Music just lost a visionary who pushed sonic boundaries into dark, unexpected territory.
In late 1975, as legend has it, an angry young punk named John Lydon used to gallivant around town in a Pink Floyd T-shirt over which he’d inscribed the words “I Hate”, causing the shirt to inadvertently read “I Hate Pink Floyd”. Oddly enough, the man who would take the first press photos of Lydon’s future band the Sex Pistols was probably the same one who designed the image on that T-shirt (not to mention a controversial window display at Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren’s SEX shop, where Lydon would often loiter). Even more unlikely is the fact that the same man would soon after join a band that was far more extreme in its art-terrorist tendencies than anything punk would ever conceive. Not only that, the same band expanded the musical palette in far vaster directions than punk ever would.
On November 24th, the world of music lost an immeasurable talent in the form of one Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson. In his absence, music seems to already be a less interesting place, sonically, visually, and conceptually, but the outpouring of grief on Twitter of just about every musician that matters illustrates just how vast his influence spread and how his spirit lingers on in much of the vanguard music being made today.
Christopherson is perhaps best known for his transgressive and avant-garde work in Throbbing Gristle and Coil, but as a young man the Leeds native actually had a hand in some of the most seminal pieces of commercial pop iconography. Christopherson started out as an assistant to Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell at the legendary rock design company Hipgnosis, eventually becoming a full partner by 1980. While there, he was involved with or directly responsible for the classic LP jacket designs of Led Zeppelin’s Presence, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and Peter Gabriel’s first three albums, amongst others. According to Powell, Christopherson once even pitched Paul McCartney on an album cover featuring a naked dark-skinned man holding his own noose, which the slightly squeamish Macaw politely turned down.
In 1975, Christopherson met Chris Carter, Cosey Fanny Tutti, and Genesis P-Orridge. Together they formed the group Throbbing Gristle (the name being slang for an erect penis) out of the ashes of the performance art outfit COUM Transmission (who themselves had once been called “wreckers of civilization” by the Tory MP for TG’s publicly-funded “Prostitution” exhibition). Throbbing Gristle was preoccupied with the darker side of humanity, particularly the depths of depravity that humankind would submit to under regimes of authoritarianism and control. The group's onstage antics, which included induced vomiting and flirtation with fascistic and serial killer imagery, were designed to court controversy, but the band perhaps pushed the most boundaries on record. Christopherson was central in developing Throbbing Gristle’s junk-machinal aesthetic, having crafted many of his own instruments, not the least of which being a primitive digital sampler that preceded the commercial sale of such items by years.
It was this grimy working class death factory methodology, as well as attraction to the technological sounds of capitalism’s endless rebuilding project, that motivated the group to dub its self-distributed DIY label Industrial Records. The term was later adopted for the entire genre of music influenced by groups like Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, and others. Yet, despite the coinage of a genre, the autodidacts in Throbbing Gristle had few stylistic parameters that they stuck to. The group is probably most famous for unsettling formless horror experiments like “Hamburger Lady” or acerbic and cachexy distortion-laden dirges like “Zyklon B Zombie”, but it was also capable of scribing brilliant futurists tracts like the proto-synthpop “Walkabout”, the proto-techno “Hot on the Heels of Love”, and the bubbly kosmische anthem “AB/7A”. “Exotica” even paid tribute to the ornate productions of '50s lounge composer Martin Denny.
In 1981, Tutti decided to leave Throbbing Gristle and the group decided to split into two camps. The romantically-involved Carter and Tutti went on to form Carter Tutti/Chris and Cosey/CTI, and Christopherson joined P-Orridge in his new project Psychic TV. Despite the split, Christopherson remained close with Carter and Tutti up until his death. He only cut two LPs with Psychic TV though before splintering off with PTV member John (Jhonn) Balance to form Coil.
Balance and Christopherson were not only musical partners; they were also perhaps the first openly gay collaborative couple in musicdom. Far from being an incidental aspect to their music, Christopherson and Balance frankly addressed the oppressive and less-than-comfortable aspects of queer life (the writings of William Burroughs had been a major influence on Throbbing Gristle), including an open hostility towards mainstream Christianity, monogamy, and heteronormativity. Coil’s first 12-inch single consisted of two formless pieces of drone music made mostly on gongs called How To Destroy Angels, described in the sleeve as "ritual music for the accumulation of male sexual energy". The group's first full length, Scatology, was anally focused, contemplating the symbolic implications of the rear orifice as both a center for pleasure and passageway for the expulsion of waste.
That album’s lead single, “Tainted Love” (a cover of an old Northern Soul song that had recently been made a hit for Christopherson’s friends and collaborators in Soft Cell), was released as the first AIDS benefit single, all proceeds going to the Terrence Higgins Trust Fund. The song itself was a morose take on the tune, the “taint” of love representing both the stigma of public condemnation and the stain of disease, Soft Cell’s massive driving synth hits converted to funereal church bells. The video for song, directed by Christopherson, found itself entered into permanent residency at New York’s Museum of Modern Art at a time when music video was still seen as a throwaway medium.
Coil was also enlisted for queer cinema soundtrack work, most notably scoring Derek Jarman’s films The Angelic Conversation (featuring Coil songs set to Shakespeare’s sonnets) and Blue, the director’s final work, consisting of a blue screen and a brutally graphic narrative detailing Jarman’s own struggle with AIDS. The band was also asked by Clive Barker to compose a score for the original Hellraiser movie, though what the pair handed in was allegedly deemed “too scary” and “not commercial enough” for widespread distribution by the studios. A friend of the band's, Barker paid Coil a compliment by calling it the only band whose music made his stomach physically turn.
Despite this compliment, Coil’s music was decidedly less tactile than Throbbing Gristle’s, preferring the wizardry of the studio to the violence of instrument-bashing. Where Psychic TV and Chris and Cosey moved in decidedly more commercial directions, Coil seemed to submerge itself even deeper into the underground, making increasingly esoteric albums that included perverse mutations of acid house (Love’s Secret Domain), a priori glitch music (Worship the Glitch), textual field recordings (Black Light District: A Thousand Lights in a Darkened Room), and massive wafts of guttural drone (Time Machines). Adding to the obscurity of the recordings themselves was Coil’s tendency to package its releases as fetish items, occult amulets of clandestine energy made further so by the visual and sonic references to magickal arts. Released through the band’s own Threshold House imprint, many of the band’s albums and singles were only available in extremely limited editions and are often sold or traded for extremely high prices.
During his long period with Coil, Christopherson supported the group’s activities through a prodigious career as a music video director, shooting videos for both mainstream and underground artists alike. His resume includes works by Yes, Sepultura, Paul McCartney, Ministry, Van Halen, The The, Marc Almond, Erasure, Diamanda Galas, Rage Against the Machine, Front 242, Robert Plant, and Nine Inch Nails. The last entry on that list became strongly linked to Christopherson and Coil throughout the 1990s. Not only did Nine Inch Nails’s Trent Reznor enlist Coil to produce his very best remixes, he also signed the band to his label, Nothing/Interscope, for a proposed album and attempted to distribute Coil’s back catalog through the label. Unfortunately, both of these projects fell through and Coil’s work wound up only being available in the U.S. as a series of pricey imports in specialty shops until they became available online. Reznor did, however, pay homage to Coil in 2009 by naming his new project How to Destroy Angels.
In 2004, Christopherson lost his partner of over 20 years when Balance fell from a second floor balcony at the couple’s home. Christopherson responded by retiring the Coil name, moving to Bangkok and starting afresh. Performing as Threshold HouseBoys Choir, Christopherson’s music--which experimented with digital voice generation--become surprisingly more joyous and optimistic, having obviously found some kind of spiritual fulfillment in his new home. He assisted a newly-reformed Throbbing Gristle as they periodically played shows and recorded new material throughout the naughts. The outpouring of grief for Christopherson after he died in his sleep last week juxtaposes with the dark figure associated with Coil and Throbbing Gristle. Rather than a reclusive misanthropist, he has instead been shown to be a warm, caring, even gentle man who seemed to help lift up everyone around him. He will be sorely missed.