Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
How to Destroy Angels’ first full-length album, Welcome Oblivion, came out this week. HTDA, led by Trent Reznor and fronted by his wife Mariqueen Maandig, is pretty firmly a Nine Inch Nails side project — before the album even appeared, Reznor announced that NIN would be touring this summer and had a new album in the works. The current single from Welcome Oblivion is “How Long”; here’s the video for it.
The name of How to Destroy Angels is a tribute to one of Reznor’s favorite bands and chief inspirations, the experimental industrial/drone group Coil. John Balance and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson formed Coil in the early ’80s; their first record was a 1984 single called “How to Destroy Angels,” a nearly-17-minute-long piece described as “ritual music for the accumulation of male sexual energy.”
In 1983, Balance had written a manifesto for Coil, which read, in part, “COIL know how to destroy Angels. How to paralyse. Imagine the world in a bottle. We take the bottle, smash it, and open your throat with it.” Here’s a recording of him reading it in 2001.
Besides being a musician, Christopherson was a designer (he was part of the album-design collective Hipgnosis) and video director. He was also one of the founders of Throbbing Gristle, the godfathers of industrial music: an ensemble that made dark, disturbing music and performance art. They weren’t opposed to using the tools of pop, as long as they could turn them into something overtly ugly and challenging. A centerpiece of their later shows was “Discipline,” which gave frontman Genesis P-Orridge an opportunity to get right up in their audience’s face.
After Throbbing Gristle dissolved in 1981, Christopherson and P-Orridge formed Psychic TV with guitarist Alex Fergusson. Their first album, Force the Hand of Chance, came out in 1982; two of its tracks, including “Guiltless,” below, featured guest vocals by Marc Almond.
Almond seemed to be an unlikely guest singer for a group as extreme as Psychic TV; his main gig was being the singer of Soft Cell, who had just had an enormous worldwide hit with their cover of Gloria Jones’ old R&B song “Tainted Love.”
Soon after Force the Hand of Chance, Christopherson left Psychic TV, and developed Coil with his partner, Balance. In 1985, Coil recorded their own version of “Tainted Love,” for which Christopherson directed the video. (Almond subsequently recorded a few tracks with them, too.)
By the end of the ’80s, the sort of thing Coil did and the sort of thing that got played in dance clubs weren’t so far apart. In 1990, they released a bizarre single called “Wrong Eye,” featuring vocals by Rose McDowall–formerly of another popular synth-pop band, Strawberry Switchblade (who were covered in this column a few months ago).
A few months later, Coil recast the basic groove of “Wrong Eye” as “Windowpane” (an LSD reference, as with the title of the album on which it appeared, Love’s Secret Domain)–and by then, it was was unabashedly an acid house record. The video, also directed by Christopherson, showed Balance dancing on quicksand.
Balance and Christopherson were enormously prolific between the Love’s Secret Domain period and Balance’s death in 2004, both as Coil and under various pseudonyms. They released a seemingly endless string of live and studio albums, EPs and singles, compilation tracks, and remixes of other artists’ work. In 1995, they remixed “Cowboys in Bangkok,” by Christopherson’s old Throbbing Gristle bandmates Chris & Cosey; they also mixed Depeche Mode’s “Rush” in 1993, although their version wasn’t released until 2004.
Coil also worked with Nine Inch Nails a handful of times over the years, beginning with the remix of “Gave Up” that opens NIN’s Fixed EP, in which Reznor’s vocal was slashed to bits and reassembled into a chaotic barrage of syllables. In the mid-’90s, Coil worked on a (never-released) album for Reznor’s label Nothing Records; Christopherson also directed The Broken Movie and a few other videos for NIN, including “March of the Pigs.”
The Coil/Reznor collaboration that’s been heard most, though, may be the Coil remix of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” that plays under the opening credits of the movie Se7en.
Reznor checked with Christopherson before announcing that his new group would be called How to Destroy Angels. “I told him I would be delighted,” Christopherson told The Quietus, several months before he died in November 2010. “I am working on some things using his raw tracks,” he also commented, “but I don’t know if he will ever want to use them because the music I am enjoying working on now sounds like what you might hear if you were coming out of a K-hole in a Phnom Penh gay brothel where they were playing a very scratched copy of Coil’s Time Machines album on vinyl, probably at the wrong speed!”