February 26, 2010

The universe is a threshold house



Not film, but musick. Simon Reynolds appears to have solved the mystery that has haunted Coil fans – well, this one anyway -- for something like 20 years. What is the origin of that enigmatic name -- record label initially but meaning more than that, closer to headquarters -- Threshold House? It turns out it was also the name of the BBC’s Doctor Who production office in London during the earlier, better incarnation of the series. But were Coil fans? An Idiot’s Guide to Dreaming wonders the same thing.
Of course, I'd love it if it really did come via Doctor Who - Coil don't really mention Doctor Who in interviews but that kind of reference is hardly necessary - those old soundtracks are implicit in a lot of their work, you don't need to read a reference to hear one... and I don't think this is a product of Coil's esoterrorism; like Throbbing Gristle I think the esoteric aspects of Coil miss the point a little - they always seemed as likely to reference the prosaic (okay, maybe not as likely as TG) and the (Mmm) bog-standard as the occult; in fact, their version of occult seemed very rooted in the reasonably ordinary...
Off the top of my head: the Moomins, Edith Sitwell, Jarry, Dali, The Butthole Surfers, John Dee, Pasolini, Isidore Ducasse...

Nothing overt, then, but science-fiction was in there. You could list titles like The Universe is a Haunted House, The Mothership and the Fatherland, Time Machines, Triple Suns, Sex with Sun Ra ("In a spaceship powered by natural sounds'' etc) that come from near the end of Coil, when the electronica got more and more kosmiche, more astral, more open, and the subjects started to match, getting into that zone of the early 70s when there was a fine line or maybe porous border between occult fiction/non-fiction and science-fiction. Which makes me think of this song, Tiny Golden Books, from Musick to Play in the Dark Vol 2 (recently named by this site as the best album of the last decade); a song said to memorialise Jhonn Balance's drug-inspired vision of an angel with a burning book on the dancefloor of an acid house club at four in the morning. In The Wire interview with Ian Penman back in 2000 he says something like, we’re supposed to be having this groovy time and I’m having this apocalyptic revelation.
Tiny Golden Books

Dark they were, with golden eyes
Brought golden books from darkened skies
Every word from every world within was written down
They read it all aloud to us with silver tongues of fire
That licked the sun and stars and moon
All space became a choir
Shining shining shining then they left without a sound
Then they left without a sound
Then they left without a sound
Any sci-fi reader might get that the opening line references Ray Bradbury -- Dark They Were and Golden Eyed – but I think it actually refers to, or also refers to, a legendary bookshop in London. Balance talked about this an interview somewhere, which naturally I can't find now. He may even have talked about it having an eye painted on its roof that he gazed at on LSD or I could be imagining that last part entirely. But via the endless trails the internet invites you to follow, you might then end up at this Jon Savage story from the Guardian on Ian Curtis's reading:
The early to mid-70s was a golden age of paperback publishing, both high and low. Apart from Penguin, with its vigorous science-fiction line that included authors such as Philip K Dick, Olaf Stapledon and JG Ballard, there were Picador, Pan, Mayflower, Paladin - the last with a wide-ranging list that included Jeff Nuttall and Timothy Leary. Selling for 50p and upwards (when an LP cost 3.25), these books were readily available to young minds.
In the Manchester area, there were several outlets for this jumble of esoterica, some left over from the oppositional hippie days. The historian CP Lee remembers shops such as Paper-chase and the leftwing Grassroots, while Paul Morley worked at the Bookshop in Stockport: "Tolkien was a huge seller, war books too, lots of experimental science fiction, as well as the Mills & Boon romances and tucked-away soft porn that kept things ticking over."
Then there were the shops run by David Britton and Mike Butterworth: House on the Borderland, Orbit in Shudehill and Bookchain in Peter Street, just down the road from the site of the Peterloo massacre. As Butterworth recalls, all three "were modelled on two London bookshops of the period, Dark They Were and Golden Eyed in Berwick Street, Soho - which sold comics, sci-fi, drug-related stuff, posters, etc - and a chain called Popular Books".
With his friend Steven Morris, Ian Curtis regularly visited House on the Borderland. Butterworth remembers them as "disparate, alienated young men attracted to like-minded souls. They wanted something offbeat and off the beaten track, and the shop supplied this. They probably saw it as a beacon in the rather bleak Manchester of the early 70s."
"They came in every couple of weeks, sometimes more often. Ian bought second-hand copies of New Worlds, the great 60s literary magazine edited by Michael Moorcock, which was promoting Burroughs and Ballard. My friendship with Ian started around 1979: we talked Burroughs, Burroughs, Burroughs. At the bookshops he would have been exposed to an extremely wide range of eclectic and weird writers and music."
PICTURE: a copy of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Leviathan, the last part of the Illuminatus! trilogy, purchased, so the price sticker says, at Dark They Were and Golden Eyed. The Illuminatus! trilogy is an artefact of that time in the 70s when occult fiction and sci-fi crossed over – which tradition would you narrow this one down to? Or Philip K Dick’s VALIS? The Jon Savage text above mentions Michael Moorcock; you could put Alan Moore in here as someone who inherited all this too.
The lyrics to Tiny Golden Books come from the invaluable Coil archive at Brainwashed. The name House on the Borderland is surely pure coincidence ...