When reading a book about music, it’s generally a good sign when I find myself jotting down notes on artists to check out and albums to buy. In the case of David Keenan’s England’s Hidden Reverse: A Secret History of the Esoteric Underground, recently reissued by Strange Attractor Press, it’s not spoiling much by saying that I was reading it with several tabs open: to AllMusic and Bandcamp and Bull Moose Music and Forced Exposure, eyeing reissue editions and complete discographies and obscure side projects. It’s that kind of a book, told with both rigor and enthusiasm, and making for a compelling read.
I know Keenan’s work primarily through his fiction — I impulse-bought his book This Is Memorial Device on a trip to Edinburgh five years ago, and found his fictional saga of a music scene on the fringes of society to be incredibly compelling. Since then, I’ve also enjoyed his novel Xstabeth and his chapbook To Run Wild With It: A Handbook of Autonomic Tarot (a collaboration with the artist Sophy Hollington.) It should come as little surprise, then, that a writer who memorably captures the dynamics of fictional subcultures is also a pro at conveying the ins and outs of the real thing.
England’s Hidden Reverse focuses on three groups: Current 93, Coil, and Nurse With Wound. And if your fondness for books about music leads you in the direction of histories of scenes — in other words, if your bookshelf features Our Band Could Be Your Life, Girls to the Front, or Corporate Rock Sucks — you’ll have an idea of what to expect here. Given that Keenan is heading into less-traveled territory here, it’s worth noting that there are some grander philosophical underpinnings present as well:
Noise and Industrial music function as the night time to pop music’s day. Where pop music exists as a soundtrack to nine-to-five work and consumption, noise provides the cover of night that facilitates transgressive activities, liberating suppressed personas and jamming the wavelengths that consensual reality broadcasts on.
In any other context, this might seem grandiose. In this case, though — well, have you listened to Coil recently? Here’s Jesse Dorris, writing at Pitchfork about the 2020 reissue of their Musick to Play in the Dark: “‘Are You Shivering’ sets the stage with a ferocious roar, like a groaning opening of black rubber curtains; it recedes to reveal a glistening expanse of slippery little noises sliced into dripping tinsel.” Consider your wavelengths jammed.
The discographies of the three artists at the heart of Keenan’s book exist in a constant state of flux; listening to one album from any of the artists mentioned on the cover will hardly reveal the whole of their sound. Part of the appeal of England’s Hidden Reverse comes from the ways in which Keenan manages to describe the elusive quality of all of these groups’ music, finding the areas in which they stake out common ground and in which they differ.
Besides the meticulously-considered exploration of the work of three artists, the other main draw here is the way that Keenan uses that exploration to venture into explorations of art, literature, film, music, and magic. Opening the book to the index reveals, across two pages, entries for Arthur Machen, Mutiny on the Bounty, Eartha Kitt, and The Last of England. Can three artists encompass such a vast cross-section of culture? Through David Keenan’s impressionistic history, the answer is a definite yes.
England’s Hidden Reverse: A Secret History of the Esoteric Underground
by David Keenan
Strange Attractor Press; 528 p.