England’s Hidden Reserve: A Secret History of the Esoteric Underground by David Keenan

england's hidden reverse

This book is almost as legendary as the bands it describes. First published in 2003 by SAF publishing, it went out of print and started to fetch HUGE prices among booksellers. This revised, updated, indexed and absolutely gorgeously put together is a welcome new edition.

Written by experimental record shop (Volcanic Tongue) owner, David Keenan, this is a hugely in-depth and fascinating history of three very interrelated bands: Coil, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound. I have been a huge Coil fan for many years (one of my big regrets was not ordering the DVD boxset Colour Sound Oblivion- which now goes for RIDICULOUS MONEY – when it was first advertised) and much like the book, their records can be very hard to come by, and expensive when they are found – but I was always fascinated with Jhonn Balance and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson. These were men who made explicitly queer experimental music – an idea that fascinated me when I was younger.

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The book tells the history of these three bands from their early days, up until about 2003. The book is hugely detailed and you can tell is written by a man who knows the bands, the musicians, the scene and the history inside out. And it’s been carefully researched; Keenan quotes from his own interviews with the bands, the other major players, and even bit-players or influences. And this book is an exploration of not just the bands, but their influences; from David Tibet (Current 93)’s religious obsessions, and his other stranger obsessions such as his Noddy obsession, to Coil’s mystical, ritualistic ideal of Austin Osman Spare and the like, and Stephen Stapleton’s (Nurse With Wound) more music-based fascination with Krautrock, the book catalogues, expounds and places these influences within the canon.

More than anything, this book is wonderfully well-written in detailed, easy prose that skilfully darts between the three bands. Despite knowing NWW and C93, I’ve never really listened to them, so I was surprised to be just as engrossed in their story, as much as Coil’s. This book reminds of two other fascinating music books that I would also recommend:  John Higgs’ book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds, which much like England’s Hidden Reverse, uses the framework of a band biography to elucidate the band’s influences, and the larger scene; and Simon Ford’s book Wreckers of Civilisation: The Story of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle which, dealing as it does with TG, is the perfect counterpart to this book (and much like this book’s first edition, is now woefully out of print – perhaps if EHR is a success, Strange Attractor Press might consider reprinting Wreckers?)

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A rollicking ride through England’s esoteric underground that had me keep coming back to it, over and over. I must also point out before I go that it is FILLED with loads and loads of fantastic and rare pictures of the bands; mostly of Coil and C93 (there is a little bit more of a focus on Coil and C93 over NWW – just a little – but I feel that’s because NWW have shied away from having a frontman somewhat, and also because their music is less based on literature or esoterica than the other bands – NWW is heavily discussed, dissected and chroniclized though and NWW fans will find plenty here).

Highly recommended, and this beautiful new edition is only £20 sterling!

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You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

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