Coil, 1983
Courtesy of Strange Attractor Press

No Sex Please, We’re British: Coil’s Subversively Overt Homosexuality

Homosexuality drove experimental band Coil’s creativity, yet they rejected the demand that they either embrace performative homosexuality or remain discreet and closeted.

Everything Keeps Dissolving: Conversations with Coil
Nick Soulsby
Strange Attractor
May 2023

For my book, Everything Keeps Dissolving: Conversations With Coil, I spent two years hunting down interviews with John Balance and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson. In that time, digesting hundreds of extant pieces, private letters, unseen material, and long-lost recordings day after day, a tragi-comedy became clear. Coil repeatedly expressed that their lived experience as gay men was the creative force underpinning their work…Only to be faced with a blank absence of response.

Ossian Brown – for a time, a member of Coil – states it plainly in his book Haunted Air: “Coil were the first resolutely queer group…” echoing Balance’s words in a mid-90s interview: “for a long time we were the most out on a limb or experimental gay group, for sure, in England…” He went on to shrewdly point out how people were more comfortable politely pretending ‘gay music’ only existed as a ghetto of flamboyant disco, something safe and ignorable, that when the media talked of gay music, it was always some “little thing on disco and it’ll include so-and-so and so-and-so, Jimmy Somerville and Bronski Beat will be the most far out…” Christopherson added: “we would never consider that we promoted a gay lifestyle particularly, in the way that some do, but the thing is we deal honestly with the things that are important to us.”

It isn’t that anyone denied that Christopherson, Balance, Thrower, Brown or Thighpaulsandra were gay. It was simply deemed ephemeral, not worth engaging with, easy to brush aside by declaring Coil a ‘magick’ or ‘drug’ band. Somehow, contrasting starkly with Coil’s homosexuality, those definitions aroused no discomfort or debate, being easier for the dominant heterosexual culture to swallow. This was the difference between Coil’s honesty and overtness versus the squeamishness they faced.

Certainly, this was more down to discomfort with the topic of sex or a desire not to typecast queer individuals, rather than untoward motives, but the effect was to not acknowledge the creative impact of queerness within Coil. There was no ‘outing’ of Coil, nor a celebratory coming out, because they were simply calmly and contentedly gay in a way public figures were not meant to be during the ’80s or, indeed, the ’90s. Their music featured neither the de-gendered lyricism nor the acceptable wink of campness that came with Freddie Mercury or Elton John; nor did they allow themselves to be corralled in the disco dancefloor space like much of what was deemed the acceptable face of gay nightlife and music. Balance and Christopherson rejected the demand that they either embrace performative homosexuality or remain discreet and closeted.

In the ’80s, with grotesque homophobia daily fodder for British tabloids, in which the British government was actively colluding with bigots to legislate in ways that insisted homosexuality and paedophilia were synonymous, it was perhaps unsurprising that early interviews averted their gaze from Coil’s homosexuality. This was usually done either by quoting “the accumulation of male sexual energy” phrase from the How to Destroy Angels EP’s liner notes without comment on its overtly queer significance or by making reference to ‘sexual extremity’ as a euphemism obviously meaning ‘gay sex’ to those in the know, but veiled because this was a society that deemed ‘it ‘gay sex’ a swearword to be censored.

It’s readily forgotten that the decriminalisation of gay sex in the UK in 1967 only permitted such acts between men over the age of 21. This meant that normal adult relationships between homosexuals, the normal experiences that anyone who had come of age would experience, were criminal. It was only in 2001 that the age for homosexual and heterosexual sex was finally aligned. Balance and Christopherson lived the majority of their lives in a climate where their love was considered something abnormal.

More surprisingly, such squeamishness extended across Coil’s entire career, from 1983-2004. Their treatment mimics that of William S. Burroughs, as Jamie Russell’s superb work, Queer Burroughs, makes clear. In Burroughs’ case, audiences were unable to honestly face works suffused with gay life, gay fantasy, and queer identities beyond the restrictive effeminacy imposed by polite society. Burroughs was only assimilated as a countercultural icon once all the ejaculating penises and boy-on-boy fucking had been greyed out, and he had been redrawn as a sexless old man, a guru figure void of sensuality.

Portrayals of Coil similarly present ‘acceptable’ rebelliousness — occultism, apocalypse, narcotics, sonic experimentation — as the definitive means through which to understand their work, with homosexuality given no contemplation. While ink was splashed describing how those other elements influenced Coil’s work, not one article or interview grappled with the fact that Coil’s music is suffused with their queerness. This does not mean that any of those ingredients in Coil’s unique blend should be ignored — far from it! It merely stands out starkly that the most singular element of their life that they stirred into their music truly was ignored or treated with a shrug rather than the respect it deserved.

In 1984, asked to differentiate Psychic TV and Coil, Balance pinpointed: “we have no female members and Psychic TV did have and had a very definite feminine/lunar side. We are conscious of our sexual position. We choose male dynamic subjects given the choice…” The group’s first EP was not just a magickal exercise, it was gay sex magick; Scatology, while metaphorically complex, acknowledged a sexual interest Christopherson enacted in a gay context; Horse Rotorvator was a direct response to the horror engulfing the gay community and their experience of the loss of friends; Love’s Secret Domain continued the theme updated to the gasping relief provided by the ecstasy-fuelled rave era.

In 1984, the British government was still ignoring AIDS while the Reagan White House in the U.S. was actively obstructing funding for research or help with what many in the U.S. called ‘the gay plague’ and a substantial number were happy to call the judgement of God. Coil’s boldness is underrated. Their first music video was an AIDS parable accompanying a single raising money for the Terrence Higgins Trust and they would contribute to a John Giorno compilation funding AIDS research. This was not just typical music ‘do-gooding,’ this was innovative and quietly practical activism: as Christopherson said in 1995, “we were the first group to do an AIDS benefit.” As well as the substantial cash raised and funnelled into charity by their cover of the song “Tainted Love,” the video was played on video screens in clubs across the US to help spread direct awareness of the need for caution.

There’s even selective blindness when it comes to the cosmology in which Coil saw themselves: Aleister Crowley, Austin Osman Spare, William S. Burroughs, Pier Paolo Pasolini — these were all gay or bisexual men. Without denying other interests, sexuality was a critical bond between Coil and the icons with whom they wished to be associated.

In their film-related work, homosexuality framed their productive relationships with Derek Jarman; the extreme BDSM imagery Coil’s pornography collection contributed to Hellraiser; the film adaptation of Dennis Cooper’s novel Frisk; their soundtrack to Britain’s first explicit video sex guide for the gay community, The Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex (again raising money for the Terrence Higgins Trust.) Sara Dale’s Sensual Massage is exceptional: a Coil soundtrack not tied to a gay filmmaker or writer!

Even a glance at Coil’s music makes it hard to deny the inspirational force provided by homosexuality. Without delving into the numerous homoerotic phrases or lines addressed to lovers one should assume were male, just glance at the titles: “A.Y.O.R.”, “Backwards”, “The Sewage Worker’s Birthday Party”, “Slur”, “The Halliwell Hammers”, “The Anal Staircase”, “Protection”, “Queens of the Circulating Library”, “Sex With Sun Ra”, “The Gimp”…Love’s Secret Domain‘s cover art came replete with an ejaculating penis at its centre, while the title track’s video saw Balance perform amid youthful male go-go dancers —homosexuality was at the centre of Coil’s work, and Coil were surrounded by homoerotic life.

Coil were so overt they declared gender their career’s overarching structure, male and female phases, in which they personified both genders. While private in their day-to-day lives and having no wish to become political figures, they still attended gay rights protests; received callouts in gay zines such as JDs and Homocore; gave interviews to Pink Paper and Square Peg. Even their clubgoing is portrayed in a deceptive light if one does not acknowledge much of it was in queer venues.

Coil’s final albums emerged as Black Antlers and The Ape of Naples, joke names for imaginary gay pornos. Their final song, “Going Up” has been wrapped up in a spine-tingling legend that says Coil converted a ’70s sitcom theme reciting department store goods into a hymn to the transcendence of the physical — an inspiringly magickal vision of death. Being blind to homosexuality again makes this interpretation faulty: claiming the song for Coil was no more a foreshadowing than Funeral for Princess Diana — heterosexual audiences are just happier seeing death than gay iconography.

Burroughs spent his career eviscerating the cliché that gay men were supposed to be politely effeminate, therefore funny to onlookers, and thus submissive to the dominant order. By contast, the sitcom to which “Going Up” was the theme turgidly reiterated that cliché. Choosing to restage the song was not about future death; it was about shedding the past, about Mr. Humphries’ freedom to rise above his subjugated ’70s state, about Coil’s transcendence of the musical and personal limits imposed on what gay musicians and gay lives could be.

Coil’s career did not end celebrating death; it ended on a celebration of 20 years of uncompromising queer creativity opposing and escaping the past. A true history of Coil, one respectful of their queerness, is sorely overdue.

Adapted from Everything Keeps Dissolving: Conversations with Coil, by Nick Soulsby. Courtesy of ⒸStrange Attractor Press. All Rights Reserved. No part of this adaptation may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.