Before I get started with this, in case anyone got here expecting to read about a group of industrial noise-sters also called Coil, sorry to disappoint, but this piece is about the original Coil, a post-punk ensemble from my home town of Northampton, who first rattled the collective cage of Shoetown in 1978 with original songs about their dislike of dogs and epic cover versions of songs like The Temptations’ ‘Get Ready’.
At the time, I was living up in Manchester and the whole Coil thing might well have passed me by, but for the fact that three of the band were mates of mine; not close friends but well-known to me nonetheless. Naturally, by 1978/9, small towns all over the UK were catching up with the deconstruction of Woodstock Nation, ripping down the tie-dyed facades and injecting a soupçon of energy and a smidgeon of anarchy to proceedings. The members of Coil had struggled through the early 70’s with its drippy hippy zeitgeist, and flabby suburban platitudes. After all, this lot were really soul boys, infused and enthused by the drive and energy of Lee Perry and Stax and the Small Faces. The dope was OK and so were the newly-relaxed social/sexual morés that ensued, but you could pretty much shove the rest of it where the sun don’t shine.
And before anyone says that you could hardly expect anything more of a one-horse town like Northampton, it might be worth noting that across town, my ex-schoolmate and nascent comic-strip guru Alan Moore was flexing his creative muscles en route to (these days) becoming – to my Dad’s amazement – the main reason why people around the world have even heard of the place.
Coil in the late 70’s – (L-R) Finbar, Phil, Tony & Steve. Smell that angst!
As for Coil, they were Finbar Lillis (vocals), Tony Harrison (bass), Steve Curtis (drums) and Phil Dann (guitars, FX and allsorts). I probably knew Finbar the best – and still do. Subsequently, once the original Coil had shuttled off their mortal, Finbar showed up in Manchester, but only at the point at which I was already heading for the exit, on my way up to Newcastle. These were times of amazing fluidity; few of us were saddled with mortgages or marriages or kids and we rattled around the country (and beyond), taking courses here or jobs there. Women came and went, and though many of us were ‘living with someone’ , no-one was really thinking of starting a family (unless, oops, by accident). We were young-ish, mobile and living for the moment. Heady days.
Coil in its original configuration got a lot of positive press in the Northampton area, but it never went much further than that. I’d be willing to bet that towns from Carlisle to Chichester could well have had their own version of Coil around this time; a band who could/should have been contenders but who, for whatever reason, never reached the M1 and escaped to a wider recognition. As far as Northampton was concerned, it was really Bauhaus who were to pick up that particular torch a couple of years later.
Once I moved to Newcastle, I really lost touch with Coil, though I’d heard that Finbar was off teaching English in Italy, then Qatar, and that Steve & Phil had joined forces with a young Natacha Atlas in a band called St Antony’s Fire. They supported Bauhaus on their 1982 tour and my girlfriend and I showed up at Newcastle City Hall to see them. Phil’s guitar shimmered and reverbed, Steve maintained his usual effective pulse – if anything they reminded me of This Mortal Coil. We shared a beer backstage, then left with Bauhaus cranking out an almighty noise that we could still hear whilst halfway home.
By the time Finbar and I hooked up again, he’d become a Dad (twice) whilst I had, too (just once). He moved to Derby and we began to see each other more regularly than we’d ever done; a welcome trend in my life and one that continues to this day. Music was still a factor in Finbar’s life; he was learning piano and discussed forming a band with Derby guitarist John Elliott. I don’t recall the name, but the idea was that the band would dress as Catholic priests. I dunno, still trying to upset his parents after all these years….
He also had a lot of old Coil tapes and discussed making these available as downloads via a website. From that, it was a short step to contacting the other band members to see if they had any old memorabilia they could lend him. From there, it was perhaps natural and inevitable that he and Phil would start working on new material, swapping files via the net before getting together at some length over the last 12 months and coming up with a whole new batch of songs which bid the old Coil a fond farewell.
Coil 2010 are an altogether different proposition to the 1979 version. The lyrical concerns are even more ‘homespun’ than ever with numerous ‘faces’ from the Rogues’ Gallery of 1970’s Northampton folk cropping up in Finbar’s words. Stylistically, the band know that any attempt to revive their 70’s post-punk thrash would be a cul-de-sac and have instead opted to reflect the influences they have accumulated over the years. Phil, always something of a technical wiz, has not only mastered a variety of instruments but also the ins and outs of digital recording. Steve places more of an emphasis on hand percussion than kit drums these days and with Phil playing mainly acoustic guitar, the 2010 Coil are a kind of urban folk band, dragging in reggae and funk influences, using trombones and layers of keyboards as a bed over which Finbar’s voice (in excellent shape, after all these years) tells tales of the life that we knew whilst reflecting on the strangers we sometimes become to those who were once closest to us.
If your curiosity is piqued – and I hope it will be – you can find out more about the latest incarnation of Coil and listen to some mp3’s of recent stuff on their Facebook page; here:
I think the band are working round to playing live, though at this stage, Tony’s participation is uncertain. Last Saturday night they played a first-class 40 minute set in Finbar’s (large) kitchen in front of an appreciative crowd of mates and well-wishers, adding the excellent Paul Johnstone on harmony vocals and using a mixture of live instrumentation and backing tracks. It wasn’t one of those sitting round noodling kind of kitchen gigs, but pretty much a full-on show, with lights and Finbar’s old stereo speakers to keep the volume within reasonable limits. The boys even got togged up in smart shirts and jackets for the occasion.
Coil in the kitchen, 2010 (L-R) Steve, Finbar, Paul and Phil
Another Derby gig is planned for early December, only this will be in an outside venue (as yet undecided) with a proper PA. More news as I hear it through the grapevine.
For me, the gig was hugely enjoyable and it was great to see Phil for the first time since 1982 and Steve for the first time in a few years as well. What I do find slightly disconcerting is the way in which our shared origins in a small East Midlands town – then unremarkable, now (frankly) a bit of a dump – seem to quickly put us at ease with one another. A few names from our shared past were bandied about..whatever happened to…do you remember this or that person….. In many ways, I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to put my Northampton days behind me, yet even I would have to concede that there is an unmistakable magnetism about those days and that town – now both long gone. I find it hard to conceive of any circumstances under which I would consider going back there to live, but there was an undeniable pleasure and comfort to be derived from seeing these strangely familiar faces again.
I’m not sure where Coil are going with their reunion project – perhaps they’re equally undecided. Some ‘proper’ gigs and then some kind of commercially released recording would seem to be the next logical steps, but these things take time to come to fruition and the pathway is often strewn with pitfalls and complexities which may yet torpedo the new Coil before they ever truly set sail. One thing is for sure, the new material is excellent and whilst Tony’s reluctance to commit to the cause is disappointing, it can be overcome without too much pain. On the positive side, the addition of Paul Johnstone’s excellent vocals to the ‘pot’ offers a whole new range of possibilities and – importantly – he seems very much a kindred spirit.
At the minute, they seem to be 4 middle-aged blokes who are having fun making music together again. For now, that’ll do nicely; the future will no doubt take care of itself.
Thanks and apologies to Liam for ‘borrowing’ a couple of his photos…..