escape from the ‘real world’ into a self-created one takes precedence. While the final segment is certainly an afterthought in a sense, being appended a decade after the original publication, it’s nothing if not poignant. Indeed, the sense is very real that of all the subjects, only Steven Stapleton has come out relatively unscathed, protected as he is by his self-imposed isolation on an Irish goat farm. While the temptation must have been there to paint a cliché rock ‘n’ roll picture of artistic self-destruction, the additional material treats Balance’s last years with a dignified restraint. Certainly heartbreaking, but not treated in an exploitative way.
In summation, England’s Hidden Reverse is an essential purchase for fans of the artists and has a lot to recommend even to those with a merely casual curiosity on the subject at hand. As mentioned previously, it’s far from objective, and in a certain light could be viewed as having some serious flaws. But ultimately, England’s Hidden Reverse rises above these to stand on its own merits as a snapshot that is less a time and place and more a character study and examination of the obsessive tendencies common in its subjects.
Written by: Jael Edwards
Author: David Keenan
Publisher: Strange Attractor Press (United Kingdom)
Publication Date: 2016 (Revised and Expanded Edition)
File Under: Music History
ISBN: 1907222170 / 978-1907222177
Formats: Paperback / Hardback